Tom Mangelsen: Shooting Wildlife
Professional photographer Tom Mangelsen is one of the most influential peoplein the world of natural history photography today. His images and passion for conservation have inspired generations of photographers. Eloise HELMS spoke with him to find out more about his career, passions and approach to shooting wildlife.
There is something about the images of Tom Mangelsen that transport me immediately to another world. I don’t mean just another place like Africa, Antarctica or China. I mean a world of beauty and tranquility; of nature and rapture; of science and interest all rolled into one.
In 2005 Tom was named one of the 100 Most Important People in Photography by American Photo magazine and honoured in Nikon's Legend behind the Lens series. He received an honorary fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society in 2002, was named Outstanding Nature Photographer of the Year by the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA)in 2000 and received the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award in 1994. Humble in natureTom does not mention his awards. He prefers instead simply to share his passion for photography and the animals he captures.
“My first love affair was with wildlife, nature and being outdoors. It wasn’t my interest in photography so much as watching animals and being outdoors that captivated me. I would think how great it would be to capture the scene I was standing before.”
When working, Tom instinctively knows what is going to make a good shot. It is an image that has all the classic elements of a work of art such as good composition and great light, but one that also reveals something of the animal’s nature –a gesture that is classic or compelling. He wants to bring together texture, shape, colour and a particular behaviour, for instance, a bear catching salmon. Capturing this decisive moment is a mixture of luck, skill and a lot of patience.
Take for example his well-known images of polar bears in the Arctic. Tom sat for hours diligently waiting for these moments, a skill he attributes to days spent with his father hunting ducks and geese in Nebraska in the US.
Indeed Mangelsen’s love of nature,his life in the outdoors, and business success were heavily influenced by his father. An avid sportsman, Harold Mangelsen took his sons to favourite observation blinds along the Platte River. From the age of just one year old, Tom would sit and wait with his father in a hide every single day during the duck and goose season. From these outings Mangelsen learned the lessons for photographing in the field, including patience, waiting for the right moment and understanding animal behaviour.
“We’d sit and wait maybe for a week before we’d see anything let, alone have the opportunity to catch one.”
Years later and it is this high patience threshold for being able to do nothing for long periods that has given rise to so many enthralling photographs of animals in their natural settings.
His work can be seen everywhere. Twenty books for children and young adults have been illustrated with Tom’s photography. Published fine art books include Images of Nature:
The Photography of Thomas D Mangelsen (now in its 12th printing); Polar Dance: Born of the North Wind, which received the American Booksellers Association’s 1998 Best of Small Press award and wasa holiday pick on ABC news show Good Morning America; and Spirit of the Rockies: The Mountain Lions ofJackson Hole, the first and only portrayal of cougars in the wild. In 2007,Tom released his fourth fine art book,The Natural World, based exclusively on his work in the panoramic format.
A purist, Tom does not digitally manipulate his images, and is vehemently opposed to photographing animal models in game farms. Instead, he focuses on three main elements to capturethe ideal photograph: Patience, light,and behaviour, including the influencethe weather can have on an animal. For him three of his images stand out.
The first depicts a pair of large male polar bears play-fighting on the shores of Hudson Bay, Canada, in a near white-out snowstorm. The scene makes Tom think of two people dancing. The second is his best-selling limited edition print of a Bengal tiger. Tom was on an elephant’s back, following the tigress into a thick bamboo forest in central India. He could see that if he just had a few more moments, the light would come through the trees and hit the tigress, illuminating her in the otherwise dark forest.
Unfortunately, others were waiting to ride the elephant, but in a stroke of good fortune, another tiger was spotted and the people waiting left the queue, allowing Tom the time to get the shot when the light came pouring in through the trees.
The third image is featured in the opening chapter of his book The Natural World. Entitled Reflections of Denali, it capturesin all its glory, Mount McKinley in Alaska,the highest peak in North America. Despite venturing into some of the most remote regions of the planet, Tom has never felt his life to be in any real danger.
