SIMON STAFFORD – WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHER
Published 30th Jul 2018
Winner of the Mammals category in the Natural History Museum Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards, Simon Stafford explains why he’s a thoroughly Nikon man
There's not much that Simon Stafford doesn't know about Nikon, not just from over three decades as an acclaimed Nikon pro photographer, but also from his parallel career as a writer – as technical editor of Nikon Owner magazine, as a respected contributor to the UK photographic press, including Nikon Pro, and as the author of over 25 books on the Nikon system, which have earned him the reputation as one of the world's leading technical experts on all things Nikon.
As a young boy growing up in rural Kent, Simon was fascinated by the natural world, particularly the wildlife on his doorstep, but his early years as a photographer were focused on sport – and even that he came to in a roundabout way, via a degree in biophysics at Aberdeen University, a fateful conversation with the editor of the student newspaper, and a PR opportunity with Sir Robin Day… But it wasn't long before his passion for wildlife took over, and for the last 16 years he has focused on wildlife, along with the landscape and travel "that come with the package". His stunning wildlife images have won him numerous awards, the most recent being Overall Winner, Mammals category in the prestigious Natural History Museum Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016 competition for an apocalyptic view of the annual wildebeest migration in the Masai Mara.
Sheer disbelief, then elation! I had to read the email three times before the penny eventually dropped. It's such a big competition in terms of the numbers who enter and the calibre of the entries – it's like the photographic equivalent of the Oscars. I feel privileged and humbled in equal measure.
We had been watching a herd of several thousand wildebeest as they made a couple of abortive attempts at crossing the Mara River in Kenya's Masai Mara during the annual migration. The size of the herd continued to grow as more animals arrived, and eventually a small group decided to go for it; at that point the herd mentality kicked in and they all followed. We saw the first few get out and climb the far bank, but they were soaking wet from the crossing, and the water streaming off their bodies mixed into the sand, which soon churned to mud beneath their hooves. A couple slipped and fell, more fell over them; in the ensuing panic they became trapped and many were crushed to death, or were left there dying to be picked off by crocodiles and other predators.
We returned at first light the next morning, knowing the scavengers would be drawn there. The smell was horrendous, the worst I've ever experienced. Rancid. It was a harrowing scene, and so eerily silent compared to the thunderous noise of the stampede the previous afternoon. Hyena were picking their way silently among the carcasses gorging themselves. As I watched, a lone hyena moved to a ledge above the river, and for a couple of seconds looked straight at my D810; the moment was captured.
It's a brilliant all-round camera. For me the biggest advantages over the D800 are the buffer memory – doubled from the D800 – and the quietness of the shutter, which is really important for wildlife. Resolution is fantastic; I'd rather shoot and crop after the event if I can't approach too close even with big lenses, and with the D810 I've taken successful images from a third of the frame, which have then been used full-bleed on an A4-size page. Then there's the ability to split the exposure compensation from affecting the flash output, and the electronic front-curtain shutter feature. It's incredibly reliable too, despite the dust, moisture and snow I regularly subject it to – a very solid construction. I have used two D810 bodies for the past couple of years, and added a D500 recently for its superb AF system and those few occasions when I need a higher frame rate.
My general-purpose lens is the AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E zoom. It's not marketed as a pro lens, but it's remarkable and I've had some amazing results from it – it's the one lens I never leave home without. If I know I'm going to be working in low-light conditions I'll supplement it with a fast prime, such as the 400mm f/2.8, which I hire. I also love the 70-200mm f/4 – it's so much smaller and lighter that the f/2.8 version, and as ISO performance improves with each iteration of DSLR, you're really not giving up much – if anything – with that loss of one stop on the lens. And with the very limited weight allowance on the very small aircraft that I invariably end up using to reach many of my destinations, large heavy lenses simply aren't practical. I'd love to add the new lightweight version of the 600mm f/4 to my kit, and the new 19mm PC-E tilt-and-shift lens looks really interesting – I use the other three Nikkor PC-E lenses regularly for landscape and travel work.
I do as little as I can. The integrity of the image with wildlife is paramount, so I'm just dealing with the basic stuff – dust marks, minor adjustments to contrast and colour balance, and very modest cropping. Photographers of a certain age – and I include myself in that group! – had to take great care to get everything right in-camera when shooting on transparency film. It is an equally important discipline in the digital era, and one I always teach on my workshops: get it right in the first place, otherwise you're always on the back foot. All too often I encounter photographers who place far too much reliance on the power of software to correct things in post-processing!
I've always been interested in wildlife and natural history, but I had no interest in photography until the end of my first year at university, when I was sharing digs with a guy who had a Zenith camera. I was so impressed with what he was shooting, I resolved to get my own camera, so I saved up, bought myself a second-hand Pentax MX, and that summer taught myself the rudiments of black and white printing after persuading my dad to let me set up a makeshift darkroom in the spare bedroom.
