ARTICLE

"The day is never done": Chris Packham on his passion for wildlife photography

Chris Packham focused on a single king penguin amongst a colony of hundreds on Salisbury Plain, South Georgia to take this shot. A two second slow pan on the star penguin as it moved through the rookery created the attractive blur around it. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens. © Chris Packham

Chris Packham is one of the UK's best-known television presenters, sharing his love of the natural world and raising awareness of environmental issues on nature and wildlife TV shows. Alongside his presenting career, he's also a prolific author and a prominent conservationist and animal rights campaigner. Yet, as a young man, Chris's main career ambition was to be a wildlife photographer, and it's a passion that has continued throughout his life.

His subjects have included wildlife, landscapes, nomadic tribespeople and, most recently, a project on the impact of litter on wildlife and the environment. His photographic expertise has led to invitations to judge prestigious competitions including Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Here, Chris talks about his love of nature, his photography and why he remains dedicated to Canon kit.

Canon Professional Services

Put yourself in safe hands

Access free expert advice, equipment servicing, inspirational events and exclusive special offers with Canon Professional Services (CPS).

When did your passion for wildlife begin?

"I'd had an intrinsic fascination for living things since I was crawling around, aged two or three. Biology was the science to which I was driven but throughout my childhood I was also really interested in art. When I was at school there were only two things I was any good at – science and art.

"I really wanted to go to art school, but my father dissuaded me from taking that course. I ended up with my head in journals and textbooks until my early 20s. Art got pushed sideways and it got to the point where I became very resentful of that. I wanted to make things. I wanted to be creative."

How did you make the transition to working in photography?

"I was doing a PhD, which I eventually gave up. I rented a lock-up garage and I started making sculptures and painting. The trouble is, I'd invested all this education in developing a skill of understanding animals, so I had the ideas but I didn't have the ability to master the technique. I bought a camera, but quickly realised that mastering that art was every bit as difficult as oils or pastels or any other media.

"To finance my photography, I worked as a camera assistant for someone who was making natural history programmes for the BBC – and that paid for my Canon camera, my film and my car. I drove around the UK, slept in nature reserve car parks, got up early and taught myself how to photograph wildlife. I also went to evening classes to do darkroom work and learn a lot more. So it was really diving in at the deep end in my mid-20s, and trying to recapture the passion for creativity that had been pushed sideways, but not entirely suppressed."

Two four-wheel-drive vehicles drive down a dusty road in the middle of the countryside. Some trees have had their tops chopped off, but there are lots of lush green plants.
Chris recently travelled to Sumatra, where he documented the impact of environmental damage on communities. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. © Chris Packham

While you were working in TV, was it always your goal to have a career as a stills photographer?

"Yes, it very much was. Learning as a camera assistant and later taking on filming was a means of supplementing my income so I could afford to do that. At the time, I didn't have any money. Equipment and good-quality transparency film were expensive, so I'd be counting every frame. I started TV presenting because I had a filming job go down and I just wanted some money.

"I applied for a children's programme and again I was thinking, 'If I got this job I could buy a new lens.' And that’s what I did. I worked on the show and the minute it stopped I’d be in the car. I'd be off somewhere taking photos."

How does having Asperger's syndrome affect your photography?

"I think that having Asperger's is incredibly advantageous when it comes to taking pictures. I think that I see the world a different way. I don't know how anyone else sees it, but I've learned to sort of accept that that's the case. I see a world that's joined up and made of patterns with an intensity of detail, and I have begun to realise that most people don't see the same. I also have a very good memory for things and images. People with my condition have different sensory aptitudes and I'm very visually oriented. It's an incredible asset."

A brown skua bird lands on snowy ground, wings outstretched to show white and brown striped markings.
A brown skua contrasted against a vast white expanse of snow. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens. © Chris Packham

How do you regard your photographs?

"I can always see things wrong with my photographs. I always know what happened just before or just after I took a photo and how it could have been better. I enjoy looking at other people's pictures a lot more than looking at my own. I've got other people's photographs framed on my wall, but none of my own.

"I think that intense level of self-criticism is incredibly useful, because it means that every time I go out I'm striving to do better than last time. Flattery is not much use to me. I welcome criticism. I'm much happier if someone comes up and says, 'You should've done this,' or 'Have you ever thought of this?' I think, 'Yes, you're right. I was wrong. Thank you.' That's my attitude."

You shoot with a Canon EOS 5DS R. What made you choose this camera?

"I'm probably a little bit weird when it comes to wildlife photography in that I like restrictions and I'm quite slow to accept new ideas. At the moment, however, I'm really excited because the Canon EOS 5DS R is the best camera I've ever had. I'm not just saying that, it's true. It's not really made for wildlife photography, but it offers far more than the restrictions it imposes on me.

"It's got a 50-megapixel sensor that gives me extraordinary sharpness, and the ability to crop with that sensor is phenomenal. In terms of the way it treats light, it's absolutely gorgeous. I love the files I get from this camera."

Two people’s feet are shown, wearing flip flops. The grassy ground is strewn with food wrappers, packets and pots.
"When I asked why these camps were carpeted with plastic, I was told that the tribe was used to eating food from leaf ‘plates’ that, when empty, would be dropped onto the jungle floor to decompose," Chris says, explaining that the people at this Orang Rimba camp in Sumatra are yet to adjust to using plastic and other non-biodegradable materials. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. © Chris Packham

And what are the main lenses you use?