“I have got to a place on foot and been surprised by a bear that I didn’t realise was there. One time I was confronted bya polar bear coming out of a snowstorm.I was on the ground a little way away from our transport and a friend of mine saw it. It was sort of a ghostly figure and I realised quickly we needed to get back in the buggy. If my friend hadn’t spotted the bear we might have been in trouble.”
There are times when seeing an animalis all Tom wants. I ask if there are certain breeds of animals that are easier to photograph than others because they perhaps stand for longer in one place or are less aware of his presence.
“Every species reacts differently to humans and a lot depends if they are hunted or not. When there’s an elk hunt going on in Teton Park you would behard pressed to find elk to photograph during the hunting season. In the summertime it’s the exact opposite when the elk or deer are not hunted and having calves. Then they are much tamer. So it really depends on the situation.”
There is, however, a genetic difference in some animals that makes them less easy to photograph and the environment they live in is a factor as well. Cranesin the wild, for example, do not let people get close. It is a rare thing when they do. Conversely, animals that live in national parks such as Yellowstone or Teton are easier to shoot because they are used to contact with humans.
Generally, however, Tom maintains that if your actions are slow and quiet youcan usually get close. “Most animals are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Their survival depends on knowing what is around them at all times. So my goal isto fit into their landscape and let them do what they do naturally and capture that.”
With a lifetime spent photographing animals in their natural habitat Tom hasa deep respect for his subjects and he knows there is so much more to capture. Conservation is a key theme in his work. Through showing the beauty of nature, Tom hopes to encourage others to go out and discover the wonders the natural world has to offer, to care enough about it to help preserve what remains.
“Everyday I see something. I have thousands of pictures but still feel there is more to be done. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s out there.”
Tom’s wildlife photography takes us to a mesmerising world and his passion is clear for all to see. Arnold Newman said of his profession: “We don’t take pictures with cameras – we take them with our hearts and minds.” This is certainly true of the work of Tom Mangelsen.
What's in your kit bag?
- Nikon D3x
- Nikon D3s
- Nikon D3
- 600mm lens
- 200-400mm lens
- 70-300mm lens
- 28-70mm lens
- 14-24mm lens
- 1.4x and 1.7x teleconverters
- SanDisk Extreme Pro CF cards – 8GB and 16GB
- Fuji GX617 with 90mm, 180mm, 300mm lenses
- Fuji Velvia 220 film
- Sachtler tripods and heads
-Lowepro bags and cases
Tom Mangelsen holds a bachelors degree in biology and postgraduate titles in zoology and wildlife biology. In 1974, he worked as a cinematographer which led to filming whooping cranes for National Geographic. In 1990 he photographed and produced the PBS Nature and BBC Natural World film, Cranes of the Grey Wind. He is the author of several booksand his work has been published in a range of publications including National Geographic, National Wildlife, Natural History and Newsweek.
Wildlife Photographer of The Year Award 1994
Tom received this award for his outstanding image of an Alaskan brown bear poised to catch a leaping salmon. Now in its 46th year, the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition is an international showcase for the very best nature photography. The competition is owned by two UK organisations that champion the diversity of life on Earth – the NaturalHistory Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine. The winning images from this year’s competitionwill be made public in October. www.nhm.ac.uk
Tom Mangelsen is co-founder of the Cougar Fund, a founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, as well as a strong supporter of organisations committed to the conservation of natural resources, such as The Nature Conservancy, The Wilderness Society, Conservation International, Polar Bears International and The Vital Ground Foundation. Tom’s dedication to preserve our fragile natural world is best summed up in his own words: “May these images inspire you to experience and preserve the wonders of our natural world.”Cougar Fund www.cougarfund.org The International League of Conservation Photographers www.ilcp.com The Nature Conservancy www.nature.org The Wilderness Society www.wilderness.org.au Conservation International www.conservation.org/Pages/default.aspx Polar Bears International www.polarbearsinternational.org The Vital Ground Foundation www.vitalground.org/main.php
This feature is from the August issue, back issues can be ordered by calling 01858438832 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
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