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Nicholas Dyer: From Amateur to Professional

In our interview series “From Amateur to Professional,” we will be asking established nature photographers to share their photos and see how their 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.

 

Nicholas Dyer is an award-winning wildlife photographer, author, photographic guide and conservationist. Raised in Kenya, he spent much of his life working in the City of London as a fund manager before running his own investment marketing business.

Returning to Africa in 2012, he refocused his life on “something more worthwhile and emotionally rewarding” – photography and conservation. He has spent the last eight years travelling across east and southern Africa alone in his Landcruiser, visiting all the major national parks and engaging with conservationists and learning from communities that live with wildlife.

Nick has an enormous passion for painted wolves spending the last seven years following three packs on foot in Mana Pools, studying, photographing, and documenting their lives with deep intimacy.

When and why did you first catch the nature photography bug? 

I have always had a fascination with cameras. At the age of six, I used to play with my parents’ old Kodak Brownie 127 and be thrilled by the flash of light that was allowed through when I pressed the shutter button. Later, my mother bought a Minolta SR-T 101 and I used to sneak it out of the cupboard to explore its workings.

By the age of 12, I was actually allowed to put film in it. At 16 I saved and saved and bought my first SLR: a Pentax ME Super which rarely left my side. Growing up in Kenya, African wildlife was a constant backdrop to my upbringing that emblazoned itself in my soul.

For some reason, I never believed it permissible to be a professional photographer. It never seemed like an appropriate career. Instead I went to London and joined the City as a fund manager in the crazy hedonistic 1980s. It was an enormous amount of fun, but I don’t think it ever made me happy.

Photography was relegated to weekends and holidays, never receiving enough attention for me to climb up the learning curve. I would have to wait thirty years before it would return as an all-consuming passion.

Show us one of the first images you ever took. What did you think of it at the time compared to now?

Somewhere, in a long neglected cupboard, I have boxes of prints and self-developed slides which I have not looked at in years. The digital age affords us better accessibility so I can only readily get my hands on some scans I did of slides taken on my two year sabbatical in the mid-1990s. Then I was far more interested in photographing people.

I waited two years to see the results of my photographs, sending endless batches of Fuji Sensia 200 back to the UK to be developed and await my return. This was one picture I was really pleased with. It is of a boatman who rowed me at dawn along the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi as I photographed devout Hindus perform Pujah in its holy waters.

Indian man smoking
An early shot taken in the mid 1990s in India

What I love about this picture was the contrast between light and shadows, the different intensity of each of the eyes and the nobility of his ancient face despite the his threadbare clothes suggesting poverty. The smoke from his cigarette is quite cool as well. There is a lot of atmosphere in this photograph that encourages questions.

When I look at it now, I still really like it, but the fact that it is slightly blurry seems criminal. My lens was cheap so maybe I can blame it on that or perhaps it’s the quality of the scan. With regards to the settings, I probably shot it on “P” so I kind of handed over exposure decisions to the camera; so I probably can’t take much credit there, can I?

Show us 2 of your favourite photos – one from your amateur 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 think when any wildlife photographer starts out, what they crave is cool action shots. Even a yawn from a lion can be exciting. I was very much the same and I want to go back to the first time I saw painted wolves doing anything other than lying under a tree sleeping.

It was in the Khwai in Botswana and I was in a game viewer while a pack of painted wolves were hunting. They ran behind the game vehicle and I hung out the back trying to get a decent shot. It was tremendously exciting and adrenalin pumped as I photographed them running around us.

painted wold sighting
My first painted wolf sightings with the animal in action

I was very pleased with the photograph then, but it was basically opportunistic and given the amount that the game viewer was bouncing about, I probably have deleted many wolves with half a head or chopped off legs, and risked finishing the experience “avec nil points”. The nice light on the dog owes all to the direction the dog was running, and nothing to do with my positioning.

Fast forward three years later when I had been camping in Mana Pools for six solid months photographing the painted wolf packs. Most of the water on the Zambezi  floodplain had dried up and I guessed Blacktip’s pack of painted wolves would most likely come down to drink and play in a small remaining pool once the heat of the day had died down.

I studied the pool, considered where the sun would set so I could backlight the scene, and where I could get really low while being able to keep an eye out for possible approaching lions and elephants who might also want a drink. I envisioned the dissipating light and thought hard about my exposure – the need for a high shutter speed, a reasonable ISO, sufficient depth of field, and the degree to which I wanted to under expose the shots to capture the anticipated rich orange dust.

Backlit painted dog fight
A more recent action shot with a little more experience under my belt

I then sat in this gully for two hours being hammered by the baking sun with nothing to entertain me except my thoughts. Although the painted wolves were sleeping only 100 metres away, I wanted to be ready should they come. And if they decided to go elsewhere then I would have nothing to show for it except severe dehydration.

