Growing up on a six-acre farm in North Cornwall, Ross Hoddinott spent his childhood planting trees, digging holes and peering into ponds, and his fascination with the natural world quickly developed into a passion for photographing it when, at the age of ten, his parents gave him a compact camera for Christmas. He quickly graduated to their ageing Zenit 11 and a year later, at just 12, he won the junior flora and fauna category in BBC Countryfile's annual photographic competition, with an image of paired dragonflies. By 13 he was already submitting images to photo magazines and, at 17, was named Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Now in his thirties, he has many more awards under his belt, including the British Wildlife Photographer of the Year and multiple successes in the international Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. He is a regular contributor to numerous photography magazines, supplies images to NaturePL and the RSPCA Photolibrary, and counts the National Trust amongst his clients. He is also a successful author, with five photo books to his name and, as a member of the 2020VISION photo team – the most ambitious multi-media conservation project ever staged in the UK – his work also recently featured in 2020Vision's eponymous book.

Ross still lives in North Cornwall and draws his inspiration from the huge diversity of local wildlife and the rugged, compelling coastline. A Nikon photographer since the age of 16, when he bought a secondhand F801s, he now uses the super-high 36.3 megapixel resolution of the D800 to capture exquisite detail in his signature macro and landscape images…

WAS IT YOUR EARLY COMPETITION SUCCESSES THAT CLINCHED YOUR CHOICE OF CAREER?

Competitions are great for young people because they give you that incentive to carry on, and for me they were real catalysts. The Countryfile competition was the first big thing I did, and it made me realise I was actually OK at photography! Winning the Young Wildlife Photographer was a big deal. There were a huge number of entries, and people who were winning seemed to have the most amazing kit and opportunities – I remember one winner whose parents had hired a plane so he could photograph flamingos from above – so it was nice that I could compete by photographing the local wildlife. It felt like I'd won on merit, and it confirmed to me that I really wanted to pursue a career in photography.

WHEN DID YOU TURN PRO?

I set myself up in business at the age of 18, taking natural history images and doing bar work part-time to supplement my income. I was lucky because I was still living at home, so I didn't have a mortgage or big bills to worry about. I started off supplying pictures and articles for photography magazines, doing calendars and postcards, all the usual stuff.

I was 21 when I decided to turn fully professional. I was working with film in those days, and stock images were far more lucrative than they are today. I got a contract with the RSPCA's photo library, and I had one image sell twice for a total of £7,500. Although this was obviously an exception, it was at this the point when I thought, wow, this is going to be great!. I didn't have a meticulous business plan, but one thing just led to another and my attitude has always been, 'I'm going to do this – so let's make it work!

When you're self-employed it often comes down to sheer determination and working very hard. It's a tough business. I'm only 34, but things have already changed so much. It must be even harder now than when I started – the stock-image industry has all but collapsed, for one thing – but if you can get your foot in the door, if you can look after your clients and hit your deadlines and do what you've been asked to do, then you can build up a relationship with those clients and they'll look after you.

YOU EMBRACED DIGITAL QUITE EARLY ON – WHAT EFFECT DID THAT HAVE ON YOUR CAREER?

I moved to digital around nine years ago, and it changed everything for me. Getting into it at a very early stage and understanding the technology made a big difference to my career. I was using an F100 at the time, which I loved, but I'd always found the cost of film and developing quite restrictive, so when I bought my D70 it was a taste of freedom – I could really experiment and try different things. I bought it with the proviso that I'd continue to use my F100 for all my 'serious' images, and just play on the D70, but after a week with a DSLR I never touched a film camera again!

HAVE YOU ALWAYS USED NIKON?

More or less. I was 16 when I bought my first Nikon, a secondhand Nikon F801s. I was a normal teenager – I loved sport, especially football – but I'd always craved a Nikon camera. There was just something about them. I went from the F801s to an F90, then the F100, and then digital. My most recent camera is the D800, which I got pretty much when it was first released.

WHAT DIFFERENCE HAS THE D800 MADE FOR YOUR WORK?

