Five years ago, Tim Plowden decided to radically change his life. He gave up his job in Britain and moved half way across the world to become a professional conservation photographer - before he had even acquired a client base. It was a huge gamble, but it paid off, because today, Tim has built affiliations with some of the biggest Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), including Conservation International, TRAFFIC and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He has worked in Asia, Europe, Africa and North America, and Tim's images have appeared in numerous publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Wildlife Photographic magazine. He's also an award-winning filmmaker.
For Tim, "Photography is not just about taking memorable images; it's getting people to think about nature and conservation, and feeling a connection with the animals we share this planet with." Tim describes his path to becoming a professional photographer as being, "Like a zig-zag - I haven't followed a straight path at all." That is an understatement.
Tim was born in Berkshire in 1973, and as a child, was interested in conservation, "When I was around eight, my primary school teacher set-up a conservation corner, which I got involved in. I used to love bird watching and sketching birds." Tim's interest in conservation got side tracked when he became a teenager, and after studying languages at Hull University, Tim did a variety of jobs including, working as a DJ in Germany; a stint with MTV, and a move into the corporate world, where he worked in both financial management and IT.
When Tim was in his late twenties, he moved back to conservation, working for several conservation groups in Norfolk and then for RSPB. "It was about this time, I got interested in photography," he recalls, "I bought myself an SLR and visited my brother in Nepal. I also got interested in Asia. The culture in some countries is about getting close to wildlife and that inspired me."
Back home in Norfolk, Tim met a professional wildlife photographer at RSPB, which inspired him, "It gave me the idea that you could make a living out of conservation photography, if you took it seriously." And when a local conservation organisation paid Tim to use some of his shots of insects in a brochure, he knew what he wanted to do. "I took the long-term view - I knew it was going to take time. I developed my photography skills and techniques, and my business skills. I focused on developing a photographic style that was saleable."
In 2013, Tim moved to Singapore. "I didn't have a client base - I just took the plunge. I was in the fortunate position of having savings behind me, so I had the creative and business freedom. But I appreciate that most people would need to move into freelance work more gradually."
Tim also moved to Singapore for personal reasons - his wife is Singaporean and they have a sixteen-month old daughter. "Singapore is a great hub - Borneo and Sumatra are on your doorstep, and Vietnam and Thailand are not far. There are many conservation issues in this part of the world, from illegal logging to animal trapping, and many NGOs operate in this region."
A conservation photographer needs to build relationships - with publishers, editors, and NGOs. "It is about having a reputation as someone who is professional, reliable, understands what the client requires and can deliver it effectively," says Tim, "I met someone from TRAFFIC [the wildlife monitoring network] who needed some primate images for a book they were writing. We built up a working relationship, and from that, I got contacts in Vietnam. That is how it works - it's not about social media. It's definitely about who you know and whether you are trustworthy, because these organisations are dealing with sensitive topics."
It's also about talent and technique, and anyone who has seen Tim's stunning macro photography will understand why his work is in such demand. "I got into macro work by accident," says Tim, "I worked with some field researchers who liked to go into the forest at night and look for frogs and reptiles, and it opened up a new avenue for my photography." Tim shoots with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens and a flash modifier for bouncing or diffusing light. "I tried some off-the-shelf modifiers, but they weren't satisfactory," explains Tim, "So I've built my own modifier which uses various bits - including packing foam - and is held together with Velcro and bulldog clips! I love the light it creates."
Tim travels with the minimum of kit, "I don't use a tripod because you want to travel light in the jungle. I try to do as little post-production as possible. I don't use a zoom - I work on my feet. I spent a lot of time on framing and composition, and use different perspectives to remove any elements I don't want. [conservation photographer] Art Wolfe says that photography is about the art of subtraction."
Preparing for an assignment often involves much work, "There's a lot of planning with the client and developing a collaborative spirit; taking time to understand their expectations and requirements. Then, there's the budget, schedule, shot list, location plans, travel, and if I'm doing an interview, preparing the questions. There's also research on the location, organisation and subject. Having a background in project management has helped. But you don't want to get overburdened with detail and lose that creative impulse." Getting into good shape is also vital, "Some assignments can be physically challenging, such as trekking up the Himalaya, so you need to keep your fitness up."
Tim has had many memorable assignments, including a trip to Vietnam that led to a close and dangerous encounter with poachers. "I was with an experienced undercover agent from an NGO, but even he was shaken by the incident," recalls Tim. Tim's work means he sees many of the worst aspects of human nature - how greed can lead to illegal trapping, unlawful wildlife trading and deforestation. But he also sees the other side, "The conservationists working in these areas are inspiring. They have so much passion, energy and love for the animals they are trying to save."
A one-month trip to Alaska involving both landscape and wildlife photography saw Tim shooting a wide range of animals, from bears to wolves, and sea lions to humpback whales. The resulting images were published in national newspapers and magazines. It also led to Tim working with Alaska-based musician Christel Veraart on a nature documentary, The Return of the Salmon, which won two film awards and was shown in film festivals around the world. "That Alaska trip opened many doors," says Tim.
Making a living as a freelance conservation photographer is challenging, and Tim says budding photographers should, "Go deep and broad. Develop a range of skills you can use. Although I am primarily a photographer, I also write and make films. If you can take photographs, you can also make films - it needs some new skills that are easy to pick up. I wrote a piece for New Scientist, which I enjoyed doing."
He adds, "Go deep as well. Focus on one animal or one location and go back to it time-and-time again to get a detailed understanding of the subject. You can gain a perspective that no one else has." Tim also advises, "Look beyond your field of creativity to find other sources of inspiration. For me, that includes photojournalism and abstract art. A hero of mine, [photojournalist] Don McCullin, once said that ‘Photography is not just about looking; it's about feeling.' Love what you are doing. It's not just about money. If you don't feel what you are shooting, you are not going to convey any feeling to your audience."
But can photography make a difference when it comes to conservation? Is the camera really mightier than the gun when it comes to protecting animals? "We live in an image-saturated world," says Tim, "and it's getting harder to create images that will have an impact. I hope my photographs can make a difference and change people's attitudes. I hope people look at my images and think, ‘We share this planet with some amazing animals and we need to protect them for future generations.'"www.timplowden.co.uk