Professional Insights

Professional Insights

Florian Schulz

Florian Schulz

Wildlife/Nature (Germany)

Following the call of the wild

Florian Schulz is a professional nature photographer who has dedicated his life to capturing inspiring images of the natural world. His photographs have appeared in international publications such as National Geographic, BBC Wildlife, and GEO. A native of Germany, Schulz spends eight to ten months of the year in the field, working on long-term conservation photography projects that capture entire ecosystems. His most recent assignment was the companion book to the Warner Brothers IMAX film To The Arctic. Schulz has won numerous awards, including Environmental Photographer of the Year, Conservation Photographer of the Year, and the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation.

When words were not enough

At the age of 12, I borrowed my father's camera and began taking pictures for the first time. My first subjects: small lizards in a flower garden. Not long after that, I got a Nikon F601, the first camera that I could call my own. My photographic journey began with a fascination with nature. Armed with a spotting scope and binoculars, I would head out into a local nature reserve to watch birds or search the forest for a fox den. I saw beautiful things, but describing them with words alone was not enough to express to my friends and family why I was so excited about nature. My images, however, said everything I wanted to say instantaneously. This experience made me realize the power of photography.

Freedom to roam

Before long, I wanted to explore wild places beyond the forests near my home in southern Germany. I had been fascinated with the North American wilderness ever since reading the books of Jack London. Having grown up where true wilderness had vanished, I understood how important it was to keep the interconnected web of wildlife protected. This realization led me to my first major conservation photography project. Called Freedom to Roam – Yellowstone to Yukon, this project helped promote the creation of the first national wildlife corridors, which allowed wild animal populations to migrate or interact with others of their kind without having to travel through human developments such as towns or highways.

This kind of project demanded that I document the entire Rocky Mountain ecosystem between Yellowstone National Park and the Yukon in northern Canada. Photographically, this meant that I needed to shoot everything: from landscapes to wildlife, from big scenes to intimate details. I shot as much as I could in order to capture the region: telephoto portraits and wide-angle shots of animals in their environment, as well as aerial mountain scenes and underwater shots of salmon.

Documenting entire ecosystems from every angle has become my passion, and I have expanded my Freedom to Roam project to cover other ecosystems such as the Arctic and the western seaboard of North America between the Beaufort Sea of Alaska and Mexico's Baja California.

The challenges of being a generalist

While many photographers often become highly specialized in one specific aspect of photography such as macro, underwater, landscape or bird photography, I went in the opposite direction and specialized in being a generalist. My approach to documenting entire ecosystems demands this of me. I love the challenge, and there have been many of them. I jumped into -1.5°C water to get the right shot of an iceberg below the surface. I endured the tropical heat and humidity of the Peruvian Amazon. Day after day, I woke long before sunrise to get the right light for a landscape shot, and I camped in polar bear country in the -35°C Arctic. For me, nature is perfect in its entirety. It is all interconnected, so I don't want to limit myself to capturing only one aspect of it.

What it's all about

I spend a great deal of time dreaming up images. If an image becomes stuck in my mind, I put a lot of effort into realizing it. This passion for photography has provided infinite patience, and helped me endure extreme temperatures, countless mosquitoes, and ocean water temperatures that were below freezing. Yet for me, my drive is not about the image alone. It is also about being in nature. It's about observing wild animals and learning their behavior. And of course, it's about adventure. These experiences enrich my life and make the images I take even more meaningful.

Documenting entire ecosystems makes my profession a complete labor of love, since economically it is not very rewarding. I need more equipment than most other specific genres — not only photography gear, but also outdoor gear, such as tents, canoes and sailboats. I do all of this in order to spend the longest time I can in the wild, often in some of the most remote and pristine places on the planet.

My passion for capturing the natural world in all its beauty and diversity has now expanded into the moving image. The new Nikon cameras now have video capability of the highest quality. Adding moving images to my still photography allows me tell an even more complete story about an ecosystem. Achieving good filming, however, often involves a team. This could potentially be difficult or cause problems when working in remote locations or with sensitive wildlife. I therefore love working with people I know very well, like my wife or my brother, in a team of two or three people in order to be less intrusive and to avoid damaging the delicate atmosphere we are trying to portray.

Unfortunately, wildlife and the pristine places they live are becoming increasingly rare. From early on, I felt that it was important to fight for wildlife and nature conservation. I started as a teen in our local nature reserve, and continued forward as I got older through large conservation photography projects like Freedom to Roam and the Arctic work. Today, the term "conservation photography" is well established, but years before it became a common phrase, Cristina Mittermeier and I were thinking through the foundation of what would become the first conservation photography organization, which today is called the ILCP: The International League of Conservation Photographers. Photography is one of the most powerful forces driving conservation today. With my images and stories, I hope to play my role in the conservation movement.