I waited and waited. Eventually a yearling called Tris wandered down the bank and started to drink. The light was still not soft. After a few minutes the rest of the pack came down to join her. Some sat in the pool – nothing really interesting to shoot, but I took some shots to get a handle on the exposure.

As the sun began to dip towards the horizon, pandemonium erupted as the wolves began to play. Running in and out of the water, kicking dust, and splashes turned the whole scene orange. This is what I had waited for. I love this shot of Talon jumping out of the water towards the playful but aggressive looking pups. It epitomises the dogs joyful behaviour and exactly what I wanted to capture.

Amongst all the activity, my camera was maxing out on its frame rate as I kept my finger on the shutter release. Some might say that in that case, getting this picture was just luck. But the reality is that the shot took several days to plan out and knowing that the painted wolves would behave in this way had taken several years of studying them. This is the main difference that those three years had made.

When did you decide you wanted to become a professional photographer? How did you transition into this and how long did it take?

I had always loved photography and in the mid 1990s I left the City and took a two year career break to travel the world with photography playing a major part. This was when I bought my first Nikon (an F90s which I still have). But I returned to the UK to set up a financial marketing company and it took until 2010 to realise it was making me really unhappy.

I gave that up and decided to return to Kenya, but not as a photographer. Initially I worked as a dive master and I thought a life of being a diving instructor beckoned. As I mentioned earlier, I never believed that photography was a permissible career for me.

Kalahari camp and camp fire and jeep
My camp in the Central Kalahari which I was crossing by myself – eight days without seeing anyone

I moved to South Africa and there I reconnected with my friend and excellent photographer Marcus Westberg. We went to Addo National Park photographing. When comparing shots we took side by side with the same settings, I could not understand why mine were so appalling in comparison. Undoubtedly Marcus’ skills were better than mine – but he had the grace to also say “it’s the glass, my friend, it’s the glass.”

My passion for photography had been rekindled and I remember just after that trip giving myself permission to aim to become a professional wildlife photographer. I raided my savings and immediately purchased a Nikon D800 and a prime 400mm f/2.8, before setting off in 2013 on a four year journey driving by myself in my Land Cruiser around east and southern Africa, visiting all the major wildlife areas.

At the outset I knew I did not have the skills or experience to be up there with the professionals, but I ‘showed promise’ as it sometimes said on my school reports. I set myself the ambition of being awarded in the NHM Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in five years as proof of whether this ‘promise’ could turn into anything useful.

It was going to take time, patience, and considerable investment, but I knew on the way I would have an incredible life-enriching adventure. My sights had been set and my journey to become a professional photographer finally began. It was very exciting.

Was there a major turning point in your photography career – a eureka moment of sorts?

It was in October 2015, early one morning in Mana Pools. I had been following Blacktip’s pack of painted wolves on the hunt. I was by myself and on foot, trying to keep up but careful not to flush their prey. Eventually they rushed a herd of impala, and by the time I caught up with them they had made a kill and were busy enjoying and sharing their spoils.

I sat with them and photographed them for two hours, as they ate and played with the remains; a sinewy leg makes for an amazing tug-of-war. It was beautiful to watch and photograph, but these mornings had become pretty routine as I was spending most of my time with them photographing for my book, Painted Wolves: A Wild Dog’s Life which I co-authored with Peter Blinston.

Blacktip's painted wolf pups enjoying their early morning feast
Blacktip’s painted wolf pups enjoying their early morning feast

Eventually, they left for shade and sleep and I started the long walk back to my car. It suddenly occurred to me that it was a Monday morning. Only five years previously I would have been on a London tube, in a suit and tie, on my way to work for some depressing meeting. How privileged was I now!

I realised then that this privilege could not be for free, and I had an overwhelming feeling that I had to give something in return. It is then that I decided to focus my energies and use my photography for the conservation of the beleaguered painted wolves who were giving me so much just by being them. My book ceased to be an egocentric escapade to show off my photographic skills, but a mission to tell the world about this virtually unknown and deeply endangered creature. I now had a purpose and a focus which was not about me – and it felt good.

Are there any species, places or subjects that you have re-visited over time? Could you compare images from your first and last shoot of this? Explain what’s changed in your approach and technique. 

I first visited Mana Pools in Zimbabwe in 2013, and since then it has become a second home to me, having probably camped in the park for over 500 days. Having visited nearly all the parks in east and southern Africa I realised that I needed to get to know one intimately. One where the animals shifted from being mere sightings to packs, prides, herds and pods that I could recognise and get to know well. Where individuals would emerge and I could discover their personalities and idiosyncrasies. An environment whose changing light and landscapes I could understand.

It is also the only park in Africa that you are allowed to walk on your own – at your own risk of course, as it is not a zoo. This adds enormously to the intimate photographic experience, especially when you are by yourself. The animal knows you are there and you share space and time with it. They don’t just see a smelly, metal game viewer.

