The Silent Future of Wildlife Photography

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Since I started my career as a wildlife photographer 16 years ago, wildlife photography has changed dramatically. Then, photography was still a skill that demanded years of trial and error just to get a decent image onto film. Slide film was notoriously intolerant of incorrect exposures, so just getting the correct exposure of a straightforward image was a challenge.

How things have changed. Since then technology has swept photographers down the mighty river of change. First came automatic light meters, then autofocus, followed by digital capture. Gone are the days of photographers being technically trained camera operators who knew – and cared – what a flash guide number, or even an f-stop, was.

There is no waiting, no dark-room work. Capturing an image is instant gratification and even mistakes can be immediately corrected. Now, photographers point their cameras and phones at the world and see the potential result on the screen even before they have released the shutter. For the first time in history photographers can see what they capture, and capture exactly what they see.

This huge change has engulfed the world of wildlife photography. The standard of photography has skyrocketed. The skill of stills photography is no longer capturing what you see – the skill is recognizing the uniqueness of what you have seen, and sharing that. Photography has changed from ‘capturing’ to ‘seeing’. It has become pure, with the camera no longer an obstacle obscuring reality. Photography is at last what it should be – a true reflection of reality.

But in my mind the biggest change yet is still to come – video frame-grab.

One of these days any of us will be able to grab a frame from video camera footage that will have the same quality as today’s stills cameras can capture. Soon we will be able not only to capture action at 180 frames per second, but also to capture an image after the action. With pre-recording functions, a photographer will be able to press the button a few seconds after the action has happened, and the camera will save what it saw in the few seconds before the button was pressed – at 180 frames per second.

For wildlife photography this is mind-boggling. Instantly, the skill of pressing the shutter at exactly the right moment becomes irrelevant. Stills photography will not be ‘grabbing a moment’, but ‘pointing a camera where action will take place’. Even focus will become irrelevant, with new technology that makes it possible to focus an image after it has been taken. Wildlife photography will cease to be a skill of human reflexes and technical abilities. Instead, simply being there and pointing the camera will be enough.

The question is: Will wildlife photography still be fun? With technology eliminating the need for fanatics like me who are addicted to the sound of the shutter, will the silent future of stills wildlife photography be as fulfilling as it is today? Will the real artists sit in dark offices grabbing frames from video footage instead of sitting on game drive vehicles?

I do wildlife photography so that I can be in the wild. It is the best excuse I have yet found for being out there. Will this technology end it? Will a silent world without shutters be bearable?

I am fortunate to have survived autofocus and digital capture. And the greatest lesson I have learnt from surviving is that you have to hold on to your boat when there are rapids coming. No matter what. And I have learned that waterfalls, dangerous as they are, are the most beautiful of all. Especially when viewed from downstream. At 180 frames per second.

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Last modified: September 18, 2016

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