Sebastian Kennerknecht: Photographing the World’s Rarest Cats
Wildlife and conservation photographer Sebastian Kennerknecht has over fourteen years of experience capturing wildlife and environmental issues around the globe, with a particular focus on wild cats.
Working with highly customised SLR camera traps and working alongside field biologists, Sebastian has ethically and effectively come to photograph some of the planet’s rarest cat species.
We recently caught up with Sebastian to talk about conservation photography, remote travelling with photography gear, camera trapping, and more!
You started your career with a degree in ecology and evolution. Did that feed into your passion for wildlife and conservation photography or did photography come after?
My passion for wildlife came first, way before I went to college to study biology. I learned about animals by seeing dragonflies and frogs in our family’s tiny backyard pond, reading about them in books, and visiting Munich Zoo.
I didn’t understand them, or their behaviours, but I was amazed and fascinated.
I studied biology at college in California because I wanted to learn and understand animal behaviour. Why does an albatross fly halfway around the world to find its food? Why does a male lion roar?
There are endless questions and incredibly fascinating answers.
Photography was still only a hobby in college. I picked up my first camera when I was 13 or so and it provided me with a great excuse to go outside and explore new places. I wasn’t very good at finding animals back then, especially mammals, but I was having fun, nonetheless.
As I got more and more into it, I started to learn the technical aspects of taking photos (really just through trial and error) while also getting better at finding wildlife.
What drove you towards specializing in conservation photography and wild cats?
I didn’t fully understand how much impact we as a species are having on this planet until I was in college. Going to UC Santa Cruz opened my eyes quickly. Human-caused environmental issues were impossible to ignore any longer.
At the same time, I was interning for a National Geographic photographer, and it became really obvious how much impact a single image can have on people. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, if you see a starving polar bear, you react emotionally.
So, around my junior year of college, I realised that wildlife and conservation photography was what I wanted to do and having a science background would help in that endeavour.
My first photography project was at our local, small, natural history museum, on eleven endangered and threatened species of the area.
By partnering with local conservation organizations, we invited people who came in to see the exhibit to partake in actual conservation actions, like beach clean-ups and salamander breeding pond restoration.
The exhibit led to small positive conservation change, but it meant the world to me, and I just wanted to keep pushing for greater change.
Wild cats always fascinated me. I was obsessed with trying to photograph bobcats on my college campus (it took me a few months before I found my first cat).
Then the obsession became to photograph a wild mountain lion, which forced me to learn camera trapping (more on that later).
I quickly realised there was a reason conservation organisations often focused on these charismatic, big animals. They are loveable, endangered, and need a ton of habitat.
It’s the umbrella species concept. If you save a tiger, you save every animal in the forest that the tiger needs to survive in.
It was an easy choice to start focusing on the cats as that was where I felt like I could have the biggest conservation impact with my photography.
For the last few years now, I have also run cat-specific photography tours, which on a small local scale help with the conservation of cats as well – but I will discuss that later.
Would you say you have a philosophy behind your photography? How does this impact your work ethic?
I have strong opinions about ethics in photography and thoughts on how and why images should be made. Foremost, if I was any better at helping conservation efforts with any method other than photography, then that is what I would switch to.
Conservation is what I care about most, photography is just my own personal best tool to help.
Secondly, I think it is incredibly important to recognize the people that help you as the photographer along the way.
My work would be impossible without the biologists who are so willing to share themselves and their work with me. We think of photography as being a solo adventure. That is rarely the case for any of us.
Finally, in terms of field ethics, it is quite simple; the welfare of the animal comes first, and everything else is secondary. For example, I will never use any kind of bait, whether scent, audio, or food-based bait. Not in my normal photography, or my camera trapping.
To me, there is too much impact on the behaviour of the animal, and there is the potential of multiple predators coming into the same bait site, which could be deadly for one or even both individuals.
Do you have a favourite photograph or trip that stands out above the rest, and what makes it so special?
My wet snow leopard photograph is one I am most proud of.
It took over ten weeks of camping at over ten thousand feet, at negative temperatures, to get just four images of these elusive, high-altitude cats.
Again, those images would never exist without the close collaboration with snow leopard biologists I was working with.
