Today, I have the pleasure of presenting an interview that comes from England. Pete Walkden is a talented Wildlife Photographer and Guide, who travels extensively around the United Kingdom to photograph a diverse array of wildlife in its natural environment. With a particular obsession for birds of prey, Pete spends many weeks each year on location. Through his photography, Pete has the ability to capture and convey his careful observations of the natural world.
Pete, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us and thank you so much for all your thoughtful responses.
Can you please tell the readers a bit about yourself?
My name is Pete Walkden and I am a professional wildlife photographer and guide. I have a background in IT, which was my original career, after gaining an honours degree in Applied Software Engineering. After 20 years of working in the world of IT, I decided to turn my back on it, and strive for a new career doing what I love to do, photography. While I am predominately a wildlife photographer, I do occasionally take assignments for commercial and event photography.
Where do you call home?
Birmingham, which is in the middle of England. Though I do spend a great deal of time away from here, traveling around the United Kingdom to photograph wildlife. I live very much on the edge of the city, with open countryside just a short walk away. And I am lucky to have friends who run some of the local farms, and allow me to access the wildlife living on them, for my photography business.
After browsing through your website, I see that you have built up an extensive collection of wonderful photography. When did you first become interested in photography and how long have you been involved with it?
I first used a camera at school, back in the days of film. And for years I always had some sort of camera, albeit a small point-and-shoot type. When digital cameras arrived, I continued to use small cameras until I started to become obsessed with wildlife, and it soon became apparent that I needed more expensive gear to capture the sort of images I wanted to. I bought my first digital SLR camera in 2006, and haven’t looked back since. When I turned professional in 2015 I upgraded more of my equipment to allow me to handle whatever assignments asked of me.
Are you formally-taught or self-taught?
Self-taught. I’ve read books on it and learned from others too. But most of it has been from going out and playing with settings on the camera, and learning from mistakes or noting when I got things right. With the digital SLR, I started with the automatic mode and noted what settings the camera thought best for shots, moving quickly to one of the semi-automatic modes, shutter priority, and briefly aperture priority, before making the move over to fully manual, and now I avoid anything automatic on the camera as I like to make decisions on shots myself. There’s no-one else to blame then if it goes wrong!
Are you satisfied with your choice of getting involved with this industry? Is there anything else you would rather be doing?
Very happy I decided to follow my heart with this. It’s slowly starting to yield success for me, and I won’t lie, it has been a struggle, financially. But I don’t regret the decision one bit. And in addition to taking images, I get real job satisfaction from guiding others to wildlife, or teaching them new skills with their cameras. I’m guessing this perhaps comes from my parents, who were both teachers – must be in my genes.
What type of photography shoots do you look forward to?
Anything to do with birds of prey. I love watching them and capturing images of them. And through observation and photography, I am always learning new things about the subjects, which is endlessly fascinating. During the summer, I run a little owl workshop on a local farm, and this allows me and my clients, to photograph these charismatic birds as they feed, pose, run and fly around. When I have clients on such workshops, I rarely take images myself, but I get real pleasure from seeing the success they achieve with the owls, which is great job satisfaction for me.
When shooting subjects, what do you find most challenging?
I think the whole essence of wildlife photography is challenging. There are so many factors involved with getting a decent image. For starters you have to locate the subject, and be able to get close enough to it for whatever image is needed. Then there’s the weather, the light, and other factors such as other wildlife around, or people that might disturb or get in the way of the shot. And of course there’s the subject itself, which might not do whatever you want from it. Or might not even show! Patience and luck are two large parts of being a wildlife photographer. As well as determination.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of owning your own photography business?
My favourite part is that I am earning a living from doing something that I love doing. It doesn’t feel like work anymore (mostly) which is wonderful, and as I have control of what tours, workshops and tuition sessions I am going to be involved with, I can take time away to concentrate on projects I want to do, whenever I need to. Something that was never possible when working for someone else.
The least favourite part is the admin side of it. I have a great accountant who handles the financial element of the business, but I have to keep track of invoices, forms and other mundane processes for the day-to-day management.
