Five top wildlife photographers reveal their toughest shoot ever

A seal emerges from the water on its back, one paw raised as if in greeting. Photo by Robert Marc Lehmann.
Robert Marc Lehmann captured this award-winning shot using a DSLR and wide-angle zoom in an underwater housing. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM) at 16mm, 1/125 sec, f/22 and ISO250. © Robert Marc Lehmann

Wildlife photographers often find themselves in the most inhospitable locations, in searing heat or freezing cold, or underwater with poor visibility. And even after extensive preparation for a shoot, animal species can be frustratingly elusive and sometimes dangerous, requiring the photographers to think on their feet and push their equipment to the limit.

Here, we ask five top photographers about the most difficult wildlife shoots they've ever done, and how they managed to get the shot.

1. Swimming in the open sea – Robert Marc Lehmann

There is no doubt that conservation photographer and filmmaker Robert Marc Lehmann's toughest ever shoot paid off – it earned him the German National Geographic Photographer of the Year title in 2015.

The location was an area of shallow water where grey seals go to rest, near Heligoland, a small archipelago off the north-west coast of Germany. But finding the seals was a challenge. "The only way to get there is by swimming for 2km, battling strong currents and big waves," Robert says. "The water is very cold, the seals are not used to humans and visibility is usually poor."

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However, on one particular day, when he was shooting with his Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens in an underwater housing, plus two strobes, everything came together for one special shot (main image).

"The sun was setting and the sea was flat and calm," he says. "A sleeping female seal was around 50 metres away and I gradually moved closer to her over a two-hour period. As I got very close, she seemed to wave at the camera as the sun hit the water's surface. I pressed the shutter, looked at the image on the back of the camera and it was like, 'Wow, that's the image.'"

Robert entered it in a German National Geographic competition. "A few weeks later I got a call to say I was [German] National Geographic’s Photographer of the Year," he says. "To win it with this particular image, made in the part of Germany in which I live, made me very proud."

Recently, Robert was the first photographer to shoot with the new RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM lens paired with the new Canon EOS R5. With its 5-stop IS, lightning-fast animal-tracking AF and a convenient control ring, he says it's "the perfect wildlife tool". The near-silent operation and extended reach of the RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM makes it a formidable addition to any wildlife photographer's kit bag. "I think it's going to change everything," adds Robert.

A pack of African wild dogs hunting in the Kalahari Desert. Photo by Marina Cano.
The fast frame rates of the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III (16fps with full AF/AE tracking, and 20fps with AF/AE tracking in Live View) helped Marina Cano to photograph African wild dogs in action. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 1/2700 sec, f/8 and ISO2500. © Marina Cano

2. The shoot that broke the photographer's heart – Marina Cano

Canon Ambassador Marina Cano is an award-winning Spanish nature photographer who has specialised in capturing shots of African wildlife throughout her 10-year career. For Marina, what makes a wildlife shoot particularly challenging is its emotional impact. Her toughest moment happened while on a shoot in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III. She was following a pack of African wild dogs, also known as painted wolves.

"We waited for them to wake up from their afternoon nap, then in the early evening they went hunting," she says. "They don't kill like lions, who suffocate their prey… they just start eating. One time it was really, really hard because even though I was prepared for it, the prey in this case was something that I didn't expect.

"When I saw the baby oryx surrounded by all these wild dogs – and the mother, who was trying to protect the baby but couldn't – it was just terrible. That, for me, was my most challenging moment photographing wildlife."

Marina accepts that these situations are an inevitable part of the natural world and therefore wildlife photography. "You cannot do anything, just be a witness," she says. "In my work it's all about emotions, I think that's because I'm such an emotional person. I have to be stronger than my emotions to be able to take pictures of some of the things that are happening."

An underwater shot of a shoal of sardines, with two sharks circling close by. Photo by Nadia Aly.
Nadia Aly takes multiple camera and lens setups on her underwater shoots, to help her swiftly adapt to changing environments in order to capture phenomena such as this 'sardine run'. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens at 15mm, 1/200 secs, f/8 and ISO200. © Nadia Aly

3. Sacrificing comforts for a killer sardine shot – Nadia Aly

Millions of sardines migrate along South Africa's east coast every year, and it's an astonishing thing to witness as the fish become a food source for dolphins, whales, sharks and sea birds. But photographing the 'sardine run' requires stamina and the ability to forget about modern comforts, says Nadia Aly, a wildlife photographer who specialises in underwater marine life.

