Andy Luck’s art celebrates the wildlife that he loves. I haven’t placed many images in this article, as it is far better to view them full screen here
Andy Luck is an award winning film-maker, he produces short films for the BBC. He’s an insightful photographer and writer, specialising in nature, environment and travel. “Passionate and committed to the natural world, it’s beauty and how to preserve it”, he is also an environmental photojournalist regularly contributing to leading wildlife and photography magazines in the UK and environmental organizations around the world. He has a wealth of technical expertise and experience at his command and he shares the knowledge that he’s mastered along with images of such outstanding quality that some could rank as World Heritage in my opinion. He’s modest enough to talk about excellent equipment and luck playing a part, but to catch a wild Sparrowhawk, Osprey or Chameleon in mid-kill you need more than good luck on your side, you need Andy Luck!” Not surprisingly for a Nature photographer, he enjoys visits to Cumbria. He’s been kind enough to share some insights into his photography and some useful tips with us today for our own photographic excursions in Cumbria!
My first thoughts when I saw some of his images were, thank God, he’s on the side of biodiversity conservation. Andy Luck is the sort of man who would be an absolute terror if he were hunting his wildlife through the sights of a gun rather than through a viewfinder behind a high powered telephoto lens. Thankfully though, Andy’s trophy shots are the kind that you see in prestigious wildlife, photographic and in-flight magazines – and not the sort that diminishes the ecology, or that require any taxidermy. Andy’s work celebrates the wildlife that he loves through the media that he loves.
Describing himself as “passionate about imaging” Andy’s love has blossomed over the course of almost twenty years of work with the BBC making short films. Wildlife great and small is conveyed in each frame to full glorious advantage whatever size it may itself be. There’s as much passionate care given to detail in his portrait of a humble mouse or garden bird as there is in his treatment of African elephants and birds of prey – from micro and macro to wide angle and telephoto – he captures the majesty and grandeur of wild places and wildlife relative to their own scale. That’s talent. A tiny ladybird running amok amongst aphids would bring joy to every gardener – but he shared with us the aphids’ eye view, it looms over them as a great, bright, armoured angel of death. I never thought I’d empathise with a herd of peacefully grazing greenfly! You may too, when you see them pin-sharp and glowing with colour at full screen size! Andy Luck’s Wild Open Eye galleries have certainly opened my eyes – wide. If there’s a wild gleam in them too, it’s probably due to recent exposure to his fantastic images of the natural world. Shot after shot shows Luck’s genius talent and devotion to capturing the nature of Nature, – you’ll probably join me in wondering “How on earth did he get that shot?”and “How does mortal man get that close to such a creature?” and “Where the heck was he standing when he took that one?” and in making exclamations like “Mastery of optimising depth of field!” and “talk about capturing the climactic moment!”and simply “Phwoar!”
His images speak volumes. There’s an exemplary study in vulnerability – dusty and naked, a human foot planted inches away from a sandy brown viper that’s perfectly blending in with the sand of their shared habitat. Each could kill the other, but both would be the losers. One of my favourites is part of his Autumn gallery – it depicts a snail negotiating the saw-toothed rim of a ruby-veined leaf. He says “I’m passionate about imaging”. It really shows, time and time again. No creature’s commonplace when viewed through the WildOpenEye!
His is an art where patience, determination and consummate skill with good equipment pay off. Skillful and dedicated, you can count upon Andy to get his beautiful representative shot, whether he’s freezing his shutter finger off in a camouflaged hide in the Scottish Highlands in pursuit of the ultimate Osprey on Salmon kill, or whether he’s been roasting for hours in the Namibian wilderness to show the world a privileged view of the rhythmical folds in the great red dunes there, or of a Himba girl, noble, beautiful and complete.
Andy is a photographic phenomenon. Enough of my prattle, let’s hear what he has to say!
I asked him how he first became interested in photography. “I spent much of my early life abroad and my parents noticing I was fascinated by the world around me bought me a little toy camera when I was about seven, I think they thought it might stop me asking questions the whole time! The camera was Japanese I think, it was entirely plastic, the body, lens, viewfinder, strap, everything! You wound the film on with a little ratcheted wheel on top while you viewed the numbers on the film inside line up through a little, round, red window that I suppose was designed not to fog the film. The prints were not much bigger than postage stamps, but it was a way I could share what I was seeing in a fascinating and extraordinarily beautiful world and I loved it!”
