Interview: Jonathan & Angie Scott

Jonathan & Angie Scott

Probably not another couple will ever have the bragging rights to have individually won the overall award in the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition. Jonathan & Angie Scott – Photographers extraordinary, Wildlife enthusiasts, Forces behind legendary TV shows like Big Cat Diary, Elephant Diaries, Big Bear Diary, Dawn to Dusk, Flamingo Watch and Africa Watch. 

Introductions can run short for these two legends of the Mara. Permanently based out of Kenya, they have their perches at Nairobi and at Governors’ camp overlooking the Maasai Mara, from where they have launched many of the expeditions which the world would have later watched through BBC, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, Paramount TV and Turner Broadcasting. Honoured as Canon Ambassadors & members of SanDisk Elite Team, their work continues to inspire scores of photographers worldwide.


What was the inspiration for becoming a wildlife photographer?

Angie was always a photographer with her  rst camera aged eight and her own darkroom under the stairs at her family home in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. I thought of photography as a way of primarily collecting material for my pen and ink drawings - I always loved to draw. In time, while living in the Maasai Mara in Kenya in the 1970s, I began to take photography more seriously. But I was still at heart a naturalist fascinated by animal behaviour. So my images were all about capturing interesting aspects of the behaviour of the animals I was following. Meanwhile, Angie intuitively understood the wonder of “light” - the very essence of photography. She had a more artistic approach to photography than I did; she wanted to capture the emotion and mood of her subjects, become one with the pride or the pack; she wanted to get inside the heads of her quarry and reveal it though her images. Sacred Nature was Angie’s idea and it perfectly captures our personal philosophy to life and photography.

My mother - and the memory of my father Gilbert Scott who was an outstanding architect in London and a decorated soldier in the Second World War, who survived Dunkirk and working behind enemy lines in the Royal Engineers, and who then died of an inoperable brain tumor at the age of 42 when I was 2 years old. My mother was very determined and courageous. She always wanted me to follow my dream of doing something with wildlife. I was also very in uenced by the work of the late Sir Peter Scott - the wildlife artist and conservationist - and his father Captain Robert Falcon Scott - “Scott of the Antarctic.” They were adventurous spirits who loved nature. And David Attenborough who I have been fortunate to know since the early 1980s when he narrated a  lm on the Marsh Pride of lions - the same lions that Angie and I have followed since I  rst came to live in the Maasai Mara in 1977. David has always been very kind and generous to me at pivotal moments in my career as a wildlife photographer, author and TV presenter, advising and encouraging me in my work. I have huge admiration for what he has achieved and the longevity of his illustrious career.

Yours is a photography family. What are the positives of the partners being photographers?

I was fortunate to always know my “Bliss;” my pathway to happiness. It was to live in the moment and explore wild places. The movie Born Free (1966) had me sitting in the cinema thinking “that is what I want to do” - to live in the bush and watch big cats. Being married to Angie who is also an artist and award-winning wildlife photographer has had a huge influence on my life - both personally and as a photographer. Angie is always ready to tackle a new project; she never sits in the comfort zone and thinks “ok, we have done that, enough.” It was Angie who said we must update our hugely successful Safari Guides to East African Animals and Birds. And Angie who said lets do a CD Rom called On Safari with a US developer in the 1990s - and it was Angie who went out and bought the sound kit and video camera and said, “we can do this.” And Angie who said “we need to up our game and work on her pet project Sacred Nature: Life’s Eternal Dance (HPH) - a big book, an idea that was close to her heart that would allow us to pro le our wildlife photographs in a large format book designed by our son David who is a graphic designer and creative director living in San Francisco. In fact David came up with the design concept for both of our new books Sacred Nature and The Big Cat Man.

Angie was born in Africa and has always had a camera in her hand. I only really started to take photography seriously in 1974 when I set out overland across Africa. I made a lot of mistakes and meeting Angie was a major stepping stone for me as a photographer. She understood light and has a wonderfully artistic approach to the way she sees. Angie has been the major in uence in my life in every way as a person and as a photographer. I learned how to see the “light’ from Angie. She loves shooting backlit and sidelit subjects whereas I used to shoot very front lit images which means the subject looks  at - no modelling e ect with nice shadows. You should always be a few degrees to one side of the direction of the sun to avoid  at looking images and uninteresting lighting. Angie loves to get in close by using big lenses - the EF800mm f/5.6 is another of her favourites. The 800mm gives a very intimate feel to portraits and is wonderful for landscapes too. The lens is pin sharp even with an x1.4 extender. 

