Mark Hamblin: From Amateur to Professional
In our interview series “From Amateur to Professional,” we will be asking established nature photographers to share how their photos and practices have developed, changed, and improved over time. You’ll get to see the progression of their images, learn how they got started, and find out how they transitioned from amateur to professional. To see more from this series, subscribe to our free newsletter.
Mark Hamblin is an internationally published freelance nature photographer specialising in the wildlife and wild places of the Scottish Highlands. He has worked on a number of highly acclaimed projects, including Wild Wonders of Europe and 2020VISION. Mark has written a popular eBook exclusively for Nature TTL: A Practical Guide to Landscape Photography.
When and why did you first catch the nature photography bug?
My first real interest in wildlife was as a result of a family friend enrolling me in the Young Ornithological Club; the subsequent magazines I received every other month ignited an interest in birds, which I began to watch locally from around 12 years old.
Photography was a natural extension of this interest and together with my Dad we started to photograph birds in the garden and then further afield.
Before long we were hooked on bird photography and this took up much of our spare time. I was 14 at the time (1980) and this was back in the days of film and often black and white, which we processed and printed ourselves in the downstairs bathroom!
Show us one of the first images you ever took. What did you think of it at the time compared to now?
My first ever photograph was of a blue tit that I photographed from a home-made hide in the garden, constructed from 4 garden canes and one of my Mum’s old bedsheets with a small hole cut in it to poke the lens through.
The experience of being so close to a wild bird and capturing it on film was exhilarating and is something that has remained with me to this day. I still maintain that same buzz from working from a hide close to wildlife – you can’t beat it!
I was pretty chuffed with the result at the time but of course it looks very dated now and I’m not even sure that I have that particular image and it’s certainly not been digitised.
The picture of a female kestrel and its chicks at a nest is one of the earliest I’ve got digitised and dates to around 1982. It was a great project that involved building a hide quite high up in a stack straw bales in a barn.
The nest site was lit with two flash units as can be seen from twin catchlights in the birds eyes. It was my favourite from that particular project with the chicks arranged perfectly and it remained one of the images I was most proud of for many years.
Discounting the inferior quality of the photograph itself (this is a scan of the original transparency), the content actually stands up quite well. Images are always of their time which makes it difficult to compare pictures taken many years apart, but I’ve always been pretty pleased with my best images from any era from a personal perspective.
Show us 2 of your favourite photos – one from your early / amatuer days, and one from your professional career. Tell us why they are your favourites and what made you so proud of them at the time. How do you feel about the older image now more time has passed?
I turned pro in 1995, so my earlier work was all shot on film. However, some of these pictures still stand up quite well today and one in particular perhaps stands out. It depicts a barn owl at its nest site in an old tree photographed with my father close to our home.
Part of my early inspiration came from reading an autobiographical book entitled ‘An eye for a bird ’by Eric Hosking, an eminent bird photographer during the 1950’s through to the 80’s, who I later had the great pleasure of meeting.
Eric’s favourite group of birds were owls and, in fact, he lost an eye to an attack by a protective tawny owl at its nest during a photographic session that later led to the title of his book. I share a similar passion and barn owls have always been one of my favourite birds, so it was a real privilege and very exciting to photograph a pair of barn owls at their nest back in 1984.
At the time this picture did very well in photographic competitions, winning several awards and I was certainly very proud of it.
As with other pictures of that era, it looks dated now and nest photography has largely gone out of fashion and so it is not for its technical or artistic merits that I hold this photograph in high regard, but for the personal memories it conjures up of spending several nights sat up in a scaffold hide 5m off the ground waiting for the ghostly figure of the owl to return to its nest and listening to the otherworldly sounds of the chicks ’snoring’ as they eagerly awaited their next meal.
More recent favourites are, in many ways, harder to pick but this picture of black grouse displaying is the kind of image that I enjoy most as it combines a great subject and interesting behaviour in context with the environment.
This is something I like to try to encapsulate in my images if at all possible, as it creates a complete picture that tells a story. In this case, the subject is very close to my heart having spent countless mornings in a small hide at dawn watching, listening to, and photographing these characterful birds as they perform their ritualistic courtship behaviour.
The experience of witnessing a black grouse lek is, for me, one of the most special birding spectacles in the UK and one that I never tire of seeing.