How do you keep your photography fresh and how do you stay motivated to keep on learning?
I think experimenting with light, pushing the camera to do things it wouldn’t allow (in auto modes) and taking advantage of new features on the cameras help keep new ideas going. Also looking at what others are creating on social media and forums, and trying similar ideas on different subjects. Plus with wildlife, you never know what the subject is going to do in front of you, which can allow new images to be captured and new techniques learned in order to do so.
What’s the best part of being a photographer?
For me, it’s being out in the elements, observing wildlife in the wild, often in some of the most beautiful parts of the country. Not always the case, and I have questioned my sanity at times when trying to photograph some species, but mostly I’m happy to be outside, enjoying or coping with, whatever Mother Nature throws at me.
Share with us your favorite image and why.
Perhaps this image of a northern goshawk. I have other images of short-eared owls that I love too, but this goshawk image came from such a long period of waiting and hoping for a sight of these elusive birds. I literally spent weeks, visiting from dawn until late afternoon whenever the weather suited, staring at the sky in a patch of woodland, hoping to see and photograph a goshawk. During late winter, these fearsome raptors break cover from the trees, to perform aerial displays to one another, as a part of courtship, and this is what I witnessed finally, after such a long wait. And to see the bird against a perfect blue sky made it even more special. The encounter lasted only a few seconds, when the displaying bird swooped down and out of sight once more.
What has been the best source of information along your photography journey (workshop, online forums, classroom, mentor, etc)?
Learning from others with more experience. They often have invaluable tips and tricks for photographic techniques or for getting images of certain species, often making use of items one might never even consider for such a task. And from fellow professional photographers, who have been there, done that, with issues that seem impossible to get over to start with. They know what you might need to do, who to ask for advice, what to charge, how to avoid pitfalls when starting new ventures. Some of my friends have been invaluable over the last couple of years with snippets of information to help the business.
I do look at forums, read books and keep a close eye on social media at the sort of imagery being aired by friends, competitors and often people new to the field. Plus for wildlife, it is useful to be part of organisations that provide locations and information about the wildlife being seen there, so as to be able to access it at the right time.
What industry sites and blogs do you read regularly?
I don’t follow any blogs religiously. I tend to read whatever interests me from links seen on social media, or in some magazines I buy from time to time. The BBC Wildlife magazine and RSPB’s own magazines are great for ideas, not necessarily for the same species involved, but for applying new ways to capture images of familiar subjects.
What is one piece of advice you would like to offer a new photographer just starting out?
Have a business plan, and be determined. Be open to new ideas, and learn about what makes a business successful, often by watching others out there already and learning from them. And be willing to adapt and take advantage of whatever life throws at you. But most importantly, enjoy it.
What type of camera(s) do you shoot with? What is your favorite lens?
I have both a professional bodied full frame camera, and a “prosumer” crop sensor camera. I prefer the professional camera as it produces the best images, has the fastest and most accurate focusing system and a battery that lasts for days. It is also weather-proofed, something invaluable when working outside. The other camera has a greater reach with the cropped sensor, is lighter to carry, and has a different shutter mechanism, which is actually near silent, in the Silent Mode. Unlike the professional model, which is noisy in every setting!
My favourite lens has for years been my 500mm prime, which was very expensive, but essential to provide the reach needed for wildlife photography. I often use it with a 1.4 teleconverter on, so providing me with 700mm. But recently, I upgraded to a new version of the 100-400mm zoom, which is the updated version of what I bought back in 2006, and used for years. This new version is a revelation compared to the old one, and I find I am reaching for the zoom now, as much as for the prime. It is a lot lighter to carry than the 500mm, doesn’t need a tripod (another way to save my back!) and allows really close focusing. Should be fantastic for photographing snakes when spring arrives. And the focusing on this new version is as fast as my prime. I’m very happy with it!
How important is Photoshop or other image editing software in your final images?
