What's your background in photography and how did your passion for conservation and wildlife photography start?
In 1991, as a student at Otago Uni, I was able to join the Otago Photography Club. The Club had its darkroom conveniently located a few hundred metres from most of my lecture theatres. Dunedin is a treasure trove of photographic subjects, most photographers will find something that fits well within their area of interest. So, armed with a Nikon FG, 50mm AF, a very slow secondhand Tamron telephoto, and the luxury of a bit of time gave me plenty of opportunities to experiment i.e. make mistakes.
Conservation has always been important to me. The biggest kick I get is capturing New Zealand’s unique wildlife. I was lucky to grow up with access to the outdoors and opportunities to explore the southern part of New Zealand. A large part of my childhood memories revolve around time spent on the Otago coastline and rural Central Otago. After moving to New York City in 1996, a trip to New York Zoo sparked my interest in wildlife photography. Looking back, I missed many opportunities, which I have been trying to make up for, to capture the incredible and diverse wildlife that lives and visits the Otago Coast.
If I had a time machine (Dr Who feel free to offer yours), I’d go back to the pre-arrival of the first New Zealanders (circa 1350). It must have been an incredible place with the Haast Eagle, the world’s largest bird, Moa, and the North and South Island Goose - just to name a few of the hundreds of species that are no longer part of our unique biodiversity as a result of human occupation of Aotearoa.
Today in New Zealand, we still have an abundance, albeit fragile, of endemic species of wildlife. It is a privilege and a pleasure to use photography as a medium to record the beauty of our unique natural biodiversity. Having photographed birds as far afield as Costa Rica (a bird photographer’s bucket list location), I still love that I have been able to photograph New Zealand’s most critically endangered bird, the Tara iti (Fairy Tern). Photographing a bird on the brink of extinction leaves you in no doubt about how fragile life is on planet earth.
From your point of view, what makes a good wildlife photo?
Any wildlife photograph that informs and educates is a good wildlife photo. Each generation becomes less connected to what we have left of our unique biodiversity. How many New Zealanders have seen a Kakapo or a Hectors Dolphin in the wild? I think the answer is not many. Photography and videography provide a medium that can connect us as a people to our natural environment. We need regular reminders that it is a fine line between survival and extinction. The Huia is a sad example. The last sighting of a live Huia was in 1907. A few individuals were too busy killing them all to satisfy a limited market demand. No one bothered to photographically record such a beautiful and iconic example of our wildlife. As a cruel irony, some of the most expensive New Zealand photographic prints sold within the last couple of years were of two stuffed Huia. We have a chance to turn the tide and use photography to help raise awareness that much of our wildlife is in critical need of protection. Future generations will benefit if we protect what is uniquely our wildlife.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced to get the photo you want?
Living in Auckland means that travelling is a necessity. It takes time and money to put a camera sensor in front of much of our unique wildlife in their natural environment. International wildlife photography has not been an option for me until literally this week. I try to make an annual pilgrimage to Tonga to photograph the humpback whale migration. While Tonga remains closed, Fiji is open and has some world-class dive sites for photographing tropical sea life.
Overcoming the challenges of travel does not mean you will get the shot you’re after. I spent five days in Stewart Island without one shot of a kiwi on the memory card. It was not that they were not there. I had to laugh every time, and there were lots, when I would bump into a group who had a few minutes earlier photographed a kiwi on their iPhones a few meters up the track from where I was with all of my gear.
Do you follow any particular process with your wildlife photos?
My process starts with planning. I cannot recall a wall-hanging photo that did not start with good preparation. Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”. When you are in the field, the only variable that you can control is what you have already prepared for. Unlike a studio session, you cannot plug in a charger or run down the road to get that piece of kit you just realised you needed. My process ends with the moment it all clicks. I never critically review any images until the subject matter, or I, have left the field. If you think about the effort and expense involved to get into position, the only thing you should be doing is getting as many keepers on your card(s) as you can while you are there.
How do you improve your photography and continue to learn?
A wildlife photographer combines the skills of a naturalist, the technical expertise to adequately use their photographic equipment with the art of working with the available light. It requires constant practice and growth. While there are examples of exceptional wildlife photography, no one ever perfects the science and art that makes up wildlife photography - There is always a better shot. The more you learn about our natural environment, the more opportunities you will have to capture a special part of it in a photo.
What advice would you give to people just starting wildlife photography?
Here are my top tips:
- Know your equipment, including its limitations, fully. If your equipment is good, it is the only variable that you have full control over when in the field. The other variables are likely to change and often in a way that is unexpected. You need to be a master of your equipment so that you can react to what mother nature throws at you.
- Preparation, preparation, and a bit more preparation. Once you are in the field, you are on your own. Make sure you are prepared.
- Stay safe. Fortunately here in New Zealand, our natural environment does not tend to pose a risk to life. That said, wild animals are still wild and we are blessed with significant terrain that can turn a nice walk in the bush into a search and rescue event.
- Shoot what you love. The hours of work will all reward you if you shoot what you love.
Can you tell us about some of your favourite photos?
I have included the following as my current favourites:
1. Tara Iti – New Zealand Fairy Tern. There are only 42 of them and I deeply hope they do not end up like the Huia, Moa or Haast Eagle or any of our hundreds of extinct wildlife species.
2. Great White Shark – Steven Spielberg and three fatal attacks off the Dunedin coast between 1964 and 1968 gave the Great White the unjustified reputation as being a killer. I am not recommending dressing up as a seal, coating oneself in chum (or as in the North Island, burley) and jumping into the water near Stewart Island between December and May. I would, however, recommend experiencing, from the safety of a boat or cage, our own population of migratory Great Whites that visit our shores.
3. Whio (Blue Duck) - you will know this one from our ten-dollar note.
4. Hairy Ghost Pipefish - It is a privilege to venture beyond New Zealand and be able to get photos that you cannot get in your backyard or saltwater.
What else should we know about you and your photography?
Photography is a gift that adds to well-being. As photographers, we have the opportunity to improve our well-being through creativity and mindfulness. You can also earn a living if you are prepared to commercialise what you love.
As photographers, we are also able to share part of our experience with others in a way that can bring them joy. We are all in this together so share the love.
Where can we see more of your work?
Instagram - @christographnz