If you want to impress someone, close-ups of insects often work. Most people aren’t aware of how colorful and visually fascinating and unexpected insects are. People aren’t used to seeing them with any kind of detail. Great pictures of elephants, eagles, or grizzlies aren't easy, because they’ve been over-photographed. I haven’t seen a surprising picture of a lion in a long time.
What gear do you take?
As little as possible! It’s important to travel light. I research subjects before I shoot. I talk to other photographers, and determine what’s the smallest amount of equipment I can bring and still get the shot. When I go out, it’s often for a specific image that I’ve previsualized, and I know exactly what gear I need to get it. For outings that don’t have a specific subject, I travel with a wide-angle zoom, a 100mm macro, a 70–200mm f/2.8, and a 400mm or 500mm tele, plus a 1.4X teleconverter and tripod. My backpack usually weighs a little over 30 pounds, including DSLRs.
What’s your typical workflow?
My only issue with digital is the amount of work it requires in the field. In the film days, I would go back to the camp or the hotel after shooting all day, and enjoy a bottle of beer. Now, I go back and check my files, back them up to a portable hard drive, sometimes burn DVDs, and delete the ones I don’t want. I would say 80% of my files get deleted, and it can take hours. I was recently in Australia for a month, and I shot 6,000 to 7,000 pictures. I brought home only 200.
On the road, I store my images on a laptop and on a LaCie external hard drive, which I keep in a shock-absorbing case. I stash each in separate places—one in my backpack, for example, and the other in my hotel room safe. I travel with about ten 16GB high-speed SanDisk cards, and I keep the images on them until I’ve filled all ten. Then I reformat and reuse them as needed.
What’s the hardest thing about being a wildlife pro?
Getting started. You have to shoot, shoot, and shoot until you’ve got a good number of stock images. Then you have to market them. You have to be inspired and fascinated by the animals, and obsess about seeing and experiencing them. It’s not about equipment. Some people think they get better pictures with expensive equipment, but the logistics of shooting is more important than the camera you’re using. You learn animal behavior, how to find and light them, and how to find or create the conditions that produce interesting or photogenic behavior. All these things take time, research, and trial-and-error-type practice.
When I was starting, I was out shooting every free minute I had. If you don’t find the process fun, it can be very hard to get established. To make a living, you have to always make something new. You can’t get by reproducing what you or others have already done.
Do you have some general tips for shooting wildlife?
The most important thing is to know your subjects. If you observe an animal long enough, you can predict its behavior—and that’s when good pictures happen. With the kingfishers I’ve photographed for years, I don’t need an infrared flash trigger to catch their dives. By their body language, I know when they will dive, and often I can catch them as they hit or emerge from the water.
It’s important to research your subjects, and know something of their lifecycles, behaviors, habitats, and idiosyncrasies. Also, when you travel, don’t go alone. Use guides or tour groups who can help you keep safe, and be at the right place at the right time. Make sure the guide or tour group specializes in the animal you’re most interested in.
Last, be patient. You have to be okay with the fact that it often takes hours, days, or weeks to get a picture that really means something.
Ingo Arndt, one of Germany's busiest wildlife photographers, has images in publications and museums worldwide. For more, visit www.arndt-photo.de.