The reason I like this particular image is because it shows a wet cat, implying the snow leopard had just crossed the ice-cold river you see in the background. The sunrise touched clouds complete the image to show a cat in its natural and harsh mountain environment.
Is there an endangered or vulnerable species that you hope to photograph, and why?
There are 40 species of wild cats in the world. 31 of them are decreasing in population. I feel like it is my mission in life to tell as many of their stories as I can – to try and help with their conservation.
If you forced my hand to pick a specific species, I would choose the Andean mountain cat.
I have photographed them in the past but only have three mediocre photos of them. They are South America’s most endangered wild cat with less than 2500 adults left, spanning over four countries in the Andes.
They are so elusive it is still unclear to biologists what their main threat is (mining, poaching, or prey-depleting, amongst others).
They are beautiful cats that look a little bit like small snow leopards. I would like to play a major role in helping build local and international awareness along with helping fund direct conservation action for them.
The time is quickly ticking for the Andean cat, so I feel like it is one of the most pressing species to work on.
Over the years you’ve specialized in capturing incredible images of enigmatic and rarely-seen wildlife. How do you hope that people perceive your images and how do you feel your work aids conservation efforts?
My images aim to tell stories that build empathy. So many of the cats I have photographed most people have never heard of. Without that story that draws the viewer to a character that they can follow, it is easy to dismiss the cat as just another interesting but forgettable species.
Empathy leads to action; action leads to conservation.
My work with wild cats helps their conservation in two ways. One is through my storytelling, especially in connection with conservation organizations.
I have been lucky enough to introduce millions of people to lesser-known wild cat species like the Borneo bay cat, and the Iberian lynx, mainly through print and online magazine articles, as well as social media campaigns. This in turn has led to thousands of dollars fundraised for conservation actions taken by the wild cat organization Panthera.
Secondly, I lead small photo groups to show people wild cats through my company Cat Expeditions. Everything from pumas in Chile to manul (Pallas’s cat) in Mongolia.
By partnering with local guides and, when possible, locally owned accommodations, money from the tours goes directly into the pockets of the people who have a significant say in their surrounding nature.
Proving that a cat is worth more alive than dead ensures the cats in that area are protected. Plus, as part of each tour cost, we donate a portion of the proceeds to local conservation projects, which has summated to over 20k USD.
Many of your incredible images are taken using camera traps. Was it a steep learning curve to move to this form of remote photography? Can you give us a sense of what it takes to find and set up a (hopefully) successful location and camera trap?
When I first got into camera trapping, I really wanted to photograph a mountain lion in California in the wild, but there were no commercial products available.
It took me over a year to figure out how to make the sensor electronics work with the camera and flashes. Also, how to make both last for extended periods in the field while being able to take a photograph at a moment’s notice.
That was the first challenge.
Then came the understanding of how to set the exposure of the camera based on the changing lighting conditions, in combination with the flash power. Even after fourteen years of doing it, I am still learning. Things go wrong all the time; each time provides an opportunity for how to improve the set-up.
To set up a successful camera trap, a few things should be considered.
First, only have one target species in mind since that will determine the macro and micro habitat of your set-up – the height of your sensor and the positioning of your camera and flashes.
When you place a camera trap in nature just hoping to get an animal, you will most likely get some wildlife, but this will unlikely produce the impactful photographs you were hoping for.
Know as much about the ecology of your species of choice as you can. What habitat does it prefer, what does it eat, where does it seek shelter etc? Know what its tracks, scat, and other signs look like.
Those facts will give you a great insight into where to place your gear (be very mindful of sensitive situations like bird nests – the welfare of the animal must come first.)
Additionally, think about the time of day your species is active. This will determine your exposure.
If you have a nocturnal animal, it makes no sense to have the camera on Aperture priority as you will only get one 30-second exposure. Set it to manual, letting the flashes do the work of illuminating the scene and your subject.
Do you have any advice for intrepid photographers when preparing and packing gear for remote travels?
When I first started doing international assignments, I would carry everything in pelican cases.
Though that has the advantage of keeping the gear one hundred per cent safe, they are also heavy, allowing you to carry less gear per bag and therefore more excess baggage fees, but also scream “there is expensive gear inside”.
