It is with great pleasure (I’m grinning as I type this!) that I present this interview with Heather Angel.
Heather was one of the first photographers who inspired me to pursue nature photography when I discovered her early publications: The Book of Nature Photography(1982), and later on, The Book of Close-up Photography(1987). Heather has been at the forefront of wildlife photography in Britain for over four decades: her first book
was Seashells of the Seashore (Book 2) in 1978 was Nature Photography: Its art and Techniques Fountain Press (1972). This first book not only reflected her background as a biologist, but it marked the beginning of a successful publishing career that continues to this day, with the release of her latest photography book, Digital Outdoor Photography 101 Top Tips.
She has had major solo exhibitions of her work in London, India, China, Malaysia, and Egypt, and her work has been recognised with many awards in Britain and around the world. From 1982 to 1986 she served as President of the Royal Photographic Society. She continues to share her enthusiasm for the natural world by writing (she is working on her 60th book!), her workshops and her worldwide lectures. Even as she was responding to my request for this interview, she was preparing for a trip to Turkey for a project with The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I am very grateful that she took the time to answer my questions…
Can you tell us about your background?
I began my peripatetic life by attending 14 different schools, whilst my father was serving in the RAF. After gaining a Zoology degree, I took part in a scientific expedition to Norway, where we were all experienced scuba divers. (I met my husband by teaching him to dive!) Before I left the UK, my father gave me my first camera for my 21st birthday, which was an East German Exakta Varex 11A. So, the first shots I took were of marine life brought up from the fjords. After I married Martin, we moved to an area where I could not find a marine post, so I began to write articles and give lectures to pay for my wildlife photography. When my first book was published in 1972, I never looked back. At that time, the competition was thin on the ground and it coincided with an upsurge in demand for colour images, so I founded my own image library, Natural Visions, for marketing images of the natural world.
What first led you to take an interest in macro photography?
As soon as I had my first camera, I wanted to get macro shots of the marine life I was studying. I learnt by trial and error – in those days we had to wait a bit longer to see the results after the films were processed! But having trained as a scientist, I constantly experimented with lighting and ended up designing and building many different shaped aquaria for specific subjects.
Is there anyone that you would consider a key inspiration?
It was Eliot Porter’s (1901 –1990) book Galapagos: The Flow of Wildness, (Sierra Club 1968) which was the trigger that inspired my first long haul trip to shoot stock images speculatively and I opted to go to the Galapagos in 1972.
Which other photographers do you admire?
Weston’s PepperI admire Edward Weston’s (1886 -1958) still life images of natural objects. All have a wonderful simplicity, yet are lit with great precision to portray their shape and form, or texture, in a very subtle way.
Weston’s pepper series exemplify how less can be more and also how it is possible to produce a masterpiece from a simple vegetable. He was able to select misshapen peppers with curves and light them in such a way that they looked like folds of flesh. One image taken in 1930 resembles an erotic study of two entwined lovers. Fortuitously, Digital SLR Magazine commissioned me to produce a still life feature in the style of Edward Weston. My biggest problem was finding an interesting shaped pepper, because supermarkets today decree that growers supply near perfectly shaped vegetables but, at a farmers’ market, I pounced on a red ramiro pepper, which resembled a cupped hand.
Do you have a favourite subject?
No. I either take whatever catches my eye by the way it is lit or composed; or I plan shots before I shoot them for my current project. China holds a special attraction for me and, after 32 visits, I have written three books on pandas and two others, Green China and Exploring Natural China, covering the wildlife and wilder parts of this enigmatic country. Whatever the main topic, I can always weave in macro shots and however busy I am with office work, I always make time to take at least a macro shot every day.
Is there one particular macro technique you would like to share with readers?
Dark field illumination is very dramatic lighting which I first used for translucent marine worms and trout larvae, but can be used for anything which glows when backlit. The subject is placed on a sheet of glass raised six inches from a table. A piece of black velvet is placed directly beneath the glass and two small flash units are angled up at 45º so the subject appears brightly lit against a black backdrop.
Could you tell us is there a current project that you are pursuing or would like to pursue?
I have had a very long association with The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, including running a Plant Photography course there for many years and producing two books about Kew, including the wildlife to be found there throughout the year in Wild Kew. Now I am beginning the last year of a 5-year project looking at floral structure – worldwide – and how it has evolved in relation to specific pollination mechanisms. So, I am taking plant portraits in my studio lit in exciting ways as well as pollinators at work in the field. This means a lot of travelling – so far to Australia,New Zealand,South Africa,China,Chile and several trips to Europe in my quest to find striking flowers with an interesting pollination story for a book and an exhibition.
And for the equipment fanatics: what equipment do you use, and is there one piece of equipment you could not live without?
I use three Nikon D3 cameras and a vast range of lenses from a 20mm wide through to 500mm with two macro lenses 105mm Micro-Nikkor and the 70-180mm macro zoom which is no longer made. I use both in the field and the 105mm in the studio. Both my Gitzo tripods have no centre column, so they can be used at ground level. My latest one is the GT 354 2LS, which I use for all macro work, apart from when I am taking insects on flowers.
What is the single most important bit of advice you could give to someone interested in doing high-quality macro photography on a professional basis?
Be original and have a major objective rather than work like a butterfly flitting from one subject to another. Outline the target areas and subjects and post an outline on a notice board, which you pass daily. Update it as the work progresses and ticking subjects after they are taken will encourage you to keep going! Start gradually by writing text with images as an article for a magazine – that was how I began.
Heather Angel Links
Digital photography and Photoshop workshops
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