Heather Angel – An Interview

“For me writing and photography are like a symbiotic relationship – one fuels the other.”

Heather Angel is a British wildlife photographer who has been working in the field for over 50 years. Her images have been enabling people to connect with nature all over the world and she has won numerous prizes and honours for her work.
When we talked via Skype one cool evening this December, she was brimming with energy and her enthusiasm and optimism were as infectious as her good mood.
I hope you enjoy reading about Heather’s experiences as much as I enjoyed chatting with her.


Heather Angel in Indonesia
Heather at work: tracking orangutans on a dodgy boardwalk in Indonesia. © Heather Angel

Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
I was born and lived in Britain most of my life. However, my father was in the RAF so we constantly moved and I went to 14 different schools. But, we did go to New Zealand for a few years, which I absolutely loved. There I developed a great interest in natural history, enhanced by walks with my grandmother.
I’m now living in Surrey, UK. However, I travel a lot working all over the world. Surrey is my base and I come back here to use my studio and refuel my own batteries.

What sort of photography are you specialised in?

I specialise in wildlife worldwide. And also, what I really love and am doing a lot at the moment, is macro photography. I look at the structure of what I’m taking because that tells me how to light it. I don’t have one technique for macro, I have many and am always modifying them. I have just started working on an ebook on lighting for macro – it’s a new venture and I’m putting my toe into the water to see whether it is profitable.

I look at the structure of what I’m taking because that tells me how to light it.

What is your background as a wildlife photographer?

My love for the natural world was inspired by my maternal grandmother telling me the names of the wildflowers we found whilst walking in the lanes near the Suffolk farm, where my grandparents lived and I spent many summer holidays. Sadly, never with a camera, since my first was a 21st birthday present by my father in 1962 – an Exakta Varex11a.
In the same year, I graduated in Zoology at Bristol University and started my Masters in Marine Biology by research. And, most importantly, I began photographing marine life.
After I married Martin Angel in 1964 I could not find a local job, so I started to give adult education lectures on natural history and nature photography. I continued doing this five nights a week for several months.
Then, in 1972 my first book “Nature Photography, Its Art and Techniques”, was published. Just before that, I turned freelance and I never looked back as various photo magazines asked me to write for them.
Later, I asked editors/picture researchers what subjects they had difficulty in resourcing and they said endemic species from remote oceanic islands. So, in December of that year, I flew out to the Galapagos on my first long haul trip.

A focus stack of 62 images of Hibscus with a fibre optic spotlighting red stigmas and pollen loaded anthers. © Heather Angel
A focus stack of 62 images of Hibscus with a fibre optic spotlighting red stigmas and pollen loaded anthers. © Heather Angel

Wildlife photography still seems to be a quite male dominated area – has this ever been an issue within your career?

No, it hasn’t and in fact, I’ve found it’s often an advantage. Take for example my latest book “Pollination Power” – obviously, that was featured by the photographic press who were interested in my photographic techniques, plus a few newspapers and a few general interest magazines wrote about it. Women’s magazines are also interested to know how I work in remote parts of the world as a female photographer.

“I work alongside these great hulks of guys, they say “Carrying all this gear is so tough.” and I say “What about me, I’m half your size!”. I think what’s important, is the mental attitude.”

Then, in 1981, an outsized book called “World Photography” was published. It featured two women and I was one of them. Now, that was an amazing stepping stone for me because it was featured in lots of magazines all over the world. A Japanese television company saw it and called me from Japan saying “We want to make a documentary about you”. I thought, that would never happen but they appeared on my doorstep two weeks later and it was great fun!
I’ve worked in every conceivable habitat, from forests, deserts and mountains to wetlands, tropical rainforests and polar regions. Sometimes I work alongside these great hulks of guys, they say “Carrying all this gear is so tough.” and I say “What about me, I’m half your size!”. I think what’s important, is the mental attitude.

The lifestyle associated with wildlife photography often has people asking whether this job can be compatible with having a family. You’re the prime example that this is possible, having married and raised a family whilst successfully working as a wildlife photographer. Can you let us know how you did this?

It isn’t easy with a family. I’m lucky that I have a very supportive husband. But I had to organise everything; I couldn’t  just walk out of the door. Martin was an oceanographer, so he just went off to sea for three months at a time, so he couldn’t really complain about me going away.

“I had to have somebody with me, as you can’t be looking down a camera and looking after an infant crawling around, that’d be ridiculous on the edge of the Grand Canyon or somewhere else perilous!”

After I had my son Giles, I had to have a good person I could rely on to look after him. The first year, I looked after him entirely and then, before he went to school, he came with me everywhere. So, I had to have somebody with me, as you can’t be looking down a camera and looking after an infant crawling around, that’d be ridiculous on the edge of the Grand Canyon or somewhere else perilous! Therefore, I had to have the right person. To start with I had nannies, who looked after Giles well but weren’t much help to me. So, then I advertised in the New Scientist for a biologist who loved children. Each one stayed for about a year and I had some lovely people!  All were recent graduates. Some didn’t want to do research, some didn’t know what they wanted to do but were happy to do this and they came out into the field with me and took field notes.  In the end, working for me proved to be a useful stepping stone in their future careers.