I am a very neat photographer. I like everything just so. I love shapes, and geometry and shadows, and am quite happy shooting with wide angle lenses while Angie loves the big telephotos. That allows us to cover a lot of ground together.

What is your approach in the  eld in managing ethics and capturing moments?

Sometimes we long to put the cameras down and just absorb the moment - but at the same time you feel compelled to try to capture the essence of what you are experiencing so that you can share it with other people who may never be able to visit places like the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti. Photography allows us to savour those special moments again and again, years after the moment has passed in to memory. Sometimes - due to the sharpness and clarity of our Canon lenses - we see something in the image that the mind simply did not have time to process. That is very exciting to discover something unexpected. We believe that the environment is the most important issue facing mankind today, so we really endeavour to cover important issues to help raise awareness of the plight of our planet. We are losing so much of our wilderness areas - and their wild inhabitants. As Chief Seattle of the Sioux said in the 1800s: ”If all the animals are gone, man will die of a great loneliness of the spirit, for whatever happens to the animals also happens to man. Everything is connected.” We love to share our work with people through our workshops and lectures and have been to many locations in Europe with the California program to talk about our work - and further afield to discover something unexpected. We believe that the environment is the most important issue facing mankind today, so we really endeavour to cover important issues to help raise awareness of the plight of our planet. We are losing so much of our wilderness areas - and their wild inhabitants. As Chief Seattle of the Sioux said in the 1800s: ”If all the animals that carry a strong message.

According to you, what is the most important element one should master in wildlife photography?

The most important element - it is essential that you understand the behaviour of your subject. That way you can begin to predict what they are going to do - and when - allowing you to be in the right position to maximize the photographic opportunities. You can have the best equipment in the world but it will be useless if you are not in the right place to capture the moment.

Can you talk about one of the most unforgettable experience in the wild?

Living for months at a time on safari and learning to recognize the big cats as individuals that are our obsession. We have been watching the Marsh Pride of lions since Jonathan  rst came to live in the Maasai Mara in 1977, and some of our most treasured memories are times spent in the company of lions, leopards and cheetahs such as White Eye of the Marsh Pride and the unforgettable leopard female Half-Tail - and her daughter Zawadi (Shadow of Big Cat diary) who we followed intermittently throughout her life until she disappeared in early 2012 at 16 years of age.

Away from our home in Kenya, we discovered the wonder of Antarctica in 1991 and made 16 expeditions to the frozen south. Antarctica is simply beyond reality - a “photographer’s paradise” to rival the savanna’s of the Mara-Serengeti that have been the focus of much of our work these past 40 years. Antarctica has a landscape embellished with an exquisite pallet of blues, and greens and whites, together with an abundance of wildlife. Our month-long semi-circumnavigation of Antarctica from the tip of South America to Christchurch in New Zealand aboard the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov when we visited Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition hut, and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s hut on Ross Island, stands out. And our two trips to Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea to photograph an emperor penguin breeding colony will live with us forever.

What is your most favorite model for photography in the wild and why?

Angie loves photographing people - she has a real empathy with her subjects and her gentle unthreatening approach always helps to engage her human subjects, allowing them to relax and be themselves. Her approach takes time - but it generates great results. She loves photographing the little things - not just the big cats and elephants that everyone who comes on safari wants to see, but everything - macro too - from  owers to insects to raindrops. Lions are her favourite among the big cats - she loves their social nature with plenty of activity to focus on recording the dynamics of the pride and elephants too are very special creatures that Angie loves to spend hours at a time in their presence, immersing herself in their lives - becoming one with the herd or the pride.

For me it has always been about the big cats - the predators. Among all of them it was the leopard that I most wanted to see and photograph when I first came overland through Africa in 1974. People say “you must have great patience” but it is not really that - we love what we do, spending days, weeks, months watching the same animals is a joyful process for us - endlessly fascinating to observe. Only by doing that can you really portray an animal’s life with meaning.

In what place are you happiest?​​​​​​​

Anywhere with a sense of wilderness or a view of the sea with Angie by my side (Angie loves the ocean more than any other natural setting). Of course the Maasai Mara and Serengeti are very special places to both of us. Angie was born in Alexandria in Egypt, but from the age of four she lived in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and loved both the ocean and life on safari. Mara-Serengeti is quintessential savanna Africa, and where Angie and I have spent so many happy times. We were married in the Mara in 1992 and still have a base there - a stone cottage at Governor’s Camp. I can think of nothing better than spending the afternoon or early morning in our Land Rover watching the Marsh Pride or a leopard, sitting quietly with a cup of tea and just absorbing the essence of this little corner of Eden and its wild inhabitants.

