“Most people,” says Chris Schmid, “are missing the bigger picture.” That, of course, could apply to a lot of things, but in this case it’s all about wildlife photography – specifically about environment, habit and storytelling.
When people do safaris, most of the time they’re working, not enjoying the moment. They’re completing a checklist like ‘I want to see this, this, and this’, so they spend five minutes next to the lion, get as close as possible, take a portrait and leave. But that way they miss all the best parts, all the detail; the clouds, the landscape, the trees, the zebras. They miss the truth of the animal’s life, the competition and the fight for survival.
Chris’ pictures take a different path. Concentrating on documenting subjects as part of their environment, rather as than anonymous portraits, he creates richly detailed studies, showing how these animals live and die. The real truth of the wild. It’s an approach that’s led to a portfolio of incredible wildlife imagery, as well as shooting wildlife documentaries. He says that it does however take a lot of energy and commitment to work this way, because “if you don’t have the right level of passion, you can’t survive; you need to give everything to be in those places and put in the hours observing.”
So how, as a photographer, did he get here? For Chris, it all started with subjects he was knowledgeable and passionate about. “I actually started as a sports photographer,” Chris tells us. “I was a swimmer, so I used to photograph swimming because I think if you want to do a great job you need to know what you’re shooting.”
I was in London 2012 covering events, but something wasn’t right for me. You sit all week in the same place, the same seat... you can’t be that creative. After that I went to Namibia, and I fell in love with nature and the wildlife. It felt like what I wanted to do, and it felt useful. With sports you’re competing against other photographers, but with wildlife you can help the animals.
Fortunately, he says, his experience with sports photography gave him transferable skills that he now applies to wildlife photography. “You certainly need speed and timing to catch the moment. If you want to tell great stories in sport, you need to know what you’re shooting. It’s the same with wildlife; you need to know the behaviour of the animals, so I like to spend as much time as possible with the same pride of lions or family of cheetahs. It means you get a snapshot of their real lives."
Chris says he might spend three weeks following the same pack of cheetahs, which helps him understand the animals and capture genuine images; the amount of contact time makes the story.”
We recently followed a cheetah with a cub, and as we’d spent so much time together, one night she came to the side of the car, left her cub and went to hunt. If you’re in and out in a few hours, you don’t get to experience that.
Lacking patience, or perhaps the ability to spend proper time with the animals, is one of the biggest mistakes first-time safari shooters make. He says, “remember you can’t be everywhere at once. Picking exactly what you will capture is part of the game. By running around all day, you can get some nice shots, but you’re not seeing behaviour, which is the real reward.”
If you’re not selective, you’ll return from a shoot with thousands of the same images, “it’s understandable, especially when it’s a first safari, you want to shoot everything. But on the third or fourth day, you need to be smarter.” He adds; “before pressing the shutter, you have to think ‘Does this deserve to be a picture? Or do I keep this moment for myself?’ If three things don’t align – composition, lighting and the story I’m telling – I don’t take the picture.”
Does working closely with the animals cause problems? Does it influence their behaviour? Make the pictures less truthful, maybe? “I don’t think so”, Chris says. “I’m respectful and I don’t want to get too close and push the contact like some photographers do, I’m an observer. I don’t want to interfere. We’re not here to change their lives directly, just through the images, and we don’t want to disturb their behaviour.”
By adopting a style that is distanced from his subjects, Chris’ photography captures animals in their environment more naturally, and shows them in context. As you’d expect with wildlife photography, giving the subjects space means typically shooting with longer lenses. Together with his Sony α7R III and α9, Chris mostly uses the SAL 500mm f/4 G SSM and is going to begin using the new FE 400mm f/2.8 GM.
Seventy percent of my shots are on the 500mm, but I also use the FE 100-400 GM f/4.5-5.6 OSS, FE 70-200 mm f/2.8 GM OSS , and FE 24-105mm f/4 G OSS if I need more flexibility, or the animals move closer.
As shown in many of Chris’s shots, telephoto focal lengths don’t have to mean that the environment takes a back seat or disappears into a blur. Shooting telephoto actually helps create landscape style scenes in the flatlands of places like the Serengeti, where the environment can be sparse.
Wildlife photography is just like landscape photography; good positioning is vital. Except rather than light, you need to get yourself in a good position to wait for the animal. A good guide is essential here. “We were in Zambia,” Chris explains, “shooting lions, and following one male working a forest. If you know the behaviour you know where they’re going to go, and can position yourself and be ready. You still need to be lucky, but it’s impossible to get the photos like this if you’re in a car and chasing them.”
Chris explains that the same goes for this picture taken at the Masai Mara. “This is Black Rock, where the lions go to play early in the day. It works best if the sun is behind the rock, creating backlighting and shadows from the lioness and cubs. You just have to be ready and then you wait. If it doesn’t work, fine, it’s always a gamble, but if you’re not there, you’ll miss the shot 100% of the time.”
"Imagery is powerful. A single shot can capture an emotion or trigger a feeling within"