Harry Skeggs is an adventurer at heart, with a love for travel and wildlife, his passion stoked by a childhood spent immersed in David Attenborough's groundbreaking wildlife documentaries. Taking a year out to travel, he found himself in the jungles of Brazil and his delight in being so close to nature set him off on a journey he had never expected.

His subsequent degree in the history of art at Cambridge developed his artistic eye and over the five years since graduating, he has been trading in ever-increasing hours in his City day job for time abroad with his Nikons, capturing a world that is even redder in tooth and claw than that of high finance, and garnering a slew of awards, nominations and commissions, with his work published in National Geographic, BBC Wildlife, The Sunday Times and The Independent, amongst others.

We spoke to him on the cusp of his trip to Papua New Guinea with Reef and Rainforest and the writer and filmmaker Benedict Allen, where he'll be testing the D5's capabilities, to find out how he aims to take his photography full time, and why, since swapping his first "rubbish little camera" for a D40 ten years ago, he has always chosen Nikon.

How did you get from that “rubbish little camera” at the age of 17 to where you are now?

During my year out I travelled to South America, spending nearly six months in Brazil. It was the first time I'd felt "properly" abroad – it wasn't like anything I'd ever experienced. I'd get so invested in the moment, take a picture with my little budget camera and then realise it was nothing like I'd seen, with nothing of the impact, and that was intensely frustrating.

I'd always wanted to eventually be a painter – and if I could paint at 1/4000sec I probably would have been one. But it's just not that easy, and it's so time-consuming and completely impractical for travelling, and I wanted results there and then. I'm the sort of person who gets addicted to something when I'm frustrated by it, until I get what I want. It becomes an obsession, a kind of self-evolving perfectionism. So I became determined to be a better photographer.

After Brazil, I studied art history at Cambridge and that's where everything began to change. My degree was about the principles of art, and seeing how it's impacted my photography has been amazing. I bought a secondhand Nikon D40 and a lens that didn't autofocus, which in hindsight was useful as it taught me an awful lot about manual photography. It didn't autometer either, so I really was jumping in at the deep end, and I learned a lot from doing that – in fact, when I moved up to autofocus lenses I found them the easiest thing in the world!

When I was confident with the D40 and taking some relatively nice stuff with it, my parents got me the D7000, and I've moved on from there. I'm completely self-taught – I've made every mistake there is, and I still reckon it's the best way to learn.

Why do you stay with Nikon?

I've always loved Nikon lenses as the quality of the glass is amazing, and I've found everything I've ever wanted in the Nikon range. Recently I've been working with Nikon loan stock, both cameras and lenses, which is amazing as the top-end stuff is incredible – you just can't go wrong with it. When clients ask me for advice on choosing a camera marque, I have no qualms saying, "Nikon, and you will never have a problem with it, trust me; it's the only way to go." I can't not recommend Nikon because I can't find a downside with it!

What are you currently shooting with?

I currently only have a D750 and a whole host of lenses, mainly primes, but I'm fortunate in that Nikon is currently lending me kit for each trip I do, so for my Papua New Guinea trip I'm also taking the D5, the 500mm f/4, the 200-500 f/5.6 zoom and the 105mm f/1.4 portrait lens in addition to my own wide angles and macro lenses.

The D5's frame rate is so addictive for the wildlife photographer, and the ISO capacity is off the charts, which is key in the jungle when you need a fast enough ISO to enable the right shutter speed. I particularly want to photograph birds of paradise, which are quite skittish – so being able to have a fast enough ISO to capture them with a telephoto and not just end up with a fuzzy green ball in the shot is totally liberating.

The 105mm portrait lens is superb, with beautiful soft bokeh, and it will be ideal for the tribes I'll be photographing out there. I initially borrowed it for a trip to Australia, and even though I don't usually use portrait lenses, I'm now a complete convert, not just because the quality is so good, but also because you can get such a low aperture to create a really striking, washed-out background. I wasn't expecting to like it very much and I've been surprised by how much I love it. Humans are animals too, so why can't a wildlife photographer use a portrait lens with animals as well as people?