"My go-to lens is the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM. It's fantastic. It's light and easy to use handheld. However, for me it's more about the field of view it gives and the shallow depth of field I can use. I find myself shooting portraits, long-lens wildlife and even plants on it.

"As a secondary lens, I have a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, which gives that flexibility of zooming if you're close to a subject. I'm much more comfortable with telephoto lenses; there's so much stuff you can't control with wide lenses. I've currently got a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM. It's a beautiful lens and I've used it to produce some quite extraordinary images, but not nearly as many as I get out of the 500mm."

Why do you use Canon binoculars? What do you like about them?

"I used to use a whole range of different makes of binoculars. Then Ethical Consumer magazine produced a report looking at optics manufacturers. Their revelation was that some of these companies were targeting the hunting fraternity in terms of sales, giving money as trophy hunting prizes and sponsoring TV programmes about hunting. There was, and is, only one manufacturer who is totally clean ethically, and that's Canon – both in terms of conservation and the manufacturing process.

"I use 10x32 Image Stabiliser binoculars and they are the best I've ever had. They enable me to do something I previously couldn't do – identify smaller things further away. All those little intricacies which allow us to identify species become instantaneously clear. For me, using Canon is the perfect synergy of ethics and top quality."

A close-up shows a penguin’s orange feet tucked under its white feathers, droplets of water on its feathers.
Happy feet? Certainly very orange ones. The camera perfectly captures the detail on this penguin's feet and every drop of water of its feathers. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens. © Chris Packham

Do you think it's acceptable to provoke certain behaviour, for example with bait, in order to get a good shot?

"This question provokes quite a lot of discussion in wildlife photography, but if you're giving them the right food and you're supplementing their diet and not creating a dependency, why not? I photograph baited animals all the time because I photograph the birds that come to my garden where I've got my feeders hanging. Nobody complains about feeding birds – it's a great way of getting birds very close to you when you can shoot out of your kitchen window. I think it's a question of degrees with all of these things."

And how do you feel about using camera traps?

"They also provoke a lot of debate. Is it proper photography or is it cheating? I think we just need to lighten up. The whole wildlife photography fraternity needs to lighten up. You know, we've got amazing technology now, which people are going to use in different ways. As long as the ecology, the behaviour and the health of the animal isn't influenced negatively in any way, and the photographer is honest about how they got their picture, then it's cool by me."

A group of penguins is almost silhouetted against a bright expanse of water behind them. The light reflected off the water forms circular bokeh patterns.
Beautiful bokeh creates a strong background for this group of king penguins gathered in Gold Harbour, South Georgia. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens. © Chris Packham

Can photography promote wildlife conservation? What do you think of other nature photographers' work?

"I look at a lot of photographers' work, and some of it can be quite harsh. However, it's the very powerful images that stay with you. In 2017, Brent Stirton took a photograph of a de-horned rhino, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Photographically, Brent's picture is not art, but what it conveys is so powerful. It uses photography in a different and very potent way.

"I don't think cosy conversations are promoting the greatest conservation action. I think we all need to know exactly what's going on out there, so photographers need to be applying themselves to that. It's not something I do, so I might be accused of being a hypocrite here. I try to beautify the natural world so people develop an affinity to protect it. But many photographers work very hard to show that we are abusing it, and some of those images are incredibly powerful."

What advice would you give aspiring wildlife photographers?

"Firstly, never review on location. If you're taking photographs out in the field and you've got close to wildlife, don't spend all your time looking at the back of the camera or deleting. Storage is so cheap. Forget it – just take images. The other thing is that you've got to find a niche, so you have to look at other people's photographs and find something they haven't done. Is there a technique that you can import from another genre of photography? Is there a piece of equipment you could use? Is there a lens? It could be anything. You've got to search out that means of being innovative and producing something new.

"One of my mantras is: sleep when you're dead, eat just before. You need to be out taking pictures. The day is never done. You've got to keep trying, that's the key thing. And be ruthlessly critical about your own work. Even if other people tell you it's fantastic, even if it wins a competition, rip it apart. That's what is going to motivate you to do better next time."

Yazar David Clark and Beren Neale


Chris Packham's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Chris Packham stands in a woodland wearing a green jacket, his hands resting on his Canon 5DS R fitted with a Canon telephoto lens, on a stand.

Camera

Canon EOS 5DS R

The 50.6MP full frame CMOS sensor in this DSLR is capable of recording extraordinary levels of detail. The ultra-high resolution enables extensive cropping and still delivers sharp image quality.

Lenses

Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM

This high magnification super-telephoto zoom lens features integrated image stabilisation technology for clear results when shooting handheld. It features L-series build quality and a lightweight construction for comfortable shooting.

Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM

Offering an ultra-wide-angle view with minimal distortion at all focal lengths, this zoom also features UD and Super UD lens elements and large ground aspherical elements for outstanding optical performance. Ring-type USM enables you to focus quickly and in near silence, with a manual override option too.

Binoculars

Canon 10x32 IS binoculars

Get closer to a wide range of subjects using these premium 10x binoculars. With Canon precision optics and a Powered Image Stabiliser to counteract movement they deliver superbly bright handheld detail for easy and comfortable subject identification.

Related articles

View All

Get the newsletter

Click here to get inspiring stories and exciting news from Canon Europe Pro

Sign up now