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Nikon Owner Issue 16
INSIDE THE CIRCLE OF FEAR by Chris Weston
Well-known wildlife photographer, photojournalist and author Chris Weston tells what it is like to experience being inside the circle of fear.
Chris Weston’s interest in photography (and his love affair with Nikon cameras) started as a child, when he inherited his father’s old Nikkormat FT SLR. After discovering girls at the age of thirteen, it was another decade before he began taking his hobby seriously. During the intervening years Chris developed an interest in journalism and wildlife, and in 1998 he combined all three into what has become a successful professional career as a photojournalist.
Chris’s photography covers a spectrum of the natural world but his passion is for mammals – usually the large, hairy and dangerous variety. He is a regular visitor to both Africa and North America, where his work with subjects such as wolves, bears and big cats is widely recognised. At home in the U.K. Chris has had published thirteen books, including two Nikon Guides (the F5 and D70), and is a regular contributor to numerous magazines. He is currently working on a long-term project involving many of the world’s most endangered mammals that, as well as helping to raise funds for charities which work closely with his subjects, will culminate in the publication of a special limited edition book. Chris lives in Dorset with his two greatest admirers … his wife and son.
If ever you have seen photographs or television images of Brown bears catching Sockeye salmon at a waterfall, invariably they were shot at Brooks River Falls in Katmai National Park, Alaska. For those who have never experienced this wildlife photographers’ Mecca, let me describe it: every day during a six-week period in mid-summer (late June - July) several hundred photographers turn up to a purpose-built platform just a few yards from the Falls and the bears, unpack their tripods and super-telephoto lenses and spend an hour or two snapping away for a single specific shot before politely being asked to give way to the next man in line.
I was there in 2002 on a reconnaissance trip and again the following year, when I began to question the sense of it all: what value is there in photographing a scene that has been photographed several thousand times before and has been captured as well as it is ever likely to be (by the exceptional American wildlife photographer, Thomas D. Mangelsen)!
During my musings, and a brief lull in the action, I hit upon a thought: I wonder how it feels for the salmon? Here is a creature that has spent much of its short life navigating thousands of miles of sea, river and estuary on a final momentous voyage to return to its spawning ground. In so doing, it has survived the perils of the Pacific Ocean, avoided the fishing nets of a large fleet of Alaskan trawlers and a gauntlet of hungry young bears to overcome one last hurdle, a thundering eight-feet tall waterfall. And then, as it summons every last ounce of energy to fight the fast-flowing rapids acting against it, it makes one final, incredible leap … to be confronted by the hot breath and gaping jaws of the largest grizzly in the land. It is a cruel twist of fate and an unpleasant way to go, even for a fish.
I recount this tale because it was the precursor to, and inspiration for a self-assigned project I began the following year – extreme wide wildlife. Professional wildlife photography is one of the most competitive fields in the industry. With low-cost travel making the world more accessible and the level of sophistication in modern cameras making technical ability an afterthought, more and more pictures are flooding the market. In order to compete I am always seeking new ways and angles to photograph wildlife, searching for a perspective that will seize the imagination of my audience. With this in mind, as I stood on the photographers’ platform at Brooks Falls, I began to wonder how I might capture an image from the salmon’s perspective – to be intimately involved in the scene rather than a mere observer.
I am still contemplating that specific objective, which has been obstructed by politics and bureaucracy as much as logistics and technical difficulties. In the meantime I began planning and experimenting with equipment to meet the photographic challenges offered by other subjects. Along with my F5 film camera, for the past three years I have been shooting digital, starting with the D100 before upgrading to the professional specification D2H and, more latterly, the D2X. Along the way, and because of the effects on picture angle of the small-frame DX sensor, I acquired a 12-24mm DX Nikkor. Although not the only optic used, this lens was to form the basis of the project, giving a 35mm-equivalent angle of view of 18-36mm – plenty wide enough for what I had in mind. I chose digital capture for this project because of its versatility and immediacy – important when experimentation is involved – and, after several months, it has proved to be the correct decision.