The Nikon D600: a game changer

When Nikon first contacted me about shooting for the D600 project, they did not tell me any camera specs. They simply said that this camera was going to be something special. When we finally had the D600s in our hands and used it in the field, we quickly understood why this camera would be considered a "game changer." Nikon engineers put the finest technology in a compact, lightweight and yet robust full-frame camera body with 24mp, 5.5 frames/sec. and fantastic high ISO capabilities. All of this, while maintaining a low price point. I feel that this will be another step in the democratization of high-quality photography, and it does not end with the images. The camera produces high-end HD video — as good as I have ever seen it. I believe that anybody who is serious about photography that lays hands on a D600 can produce incredible work. For me, the D600 is the perfect all-around camera. The bar has been raised.

Chasing The Light: the Nikon D600 release film

With Chasing The Light, we wanted to put the D600 to a test by not only using the camera in a diverse array of shooting situations, but also by making a film about the passion of nature photography and the feeling that goes along with it. I was excited to win my brother, Salomon Schulz, for the project. The team was complete!
When people watch Chasing The Light, they often suspect an entire production crew is working away in the background, but in reality, the two of us did all of the filming. This required a lot of running back and forth for scenes where we were both in the shot, as well as some intelligent editing so that the flow of the film was not affected. It was great to work in a small team, especially when shooting sensitive wildlife. Such things cannot be done with a large group.

Another goal we set for ourselves was to show what is possible for everyone who wants to head out there: whether it's two brothers, two friends or one couple, any two people with a passion for photography and the outdoors can do this. We hope that everybody with similar passions to ours can see that in the film, and then see themselves doing it, as well. It may look easy in the making-of film, but shooting an entire movie in four weeks, with remote locations in southern California, Yellowstone and Alaska, was an enormous undertaking. Years of experience out West came in handy for these locations. We often worked day and night, as we needed to get from point A to point B, and then shoot at both dusk and the following dawn for the great light, all while shooting time-lapse movies of the stars in the middle of the night. Needless to say, we got very little sleep! While some locations are classic landscape photography spots, we wanted to bring a cutting edge to the film by capturing Alaska's mountains during the winter, mostly through aerials. Stitching is not possible with aerial photography, so a high 24-megapixel count is very helpful on the photography side. On the film side, we had envisioned a dramatic final scene where we could show the breathtaking beauty of nature, with humans portrayed only as tiny humble figures. After days of scouting with our pilot, we found the perfect location, and the closing scene of Chasing The Light came to life.

What's in my camera bag

The quality of Nikon cameras has reached a level that was unthinkable even a few years ago. These cameras allow us to do things that were simply impossible before. At the same time, one must be careful not to discuss equipment so much that one forgets about the photography! There is a constant race going on around the latest innovations and newest technology. I have been offered entire camera systems from other brands, but Nikon remains my choice. Nikon stands for tough cameras, and that is what I need when I head into the wilderness. What I enjoy is the assurance that Nikon engineers are working extremely hard to make the best cameras possible so I can get my job done. They do it in a fashion that covers my diverse approach to photography. They have the D800 when I need the highest quality in landscape photography available in a D-SLR, and a D4 when I need to shoot wildlife in action. The gear is extremely reliable — I have never doubted that I have the right system.

Essential Gear for a Nature Photographer:

Cameras: at least 3 bodies – Like a fast Full-frame D3s or D4 for frame rate and high ISO; a high-megapixel model for landscapes, like the D800 or D600, and a DX body like the D7000 if I need the extra reach of its crop factor.

Lenses: AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II, AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E II, AF-S Teleconverter TC-20E II and AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED.

Additional lenses I own:
AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 12-24mm f/4G IF-ED
AF Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D
AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED
AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8D
AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.4G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G
AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED
AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4G ED VR
PC-E NIKKOR 24mm f/3.5D ED
AF Nikkor 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5D

NPS

Nikon is known around the world for its cameras. It is globally recognized as one of the leaders in professional camera gear. Despite such a powerful role, Nikon has not lost touch with its photographers. I feel very much at home in the NPS family. They put a face to the brand, where I can connect to real people that live and breathe the world of cameras, and therefore understand the needs of photographers like me. I have to be honest: over all these years, I have hardly had any issues with either my cameras or my lenses. However, NPS has supported me in many different ways — from cleaning my sensors to doing fast system checks before an important assignment. They have loaned me backup cameras during extremely remote shoots, and they have frequently provided valuable advice on the Nikon system. For a professional, such service is essential and extremely valuable.

See more of Florian Schulz's work on his website Open in new window..