Long before I became a wildlife photographer and cameraman I had an interest in wildlife. To say it was an interest might be an understatement, perhaps it was (and still is) more of an obsession. An obsession in the best possible way however.
My girlfriend describes daily life with me like being on a constant safari, every tree might harbour some kind of bird, a reptile under every rock, a fish in every water body. If it's there I'll try and find it.
Knowing about wildlife helps a lot with capturing it all on film, but you don't have to have known about it for years or even be it obsessed with it like me. In fact starting a project on a certain habitat or animal can be the best way of learning.
I read a quote recently, 'You should sit in nature for 20 minutes a day...unless you're busy, then you should sit for an hour.'
Luckily in my job I can do this, in fact some days I can sit for 12 hours or more. There's always something happening in nature, you could be waiting for a kingfisher to dive for hours but instead a water vole emerges from its hole beside you. Your whole project could turn on this event, from a project on kingfishers to a project on the whole river ecosystem.
For your project you might already have the idea there, for others you may need some inspiration. Take a walk; be it along a river, through your local park, perhaps even an expanse of what looks like desolate waste ground, you'll never know what you might find. A family of otters on your local river, a badger sett in your park, perhaps a breeding pair of black redstarts on the waste ground you'd dismissed as a wildlife desert.
If the walk doesn't work for you, talk to people. I recently made 3 short films for BBC Springwatch, all 3 of those ideas came from talking to people and from making those films, many more ideas have blossomed. Approach farmers, ecologists or even just local people who might have an amazing wildlife spectacle going on in their own garden, in one of my films cases, a couple who had a sounder of wild boar visiting daily.
Finally, use social media. You may hate it but there's an ever growing community out there of amateur naturalists who are seeing fantastic things. I just completed a project in Chicago on urban peregrines, and if it wasn't for Instagram I'd have never seen the condo owners Instagram feed with his iPhone snaps of the peregrines on his balcony. A few emails, a very kind host, 6 transatlantic flights and many hours later I have a portfolio of unique and never before captured images of the fastest animal on earth raising its chicks. If I was a social media snob this opportunity would never have arisen.
You should sit in nature for 20 minutes a day...unless you're busy, then you should sit for an hour.
It is a lot harder with filming projects than photography projects, but make sure you commit to it and actually make it into a project. If you're not going to put in the time you're going to miss valuable shots and your 'finished' piece is going to have gaping holes. I see a lot of people talk of 'projects' on social media yet you either never see the finished piece or only a single image is released.
If you don't need help with your project then keep it under wraps. The element of surprise can often make it more hard hitting and well received, plus if it all goes wrong, no one will ever know it. I did this with my peregrines, not only because I may have messed up but the previous year their nesting attempts had failed. Luckily this year 4 healthy chicks fledged but if it had all gone wrong and I'd have told people about it, I would have had a semi completed project and it'd be unlikely anyone would pay me for my work.
Like I said earlier, projects are the perfect way of learning about an area or a species. Last year I had the opportunity to live in Zambia for 3 months, more specifically the South Luangwa National park, probably one of the best national parks in Africa. My role, to film and photograph a family of leopards. I'd never been to Africa, I'd never even seen a leopard before but during my time I asked a lot of questions, spent about 450 hours with or looking for leopards and read animal behaviour books in my downtime. By the end of my stay, I knew a lot, I wouldn't call myself an expert but I could recognise when they were going to hunt, I could find where the leopards were due to animal calls and could be ready to capture it all. Spending time with your subject works.
Projects don't have to all be about pretty pictures and stunning footage though. Projects can be a way of raising awareness and educating the masses. I've just begun a long term project on the endangered Iberian lynx but it is in its very early stages. Last year however I worked on an online series with Chris Packham, we headed to Malta to document the illegal bird hunting going on there. In 10 days we raised 60,000 euros, got a huge amount of press coverage and hundreds of thousands of Youtube views. We even won the Green Ribbon award for 'Best Environmental Campaign by the Media 2014'. Best of all, it made a difference, people stood up and listened, the topic was discussed in Parliament, all from an initial online project.
HAVE YOU THOUGHT OF...?
1) Cable Ties and Duct Tape - if anyone searches your camera bag they may think differently of you but both of these items are mega handy in attaching things to various objects, from lamp-posts and wing mirrors to trees and rocks. Just remember when you're done to take them home with you.
2) Bird seed - You never know what you're going to find and a little pile of tempting seed might get your target species a little closer to the camera or help gain its trust. Also you can leave some behind if you suspect there may be a critter around and return the next day to see if the food is gone.
3) A notebook and pen - you never know who you're going to meet out and about. Keep a pen and paper handy to write down any information or to write your own details to tear off to give to people who might be able to tip you off about interesting projects.
Short wildlife film projects are great and are the best way of learning and improving your skills. I can't wait to see what you produce in your Eden Shorts films.