Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest, professional wildlife photographer and author, Laura Crawford.

Laura became a professional wildlife photographer in 2001, after three of her images were published in National Wildlife magazine. Since that time she has been published in magazines such as National Geographic, Smithsonian, Nature’s Best, and The Nature Conservancy.

She has earned multiple national and international awards for her photography, been exhibited in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History twice, and has been published in a variety of calendars, greeting cards, posters and textbooks.

Recently, her photography was included in a collection of images by some of the best wildlife and landscape photographers in the world. The book is titled Sublime Nature and was produced by National Geographic Books.

Laura has a master’s degree in biomedical and surgical illustration from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her bachelor’s degrees are in visual arts and scientific illustration.

Laura will be releasing Wildlife in Wild Lands: Photography for Conservation in Southern South America to commemorate her career.

Norm: Good day Laura and thanks for participating in our interview.

Could you please tell our readers about your relationship with cameras, and what inspired you to become a wildlife photographer?

Laura: Hello Norm.  Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

Before my life as a wildlife photographer, I worked for a newly established software company during the dot com boom of the late 1990s. We lived and breathed work in that company. By the time it sold in 1999, I was thoroughly burned-out.

To recharge my depleted battery, I would walk with my dogs in the forests and prairies surrounding my home. A creative spark was ignited and I began carrying a camera. In 2001, my first published images appeared in National Wildlife magazine and by 2007, I had been published in National Geographic magazine.

It felt like the pinnacle of success. But, the truth is, I never intended to become a professional wildlife photographer. I was simply doing what I love to do. 

Norm: How has your undergraduate education in fine art and scientific illustration, as well as your graduate education in biomedical arts influenced your photography?

Laura:  Scientific and medical arts require effort from both sides of the brain, left for logic and right for creativity. You must pull aesthetic and reasoning sensibilities together in order to tell an accurate, visual story. Storytelling is the key! I have no doubt that the skills I learned as a scientific and medical illustrator/animator provided the foundation for my success as a wildlife photographer. I developed an unusual blend of scientific knowledge, technical expertise, and visual skill that has served me well.

Norm: Which photographers do you most admire and have they influenced your style?

Laura:  Richard and Greg DuToit (not related) are two contemporary photographers from South Africa that I admire. I am inspired by their creativity, commitment, and storytelling. Wildlife artists, like Robert Bateman and Ray Harris-Ching, also inspire me. I love how Bateman breaks the ‘standard’ rules of composition so intentionally and successfully, while Ching is a master of motion, color, and texture.

Norm: What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your photography career?

Laura:  I once felt that being published in National Geographic magazine and by National Geographic Books was the epitome of success for a wildlife photographer. It was certainly an important milestone for me in terms of feeling confident in this field. But, I no longer consider it my greatest success.

I am most proud of this book. It took 8 years of travel and two years of production for it to become a reality. I am thrilled to be a voice for those working so diligently on behalf of wildlife and wild lands conservation in southern South America, as well as for the unique wildlife species found there. I am also proud of myself for steering this project to completion as an independent publisher.

Norm: What has been your greatest challenge as a photographer that you’ve overcome in getting to where you’re at today?

Laura:  My greatest challenge was a very personal one. To put it simply, I was taken advantage of by individuals closest to me and did not know it for years.

I learned the truth immediately after the National Parks Foundation of Argentina approached me about creating this book. There is no doubt it had an effect on how quickly I was able to finish. I was struggling to re-invent my life as I wrote the words and assembled the images. But, the experience gave me focus and kept me grounded with the realization of one simple truth --nature heals and inspires. This is the reason I fight to protect it.

Norm: How do you plan for a shoot?

Laura:  Research! I study the ecosystems where I will be working. I learn about the common as well as rare species of plants and animals I will be tracking. I evaluate the weather and decide how to protect camera equipment and consider what clothing, backpacks, and camping gear will be needed.

If at all possible, I arrange to visit a rehabilitation program, where they care for injured or non-releasable species of the animals I will be photographing in the wild. When available, I contact scientists and researchers with questions. Once in the field, I talk with locals. This is invaluable! Gauchos in Argentina were often our best source for finding animals and learning about their behavior and patterns.Norm: How much camera gear do you take? What other things do you take with you? How many months of the year are you in the field shooting pictures?

Laura:  I have two backpacks – a big one and a little one. They are packed one-way for travel and then repacked for shooting, depending on what I will be needing in the field. I always travel with 2 camera bodies and a range of lenses: zoom, macro, wide-angle and telephoto.

I pack flash equipment, tripods, tripod heads, teleconverters, filters, filter holders, remote triggers, battery chargers, and extra batteries. Digital equipment must also be considered: cards, card readers, and a computer. Other equipment includes blinds, tents for sleeping, waders, camping equipment, rain gear, and extra clothing for very cold locations. It’s a lot of stuff!

During my eight years in southern South America, I spent at least two weeks in the field about every six to eight weeks. Our longest expedition was four weeks, but we learned quickly that this was not a good idea. We were exhausted and missed our families too much.

Norm: Are all of your animal photos truly wild subjects and do you create any of your images in the computer by combining things that never truly happened?

 Laura:  I do not create any circumstance in my wildlife photography that did not truly happen. Accuracy and truth of content are of utmost importance, especially in the editorial market.