What is your favorite set of gear you use in the  eld and why?​​​​​​​

The new sensor on the Mark II is brilliant - and the autofocus is quicker and more accurate and covers a larger area of the frame which we love.

The great thing about the Mark II is that you can shoot 12 frames per second in RAW and 14 fps in Jpeg (we only shoot in RAW). When we are shooting action sequences - big cats hunting or wildebeest and zebras at river crossings - we want as many frames per second as the camera can give you. Many times there is a fraction of a second between getting a great shot and an indifferent one, so the more frames per second the better.

Predators often hunt early in the morning or late in the evening (and some hunt mainly after dark), so fast lenses and high ISO capability are essential for us to capture the action and get sufficient depth of  field.

The GPS feature on the Mark II is also great for us when we are tracking big cats such as leopards and want to plot their range so that we can predict where there favourite hideouts are (whether for raising cubs or hunting). Knowing the exact location of where we last saw and photographed a leopard is all part of capturing their story in words and photographs.

What advice would you give to somebody who is going on a photographic safari for the first time?​​​​​​​

If you are buying new cameras and lenses be sure to test them before you come on safari - and read the camera manual so you have a better idea of what you are doing and what your equipment is capable of. Make sure to buy the best ‘glass’ (lenses) you can a ord. Doing that is much more important than spending all your money on the camera. Most cameras these days are very good and have excellent sensors capable of capturing the moment. But remember your lenses are the eyes of your camera so invest in them. Our favourite lenses for wildlife and travel are the Canon Series 2 EF100-400mm f4.5/5.6L IS USM for great sharpness, superb image stabilization. It is such a versatile lens for composition, with plenty of reach and you can use it with an x1.4 extender (buy the series 3 extenders) to transform it in to a 140- 560mm telephoto zoom. And be sure to bring a wide angle lens -the EF16- 35mm or 24-70mm or 24-105mm are all good. But be sure to buy Image stabilized lenses to avoid camera shake. Angie’s favorite telephoto is the EF500mm f/4L Series 2 IS USM - with the x1.4 extender in her pocket at all times in case she needs that extra reach without compromising on sharpness.

What’s advice for handling harsh light and low light while shooting wildlife?​​​​​​​

We have just been testing the new EOS- 1D Mark II and took some images inside a Maasai homestead where it was so dark we could barely see our friend William Ole Pere. Angie shot some portraits at ISO 50,000 and the clarity and lack of noise was phenomenal. In the olden days you needed to buy “fast” lenses with wide maximum apertures - like the EF300mm f/2.8 or the EF200mm f/2 - that gather the maximum amount of ambient light (we don’t like using  ash). But these are the most expensive lenses of all and out of reach price-wise for many people. The alternative to fast lenses is shooting higher ISO’s, but in the past this came with a cost - “grain” in the days of  lm, and its digital equivalent: “noise”. Grain or noise diminishes the image resolution and sharpness. Canon has made huge advances towards o ering high ISOs while minimizing noise, allowing us to shoot in low light and to increase the amount of depth of  eld we can dial in when shooting fast moving wildlife subjects.

Shooting in the early morning and late evening - the golden hour - is our favourite time when the light is soft and warm and the colours rich. If you are shooting in harsh sunlight, using a polarizer helps. Be careful with heat haze when using long telephotos when it is hot - in the heat of the day. And you can always try shooting black and white too.

How do you organize photos from your trips? From your experience, what do you suggests for sorting and storing the photos for easy management? What is your opinion on post processing of photographs and your favorite software for processing?​​​​​​​

Angie does all our processing and work  ow. She uses “Lightroom” for editing and our picture library, and works with “Photoshop” and various Plug-Ins for noise reduction and other parameters. We send our best images to AWL or Getty Images to market our work worldwide - though the days of earning really good money from Stock Directories and Stock Agencies is a thing of the past for most pro photographers. The value of a single image has been diminished by the sheer volume of imagery available today. A lot of our contemporaries now use their images mainly to build their pro le on social media platforms so as to build an audience to market their workshops and lectures - a photographers bread-and- butter. We do some of that too: Google+, Facebook, Instagram, our Website Blog, Twitter, all help to keep our name current, helping to sell us and our work.We are developing a Fine Art Gallery of our most popular images - some of them from our latest book Sacred Nature: Life’s Eternal Dance (HPH) which was Angie’s brainchild with a wonderful design concept by our son David who is a creative director at Eventbrite in San Francisco. 