I'm also taking the 200-500mm telephoto as I have to travel pretty light. I'd prefer to use only longer primes for the unbeatable optical quality, but for adventure travel you can't carry too much, yet you still need to cover the range, so I have one prime and one zoom. Recently I've been moving towards wideangle, too, using the 28mm to get in really close – it's very impactful and it's nice to have that range and breadth to your work.

I don't want to be faffing around changing lenses; it's frustrating. I always impress on my clients that it's better to get the moment with the 'wrong' lens than not have the 'right' lens on, change it and miss the shot. But to cover myself I always two cameras with me, one with a long lens and the other with a wideangle – that way I'm fundamentally covered.

For this trip I'm actually taking three bodies, because I have an underwater housing for my D7000, and with much of the Pacific War being fought in the waters around Papua New Guinea, there are some amazing wrecks to be dived, not just ships but tanks and fighter jets. So add to that a drone, my lenses, and a tight baggage restriction, and I'm probably going to end up with much of my kit around my neck and in my pockets when I fly…

Are you still part-time?

Yes, I'm still balancing my consultancy work with my photography – it helps things tick over. I work in a niche area in which very few people are knowledgeable, so I can keep it on as a side burner, which is great. It helps fill in the peaks and troughs of being a photographer and allows me to only take on assignments I really want to do.

Things are going very well at the moment, but I am naturally risk averse – even though I like doing risky things they are planned in such a way that they reduce the risk as much as possible. I don't really like to jump unless I know where I'm jumping to. But I'm really enjoying freelance photography. Every time I achieve the result I want, or win a client, it feels so rewarding because it's all my own work, and that is one of the reasons I want to make a go of this.

When I started out, I was just doing it for fun. Then I won a couple of competitions and I started to think that it could become more than a hobby. Now I'm beginning to do a lot of tour leading – luxury safari, photo-expert-led tours, where six to ten clients come out and we go to places like the Okavango Delta. I'm also pitching more towards magazines, including National Geographic, so I'm becoming more commissioned (look out for a big photo of mine there in the coming months!). So if I can continue to do this and publish some articles too, it's moving me into a more comfortable position.

Do you tend to use any specific techniques?

I use a lot of back-button focus, which is a great little trick for wildlife photography. It means using one of the buttons on the reverse of the camera (usually the AE-L/AF-L or AF-ON button) to the same effect as half-pressing the shutter-release button to lock focus. You set it in the custom function settings, under autofocus. There are loads of benefits for this, but one of the key ones for me is that you don't need to keep refocusing. You only have to focus once and can then take as many photos as you need without having to refocus. This is critical in capturing a split second moment as time spent focusing could be the difference.


In terms of composition, I like getting down to eye level or below to bring the viewer into the photo. This also aligns the sensor to the subject and helps the camera perform at its peak. I also tend to shoot to the right, which is essentially slightly over exposing without clipping any detail as this maximises the detail in the photo – although in dense jungles its often just not possible to over expose and keep a fast enough shutter. But the way I come at my photography isn't hugely technical – I'm much more about the artistic side of things. I don't massively go in for rules; they are written by someone else, and if you follow someone else's rules you'll take someone else's photographs. So I go out and try different things, and if something works, I'll try it again. I'll home in on what interests me, and try to instil that in the photo, because hopefully if it interests me, it will resonate with the viewer. Ansel Adams said that the most important part of the camera is the 12 inches behind it, and it's so true. It's the brain, the imagination that is making the photos, so while the equipment is fantastic, to me it's is a tool, albeit a pretty clever tool, like a brush. But I need equipment that can keep up with my imagination and Nikon has never let me down there.

How did you get interested in wildlife?

I love every single thing David Attenborough has done and, growing up, I was captivated by his programmes, so wildlife imaging has always been something I've wanted to do. I also grew up in a dog-minded house, so I always felt like I had an affinity for animals.

Going out to Brazil on my year out was the first time I'd really come into close quarters with unusual wildlife, and I found it absolutely thrilling. It's the sense that you are lucky to be there; you're in their world, so anything you see is a real privilege. I was asked the other day, "Do you ever get bored with wildlife?" and obviously the answer is no, for a number of reasons. First of all, wildlife is different wherever you go, and second, even in the same place every experience unique. What's exciting is that you might get nothing, so when you do get something you feel so privileged. For me, that is addictive.

