GEORGE KARBUS – WILDLIFE & ADVENTURE PHOTOGRAPHER
Published 13th Dec 2017
Photographer George Karbus dreamed big as a child - and now he's living out his dream whilst shooting stunning images both on and off land....
As a child, George Karbus had many dreams: of living in a beautiful place by the sea – something not open to him in his native landlocked Czech Republic; of surfing and diving every day, of leading a life close to nature, and – his biggest dream of all – swimming with dolphins. By way of Mallorca in the Balearics and Tenerife in the Canaries, he finally found his dreams come true in the small surfing town of Lahinch, County Clare on the west coast of Ireland, where he and his young family have now been based for 12 years.
From early days with a point-and-shoot camera, he has self-taught his way to becoming an internationally renowned and award-winning wildlife and adventure photographer, specialising in oceanic shots with his Nikon D5, D4S and D800, both above and below the waves. His many awards include British Wildlife Photography Awards 2013, Outdoor Photographer of the Year 2010 and Nature's Best Photography 2009, and his work has featured in publications around the world, including BBC Wildlife Magazine, The Times, The Telegraph, The Irish Times, Ocean, Priroda, Science and more. And yes, he swims with dolphins.
It's a long story… I was born in Czechoslovakia, then the country split and where I lived became the Czech Republic. Either way, it's a landlocked place, but I was always dreaming about living by the sea. I'd watch movies about surfing and think, this is me. I was already into skateboarding and snowboarding, but I wanted to be more connected with nature, and my biggest dream was to swim with dolphins.
So when I was 21 I left to follow my dream to live by the ocean and surf. I was so young and stupid that I didn't know any places to do it other than California and Australia, but I couldn't get work visas to go there. So I went to Mallorca where I had a friend and could get work. I stayed five years by the Mediterranean, but I was still missing the power of the ocean. Then I met my girlfriend, Kate, and we decided to move to the Canaries, to south Tenerife, where we learned to surf, but it was still too spoiled for my wild spirit. Then one day I spotted a gorgeous article in a magazine about Ireland. It was beautifully green and fresh, it had the ocean, surfing and marine wildlife, and as I looked at the pictures I could just see myself there. So I said to my girlfriend, let's try Ireland, and we came and fell in love with it. We've been here for 12 years.
I've lived and worked in big cities like Prague, but I can't imagine living in a city now – my spirit would get totally hammered. I feel so much happier in the countryside. There are lots of amazing artists living here around me – musicians, painters, crafters – and they're all very humble about what they do. I wasn't like that when I came here, but I've learned how to be humble; you get wiser as you get older. And these days it's possible to live in a free-spirit place like Lahinch, in such a small community, but still be able to reach out to the world with the internet. People often get in touch to say they've been browsing my pictures on my website and how much they've been cheered up by them, and if people can see and enjoy what I do, then I'm happy.
I was inspired by Ireland. When we settled down in Lahinch, I was so blown away by the light and the beauty of the place that my first impulse was to try photographing it properly. I'm totally self-taught from books and practice, from my own mistakes, but little by little I got better. Probably the biggest part of that was discovering a solitary bottlenose dolphin, Dusty, in Liscannor Bay – you could call it the luck of the Irish! I bought a cheap camera with an underwater housing and started swimming and freediving with her nearly every day, building a relationship with her, and over the years I've been able to get amazing shots of her because we are so close and there is so much trust between us. These days I don't always photograph her when we swim together – I don't think she likes me doing it all the time – but when the light and visibility are good I'll dive in with my camera.
Yes, ever since I started with DSLRs. I'd always wanted a digital SLR, so I saved up for the Nikon D200 when I was working in a hotel in Galway, just after we came to Ireland. I've since had the D300, the D700, the D800, the D4 and the D4S – I was approached by Nikon to photograph with the D4S prototype and take shots for the brochure, which was a great job; I was so proud to be selected. Now I'm shooting with the D4S, the D5 and the D800 – the D800 for landscapes and the D5 and D4S for action and low light in and around the water, with two different types of housing – one for freediving and a splash-proof one for surf photography.
I got my D5 just a few weeks ago. I'm not the type of photographer who needs to have every new camera just for the sake of it, but because I'm shooting in such harsh and often low-light conditions. I don't want to have to use strobes – they're big and would disturb the intelligent mammals I'm shooting. With the D5 and the D4S, I have the two fastest and best low-light cameras on the market, so I don't have to worry about the ISO – I can set everything up in manual for fast work and the ISO will do the job for me.