We back up our best images on hard drives and store a copy of them in the bank and another copy in a safe house.

Which are the most favorite wildlife photography destinations and when should you go?​​​​​​​

We have spent a lot of our lives working and photographing in the Maasai Mara in Kenya and the adjoining Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The Mara-Serengeti is a photographer’s paradise. If you want to see the migration and river crossings in the Mara then July to October is best. And the Serengeti is wonderful in the wet season from November to May with the wildebeest giving birth on the southern plains between Jan and March. We also love Namibia (for its spectacular desert scenery and the Himba people) and Botswana’s Okavango Delta - the jewel of the Kalahari. We o er a number of workshops in Africa including safaris to the Maasai Mara, the Serengeti, Namibia and Botswana.

Your thoughts and activities on combining wildlife photography or  lm-making on conservation project?​​​​​​​

Too often natural history programs - and books - paint a picture of untamed wilderness. Conservation is deemed as a “turn o ” to audiences by many TV producers. When we  lmed Big Cat Diary we generally avoided talking about conservation issues. The emphasis was on making wildlife viewing entertaining. But we always tried to resist any attempts to “dumb down” our commentary and made sure to keep our animal character led stories real and honest. Today it is more apparent than ever that the environment is the biggest issue facing mankind. We need to respect and nurture the planet and its wild inhabitants - not simply plunder its natural resources. The earth is our source of fresh water, clean air (or not!) and our food (wild or domestic).

We have just completed  filming a 50 minute National Geographic special on our work as photographers and conservationists in the Mara-Serengeti for Series 2 of Tales by Light sponsored by Canon Australia. It gave us the chance to share our views on important issues facing the future of the Maasai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania - issues touching on community development for those living side by side with wildlife; encroachment of cattle inside protected areas; conflict between people, livestock and wildlife; equitable revenue sharing from wildlife based tourism and local communities; getting the balance right between the impact of tourism and conservation priorities. 

What matters now?​​​​​​​

The irony is that people tend to believe that “people” come  rst and that the planet is here to serve our needs, regardless of the consequences for “other life” and the state of the environment. But unless we recognize that the earth is a sacred part of our very being, (rather than simply exploiting it in pursuit of relentless growth and consumption), then we are condemning mankind to a terrifying future of war and famine as nations lock horns in a desperate scramble for land and resources. As the scribe Ted Perry wrote based on the sentiments expressed by Chief Seattle of the Sioux in the 19th century:

“What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.

Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.

This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the earth, he does to himself.“

What is your advice for upcoming wildlife photographers and opportunities in the field?

Whatever your dream in life you have to give yourself the best chance of achieving it. Don’t listen to people who want to tell you how hard it will be, that you will never make enough money to support yourself or that you are not capable of following your dream. Believe in yourself - and then believe again. The internet is such a wonderful font of knowledge - you can check out every aspect of what it is you would love to do as a pastime or a career. Do your research and be sure to talk to people who are already living your dream. Hard work and perseverance are 95% of what it takes to make your dream come true.

Start o  with a point and shoot camera or your iPhone (or whatever phone you have) and record your life’s journey. Make sure to shoot stills and video. Learn about light and exposure, and being a photographer. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can always  x things later in “Photoshop.” Create a Facebook site and a website. Write a blog and post your images on Instagram and Google Plus. Build a Brand - you - and start to gather an audience of followers. Today when an individual image is worth so much less than 20 years ago the best use of your photographs is to pro le you and your work so that you can build an audience for lectures, workshops and guided tours - things that will enable you to make a living while pursuing your dream of being a photographer. Look at the work of other photographers - not just wildlife photographers but all genres - absorb lessons from those you admire and then develop your own distinctive style.

The biggest thing is to believe in yourself - and to persevere. Determination is the most important ingredient. There will always be people out there telling you that you don’t have the talent to succeed in your dream, or that it is impossible for lots of other reasons. The key is for YOU to be the one to decide if you have chosen the wrong course in life - the wrong dream to pursue. Don’t let someone else dictate the course of your life. I cannot imagine anything worse than to think later in life “What if?” or “I wish I had done that.” Dream big and then you can always trim your sails if you find the going too tough or not to your liking. And as the philosopher Joseph Campbell said: “Follow your bliss.” He also said that if you  nd you are following a pathway then it is not your own. You need to set off and embrace the uncertainties as you carve out your own pathway in life. Life should be an adventure - not a stroll in the woods. Push yourself - you are more than you think. You can have a great relationship, get married and raise children, and earn a living as a photographer - just stay diversi ed with your  ngers in lots of pies like we have. You can do it!

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