And so many of these creatures are under real threat. We're already into the sixth great extinction event, and it's heartbreaking. So if my photography can bring even a smidgeon of awareness of this and help get the message over that we need to act to change this, that is really important to me.

Do you have any particular favourite animals to photograph?

Spending time with anything that has character is a pleasure. I particularly love turtles because they seem so at ease. The sea is fundamentally a hostile place for humans, yet there is nothing scary about swimming with turtles – I always come out completely blown away by how calm I feel afterwards.

I loved working with gorillas, too – you can see so much problem-solving and emotional intelligence in their eyes – while polar bears are magnetic in their sheer, terrifying power. I really don't think there's any animal I don't like, apart from spiders, although I will still pick them up and I do get a thrill from photographing them in macro, because then it's obvious what an amazing piece of evolution they are.

You’ve been to over 65 countries so far – which is your top destination?

I love the Arctic for the complete sense of silence, both in terms of noise and colour. There are so few places now in the world that are a real wilderness, yet on Svalbard and around that latitude, you can go for days without seeing or hearing anything, and you get this amazing simplicity in your images. On the complete flipside, Madagascar and Borneo are so diverse, so filled with oddities, and every time you pick up a rock there's something underneath that you've never seen before.

What has been your most challenging experience?

That was diving off Borneo, when my air tank cut out at 32m below. It was my first proper dive, and I was quite edgy to start with. At that depth you can't rush up to the surface without risking the bends, so I had to share my dive instructor's air supply while we made a safety stop. It was dark and gloomy and more than terrifying, and it took me a while to get back underwater after that. I'm now a relatively experienced diver and I love it: in terms of seeing things, when you go into a jungle, you hear a lot but it's often difficult to see things, whereas on the reefs the wildlife are chilling out in plain view.

What has been the most significant accolade you’ve had to date?

It was winning a category in my first competition, the Sunday Times Travel Photographer of the Year. It's not even a very big competition, but it was the first thing that made me think, maybe this is more than a hobby, maybe there could be mileage in it. I had always said to myself that I wasn't going to consider photography as a career unless I got a sign, and that was definitely a sign, and one that completely changed my perspective.

What’s on your bucket-list?

My biggest ambition is to win Wildlife Photographer of the Year. I grew up looking at the winners every year and thinking how incredible they were, so if I won I'd consider it career objective achieved. I got very close this year, which was annoying, but I'm 27, so I've got time. I've also had stuff in National Geographic, and it would certainly be a career highlight to get the front cover.

What’s the best thing about being a wildlife photographer?

I genuinely love watching wildlife. We can learn so much from animals – they are so in tune with their environments, whereas we try to conquer ours. And I love not really knowing what's going to happen; you can plan all you like, but you can't guarantee anything with wildlife, so anything you do get is more special as a result.

I also really enjoy working with other people. When you get home from a trip and tell your friends what you've been up to, they don't really get it. With group travel, you bond over the pictures and memories, because those people are the only ones who really understand. I know some wildlife photographers prefer to work on their own, but I'm not solitary, I love the human element. You go for dinner together after an amazing day of photography and you bond, and that's what friendships are made of. I always want to travel with people and my girlfriend has been amazing in putting up with me and sharing many of my trips with me, and she's often been the one to encourage me to go back out into the rain and catch that shot I felt close to.

What advice you would give to aspiring wildlife photographers, and what’s the best advice you have ever been given?

My advice would be to constantly shift your perspective. We're so used to seeing the world 6ft off the ground – so climb a tree, lie in a puddle, get a different shooting angle – that's the quickest sure-fire way to get something different. And constantly experiment. When you find an interesting angle, then try another one. You never know what's going to be the shot.

The best advice I've been given was by [Nikon Ambassador] David Yarrow, who told me the 3Rs of photography – research, which is key to getting yourself in the right place at the right time with the best chances of getting a good result; relatability, which means telling a story and helping people relate to it and keep their eye on the picture; and relentlessness – you have to keep going, because you haven't got the shot until you've got the shot, and never giving up even when hurdles get in the way..

For more information visit skeggsphotography.com/
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