“Once when I was under a lot of stress with my finals at university, I took off one day with my camera, an old OM2, to photograph some woodland scenes around the campus. The peace of the natural setting helped me to switch off completely as I became absorbed in the photography. It was quite a revelatory moment really, I felt for once totally whole and connected. I wondered why I had forgotten this link with nature that was naturally there as a child. I was amazed by how if I was still and calm, wildlife would carry on around me and animals would even come to me. I realised from that moment on that there is a restorative magic in natural, wild settings that we humans need and can benefit hugely from. I knew then that this was to be a major theme in my life although at that stage I wasn’t quite sure how it would manifest itself long term”.
He would have been thrilled as an undergrad to see himself now! How does he see himself as a photographer now, I wondered?
“Currently most of my work is, I suppose, photojournalism. I am always thinking how the viewer will make a connection with my subject. I try very hard to make some space for the viewer in my photographs while I attempt to capture some essence of the beauty and mystery, particularly of wildlife and environmental scenes that I am seeing. I hope it will open eyes to the importance and value of the wild to all our lives.”
Andy wants to continue and develop this mission further, he goes on to say “I very much want to develop my photography further and use it to raise awareness about the wild and the importance, duty really, of protecting it for future generations.”
This is precisely what he’s good at – he’s an award-winning short film producer for the BBC. His film Changing World- Life (BBC Worldwide 2007) is beautiful, poignant and very pertinent to our time, it concisely examines the global environmental changes that we are experiencing today, realistically and redemptively balancing the threats with the opportunities, persuasively questioning the necessity of our human activity systems’ destructive impacts in the broader context of biodiversity. It’s impressive to see someone who’s talents and ambitions are so closely aligned, finely tuned and well directed.
“It hasn’t all been plain sailing,” Andy explains with a modest laugh, “there is a lot of technique to master and it can be an expensive occupation, sometimes with little reward. Nature can also bite back sometimes and its not just wild animals you need to be aware of. Once in Scotland I slipped off a rock while trying to get to a waterfall I wanted to photograph and landed up a bit closer to the scene than intended! I found myself, camera and all in the freezing cataract with two broken vertebrae in my back. It taught me that you need to be aware and prepared when in the wild, stay in touch with your surroundings and prevailing conditions and not be so absorbed in the photography that you don’t take proper care where you step. It’s a lesson learned, but I pass it on as a cautionary tale for other photographers!”
That’s an important lesson to heed. What does Andy enjoy most about photography in general? “I am constantly amazed and delighted how scenes I have pre-visualised can come about. Nature somehow provides. True, it is usually after a lot of research and interminable waiting, but the wild usually comes up trumps. It always favours the prepared photographer though. This is part of the pleasure of the pursuit, knowing where things are likely to happen, having the appropriate equipment ready, in working order and knowing how to use it. Finally, having the instinct, competence and right intention to react when the decisive moment arrives. This is the essence of the still photograph, it is the embodiment of a special instant in time that the photographer has chosen to share. A photograph is unique. It can contain so much information, so much emotion in one frame. It is still a very powerful medium, despite all the advances in other media like film and television. The intention behind that still image sets it apart from say, a still grab from some video footage for example. I know I have a long way to go as a photographer and could hang a gallery with the ones I’ve missed, but something keeps me trying to capture some of that magic that’s out there for all of us.”
Very true, there’s important wisdom in that. I turned the topic towards things technical. Andy Luck writes technical review articles on equipment that is fresh out and/or ‘state of the art’ and photographic techniques (check out his site’s Archive page and Articles page, his article on Colour infra-red photography is fascinating). Could he tell us a little about the equipment and film stock that he likes to use or the digital kit when he uses that?
“I used film, usually fine-grained transparency stock, all the time until about 5 years ago, when I started to shoot digital as well. I still love the look of film, and shoot colour and black and white whenever I can, even if it is more complex and expensive than digital capture. Digital has seen a step change in photography, it is much easier and more inclusive resulting in a huge increase in the number of people taking photographs. It is liberating to be able to instantly see what you have produced and being able to make corrections on the fly. I have learned a lot from digital and if anything, it has made it even more of a pleasure to load a roll of film into my old, fully mechanical Olympus OM3 when I feel like getting back to basics.”
