Professional Insights

Professional Insights

Jim Brandenburg

Jim Brandenburg

Nature (U.S.A.)

Solitude, Serendipity and Emotion

Note: The video shown here has been converted to Flash Video Format for ease of handling. Image quality varies from the original.

Jim Brandenburg is an environmentalist, nature photographer and filmmaker based in his native home in Minnesota. His career includes over 30 years as a contract photographer for National Geographic Magazine, and commissions from numerous international television stations. As an author, Brandenburg has published many best-selling books, including "Chased by the Light", and "White Wolf". He has received a multitude of prestigious national and international awards, including twice as Magazine Photographer of the Year from the National Press Photographer’s Association.

50 years of experience, the heart of a child

My name is Jim Brandenburg and I am an American nature photographer. Most of my career has been with National Geographic Magazine and in television. Today I am on the west coast of France testing the Nikon D800, a very exciting new product. I am honored to be able to be one of the first to use this camera.

When I was young, I was very shy, I didn't speak much, so I developed a visual language early on to express myself. The camera was quite a nice tool for this: I would go off and make pictures of animals and then come back to show my family.

This past month, I opened a retrospective of my work in Europe. I have been in photography for 50 years. My first photograph is in the exhibit — a shot I took when I was 15 years old. Now I'm 65, but when I put it like that, 50 years doesn't seem that long.

Sometimes, I can't even think of it as a career when I look back at my five decades as a photographer. It's still like my hobby, and I have so much fun with it even now. I still shoot for myself — not only for assignments, but also for my own pleasure, like I did when I started. I now find myself in a time of reflection, of looking back, although I still have a few years in me yet! I've been so lucky in my career, so incredibly lucky. I've been everywhere in the world that I wanted to go, and there is almost nothing that I want to do that I haven't already accomplished, so it's a good time to reflect and do the important things like shoot for my own enjoyment and not simply for editors or galleries.

The challenge of solitude

It is very difficult for some people to understand how challenging it can be to stay upbeat and motivated in the creative world. It can appear to be all fun and excitement as a photographer: all the traveling and exotic places. However, the reality is that you can burn out easily, so you have to be very careful to keep your motivation high so your creativity does not suffer. That's something most people do not understand. My family and friends sometimes think I'm constantly on vacation, but it can be very challenging and lonely sometimes. I work alone a lot, and have been solo for most of my career. There are advantages to that — you are flexible, you can move quickly, you can take a nap until midnight if you like — but sometimes you need someone to talk to. The challenges of this career are extreme.

The passion to pursue nature photography

My number-one motivation is nature. I love to be in nature, and find that the camera seems to lead me to all these interesting places. If I did not have a camera, I don't believe that I would have delved so deep into the natural world. Perhaps my second most important motivation is storytelling. I like passing on information and relaying the things that I see with the public. I appear to be built to tell stories with a camera.

Of course, sending an environmental message is also important to me. I've spent a lot of time in America trying to preserve the landscape that I came from: the original prairie, the Great Plains of America. In fact, I've spent a lot of my time trying to create awareness. If somehow my photographs made some slight difference in the world, then I am sure it would be the highlight of my career. I have done extensive work helping to preserve the wolf. In the history of animals, I believe that the wolf is the most misunderstood and most persecuted. I am proud that a few of my photographs have lifted the public awareness of this incredible creature.

The essential elements

There are three ingredients a powerful photograph must have. The first is meaning: it can't just be a pretty place. You need context, be it historical, biological or some other form. Light is also crucial. As much as I love it, the equipment isn't the most important thing. Tools are just tools. Good light is far more important, as are heart and passion, which may be the most crucial elements of all.

The importance of preparation

Serendipity is a wonderful word in the English language. It means happy coincidence, or a lucky, unexpected moment. This is essential to photography, but not without preparation. There are Japanese traditions involved in preparing: you study, then study, then study some more. You prepare mentally for years and years, so when the special moment comes, your instincts take over and it happens naturally. It's the same with cameras and other equipment: when the magic moment comes, you are ready to capture it instantly. You have visual language that you have studied for many, many years. You are familiar with the equipment, so it comes as second nature, like an extension of your fingers. I think that this is crucial. It's the same principal as practicing the violin. So many people think photography is easy: just pick up the camera and take a picture. But like the violin, you must practice photography for 30 years or more before you truly do it well.

High-resolution cameras and the nature photographer

When I was a boy around 16, I could easily count the number of high-level professional photographers in America who made a living from photographs. Now, nearly 50 years later, there are so many that they are virtually uncountable. There are thousands upon thousands of nature photographers trying to sell their images, and I believe that this is good for the world. Game-changing, career-changing levels of photography are now reached almost every year. The advantages are so incredible compared to the old days when I was shooting film with a Kodak 25 or a Kodak 64. It's a different world. Now I wish that I could go back in time with the D800 and capture some of the thousands of precious moments that I've missed over the years, such as owls in a forest that was (at the time) too dark to shoot. Today, with the D800, I could take that shot in an instant. Thousands of photographers are now able to go out and do what was once impossible, consequentially making it more difficult to make a living as a photographer. However, there is a positive side: the world is now being captured more remarkably and comprehensively than ever before.

I think that the D800 will also contribute to this. It is a game-changer, and considering its capabilities, quite possibly a career-changer for many people. The 36-megapixel images this camera produces almost reach medium-format quality. This will give me a distinct advantage with my fine art and limited edition prints — now I can make them even bigger. I love medium format, but the cameras are big and clumsy. Now, however, I can have medium-format quality in a smaller package, along with a much wider variety of lenses, including long lenses. I cannot wait to see the prints.

I think the public response to this new D800 will be very interesting. For me, the first surprise was the 36 megapixels — I was shocked at how big it was. The second surprise was the video capabilities: this all-in-one package can shoot large-format photographs and extremely high-quality video. I now have a single camera for fine art, for nature with long lenses and for video. That is amazing flexibility.

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