This picture was the result of spending around 15 mornings at the lek over the course of peak activity during April, in which I photographed the birds from several different hide positions and angles in an attempt to portray their behaviour and character as fully as possible.
The set of images that I captured on this particular morning were the culmination of the project taken on the last day. I used a low level hide positioned close to the action – something I was only able to do as a result of the previous weeks work and knowing how the birds would behave.
These particular males would fight periodically during the morning and I had lined up the hide knowing that they would fight close to this particular spot on the lek and this was aligned with the mountain backdrop. It was then a matter of waiting for the birds to perform as anticipated with the hope that this would occur in good light once the sun had risen.
Having fought several times, but in low light, the birds were beginning to run out of steam but finally they had one last confrontation in a good position and were well lit by the early morning sun. I had the pictures I’d hoped for. Looking at this picture brings it all back and this is what makes images like this so special.
When did you decide you wanted to become a professional photographer?
I dreamed of perhaps one day becoming a photographer quite early on, but at that time there were very few photographers making a living from wildlife or nature photography – especially in the UK – so I felt it was an unrealistic ambition and initially dismissed it as a career.
Having finished university and working in research for a few years, I began to think more seriously about the possibilities of trying to combine a career in wildlife photography with another job that would help pay the bills.
So decided to set up a catering business with my partner Gale, with the idea that I would be able to develop my photography business alongside this. But in reality the catering business took up all of our time and, rather than making time for photography, I found I was doing less and less.
Eventually, we decided to quit catering so that we could both pursue other careers, which for me was wildlife photography.
How did you transition into this and how long did it take?
The transition from amateur to pro was actually very quick and it was really a case of shifting from a job as a caterer to being a nature photographer within just a couple of months, albeit I had a low base to build from in terms of having some contacts with magazines already and an agent that was selling my work through a photo library.
But this was a very low income initially and it was a tough 2 years to start to become reasonably established and turn a profit.
Read more: Breaking Into Business
Was there a major turning point in your photography career – a eureka moment of sorts?
Not a eureka moment as such, but more of a gradual increase in picture sales and writing commissions for photographic and nature-based magazines. This was all pre-digital of course, and the competition was much less than it is today and so it was possible to make a living from selling pictures through a photo-library and with direct sales to magazines especially when accompanied by writing articles.
This started to take off with regular features in several local and national publications including Outdoor Photographer, which I contributed to most months for a number of years following its launch.
This was followed by regular monthly features in a couple of photographic magazines and also a boom in pictures sales with the likes of the RSPB who were using a lot of my pictures at that time.
When picture sales began to wane as the digital era came to the fore, a new opportunity opened up leading photo tours in the UK and later around the world. This began in 1997 after a chance meeting with Pete Cairns, now a long time friend, and we later teamed up to run Wildshots along with Pete’s wife Amanda (later Northshots).
We would take folks to places like Yellowstone, Tanzania, Norway, Iceland and Svalbard. We quickly realised that there was a market for these kinds of trips. When Wildshots began, around 2000, there were very few other operators offering these kinds of photographic holidays so it was a good time to be involved with this business.
Are there any species, places or subjects that you have re-visited over time?
Many of the species and the locations that I’ve photographed, I have done over a long period of time and have returned to some species such as red squirrels, mountain hares, golden eagle and a host of others time and time again and never tire of doing so.
The same goes for locations, and I am very happy to return to the same location many times in different seasons and different light. There is always something different to try to capture and as techniques and equipment have advanced this has also opened up more possibilities to photograph the same species in different ways.
This is part of the challenge of being a wildlife photographer, both from a personal perspective and also professionally too.
Popular subjects never go out of fashion, so it makes commercial sense to keep photographing these subjects and creating fresh images.
Most wildlife and landscape calendars feature the same species and locations year in year out and they are always looking for fresh material, so this dictates returning to these subjects to some extent – albeit that has never been the primary driving force behind my photography.
Could you compare images from your first and last shoot of this? Explain what’s changed in your approach and technique.
As trends and fashions in nature photography over the years so has my own approach and techniques, some of which have been governed by advancements in technology but perhaps more by the influence of the work of other photographers that I admire.
When I started photographing birds, this was done almost exclusively at the nest and usually at very close quarters with a short lens (70-210mm zoom) with a twin flash set-up.
This was a very standard technique at the time (early 1980’s) as ‘pioneered’ by the early bird photographers who were working with very slow film (25 ISO or slower) and plate cameras. This was then adopted by photographers using more modern camera set-ups, and it wasn’t until when longer telephoto lenses became available that styles began to change.
