From Student to International Award Winning Nature Photographer — An Interview with Stefan Christmann
From Student photographer to working in Antarctica with BBC, Stefan reveals the key lessons he’s learnt along the way.
We had the pleasure of catching up with nature photographer, Stefan Christmann, owner of Nature in Focus, to hear more about his passion for photography and the planet.
Born in Germany 1983 and inspired in 2002, Stefan’s been travelling the world ever since, in pursuit of the perfect picture.
As the first International student to receive a nature photography scholarship from the North American Nature Photography Association, to working in Antarctica with the BBC, Stefan offers his insights around what inspires and what drives him on to keep challenging himself.
“Up until this day, the thing I enjoy most is creating my own visions and interpretations of this planet in the form of photographs.”
Sam at WONDR:
In 2002, you visited Yellowstone National Park, which sounds like the beginning for your interest in photography. What was it that inspired you to pursue this art form?
You are right, it all started with a trip to Yellowstone National Park in Montana/Wyoming, where I was staying during a student exchange. When we visited this magnificent area I was blown away by nature and the many miracles all around me (geysers blowing off steam, bison walking right through hot spring areas and coyotes searching for food in the great valleys).
However, all I had with me was a 1.3MP digital compact camera with a very limited focal range and an even more limited personal photographic skill-set. Consequently, whatever I saw and then captured on the sensor never looked like the real scene in front of me.
Upon my return to Germany I borrowed my dad’s old fully manual Minolta SRT-303b SLR camera along with three lenses (28mm, 50mm and 135mm) and started to experiment on how to really capture my vision onto film. Nature seemed like a great place to experiment, since there was an abundance of subjects, so a friend (who was also interested in photography) and I ventured out into the forests whenever we got the chance and played with long exposures, shallow depth of field, polarizing filters and so on. It was the time spent out in nature that really got me hooked on the complexity of ecosystems and the many treasures that are hidden all around us — we just need to see them.
Over time, how I saw things evolved and I learned to anticipate how a real life scene would look through the lens with a shallower depth of field, a certain shutter speed and just in general the settings I could pick on the camera. The camera had evolved from being a tool for creating an image of nature into a tool for creating an interpretation of nature.
Up until this day the thing I enjoy most is creating my own visions and interpretations of this planet in the form of photographs.
What inspires you most to continue your photography?
I think one of the things that inspires me most is that there are always new things to discover in nature and new things to learn about photographic technique and style. It’s an ever evolving hobby and never gets dull at all.
Plus, the moment you realise that you can do some good for this planet by educating people about the many treasures it holds, it’s extremely rewarding.
I do have phases in which I do not photograph at all, mainly due to my every day job as an engineer and the resulting lack of time, but I can feel that creative energy coming back to me as soon as I pick up the camera and shoot for a couple of minutes. In a way it offers a great opportunity to break away from normal life and immerse myself in a world, that is governed by very simple rules and inhabited by wonderful creatures.
How have people played a part in your journey so far?
It’s fair to say that people have played crucial roles in my development as a photographer and also in my photographic education.
I got my first photography lessons from a good friend of my parents who had travelled around in Africa and took magnificent photos of the Sahara desert. Whenever we visited him I was standing in front of the prints in his apartment, mesmerised by the sheer beauty and elegance of the sand dunes. I asked him if he would teach me how to photograph and sure enough he took the time and taught me everything about film speeds, apertures and shutter speeds.
Afterwards, as I stated before, I spent a lot of time with a friend from school as we both explored our surroundings and developed our photographic styles. When I visited friends in the US, whom I had met during my first student exchange, I contacted a local nature photographer I had read about in a magazine and asked him for some tips to photograph in Yellowstone Park.
While I did not really expect an answer (I had tried the same with various other nature photographers and never succeeded) he did not only call me back, but actually went out together with me and taught me some of his secrets and showed me some of “his” spots. It was such a great experience to pick an accomplished photographer’s brain and to get instant feedback on everything I was doing.
Then in 2005 my hobby had really turned into a passion and I got nominated for a NANPA college student scholarship which brought me to Charlotte, NC for a NANPA summit. The organisers of the college student scholarship program were inspiring people who took great care of the young photographers and brought them into contact with some of the most renowned nature photographers on the planet. It was an exhilarating experience to say the least.
I do remember one thing quite vividly from that trip: we were showing some of our photos in an exhibit during the summit and while we were standing close to our displays a man whom I had never seen before walked up to me and asked me whether these were my images. When I told him that they were he said,
“You’ve got a great photography future ahead of you”
— being a nobody in the photographic community at that point, this statement not coming from a friend but from a complete stranger was a very big motivation and a much needed acknowledgement of my work.
Would you encourage aspiring photographers to reach out to others they admire for advice and tips?
In the end, I can only recommend reaching out to people and ask for help. In principle you have nothing to lose, but only to gain and you might be surprised about the contacts you make and the information you get. It might just be the experience you need in order to reach the next level in your development.
Have networks and teams been important or do you work best independently?