Does he have a wish list in regard to expanding or exchanging his equipment? “One of the downsides of digital is how quickly equipment becomes obsolescent or is superseded. This can make it very expensive for the pro’ or serious enthusiast to keep up. I test and review a lot of modern equipment and despite the ever increasing bells and whistles, I am still surprised by how much bigger digital SLR cameras are than their old film counterparts. The high quality 35mm compact cameras of yesteryear from the likes of Olympus, Rollei, Contax, Ricoh and others, were also a lot smaller and more portable than modern micro-four-thirds and APSC hybrid cameras, even though these modern, ‘small’ cameras have sensor areas around half that of 35mm film. When someone can make a high quality digital camera with a proper, built- in, optical viewfinder, a high quality, fast aperture lens and a full-frame, (35mm film equivalent) sensor that will genuinely slip into a trouser pocket, (like the legendary Ricoh GR film compact), then I will be first in the queue!”
There’s the challenge for all camera manufacturers out there! We know you can do it! Think what Andy could achieve with such an instrument. Please bring it on!
Is there a particular image that Andy’s especially thrilled to have captured? Yes. “I was delighted to finally get a shot of an Osprey catching a Salmon in the Cairngorms for a Raptor article I was writing, after 5 days at dawn and dusk in hides, in mostly appalling weather and with hardly any useable light. It wasn’t the best shot and because it was distant, needed some cropping, but proved that persistence pays off and I have learnt a lot about Osprey’s habits. Who knows, maybe the weather might be better next time I am back in Scotland to see these magnificent birds! ”
How about the one that got away? “Once I made a fascinating trip to a tiny island off the Mexican coast to photograph great white sharks underwater. On returning to the UK, I immediately took my underwater films in to process and returned to the lab a couple of hours later, jet lagged, but happy and expectant. The lab technician was ashen faced – a cog had broken in the processing machinery and someone had tried to open the machine to see what was wrong, without ensuring the surroundings were light-safe. All the films that had bunched up pre-developer like mine were ruined! I’ll probably never quite get over losing those underwater films, but such was the power of the experience that I have thousands more shots imprinted directly on my brain and those will always be with me!”
That must have been a heartbreak, as they would have been cracking shots. One day, I’m sure, Andy will find himself in a shark cage again and next time, what would he do differently? Check out his article on the subject to see how he’ll avoid a similar developing room catastrophe.
So how does Cumbria fit in with his photography? “Cumbria is my natural stop off point on my way up to Scotland where I often go to visit family and it’s the first place where I feel I am back in the wild again. As soon as I see those magnificent lakes and fells, it feels like I’m home from home again, somewhere to relax, breathe and just be!”
Cumbria offers specific opportunities and peculiar challenges, as Andy explained next, “I often head straight to Borrowdale first. With Keswick, that great rambler’s town not far away and Buttermere just around the corner, I find this one of my favourite spots for moving easily on foot from one photo location to another. It always seems to rain while I am there! This is not a problem in itself as bland blue skies are not really what Cumbria is about in my opinion, but it does pay to be properly equipped with waterproof gear and decent boots that don’t leak. I often take a small folding brolly too to protect the camera gear when it is on a tripod.”
Yes! All good points. He continues “There is still so much to explore and so many places I have yet to experience in Cumbria and I haven’t really even scratched the surface yet, but particular memories are the reflections in Derwent Water, those gorgeous rolling hills often lit by beams of light. Also near by I can wander over to the landing stage to see the geese amongst the boats, or amble through the woods to the Lodore falls which can be pretty spectacular when water cascades down from Watendlath Tarn after heavy rain.”
He remembers once ” standing in a deserted Castlerigg stone circle in the gathering dusk, just hearing the sheep munching in the field beside and the occasional rook heading to roost, nothing else, just me, the mysterious stones and a gentle pattering of drizzle on my hood. I remember trying to imagine how the surrounding scene would have been to the megalithic builders and decided it was probably just as beautiful as this, a testament to the enduring power of nature!”
How does he prepare himself for, and sustain himself when in the field?
“I couldn’t visit Cumbria without picking up some Kendle mint cake now could I!