Using short lenses in those early days also led me to shoot using remote shutter releases (a simple long cable) and with this technique I was able to take images from close range using a wide-angle lens.
Ironically, this is something that I and many others have ‘come back to’ in more recent times with a noticeable move away from what was a well-practised approach of shooting subjects large in the frame with an out of focus background.
This approach has prevailed for a long time and still has its place of course, but in recent times I have gone back to shooting subjects much smaller in the frame and including the surroundings.
Sometimes this is done with a short telephoto lens, sometimes with a wide angle triggered remotely. But the result is similar in terms of the approach albeit the photographic effect can be quite different. In essence it’s all about telling more of a story with the photograph rather than concentrating solely on the subject itself.
Read more: What’s the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography?
What’s the one piece of advice that you would give yourself if you could go back in time?
I’m not sure that I would have done things too much differently if I had the chance again. I would say that from a commercial point of view I didn’t always take the best course of action and could have concentrated more on subjects that had greater appeal and sales potential.
This is certainly an approach that others have taken – concentrating on charismatic and universally popular subjects. I took, and continue to take, an approach whereby I chose what I wanted to photograph even though it may not be a subject that sells well.
Also, I have always tried to get as much out of a subject or situation as possible and this is why I re-visit subjects and locations so often but there have been a couple of situations that I could have got more from them.
One in particular springs to mind, and that was a habituated wildcat that I photographed with a friend over a long period. It was at the time when I switched to digital and I really should have made more of the new technology and the ability to shoot more images.
I was probably still in a frame of mind of shooting film when each frame was precious. So my advice would be to always make sure that you squeeze the absolute most from a subject or location before moving on.
You never know when you might have such a great opportunity again, if ever. In the case of the wildcat, it disappeared shortly afterwards.
What was the most memorable mistake you ever made?
One incident still haunts me from the distant past. In 1992, I visited Shetland for the first time with my dad and a friend. We spent a lot of time tracking down a red-throated diver nest on a remote moorland loch.
Over the course of the next week or so we erected a temporary hide and we began to photograph them taking it in turns. One evening I was in the hide with my father – this was a 1m square hide with two tripods set up and two seats, so as you can imagine very cramped!
It was a glorious evening with fantastic light and we had captured some fabulous pictures of the diver and its single chick and some of it being fed a fish. It was perfect and we couldn’t have wished for anything better. Of course we were shooting film with only 36 frames per roll so inevitably you had to pick your shots and eventually the film ran out and had to be changed.
Coincidentally, both of our cameras started to rewind at almost the same time, which was a noisy process as the film is automatically recoiled back into the light proof canister. On hearing the sound of a film having completely rewound, I was anxious to reload and carry on shooting and so opened the back of my camera. However, to my horror, the strip of film was still visible and hadn’t rewound fully. But rather than shutting the back and completing the rewind I grabbed at the film thinking it must be near the end and pulled it off the spool but it kept coming and coming, and in the end at least half the film was pulled out and exposed to the light and ruined.
What had happened was that my father’s camera had completed the rewind and not mine, and so I had I inadvertently ruined what were at the time some of the best pictures I had ever taken. I must admit I was in tears and it was of little consolation on our return home seeing my dad’s images that I should have had as well.
I went back in the hide after that, but the light and conditions were never anywhere near as good again. I have since done something similar several times by reformatting CF cards in the field that have contained recently taken images that hadn’t been downloaded. It always seems to be with what would have been the best pictures!
What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt?
I learnt early on that knowledge of the subject, fieldcraft, and time spent in the field are probably the most important aspects of being a wildlife photographer. This has always stood me in good stead.
It’s a fairly traditional approach, I guess, and that stems to a large extent from the time when I started photographing and the limitations of equipment and opportunities.
Working with my dad in the early years we did all of our own fieldcraft, and spent a lot of time observing birds in particular, learning a lot in the process.
I have never really done a great deal of what I would call opportunistic photography, and much of what I do is carefully planned and often over a long time period. Mini projects, if you like, which I can come back to and develop – building up a portfolio of pictures of a given subject, rather than capturing one-off images that have less meaning or relevance.
You can visit Hamblin’s website to see more of his work. For more from this series, subscribe to our free Nature TTL newsletter.