When I went back to university for my second year, I got chatting to the editor of the student newspaper who mentioned they didn't have a photographer, as their previous one had graduated. So, with precisely three rolls of black and white film under my belt, I told him I had a camera and was competent at processing and printing. His eyes lit up. He said he couldn't pay me but I would get all my materials and free use of the university darkrooms. I said, "Where do I sign?!"
Two weeks later Sir Robin Day was at the university giving a keynote speech, I covered the event and one of my shots was used on the front page. It was my first published picture, and my turning point. Within nine months I'd traded the Pentax for a second-hand Nikon FM, with 28mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.8 and 135mm f/2.8 lenses, and I've been Nikon ever since.
When I started freelancing it was back in the Fleet Street days, long before digital – in fact, long before autofocus – where you'd shoot a roll of black and white film, hand it over to a motorcycle courier and that was the last you saw of the negatives. It was great experience, but a very steep learning curve, and sports photography was also a huge commitment. The hours were very antisocial; I worked what felt like eight days a week. As life changed, and with natural history a continuing interest, by the mid 1990s I found I was shooting increasing amounts of landscape, travel and wildlife, and by around 2000 I'd pretty much dropped sport mainly in favour of wildlife.
Wildlife photography keeps me busy: I probably spend around 12 weeks of the year out of the country on shoots and workshops, and then a month or so in the UK on week-long trips, so I'm on the road four months of the year. With wildlife work, you find that landscape and travel images come along cheek by jowl, so I build in time for them on my trips, and next year I'm actually doing a couple of trips that are principally travel and culture, with some wildlife – as I am finding there is an increasing demand for this. As well as running my own workshops I work with Tatra Photography Workshops, and more recently I have joined the team at Create Away, who are based in the south of France, for whom I tutor shoots in the local landscape and with the wild white horses of Camargue.
I started writing way back in 1992 – I won Practical Photography magazine's Photographer of the Year competition, and the then editor Will Cheung asked if I'd be interested in doing a small piece for the magazine, which led to writing a regular monthly column. A while later Gray Levett of Grays of Westminster contacted me to ask if I'd like to contribute to his newsletter, and when he launched Nikon Owner magazine in 2000 he invited me to be technical editor, and I've been doing that ever since, as well as moderating the website's technical helpline. Off the back of that, Sterling Publishing approached me to do a couple of books on Nikon products for their Lark imprint. To date I've written over 25 books on Nikon cameras and the Nikon system.
Large mammals are my favourites, particularly African species. Once you've been on safari out there you want to go back again and again. The diversity of species and environments in sub-Saharan Africa in particular gets you hooked. The other issue out there that draws you in is conservation. You can't help but get involved. There are a few localised success stories in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa where they are doing a good job of protecting the critically endangered species, such as elephants and rhinos, but in other countries, for example Tanzania, Angola and Mozambique, elephants are being slaughtered daily. Organised crime drives the poaching, and the situation is exacerbated by corruption within the authorities. The result is a catastrophe; it's estimated that Tanzania has lost over 60% of its elephant population.
There are other problems, too. South African lions are in trouble in areas where bovine TB has entered the local buffalo population and therefore infecting the prides, while five out of the seven principle species of vulture are in severe danger – they're being poisoned, both by poachers who don't want them circling above an illegal kill and giving away their position, and by farmers who seem them as threats to their smaller livestock.
For me, responsible wildlife photography is vitally important, as it continues to play an absolutely crucial role in heightening awareness of species decline, habitat loss and many other factors that are placing such intense pressure on wildlife.
My favourite animals to photograph are leopards. They take some finding, and when you do work out where they are, they're almost invariably up a tree, so they are particularly difficult to photograph. Finding lions is relatively easy by comparison – there are comparatively lots of them and they are generally on the ground! Sometimes British species can be quite challenging, too. In certain parts of Africa there is a degree of habituation to human presence, or at least the presence of vehicles, but in the UK a lot of wildlife isn't as tolerant, so photographing common species like hares and badgers can be surprisingly challenging. You have to invest time in researching the what, where and likelihood of finding your quarry, as well as speaking with local wildlife rangers and guides; some animal populations have idiosyncratic behaviour, so the insight of these people is invaluable, as they know the wildlife intimately.
Photograph what interests you, as this will motivate you to take pictures and research your subject thoroughly; learning about a subject's behaviour and habitats will improve your images, as it will enhance your ability to anticipate. Doing this also inspires you when things aren't going as well as you hope – you can draw upon your greater knowledge of the subject to rekindle those creative juices.
I want to carry on exploring other parts of Africa – I'm off to Namibia next week for the first time, which I'm really looking forward to. I'd like to go to the Antarctic, and there are some north American species I'd like to photograph, in particular bears. However, the ultimate trip for me would be to the Himalayas for the snow leopard. It's such a rare creature that to just see one, never mind photograph one, would be amazing!