Ever since I have been to the NANPA summit, I have realized how important networking is. In Germany we have an equivalent to NANPA, which is called the GDT and in 2009 I became a full time member of this organization. It’s filled with incredibly talented people who are willing to share their knowledge.
When I started out in the GDT, I was amongst a group of a handful of young people, who were also members, so we started to plan photo tours together and organised. Some time that very same year we talked to the board members of GDT and started our very own youth group within the organisation in order to enable young people to get access to well-known photographers and also to integrate fresh ideas and imagery.
The group is a complete success up until this day and young members have increased in numbers a lot — the talent which is coming out of GDT is amazing and I am absolutely sure that this is the same for many other countries and like organisations — you just need to give people a voice and a platform where they can thrive. In my opinion, networks and organisation can be exactly that. Of course networks can also work on a smaller scale. I have a group of people I go on photo trips with locally as well and it’s always great fun.
How important is it to continuously learn and build knowledge in the things you’re interested in; Photography and Global Exploration?
I believe these two aspects to be key, which drive me to continue pursuing photography. It’s a synergy really — by wanting to explore the world and the countless marvellous places, I get to evolve my photographic style, my ideas and my creativity.
On the other hand, being in these places and photographing them makes me want to explore new places as well. More than once I have found great new places by looking at images that others took and which inspired me through simplicity or sheer beauty.
In terms of photographic style and technique it’s quite obvious that the entire community is constantly evolving and changing. By looking at the work of others and finding aspects about it which I like I automatically will try to incorporate some of these aspects into my own work and grow as an artist. It’s important to stay fresh and unique, to keep my brain entertained and I believe this is true for all aspects of life.
Thankfully, nowadays it’s incredibly easy to find sources of inspiration and to look at the creative output of other photographers. I am constantly scrolling through online services like Instagram and 500px and there are many nature photography oriented message boards in which you can ask almost anything and find a corresponding specialist who is happy to help. Of course, WONDR is a great resource to find information and to have a meaningful exchange with people who share your passion.
The possibilities are almost endless and you just have to make use of them. I also frequently use the web in order to find information on photographic locations like which time of the year is best for photography or which species of animals and plants to expect in certain areas.
In 2017, you went on assignment in Antarctica for the BBC Natural History Unit, which sounds pretty epic 🐧, but what do you feel has been your greatest achievement to date and why?
In a way getting to work for a company like the BBC on an assignment like making a film about the emperor penguins of Antarctica is probably my biggest achievement in terms of a photography career up to this day. This is as expensive and complicated as it gets for a natural history production and the fact that I was trusted to be part of the three man film team is a clear sign of trust in my skills.
However, I feel that my biggest personal achievement was staying focused during all that time and always giving my very best, even when I was tired and exhausted. Working in a harsh environment like Antarctica does take a toll on your body and there were many days when the wind was blowing and the temperatures had dropped below -40°C and I would have rather stayed inside and rested.
However, whenever we could argue that it was safe enough to go outside, we did. When you’re battling with your body and energy levels, it can be quite tough to stay focused on the creative process. Reminding myself everyday of the unique opportunity of this place and the fact that my pain would only be temporary though, I was able to create a portfolio of images, which is probably the most complete and unique portfolio of the emperor penguins’ life on the planet.
I really do believe that this is true, since most photographers will visit Antarctica in the summer, but almost never (at least not to my knowledge) will they also stay for the entire winter. And even if they stayed for an entire winter, they would have to be out in the field as often as we were 😁.
What advice would you give someone looking to pursue the topics that matter most to them?
It’s always hard for me to give this advice, since I am not the most patient person myself, but really patience is a key virtue when it comes to pursuing a passion.
Nobody will become a master over night. One thing which I have learned over the years that I have been trying to gain traction in the field is, that the path which leads to success is very individual and different for all of us.
Never let yourself be discouraged, because you are not advancing as fast as someone else or if you are not heading into the same direction as your idol.
Photography is utterly personal and subjective and if you truly care about what you do, you WILL have success eventually. It took me over ten years to get recognised by the community, but I kept doing what I loved and composing images in the way that I liked and that excited ME.
Specifically, what would you advise people about their own aspirations in photography?
No matter what your specific aspirations in photography are I believe you should always stay true to yourself.
I would never start copying a style which might be en vogue, but does not resonate with my artistic vision. What helps much more in achieving photographic goals is being passionate about your subject and passionate about your photography. In the end you are the artist and your vision will be captured in the final image, so you have to be the person to look at the image and be proud of it. As long as you are not specifically shooting for a customer you are shooting for yourself and your own portfolio. Then, as time evolves, you will develop your own style and your own artistic signature and people will begin to recognise your work amongst others.
Finally, there will be people who will love your work and also people who will dislike your work. If there are very obvious weak points in your photography (for example if you always underexpose images),
try to work and improve on them [weaknesses], but always spend more energy on developing your strengths.
You will never be able to please everybody but you should always be able to please yourself.
Success will come automatically.
Follow Stefan on Instagram too, to keep up with his incredible photography!