I usually make sure there’s some room in my pack for a flask of hot, sweet tea, it is amazing how restorative a swig can be after a brisk hike. All the camera gear is well protected and I won’t venture out without a proper weather resistant camera rucksack. The one I currently use has a pull out foul weather cover that has so far survived the worst the Cumbrian weather can hurl at it! As I am often out alone at dawn or dusk, when not many people are around, the other thing I won’t go out without, is an Ordinance Survey map and a compass for navigation. I don’t want to be wasting the hard pressed resources of mountain rescue because I couldn’t be bothered to keep a track of where I am! I often carry a whistle and a torch too, in case of accidents.”
” Mobile phone coverage can be patchy in parts of Cumbria”, he advises, “so you need to check your coverage rather than rely totally on the mobile being the life line if you get into trouble. It is therefore a good idea to make a practice of telling someone at the guest house, hostel or wherever you are staying, where you are going and roughly what time you expect to be back. Other essentials I believe in are decent supportive boots; trainers or light foot-ware are a complete waste of time and may even be a liability when out walking the fells. Layered clothing, is also de rigeur, there is no point in being too hot or too cold when out in the wilds and at least with layers, you can peel off or add as necessary.”
Very good advice, all this, and he offers us some more, “As has been said, there is no such thing as bad weather, only different types of weather!
If it looks cloudy, don’t despair, instead try to think of ways weather features can be added elements in your composition. Look out for those magic ‘fingers from heaven’, the searchlight-like beams that can break through the clouds to transform sections of the fell into almost fluorescent life!”
“Many digital cameras tend to burn out the highlights when metering for the large areas of sky you are likely to encounter in Cumbria. For this reason I tend to shoot RAW files rather than Jpeg, as there is more latitude in post to deal with problems at either end of the dynamic range. I also tend to underexpose by one to two thirds of a stop as a matter of course with almost all digital cameras to help prevent blown highlights.”
“Graduated filters can be useful to control wide variations in exposure between sky and foreground, though these days many people are bracketing exposures instead and combining later in software as a way of extending the dynamic range of the camera. In colder weather, watch out for apparently fresh batteries suddenly failing, so carry spares close to your body where the heat will keep the current high when it comes time to replace the one in the camera.”
“For landscape, I would always advise taking photographs from different positions rather than just the first one that occurs when you arrive. Walk around a bit, look for different aspects and if your lens isn’t wide enough, step back a bit for some natural, free wide-angle coverage!”
“For Wildlife, you don’t need to go the full camo route, neutral colours are fine, plus perhaps some way of breaking up the outline of the human face, such as a scrim scarf which can be draped over the head when necessary. Birds of prey will also notice pale white hands waving around, even through the slit of a hide, so it is worth wearing gloves.”
“Above all, I’d say enjoy the surroundings, it’s part of the ‘therapy’ that photography is to me. I’m still shocked by how many photographers seem to feel they are in a race to ‘hoover’ up as much as they can using the camera like a digital vacuum cleaner! It’s one of worst habits brought about by digital capture, spraying the camera around in the hope that by the law of averages, something will turn out ok later on the computer. Unless the light is changing rapidly, what’s the hurry? Maybe better to try to get a feel of the place and consider what it is you want to convey that Google Earth can’t or that Tom Nikon, Dick Canon or Harry Pentax haven’t already submitted to all the usual picture libraries! Sadly, in the digital era, yes it has all mostly been done before, so all the more reason to relax and do your own thing, give it your own personal take. So I prefer to take a bit of time to absorb the scene for a while, breathe it in, try to be at one with it, before even setting up the camera. What’s my relationship to this place, what does it mean to me, how does it affect my mood, what do I want to draw attention to and why? Take time and perhaps shoot less pictures but take each with a little more love and affection!”
For more on Andy Luck and his incredible images of the wild please see WildOpenEye.com, a showcase for a selection of his stunning photography and writing and a pleasant gateway between the photojournalist and the world of professional publishing and photographic enthusiasts. You might also be interested in reading his articles in Outdoor Photography Magazine and Black and White Photography Magazine by clicking here.
As you can imagine, Andy is often busy in the field and making films for the BBC, but he can keep in touch via his WildOpenEye weblog
For further information, prints or commercial inquiries, please don’t hesitate to contact Andy through his website and its related blog .