It really suits my photography. It's not as fast as the D4, but for static work like natural history and landscapes that's not an issue – it's the resolution you're after, so it's ideal. Being able to capture macro in such detail is great, and it enables me to crop images without losing any quality. Before, if I couldn't get close enough to a subject for fear of disturbing it, I'd miss the opportunity. Now I can shoot from further away, crop and magnify to achieve the perspective I've visualised. And the image quality is breathtaking; when I look at the tiny fine details it will capture on, say, a damselfly, it's extraordinary. It's easy to handle, too – Nikon has a tried-and-tested layout so you can pick any DSLR up and feel comfortable with it.

WHICH NIKKORS DO YOU HAVE?

I use the core 17-35mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8, which are probably central to many professionals' kit, and I've just got the 16-35mm f/4, too – I love shooting ultra-wideangle landscapes, and this just gives me that bit extra. I also use the Nikkor TC-20E III teleconverter, which is absolutely fantastic, with no discernable drop in quality whatsoever.

DID YOU DO ANY PHOTOGRAPHY COURSES AT SCHOOL OR COLLEGE, OR WERE YOU SELF-TAUGHT?

Actually, I didn't go to school – well, I went for a couple of months when I was little, but I was an inquisitive kid, and probably quite irritating to my teachers. There was one teacher in particular that just didn't take to me, so my parents took me out and I was home-schooled. I did my GCSEs by correspondence course, and I'm self-taught in photography, too, with no formal training. I think the discipline of being home-schooled has actually really helped me with running my own business.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE TECHNIQUE OR APPROACH?

Simplicity. I try to create very simple natural history images, the majority taken with very shallow depth of field, which is quite unusual for this type of work, but I prefer diffuse backgrounds so the subject really stands out, making a clean, unfussy image. I've always liked using available light, but macro flash is something I do want to start exploring more in the next couple of years.

AND YOUR FAVOURITE SUBJECTS?

Miniature nature – plants and insects, particularly dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies – and seascapes. The Cornish coast is such a fantastic, rugged environment, you can't help but get seduced by it. In the autumn and winter I tend to concentrate on landscapes, and in the spring and summer it's wildlife. I'd love to be out there shooting every day, but so much of my work involves writing, and there's all the admin, so time behind the camera seems to be depressingly short. I do want to prioritise my photography this year.

I like shooting close to home with local species, where you can achieve intimate pictures as a result of really knowing your subject. It's easy to get complacent about what we see every day at home, yet it's incredible what we've got. Most professionals are trying to promote green issues, but travel comes with the job, so if you can make the most of our amazing wildlife and our diverse and beautiful countryside, it's a bonus.

HOW DO YOU SEE YOUR CAREER DEVELOPING, AND WHAT ARE YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGES?

With popular, accessible photography like wildlife and landscapes, you can't just make a living from selling stock images these days – you have to diversify. I've always written a lot, and my books have provided kudos and publicity. I do one-to-one workshops and I've also set up a landscape workshop business, Dawn 2 Dusk Photography, with Mark Bauer. In many respects, professional photography is becoming more about you as a brand – you create a reputation with your images, and support that through your branding and marketing. Wildlife photographers are often not keen on putting themselves forward, but you need to do that these days to survive.

As for challenges, whether you've been taking pictures for weeks or decades, the ongoing challenge is exactly the same – trying to improve. The standard of wildlife and landscape work is so high these days that it's a constant challenge to better what you already do, and you shouldn't believe your own hype, because you can't afford to be complacent. You've got to make sure you recognise your strengths and limitations, and work at both. And as we get older I think it gets worse, because none of us like getting it wrong! So it's about overcoming your fears and making sure your desire to do well doesn't stifle you.

IF YOU HAD ONE PIECE OF ADVICE FOR THE ASPIRING NATURAL HISTORY PHOTOGRAPHER, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

Believe in yourself and be determined. Be creative and original – look at ways you can do something different, rather than just replicating other people's work. And enjoy it!

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