This meant getting pulled out at customs all the time and getting unwanted attention from people while travelling.
I have now switched to just using Osprey duffel bags as the camera traps are already in their pelican cases inside the bags. It allows for more gear to be packed, fewer baggage fees and far less attention from customs officials.
One big piece of advice I would give to intrepid photographers as well would be to carry two useful items pieces of paper with you for all assignments – an equipment list that states model, make, and purchase date, as well as photocopies of receipts for all the gear you bring with you.
The older the gear the better. Customs officials always think you are bringing in new gear into a country to sell there. So, if you ever just bought new equipment before a trip, don’t bring it in the packaging but unpack it.
Is there a piece of gear that you couldn’t travel without?
There are quite a few pieces of gear that I always bring for every assignment.
Since my work tends to be in very remote places, I carry the following items to allow myself to be self-reliable: A water-purifying pump and steri-pen, a voltaic solar panel and power bank (I can even charge my laptop with this set-up), first-aid kit, pocketknife, and multiple external hard drives for back-ups.
My spider holster is also crucial for allowing me to hike long distances while keeping my camera ready to shoot at a moment’s notice.
There have been times that you’ve set up traps only to find that they, unfortunately, didn’t capture the image or even species you were hoping to photograph. How do you overcome setbacks like these?
It does happen, and to be honest it is quite stressful.
Wildlife photography is easy to romanticize; you get to travel the world and see amazing things (and you do, and I absolutely love doing it), but in the end, it is also a job.
The reason I often get hired is for my camera trapping, so the client wants one specific wild cat photographed. When it’s week four of a five-week assignment and I still don’t have the picture, it gets quite stressful.
So far, I have had three assignments where I didn’t get the shot I was hired for. Those were times I was quite worried about not being hired back by those clients.
Luckily my overall track record with getting the required images meant I was re-hired by the conservation organizations, and I got the photos they required on my second try.
If I was starting in photography and I would fail to get the photo for the client, I would have stayed on the project longer, on my own dime to get the shot. This would ensure the client is happy and that I will have more job opportunities with them in the future.
Can you show us any unexpected or funny things that you’ve caught on a camera trap?
I set up a camera trap at my tent in Zambia, to make sure it was working correctly. When I returned a few hours later I had these two vervet monkeys curiously checking out the camera while mating.
I felt a bit like I had invaded their privacy, but it was still rather funny.
How do you see camera trapping as a photography genre progressing in the future?
Now more than ever is a fantastic time to get into camera trap photography. All the necessary equipment is available (though still expensive) now.
I think as time continues people will keep pushing the technical boundaries of what is possible.
Just recently I saw a Peter Mather photograph of a grizzly with a salmon under the northern lights. That is an incredible camera trap photograph to achieve. For others, it will be a tool in their resume to pitch to potential clients.
The most important thing to remember as people learn and practice camera trap photography is that the welfare of the animal comes first.
Baiting seems to be a common behaviour in new camera trappers (an informal online poll showed that 60% of people use some kind of bait). That is not putting the welfare of the animal first.
With bait, you have no idea what predators you may be attracting to it. What if a wolf and a coyote arrive at the same time? The coyote may very well not survive that encounter.
If you want to get great photographs of wildlife, you should care about the animal in the first place, putting its needs in front of your perfect shot. Plus, with careful study, research, and then field practices the same photos can be achieved without using any kind of attractant.
If you could give our audience one piece of advice to help them enter the world of conservation photography, what would it be?
Start local and follow your passion. If financial gains are a motivating factor for you, this job will become highly frustrating. If you follow your passion (project, species, environmental issue, etc) then you will maintain the focus and drive required to continue.
By choosing a local project, you can return to a location over and over. You have more time to get all the photographs you need without the pressure of a deadline. Plus, you probably already know a lot about the ecology of a place that will help you get the photos you require.
Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out to other conservation photographers, like me, for advice. For most of us, we do this job because we care about conservation more than anything else.
Having more conservation photographers out there means more potential for helping protect this planet.
I know many of us will do what we can to help emerging conservation photographers in their pursuit of making this a career.