What does the job as a nature photographer entail next to the actual taking of images?

Taking pictures is the best part, but you must be able to promote your own work. You must have some business sense and you have to be organised and do the boring office work as well. It’s no good rushing off, taking lots of gorgeous pictures and then not having a clue what to do with them. That’s why, in my case, writing has been so useful, because one depends on the other and if you have a text-picture-package then editors are much more likely to use it. For me writing and photography are like a symbiotic relationship – one fuels the other.

“For me writing and photography are like a symbiotic relationship – one fuels the other.”

Therefore, writing also is an important part of my work and “Pollination Power” my 60th book, was published in 2015.
Next to that, I give seminars and talks, offer workshops and one-to-one tuition days.
Then, of course, marketing is an essential part of the job.  We send out email flyers when we have added interesting new stock on my commercial website www.naturalvisions.co.uk.

Pollen pick-up on head feathers of male Cape sugarbird as feeds on pincushion protea (Leucospermum cordifolium), South Africa. © Heather Angel
Pollen pick-up on head feathers of male Cape sugarbird as feeds on pincushion protea (Leucospermum cordifolium), South Africa. © Heather Angel

How would you describe your style?

Essentially, the science is there, because you can’t take that away. Some science images can be very boring, but it is possible to take them in a creative way. My aim is always to try to capture a picture which is accurate, tells a story in its own rights and gets people, hopefully – by the way it’s lit or the way it’s composed – to read the caption and to learn more. So, I suppose you could describe my style as creative wildlife photography. Not all the photos I take are creative, but essentially it is the ones that get published or exhibited or those that tell a story.

What kind of camera equipment do you use?

I use all digital Nikon D4 bodies as well as a Hasselblad H4D-40 with HC 80mm & HC Macro 120mm lenses.
I have a variety of Nikon lenses, however, if I could only take one lens with me it would be the AFS Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 GII ED zoom lens, together with the X2.0 teleconverter it gives me a range from 70-400mm. With a small extension tube, I can also use it for taking larger butterflies and wary reptiles on the hoof.
For the full list of Heather’s gear, please see below.

Next to the camera – what is the most essential piece of equipment you have?

In the field, it would be my field notebook. I would be lost without it, for here I write about all the things, which may not be apparent in a picture – the smells and sounds, the changeable weather, how animals interact before and after I have taken pictures plus local and scientific names of plants. This is a huge help when I come to writing extended captions, articles, books and posts.

Could you shortly describe your workflow?

First I conduct research on the web and send emails to people on the ground, wardens, biologists, researchers, etc. I make notes of what goals I hope to achieve with target species.
When I’m going to China particularly, I tell my guide “This is my target species, which I have to get.  We will see other things along the way that I may take as well.”That works quite well and gets the guides interested. The nice thing about shooting digital is that you can show them the pictures.
When planning a shoot, I try to ensure I am on site at the peak time – but weather may be unpredictable. Therefore, I have clothing for specific habitats kept in specific drawers for speedy access (polar regions, safari, wetlands).
Often I work on my own, but sometimes I work with other professional photographers and we plan a trip together to share costs or I may join a small botanical tour with a leader who knows what plants grow where. Working on my own in China, I have my own driver and English-speaking guide, because few drivers speak English and it is essential to be able to communicate when Plan A fails – usually because of over-enthusiastic road works blasting so much debris, it cannot be cleared for days – and we have to hastily dream up Plan B.

“You can’t simply say that the meter within the camera is always going to be right.”

In the field, I always take care to manually meter everything to make sure I have the correct exposure. Especially if you have a landscape with a large tonal range! You can’t simply say that the meter within the camera is always going to be right.
For editing my images, I use CS6 Adobe Bridge as a browser of the RAW images. When I’ve taken action shots, I look at the enlarged image in the browser and do a tight edit deleting ones that are not sharp in the correct place. The best ones I mark with a colour flash below each image.

Do you have a favourite photo of your own?

I do! I’ve been to China 32 times as it’s such a huge country and I honestly can’t remember how often I’ve been there to photograph pandas! I went in different seasons. One time, after it snowed on the lower slopes on mountains in Sichuan, I was standing with another guy beside me when we heard a commotion and looked around. A panda was walking up a snowy slope and lost its balance, sliding on its back with all four limbs in the air. He didn’t get a shot, I had the camera with the right lens and I got two shots.
It works because A, the image is funny and people laugh, and B, the panda’s not eating bamboo. Because pandas spend so long each day eating bamboo, it’s very difficult getting them doing something else!

“Because pandas spend so long each day eating bamboo, it’s very difficult getting them doing something else!”

Giant panda slides down a snowy slope in Sichuan, China. © Heather Angel
Giant panda slides down a snowy slope in Sichuan, China. © Heather Angel

So, it is my favourite but it also is my bestselling picture and that picture alone must have paid for several trips to China. But you don’t get that sort of image very often, you can’t plan it. You’re either there or you’re not there.