The speed of their autofocus is really helpful, too. I was on Skellig off the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry photographing puffins in very difficult lighting – they are quite small, and they fly very fast, so they are possibly the greatest test for autofocus I can use, and the D4s was great with them. I didn't have the D5 at that point, but I'm sure I'll get to test it there soon. The frame rate is also important – with my Nikons it's extremely fast, and that's important because I'm usually shooting breaking waves or fast-moving animals like leaping dolphins, so I need at least 10 fps to make sure I don't miss the most important moments. The quality of the pictures from my D800 is incredible for landscapes, but it's not built for speed!
I'm not a long-lens photographer. I like to approach close with a different perspective – my style is to get a relationship with the animals in the water, to make some connection with them. Even on land I try to get close. My biggest lens is the 300mm f/2.8 – it's incredible. I used to have the 70-200mm f/2.8, but I flooded it, so I've now got the f/4 version which is equally beautiful but so much lighter and more compact, so I can fit it into the housing and get some great angles. I also have the 50mm f/1.8D for portraits, the 14-24mm f/2.8 for landscapes, and the 16-35mm f/4 for underwater shots. But my favourite lens for underwater, especially when it's murky, is the 16mm fisheye.
I feel I get my best pictures in Ireland because I know the place so well; I know which conditions work best, I know the tides, the winds, the seasons, the light. I'll have a dream image in my head and I can wait for the right conditions to get it, even if it takes years, because I'm there. And if the weather stays really bad I can always pack up and go somewhere else – I always follow my dreams and thoughts.
This year I've been working on a film project for the BBC so I've not been abroad much, but I'm heading off later this month for a six-week trip to Tonga with my family to photograph humpback whales, then Fiji for the waves and sharks, and New Zealand for the dusky dolphins. Then there'll be my annual trip to the Arctic Circle, to the Lofoten Peninsula in Norway, to photograph the orcas.
But it's not my style to travel all the time – I love Ireland as my base, where we have a close community of people who believe in the same things, where we are so connected with the ocean – it feels like home. The world is so big and full of animals, so I go little by little exploring and photographing, but Ireland is where I want to live, getting my organic food from my local organic farmer, staying fit and healthy, being happy, keeping everything very natural, for the rest of my life.
I like to be lightweight and free to move easily and quickly when I'm swimming with fast-moving animals, and it's the same when I'm shooting waves, and you can't do that with scuba gear, so although I can scuba, I'd rather freedive. I'm not a deep freediver; I can manage up to 20m, but that's enough, as most of the animals I'm shooting are swimming at a depth of around 15m. I do train hard for it – you need to practice, not just holding your breath but being comfortable swimming in difficult conditions. With practice, I can do two minutes in the sea; without practice, around a minute. I can do it for a lot longer in the pool, but in the sea it's much more effort, especially when you're trying to capture fast-moving animals. Fitness is crucial, too – you need to be strong, agile and quick to get the angles other people can't, so being fit is a big part of my photography.
Usually I'm shooting in harsh conditions, but probably the toughest it gets is on a low boat in the Arctic circle in rough seas, with orcas and humpbacks coming to the surface, the boat so rocky, and you're trying to protect your gear and keep focus and watch for unexpected waves, and it's so cold but you can't use gloves because they'd get soaked through with salt water that you'd then be transferring to your camera. Swimming with orcas in the Arctic is pretty challenging, too – they're so powerful, and they're the planet's top predators, so you have to always approach them with respect.
That I'm so free. If I was pushing and promoting myself more I'd probably make more money and be more famous, but that's not what it's about for me. While I do some commercial work, most of the time I'm shooting personal projects, and I can give all my time to my photography, my girlfriend, my kids. We have two children – Natalie is two and Joshua is seven. He's a great model in many of my pictures, and he'll be swimming with the whales in Tonga. I want to get something different from the usual whale images, and photographing a huge whale with a small child is very unusual.
Sometimes it does. In Ireland, every spring we have a few weeks of amazing weather, so I have to make hay when the sun shines, when the waters are clear and the sunsets are amazing, for these beautiful long days when it turns from dark winter into magic, and so while it lasts I'm 'on' every day, I just have to keep shooting, and it's exhausting.
But really, it's not work, it's my passion. I started this because I love it. Yes, you do have to approach your craft like an athlete these days to stand out from the crowd, you need something new, something unique – but the only way to do that is to put yourself into it, soul and deep heart, and do it full on. It's all about passion and soul and patience, about being totally dedicated, and I am. I love it because I generate pictures from my feelings, from what I see. I am very happy, and very humble, and I am lucky I can do what I love.