"I've done it for six or seven years in a row for at least a month at a time," says Nadia. "You get up in the morning and it's 5°C. There's no toilet on the boat and you're going to be on it for 8-10 hours. There's no sunshade and you really just have to suck it up, because when you find action out there, it's the ocean's greatest event."

Nadia's main camera is a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II fitted with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens, but she also takes a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens attached. "I have multiple setups because you don't have time to change," she continues.

"You could go in the water and you could have a drop where you have 10 metres visibility. Then, you could be moving with the dolphins and then suddenly you're back to one metre visibility. You really don't understand the situation and your environment until you're actually in it. You need to work quickly, and you need to understand how to use your camera."

A young Samburu girl, Naltwasha, wears a bright robe. She is kneeling and handing some branches to the elephant Shaba. Photo by Georgina Goodwin.
Georgina Goodwin used a zoom lens with Image Stabilization to capture this magical moment. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 24mm, 1/1600 sec, f/4.5 and ISO400. © Georgina Goodwin
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4. The girl and the elephant – Georgina Goodwin

An independent documentary photographer based in Kenya, former Canon Ambassador Georgina Goodwin's most challenging wildlife shoot took place in 2017, when she was shooting the main poster image for Conservation International's virtual reality 3D movie, My Africa.

"I had to capture a tender moment between a young Samburu girl, Naltwasha, who plays the lead role in the film, and an orphaned baby elephant named Shaba," Georgina says. "Baby elephants are very heavy and fast, and can behave erratically, and the girl had never been close to an elephant and was petrified."

Georgina used her Canon EOS 5D Mark III fitted with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/1.4 IS USM lens. "Using this body and lens, I knew I had given myself the best chance of capturing the moment," she says. "The shoot took place in quite tough terrain and the air was very dry and hot, despite the heavy rainclouds overhead. I needed to go slowly to help me stay focused and calm so that I could react quickly when the moment came."

Shaba was gradually coaxed out with some branches, which was when Georgina started getting her shots. "When the dark clouds parted and a beam of sunshine came through just as the girl and elephant came close, and then touched trunk and hand, I knew this was 'the moment'," she says. "I kept my eyes on them and kept shooting. As I put my camera down, I was relieved and very happy to know I'd got the shot."

A plump capercaillie bird, surrounded by her recently hatched chicks. Photo by Markus Varesvuo.
Thanks to the safe distance provided by his 600mm L-series lens and 1.4x extender, Markus Varesvuo was able to photograph these chicks hatching after a four-day wait. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM) and a Canon Extender 1.4x III at 840mm, 1/400 sec, f/5.6 and ISO2500. © Markus Varesvuo

5. The endurance test – Markus Varesvuo

Although one might expect fast-moving birds in flight to be one of the most difficult things for a bird specialist to photograph, Finland-based Markus Varesvuo's most challenging shoot – because of the sheer endurance it involved – was photographing chicks hatching.

Markus, who has won a number of major awards for his bird photography and published several books, had initially set up his hide close to the nest of a capercaillie female incubating and hatching her chicks in Eastern Finland, near the Russian border. He was preparing for the long wait to get the shot he wanted, but wildlife often doesn't behave as expected.

"After an hour, when I looked through my lens, the female was already leaving with the chicks. I missed the first opportunity," he says. But he found another capercaillie nest, set up his hide and gradually moved closer and closer.

He was shooting with his Canon EOS-1D X fitted with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens and a Canon Extender 1.4x III. This gave him a working focal length of 840mm, which was essential for keeping a certain distance from the nest so as not to disturb the bird.

During the wait in the hide, Markus perhaps only got three to five hours' sleep per day – but eventually he was rewarded with shots of the baby birds. "I was in the hide for about four days waiting for the chicks to hatch and that was quite a long time," he says. "I was really happy to get the picture."

Yazar David Clark

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