Do you have a photo that you dream of taking one day?

Yes, it’s a landscape because of what grows there. It’s Mount Roirama, in Brazil and I’ve known about it for years. It is a very weird place, with a huge flat-top plateau with sheer sides. David Attenborough took the easy way up by landing in a helicopter for one of his documentaries. It’s very, very wet with water streaming down over amazing rock formations. This wet plant territory I absolutely love as well. If you’ve heard of Conan Doyle and his book “The Lost World” – it’s based on Roirama. It’s just an amazing place.

Do you have any advice for people interested in nature photography?

When starting out as a nature photographer, you should also make sure to gain income from another source, as you won’t be able to make a lot of money until you are established. In the early days, I lectured for London, Southampton and Bristol universities five nights a week for several months to pay for my photography for the whole year. It’s easy to get carried away doing something that you love but won’t make you much money at first. You will need to do something else to sustain yourself as well.

“It’s easy to get carried away doing something that you love but won’t make you much money.”

However, if you want to become a wildlife photographer, I believe that the most important qualities you need are, first of all, patience. At times, you may need to wait for hours – even days – sometimes in cold and rain, for the shot you want. Secondly, empathy and love for subjects as well as knowledge about where animals live, what they feed on and when they breed, etc. Lastly, you should develop your own particular style.
Also, I suppose the most important thing to keep in mind is, you’re not working a 9 to 5 job where you go into an office. Therefore, you have to be disciplined, even if you can’t think what to do tomorrow. Instead of taking pictures, it could be writing or blogging, calling or emailing a picture editor to float an idea for an article. It’s just about keeping that momentum going. I am always jotting down notes about locations to visit for specific species during each season on a yearly wall planner.

“…It’s just about keeping that momentum going.“


Overview – Heather Angel
Working location: worldwide
Speciality: : Informative / Creative Wildlife Photography & Creative Macro Lighting
Heather’s latest book: 
Pollination Power

Contact
Website: http://www.heatherangel.co.uk
Blog: http://heatherangelphotography.co.uk
social-003-round_twitter  social-038-round_instagram

 

Other Interviews so far:


Full list of Heather’s photo gear:

Camera bodies:

  • All digital – Nikon D4 bodies.
  • Hasselblad H4D40 with HC 80mm & HC Macro 120mm lenses

Lenses

  • Nikon AFS Nikkor 12-24mm f4 G ED zoom
  • Nikon AFS Nikkor 24-120mm f3.5 / 5.6 G zoom
  • Nikon AFS VR 105mm f2.8 G Micro-Nikkor
  • Nikon AFS Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 GII ED zoom
  • Nikon AFS Nikkor f4 D 500mm
  • Nikon TC 17E 11 Tele-Converter
  • Nikon TC 20E 111 Tele-ConverterAF-S

Media and backup

  • SanDisk Extreme Pro 16GB CF cards
  • Hoodman Loop to check critical part of image is sharp
  • Jobo Giga Vu Sonic 120GB hard drive to back-up images

Tripods

  • Gitzo carbon fibre model – GT3540 6X without a centre column so the legs can collapse down to ground level topped with a Really Right Stuff BH35 ballhead. Tripod leg warmers for cold weather work.
  • Benbo Mark 1 – for working in water in the UK. Lower leg segments slide up over the upper ones, so remain dry inside when immersed in water up to just below the locking knob. Benbo tripods also used to support a flash off the camera on uneven ground, since the unique locking lever enables the tripod to be safely and speedily set up any terrain.

Lighting
On location
Flash

  • Nikon SB-900 speedlight
  • Honl portable softbox for flash
  • Nikon Creative Lighting system – controlled by wireless
  • Nikon SB-R1C1 Commander Kit – wireless macro flash system
  • Visual Echoes Better Beamer Flash X-tender™ for long lenses

Reflectors

  • Larger Lastolite Trigrips for bigger subjects outside and in studio

Macro lighting
Flash

  • Nikon SB-R1C1 Commander Kit – wireless macro flash system
  • LED lights
  • Fibre optics
  • Lightbox

Macro accessories

  • Really Right Stuff (RRS) B150-B: Macro focusing rail
  • Novoflex BALPRO1 Universal Bellows
  • Backgrounds – black velvet, artist’s boards, stone slabs, bamboo mats, wood blocks
  • Lastolite reflectors and diffusers – small ones for macro work. Even cooking foil wrapped around a piece of card or a notebook makes a cheap and handy reflector

Plamps

  • Short for Plamp clamp, made by Wimberley. These clamps are invaluable for steadying a plant stem in a persistent breeze. They are also useful for precisely holding a small reflector or diffuser. Plamp 11 is far superior in design to the original Plamp.

Studio
Flash

  • Nikon SB-900 speedlight
  • Honl softbox for flash
  • Nikon SB-R1C1 Commander Kit – wireless macro flash system
  • Paul C. Buff Einstein 640WS high speed flash up to 1/13,000 sec

Reflectors

  • Larger Lastolite Trigrips for the studio

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