And it is in Mana that I discovered the painted wolves. I would never have believed back then that they would become such an integral part of my life, leading to the publication of my book, to the setting up the Painted Wolf Foundation, and giving talks on them around the world.

wildlife photographer and african wild dogs
Gaining the trust of the painted wolves has been a privilege

This has all come about from my very first exciting sighting of Tait’s Vundu pack in 2013. Since then, I have taken literally hundreds of thousands of photographs of them… at play and at rest, hunting, killing and feasting, gently raising their pups, and fending off ferocious attacks by lion and hyena. Every one of these pictures was taken on foot.

I’ve looked back at all the pictures of painted wolves I took in 2013. What is striking is that the painted wolves are either totally disinterested in me or seem very wary. I contrast this with shots taken three years later when I had been totally accepted by the packs.

This was by no means a quick and easy process, and a huge learning curve. I have got to know them and – importantly – they now know me. I have learnt a lot about their behaviour and can tell if I am intruding on them and if they don’t want me around. I have learnt to respect them and their space, which has earned me their trust. I love to sit quietly with them, never interacting and always at a respectful distance. It is a time when we gently connect and I can capture those unique moments in time where we share an uncommunicated but soul-felt intimacy.

By way of contrast, the first shot I want to show you I took in 2013. It is of a nameless Vundu pack yearling staring at me aggressively as I probably approached too close. There is a clear look of wariness and hostility. I call it “Back-off!” 

A concerned looking painted wolf on his guard
A concerned looking painted wolf on his guard

The second shot is of Tammy and Twiza who I had known since they were pups. It was taken in 2016 as I sat quietly at a respectful distance from them. Their expression is a relaxed mild curiosity towards this strange creature in front of them, making a repetitive mechanical clicking sound. I call it “Echo”, not just because of the obvious mirroring of the two subject but, because in that moment, something peaceful bounced between us and the expression in Tammy’s eyes captures that.

Pair of wild dogs
A relaxed Tammy in Twiza

So, in short, what changed was me. I learned to know and respect my subject, always putting ‘getting the photograph’ firmly in second place.

What’s the one piece of advice that you would give yourself if you could go back in time? 

I wish I had written a diary. The last decade has been such an adventure, and while my photographs provide a vivid visual narrative to my myriad experiences, I know I have forgotten so much – especially the intricate details.

What was the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt? 

Because I take most of my photographs by myself on foot in the African bush, it has been a vertical learning curve on how to do this as safely as possible without being trampled, chewed, or gored. I am grateful to all those professional trackers, rangers and guides who have generously taught me how to stay alive… without which we would not be having this interview now.

I do not carry a gun. All I have for my defence is my wits and a “bear-banger” – a pencil shaped device with a small charge on the end which fires a flare and makes a very loud bang. It is meant to scare off lions and other over inquisitive creatures, but the results are in no way guaranteed and are known to encourage fatal aggression. Fortunately, I have never had to try it out.

What keeps me safe is an abundance of caution and deep respect for every creature I am walking among and the humility to know that I am wandering around their home, not mine.

Wildlife photographer sat near wild elephants
Understanding how to photograph wild animals on foot is life-critical

But however cautious you are, the African bush is incredibly unpredictable and during the last five years I have been charged by elephant, rushed at by lions, and once bumped into a very grumpy male buffalo who very fortunately ran the other way. I even had a leopard jump down from a tree right in front of me.

On each occasion I always wish I had never picked up a camera, but upon surviving that feeling soon passes. The most valuable lesson is not to run, which is easier said than done in those bowel-loosening moments.

What has changed in your approach since the first shoot? 

It is no longer about me.

I see so many photographers who want to be famous and win awards. It was certainly what motivated me when I started out. I guess it’s fine and natural, but they put ‘getting the shot’ far above the welfare of the animal so that photography becomes the be-all-and-end-all instead of a natural extension of their love of their subject, and using their God-given skills to capture it.

Funnily enough, when I did finally win an award at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in 2018 (just made it within 5 years!), I noticed at the ceremony at the NHM that 90% of the photographers had a deep passion for, and intimate knowledge of, their subject and its conservation. Very few had captured that one-off lucky shot that we all dream will be the winner, but had worked hard for years – getting to know their subject not only to create their own luck, but also to protect the creature they loved.

 

You can visit Dyer’s website to see more of his work. For more from this series, subscribe to the free Nature TTL newsletter.

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Visit Laura's website

Laura is a social media specialist with a BA (Hons) in Marine & Natural History Photography. She has photographed wildlife in the jungles of Borneo, the beaches of Thailand, and the cities of Vietnam. Laura joined Nature TTL as Assistant Editor in early 2019 and also manages our social media accounts. You can usually find her perusing images over at Nature TTL's Instagram feed.

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