Chris Packham is one of the UK's best-known television presenters, sharing his love of the natural world and raising awareness of environmental issues on nature and wildlife TV shows. Alongside his presenting career, he's also a prolific author and a prominent conservationist and animal rights campaigner. Yet, as a young man, Chris's main career ambition was to be a wildlife photographer, and it's a passion that has continued throughout his life.
His subjects have included wildlife, landscapes, nomadic tribespeople and the impact of litter on animals and the environment. His photographic expertise has led to invitations to judge prestigious competitions including Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Here, Chris talks about his love of nature, his photography and why he remains dedicated to Canon kit.
"I'd had an intrinsic fascination for living things since I was crawling around, aged two or three. Biology was the science to which I was driven but throughout my childhood I was also really interested in art. When I was at school there were only two things I was any good at – science and art.
"I really wanted to go to art school, but my father dissuaded me from taking that course. I ended up with my head in journals and textbooks until my early 20s. Art got pushed sideways and it got to the point where I became very resentful of that. I wanted to make things. I wanted to be creative."
"I was doing a PhD, which I eventually gave up. I rented a lock-up garage and I started making sculptures and painting. The trouble is, I'd invested all this education in developing a skill of understanding animals, so I had the ideas but I didn't have the ability to master the technique. I bought a camera, but quickly realised that mastering that art was every bit as difficult as oils or pastels or any other media.
"To finance my photography, I worked as a camera assistant for someone who was making natural history programmes for the BBC – and that paid for my Canon camera, my film and my car. I drove around the UK, slept in nature reserve car parks, got up early and taught myself how to photograph wildlife. I also went to evening classes to do darkroom work and learn a lot more. So it was really diving in at the deep end in my mid-20s, and trying to recapture the passion for creativity that had been pushed sideways, but not entirely suppressed."
"Yes, it very much was. Learning as a camera assistant and later taking on filming was a means of supplementing my income so I could afford to do that. At the time, I didn't have any money. Equipment and good-quality transparency film were expensive, so I'd be counting every frame. I started TV presenting because I had a filming job go down and I just wanted some money.
"I applied for a children's programme and again I was thinking, 'If I got this job I could buy a new lens.' And that’s what I did. I worked on the show and the minute it stopped I’d be in the car. I'd be off somewhere taking photos."
"I think that having Asperger's is incredibly advantageous when it comes to taking pictures. I think that I see the world a different way. I don't know how anyone else sees it, but I've learned to sort of accept that that's the case. I see a world that's joined up and made of patterns with an intensity of detail, and I have begun to realise that most people don't see the same. I also have a very good memory for things and images. People with my condition have different sensory aptitudes and I'm very visually oriented. It's an incredible asset."
"I can always see things wrong with my photographs. I always know what happened just before or just after I took a photo and how it could have been better. I enjoy looking at other people's pictures a lot more than looking at my own. I've got other people's photographs framed on my wall, but none of my own.
"I think that intense level of self-criticism is incredibly useful, because it means that every time I go out I'm striving to do better than last time. Flattery is not much use to me. I welcome criticism. I'm much happier if someone comes up and says, 'You should've done this,' or 'Have you ever thought of this?' I think, 'Yes, you're right. I was wrong. Thank you.' That's my attitude."
"I'm probably a little bit weird when it comes to wildlife photography in that I like restrictions and I'm quite slow to accept new ideas. At the moment, however, I'm really excited because the Canon EOS 5DS R is the best camera I've ever had. I'm not just saying that, it's true. It's not really made for wildlife photography, but it offers far more than the restrictions it imposes on me.
"It's got a 50-megapixel sensor that gives me extraordinary sharpness, and the ability to crop with that sensor is phenomenal. In terms of the way it treats light, it's absolutely gorgeous. I love the files I get from this camera."
"My go-to lens is the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM. It's fantastic. It's light and easy to use handheld. However, for me it's more about the field of view it gives and the shallow depth of field I can use. I find myself shooting portraits, long-lens wildlife and even plants on it.
"As a secondary lens, I have a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, which gives that flexibility of zooming if you're close to a subject. I'm much more comfortable with telephoto lenses; there's so much stuff you can't control with wide lenses. I've currently got a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM. It's a beautiful lens and I've used it to produce some quite extraordinary images, but not nearly as many as I get out of the 500mm."
"I used to use a whole range of different makes of binoculars. Then Ethical Consumer magazine produced a report looking at optics manufacturers. Their revelation was that some of these companies were targeting the hunting fraternity in terms of sales, giving money as trophy hunting prizes and sponsoring TV programmes about hunting. There was, and is, only one manufacturer who is totally clean ethically, and that's Canon – both in terms of conservation and the manufacturing process.
"I use 10x32 Image Stabiliser binoculars and they are the best I've ever had. They enable me to do something I previously couldn't do – identify smaller things further away. All those little intricacies which allow us to identify species become instantaneously clear. For me, using Canon is the perfect synergy of ethics and top quality."
"This question provokes quite a lot of discussion in wildlife photography, but if you're giving them the right food and you're supplementing their diet and not creating a dependency, why not? I photograph baited animals all the time because I photograph the birds that come to my garden where I've got my feeders hanging. Nobody complains about feeding birds – it's a great way of getting birds very close to you when you can shoot out of your kitchen window. I think it's a question of degrees with all of these things."
"They also provoke a lot of debate. Is it proper photography or is it cheating? I think we just need to lighten up. The whole wildlife photography fraternity needs to lighten up. You know, we've got amazing technology now, which people are going to use in different ways. As long as the ecology, the behaviour and the health of the animal isn't influenced negatively in any way, and the photographer is honest about how they got their picture, then it's cool by me."
"I look at a lot of photographers' work, and some of it can be quite harsh. However, it's the very powerful images that stay with you. In 2017, Brent Stirton took a photograph of a de-horned rhino, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Photographically, Brent's picture is not art, but what it conveys is so powerful. It uses photography in a different and very potent way.
"I don't think cosy conversations are promoting the greatest conservation action. I think we all need to know exactly what's going on out there, so photographers need to be applying themselves to that. It's not something I do, so I might be accused of being a hypocrite here. I try to beautify the natural world so people develop an affinity to protect it. But many photographers work very hard to show that we are abusing it, and some of those images are incredibly powerful."
"Firstly, never review on location. If you're taking photographs out in the field and you've got close to wildlife, don't spend all your time looking at the back of the camera or deleting. Storage is so cheap. Forget it – just take images. The other thing is that you've got to find a niche, so you have to look at other people's photographs and find something they haven't done. Is there a technique that you can import from another genre of photography? Is there a piece of equipment you could use? Is there a lens? It could be anything. You've got to search out that means of being innovative and producing something new.
"One of my mantras is: sleep when you're dead, eat just before. You need to be out taking pictures. The day is never done. You've got to keep trying, that's the key thing. And be ruthlessly critical about your own work. Even if other people tell you it's fantastic, even if it wins a competition, rip it apart. That's what is going to motivate you to do better next time."