Photographer of the Month – John Marriott
The photographer of the month for April is John Marriott. John is one of the Canada’s top wildlife and nature photographers. I admire John not only for his fine photography but also for his ethics and action in living softly on the planet. John cares deeply about the subjects he photographs and their welfare always comes first. Nature photographers need to act to preserve what they love to photograph. John is a shining example of nature photographer whose actions speak louder than words. Below is my interview with John.
Darwin: John, you are one of the few photographers out there who has not only self-published your own coffee table books but has been wildly successful at the endeavor. I know you give an inspiring, real-life look at how you did this in one of your popular seminars called How to Self-Publish (and actually make money doing it). For those that have not heard your talk, what are the key points in being successful at publishing your own books?
John: Darwin, in a nutshell, photographers that are interested in self-publishing and want to be successful at it have to first find a product niche, whether it be books or cards, posters or calendars. In other words, if they take a look in the marketplace and figure out that no one’s doing an owl calendar, then they’ve found a potential niche.
They then have to determine if there’s actually a market for that product niche. Will anyone buy the owl calendar? Who should they be targeting, what types of stores, which customers?
And finally, they have to crunch the numbers to see if they can actually make money at it. Just because there’s a niche and a market doesn’t mean that you’ll make money with a product. You have to sit down and do your spreadsheets (or write it all out on a cocktail napkin) to figure out your start-up costs, your profit potential, your projected sales, and your cash flow scenarios. It sounds daunting, but it’s well worth it.
I’ve sold over 20,000 coffee table books and 130,000 greeting cards to date, so if you put in the time and effort and research your idea properly, you can really make self-publishing a huge part of your photography business.
Darwin: I am impressed by your ethics in photography. Many wildlife photographers just want the trophy shot and honestly care very little how that impacts the animal. I know you’ll give up the shot if it means any harm, stress or disturbance to your subject. Given that, how do you still come home with the amazing images but without negatively impacting your subject?
John: I don’t think many wildlife photographers realize that being ethical and showing respect for your wildlife subjects can actually lead to better and more interesting photographs. For instance, if you’re always pressuring an animal and following it about, the animal is not very likely to act naturally and show you much in the way of interesting behaviour. By contrast, if you show some patience and wait for opportunities to develop, then you’re often rewarded with an animal that will act much more naturally and offer you the chance to capture a wider range of behaviours with your camera.
I think it’s important to know how to recognize when you’re stressing an animal and to react accordingly by moving back or leaving the scene. Like you said, Darwin, I do believe that the welfare of the animal is more important than just ‘getting the shot’. I think passing up certain opportunities not only teaches patience, but I believe it also opens up other chances, allowing me to pick and choose the encounters that are going to result in the best pictures.
Darwin: You have come out strongly against baiting wildlife to get photos, using wildlife models (e.g. trained bears, cougars, wolves) and even using flash for wildlife photography. Why should other photographers consider not doing these things?
John: I think wildlife photographers need to look at this from two angles. One, how is game farm photography the same as wildlife photography? I would argue that it’s actually much closer to commercial model photography. There is no thrill or chance involved in taking photos of an animal that is forced to live in a cage and that has to respond to a trainer’s demands. These animals are not living free, wild lives, and I just think there is a real disconnect from the natural world with photographers that do these game farm shoots. You’re picking the day, the scene, the lighting, even the model. It’s not wildlife photography at all, it’s just animal model photography, and it takes very little skill to be good at it.
Secondly, photographers that go to game farms often argue that it’s an economical way to get images to fill out their portfolios and that it allows them to get shots of animals that are very tough to find in the wild. But that’s showing a disrespect for the craft of wildlife photography as an art and a profession. People like myself work long and hard to get images of wild wolf, lynx, cougar, grizzly bear, and even wolverine, and it’s actually helped my business, not hindered it. That’s because there is a growing discontent in the marketplace for images of captive animals. Many magazines and companies now won’t even consider using photos that weren’t taken in the wild, which is a refreshing change from five or ten years ago.
As for baiting and the use of flash, I feel that the challenge of getting an image without trying to control the animal’s behaviour or the lighting is worth the extra time and effort I may have to put in to get a good shot. Again, it comes down to having an animal act naturally and showing some respect for your subject.
If you’re using a flash, you are almost always disturbing the animal to some degree. Imagine having someone follow you around all day with a camera and flash. Of course you’re going to start noticing the flash going off, and of course it’s going to alter how you behave, whether consciously or subconsciously.
Baiting is even more egregious. You’re basically saying, “My need to get this shot is more important than the well-being of my subject.” You’ve helped to condition an animal to an unnatural food source without thinking of the consequences. The next person to throw bait out for that wolf or bear may want to shoot it with a gun. And the owl you just fed so you could get shots of it swooping down to pick up the lab mouse has just been conditioned to look to humans for food. Worse yet, it might now survive the winter when it wasn’t supposed to, leaving its weaker genes in the population and throwing off the process of natural selection.
Darwin: What separates a good wildlife photographer from a great one? Why is it your images stand out above the mass of other wildlife images created? I mean, isn’t having a 500mm lens and getting close to a grizzly enough?
John: Ha-ha, I wish! I always have to remind myself that two of my best-selling wildlife images of all-time were not taken with a big lens and that it pays to set it aside sometimes and look at the bigger picture (pun intended). Getting close enough to photograph a grizzly’s nose hairs is not all it’s cracked up to be!
I think the great wildlife photographers wear their ethics on their sleeve and they put in the dirty work that’s necessary to get those amazing images that truly tell a story. There are no shortcuts to great images. It takes time, patience, and vision. I’m still working on all three, particularly the vision part of things — it’s tough to maintain what direction you want your shots to take, what story you want to tell, when you’re busy firing 2,000 images a day of bears chomping down on salmon or of caribou migrating across the tundra. I’m often muttering to myself, “Look for the spectacular” or “Wait for the spectacular.”
My goal right now is to train myself to take fewer pictures each day, yet have more stunners.
I’m not sure if my images do stand out above the mass of other wildlife images out there, but if they do, then I think it’s because of the amount of time I spend in the field. I do have some vision and some patience, but more than anything, I love being out there looking for the next great shot. I typically put in over 180 days a year in the field, though in 2010 I was up at about 220!
Darwin: Describe a perfect day in the field for you.
John: Any day in the field is a perfect day for me. I get an incredible rush out of just leaving my house each morning or waking up in my car in a strange place, unsure of what I might find and excited for what the day will bring.
Even just pondering this question got me wound up thinking about all the amazing days ahead of me chasing swift foxes, polar bears, orcas, and so much more!