This was true in my scientific and medical illustration careers as well. Magazines such as National Wildlife, Nature Conservancy, and National Geographic do not allow the digital manipulation you’re describing.

Often times, a photographer is required to submit RAW files as well as edited tiff files before publication. I restrict my edits to global as opposed to regional changes. I will occasionally take liberties when producing images for the fine-art print market; however, these changes are restricted to vignetting or blurring parts of a scene in order to enhance the focal point.

I have photographed captive animals, but limit that activity to wildlife rehabilitation centers. Ninety-eight to ninety-nine percent of the images in Wildlife in Wild Lands were taken in the wild. The few that were taken in captivity have been labeled as such in the captions. None of the species photographed in the wild were captured or manipulated for photography.

Norm: What’s the best time of the day to shoot photography?

Laura:  As in every photographic specialty, it is all about the light! In wildlife and nature photography, the first and last two hours of light are ideal, when skies are clear or partly cloudy.

Contrast is reduced during this time and everything has that warm, inviting glow. It is my preference to avoid shooting in the middle of the day, when the light is too harsh.

However, on cloudy days I sometimes shoot all day long. The diffuse light provides excellent opportunities in certain situations. All of these choices are dependent upon: what you are shooting, the contrast between the subject and its surroundings, and how much time you have to get the images you need. When an incredible moment happens you have no choice, just shoot and do your best with the light you have been given in that moment.

Norm: What advice can you give aspiring nature photographers that you wished you had received, or that you wished you would have listened to? As a follow up, what are your top three tips for someone wanting to take their nature photography to the next level? 

Laura:  When I led wildlife photography safari trips, I told my clients three things

  1. Edit until it hurts! If you aren’t feeling uncomfortable as you decide which images are best and which ones aren’t much better than average, you’re not doing it right. It’s hard for us to separate our feelings of the experience we had in the field from the actual quality and success of the image. However, this is what you must do in order to be successful.

  2. Go for a different perspective! Photograph your subject in a way you haven’t seen before, especially if it is a commonly photographed subject. This is a very competitive field and wildlife images do not “go out of date”. There is already a backlog of great images out there. Be creative and think out of the box.

  3. Record natural behavior and interactions. A stressed animal isn’t a good subject because it is not behaving naturally. Put the welfare of the animal before your own success as a photographer and never create unnecessary stress that could have an adverse affect. Don’t be hypocritical.

Norm: What advice can you give people who are already photographing other subjects, whether as a hobby or professionally, but want to get into nature photography?

Laura:  Join NANPA, the North American Nature Photographers Association. It is a great organization for beginners. Go to their annual conventions and sign up to have photo critiques with professional photographers and editors. You will find workshops, lectures, and programs for high school and college students as well.

Norm: What motivated you to publish Wildlife in Wild Lands: Photography for Conservation in Southern South America?

Laura:  It is my belief that for those of us who carry a love and appreciation of nature, it has never been more important to influence and change the minds of those who do not.

The human race has achieved unbelievable things, but we claim and transform wild places too easily. As a result, species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Even if you do not believe that extreme weather and rising sea level are the result of human activities, the reality of a well-documented extinction crisis remains. In a world full of people searching for purpose and meaning, why would we ignore the continued elimination of its wonders?”

It is unrealistic to believe that a government or a part of society alone can guarantee the protection of habitats and species. We must all participate as citizens, organizations, federal entities, and local governments. This project is my labor of love to that end. I hope to inspire in others, my own desperate desire to protect the natural world – every tiny, amazing piece of it.

Norm: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?

Laura:  I think it’s a little bit early to tell. We are currently finishing the binding of the printed pages and the book has only been available on Amazon as a pre-order for a couple of weeks. November 7th is the launch date, but we are already seeing a huge demand for copies! That’s really good news. The next step is to bring this message to the public as I travel for book signings, speaking engagements, gallery exhibits, and workshops.

I feel like an “anthropologist on mars” when working closely with wildlife in the field. I am looking into their world, trying to understand, through the filter of my own human experience. Scientists warn that anthropomorphizing other species can dangerous and lead to incorrect assumptions. That’s true, but when studying wildlife you can’t help but see the many ways species are similar to, as well as different from, humanity.

I find that understanding how species relate to each other, to humans, and to their environment has taught me how to see the world for its true and amazing complexity. Humans tend to need things to be simple, black and white. It’s just not that simple. There are lessons to be learned.

Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and Wildlife in Wild Lands: Photography for Conservation in Southern South America?

Laura:

Laura Crawford Williams Photography

Wildlife in Wild Lands Website

Wildlife in Wild Lands Facebook Page

Laura Crawford Williams Photography Fan Page

Wildlife in Wild Lands Kickstarter Project - raising funds for printing and distribution

Norm: What is next for Laura Crawford Williams?

 Laura:   That is a very good question! This is a pivotal moment and there are many options. I’ve been asked to write a book about my field experiences working with wildlife while traveling in remote locations. There is also interest in focusing on a new part of the world, helping conservation organizations as I did in southern South America. We will soon be producing a traveling exhibit using technology that creates a new immersive experience. There are too many possibilities and I love that.

Norm: Thanks again Laura and good luck with all of your future endeavours.

Thank you!