When people talk about reptiles, amphibians, insects, and arachnids, they very often say they’re ugly,” reflects Javier, “but after seeing photos of them close up, I hope they can see how beautiful they really are.
We’re discussing Javier’s award-winning wildlife macro shots, and in particular, what drives him to pick the subjects he does: frogs and toads, spiders and scorpions. What it boils down to is education, he says. Or more accurately, the desire to educate other people.
Love might be a stretch for some, but changing the way people see these creatures is all you need to make a difference. This is especially the case when it comes to conservation, which, like all biologists, is a subject close to Javier’s heart. One project close to his heart is Meet Your Neighbours, which shows people the amazing creatures that live around them via the power of photography.
“You don’t conserve things you hate,” he explains, “and that’s what we’re trying to counter; to change the way people think, so that they’ll take more care of the world around them. When they see a snake or a spider, shot in a beautiful way, and showing its natural behaviour – instead of killing it, they’ll try to conserve it, and treat it with respect. Photography has the power to do that.”
The biological idea of learned behaviour – the traits we pick up through our life – is really important here. It’s not only something that Javier is trying to instil in others, it’s also something that has informed his own life and work. “Our reactions to these kinds of animals,” he explains, “are so much more about nurture than nature. If you go to the rainforest you’ll see children playing with tarantulas and scorpions; they’re not afraid, but they still treat the animals with respect. On the other hand if you grow up in an environment where your family says ‘don’t go near that, it’s dangerous’, how else can you expect to be as a person?”
Javier’s own learned behaviour was to be fascinated by the creatures around him right from being a small child; he grew up in the countryside in Spain, so he was always around wildlife. At 14 his parents gave him a small digital camera to record his interest, and the rest, as they say, is natural history. At aged 18 he started shooting with an SLR and a dedicated macro lens, and was drawn even further into the subject by the incredible detail he discovered with it. At university he studied biology, and after graduating took up wildlife photography full time.
Does his background in biology help him in what he does now? “It certainly helps me to be patient,” he laughs, “because a big part of working in biology is about waiting to observe something; a reaction, or some behaviour from the subject you’re studying... and then you can record it. If you’re a biologist working in a laboratory, you might record it as data, but if you’re a zoologist in the field, like me, the data is a photograph. As a biologist you’re looking for interesting stories and subjects too; it takes you to amazing places, and you find species that have never been studied before, and you can pass on what you learn.”
Recording behaviour is central to what Javier is trying to achieve in his images, and for him success comes when he can combine that with pure aestheticism; a great moment combined with a great composition and great light.
For me, the best shots I’ve taken have been those that reflect some action or behaviour of the subject, but at the same time they’re images in which you see beauty, too. The two have to be in combination.
The problem, he continues, “is that almost anyone can take a pretty picture these days; what I’m looking to do is record something important happening. Again, being a biologist helps, as experience helps me understand the subject and predict what will happen next. It helps me as a photographer to catch a defining moment.”
This brings us neatly on to his recent success in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPOTY) 2018 competition, where he won the Portfolio Award. Of the images within it, one of the most compelling is Mother Defender, a portrait of a mother treehopper, about 1cm long, guarding her young on the underside of a stem, using the spiny projection on her back to fend off attackers. Javier feels it’s his most rewarding set of images, capturing the mix of nature and beauty that he craves, “I’m proud of them because it’s the right mix, a singular moment in the life of the subject told in a compelling way.”
He was especially pleased to win the Portfolio category as he feels it allows him to do something bigger. He explains that, “it’s one of the most important categories in the contest for me; you can create a story or work with a particular subject for a longer time. People who I respect, like those who’ve shot for National Geographic, have won the Portfolio Award, too, so it’s a great honour for me.”
The longer the lens, the less likely you are to disturb a skittish subject, and Javier chooses his glass accordingly, using both the FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro and FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro on his α7R III. “Those are my most used lenses, but of course it’s totally dependent on the subject – the extra reach of the 90mm can be very useful, but I also use the FE 28mm f/2 when I want to show an animal in its environment. The FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM is also great, because it focuses at just under a metre, which lets me shoot subjects like butterflies, although I do also use it on birds, mammals and larger creatures.”
In the same way, he’s glad of his α7R III’s 10fps burst mode and Silent Shooting function which effectively removes the camera’s shutter noise. These, he says, are perfect for dealing with skittish fauna, as “the combination of a high frame rate and no noise means that you can capture just the moment you’re looking for. I’ve also found the EVF very useful, especially in macro with the very small depth of field, as I can use focus peaking in the viewfinder and make sure the subject is perfectly sharp. And I’m not afraid to push the ISO at all. I know it’ll give me good quality.”
Has he ever been on the wrong end of the behaviour he’s studying? Or too close to a potentially dangerous subject? “It’s true that many reptiles and insects are venomous,” Javier explains, “but they’re not dangerous if you respect them. It’s only when people try to touch or handle them, that they feel you’re a threat, and that’s when they’ll attack. They’re not going to bite you for fun. In that way you realise that it’s the person who is dangerous. I’m only afraid of people in the field, not animals!”
"To preserve, we must first know and love what we can lose, and photography is a useful tool to sensitise and show what surrounds us. With my camera I try to show animals in their purest form, from a biological point of view and at the same time, artistic"