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BWPA winner Matt Doggett on photographing inspirational wildlife

 

Our campaigner Anthony Field has posed questions to photographer Dr Matt Doggett, overall winner of the 2012 British Wildlife Photography Awards. Anthony, a keen photographer, is currently pushing for reform of the EU’s fisheries policy.

© Matt Doggett

You’ve said you aim to take photos that tell a story. Can you warm the cockles of our hearts with a story about your favourite experience of taking photos in the UK?

I have recently been photographing deer in the New Forest. There are plenty of places to see them easily but I prefer the challenge of stalking them or pre-empting where they will appear and waiting to capture a shot.

One crisp, frosty morning last October a pair of young fallow bucks I’d been trailing melted away into the trees. I decided to let them be and search for fresh quarry. Little did I know what awaited…

The sun was just peeking out from behind a blanket of clouds. As I looked over an earthen bank lined with bracken I heard it first. Coming up the valley bottom out of the golden mist, its breath lit by the early morning sun, a magnificent red deer stag bellowed to announce its presence. Staying as quiet and composed as possible I watched as this magnificent beast made its way toward the forest edge before vanishing from sight.

Currently my favourite animal to photograph is the jumping spider – they seem to have bags of personality. What’s yours?

I find so many animals incredibly endearing and intriguing that narrowing it down is impossible. It would have to be ‘all fish’. They can be so challenging to photograph. You are often faced with a moving target much more agile than yourself, and you are laden with paraphernalia and limited by air supply and decompression limits. So when I get a photo right it is very satisfying.

Tompot blenny in Poole Bay. © Matt Doggett

All fish have different personalities. Some are aggressive and demand respect, others are shy, flighty and require stealth and patience, whilst some are so well camouflaged you’re lucky to find one. And there are those which are just plain cheeky, such as the tompot blenny. The tompot has to be the cutest fish in UK waters. They almost always come out of their homes to investigate divers and I often tickle their noses and let them bite my finger (it doesn’t hurt!) before taking a picture.

What are your top tips for budding amateur photographers with little equipment but bags of enthusiasm?

A friend of mine often says, and it’s very true, that it is not the camera to blame for a bad photograph but the photographer. So really it doesn’t matter what camera or lens you use. Look at the details accompanying many of the images from some of the world’s top photographers. Not every image is taken on the latest Canon or Nikon SLR: many are on cheaper, simpler models, sometimes with basic lenses. If you have a vision for an image, there’s often a way to make it happen on a shoestring so don’t let price tags put you off – get out there and get shooting but think through what you want to achieve and plan it carefully.

What was your most unexpected photographic experience in the UK?

I was diving beneath Swanage Pier in Dorset with my wife, Polly. She spotted a small but colourful shrimp in a snakelocks anemone that looked rather out place amongst all the other marine life. I took a picture and we tried to identify it. It wasn’t in any of the usual ID books for British marine life. The shrimp turned out to be the Snakelocks anemone shrimp (Periclimenes sagittifer) and had never been recorded in mainland UK waters before.

Snakelocks anemone shrimpThe Snakelocks anemone shrimp. © Matt Doggett

Periclimenes was a great find and generated a lot of interest in the marine biological diving community. We have since organised several surveys to look for it in other places and others have provided us with their records. They seem to be increasing their range: they can now be found between Studland Bay, Dorset in the east and Brixham in Devon to the west. And who knows where else?!

Your winning photo of diving gannets is spectacular. How much planning goes into a shot like that?

Gannet jacuzzi © Matt Doggett

Me and Richard Shucksmith (last year’s BWPA winner) had spoken about photographing gannets underwater on several occasions over the preceding couple of years. When we went to Scotland we needed to wait for calm conditions and for mackerel (gannets’ natural prey) to come close to shore. This left us only a couple of days. To make it happen in the time available we bought 100kg of mackerel each day and took it in turns to throw them to the gannets.

They went crazy. They hit the water at 50-60mph and you had to be fast to get the shots. I was shooting from the hip, rarely getting the chance to look through the viewfinder. It was amazing. You could hear them hitting the surface one after another. Sometimes you could pre-empt where they would hit the water. The action only lasted for about an hour each day – because we ran out of fish!

If you had one wish that could help UK wildlife, what would it be and why?

My wish would be to get a large number of highly protected Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in UK waters – more than the current mere 31 – designated without any further delay. The government has dilly-dallied and procrastinated long enough while some of our most fragile and diverse ecosystems continue to be subjected to hugely damaging practices on a daily basis. It beggars belief and defies common sense.

Despite the continuing collection of evidence that supports the designation of many sites, this seems all too often to be side-lined owing to concerns such as socio-economic impacts. Yet so many case studies from around the world show huge financial benefits for local communities from having highly protected MCZs: benefits for both tourism and the fishing industry.

Do you ever go on a walk or into the wild without a camera – to relax and feel the experience rather than capturing it through a viewfinder?

Yes I do. It’s often a very good way to explore a new patch and generate ideas for images. Having a camera at a time like that can distract and prevent you from really feeling the life and essence that a location has to offer. Despite that, I can often find myself wishing I had my camera with me – but you have to be philosophical about these things and run with whatever decisions you make.

Even if I have my camera with me I will sometimes just stop, put it down and appreciate the experience of what is happening in front of me. It feels more real then and the memories can be more vivid. This happened when I saw my first manta ray – given the poor underwater visibility I was never going to get a great shot, so I just put the camera down and enjoyed watching real life.

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