Essential. I use both Lightroom and Photoshop for post-processing images, and always say that taking the image with the camera is only half the job. For me, post-processing can transform an image from something some might think was destined for the recycle bin, into an image to hang on a wall. With years of experience of using such software packages, and knowing what I can “get away with” on the camera, I now know how far I can push the boundaries on my camera, to get images that can be recovered/transformed in these applications. I shoot in RAW too, as it is important to capture as much data with each image as is possible, and hence allows these applications to use that data to create the final image. If you shoot in JPEG then a great deal of data is lost immediately, so nothing can be done during post-processing to make up for that loss.
What is your favorite photography accessory?
I have a couple of favourites. The UniqBall tripod head I use is fantastic as it allows me to quickly, and roughly set up the tripod to the correct height, and then using the patented design of the spirit level and ball-head, I can set the head to be perfectly level in seconds, meaning all images taken by the camera on top will have the horizon level. This is so useful when photographing subjects over water, which is often the component of an image that looks wrong if set up incorrectly. It means I can get out a tripod and be ready to get perfectly level images in seconds, something impossible to do if I just used the spirit level in the tripod and adjusted the legs…
And my binoculars. I have a pair of Kite Lynx HD “bins” that are every bit as essential to me as my camera gear. These allow me to locate wildlife quickly and be able to determine whether to attempt to take an image. I have forgotten my bins in the past when going to take images, and felt utterly lost without them. Trying to use a camera to scan for wildlife is so much more cumbersome.
What piece of equipment would you most like to get but don’t have yet?
Either a really wide angle lens, or the latest versions of the cameras and lenses I own already. The latter offer new features, faster focusing and are usually less heavy. But it’s a challenge to justify the expense for such purchases when for what I currently do, what I have already performs brilliantly. I want to get more into landscape photography as I am often working in stunning scenery, and think it’s a crime not to capture images of it…
Can you tell me about one of your favorite or most memorable photo shoots? What made it so great and why did you like it so much?
Last year, during a photo tour, we took our clients out on a boat trip to photograph white-tailed eagles. These magnificent eagles visit the boat to take the fish thrown overboard for them, and the clients (and us guides) capture images as they fly close by. The eagles were performing brilliantly, but one client was frustrated by the camera she had, and I could see it was making her upset. I had a look, changed some settings related to the focusing mode, and then got her to practice on some other birds flying beside the boat. I could see the improvement immediately, and when the next eagle approached to take the fish, the client nailed the whole sequence with her camera, and was dancing with joy afterwards. I know technically this isn’t a shoot for me, but to have been able to help someone else get images they thought were perhaps beyond them, was fantastic for me.
Do you have any projects that make you look back and shake your head? What made the experience so unpleasant?
Not really. As a wildlife photographer, you quickly become used to the fact that an awful lot of trips to photograph things won’t go according to plan. People often comment to me that I must be very lucky to get some of the shots I have. But they ignore or overlook the fact that to have what is perceived to be good fortune, means many trips to photograph something, and many failures. People only see the successes of such trips which might have come from a few moments, after spending days, even weeks without any joy. Patience and perseverance are key in this game.
Are there any areas of photography that you have yet to pick up on that you’d like to learn?
As mentioned above, landscape photography is something I would like to learn more about. And I am enjoying macro photography too, not just with wildlife on a tiny scale, but also plant life too. And I would love to spend more time playing with night photography. The issue I have with that though is where I live. The skies simply aren’t dark enough, so to do any such projects, I need to be sure of the weather when planning a journey to somewhere with dark skies, and in the United Kingdom, the weather is notoriously unpredictable!
What do you think the future holds for you? Where do you see yourself in the next few years?
Doing what I do now I hope, though with more tours and workshops. I may have moved away from “home” to Scotland, where a great deal of my work is currently done. I love the wildlife up there, and the wide vistas. I don’t mind the colder climate either. And I have a good group of friends up there too.
Do you see yourself as a photographer many years down the road?
Yes, as long as I remain fit and healthy (touch wood). I love wildlife photography and am as obsessed by it now as I was when I first tried to photograph some little owls behind the office car park, all those years ago. For many, the goal is to work until they can afford to retire. For me, I don’t see my work as such, and have no plans to retire from something I love doing.