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An Interview with Charles Glatzer

by Tina Hay | January 3, 2018

Charles GlatzerCanon “Explorer of Light” Chas Glatzer talks about wildlife photography, the importance of the fundamentals, and what’s next in camera gear.

Earlier in your career, you did other kinds of photography—including weddings and portraits—before turning to wildlife photography. What did you learn as a portrait photographer that’s made you a better photographer of animals?

Anyone who works in a studio environment learns about light—the quantity of light, the quality of light, the direction of light. Everything is a ratio: How bright is the right side compared to the left, how bright is the subject relative to the background. It’s not just that the subject is lit, but how it’s lit. Subconsciously, I’m sure that that carries over to my wildlife imagery.

It’s the same thing with camera angles. If you’re taking a head shot, the camera should be at eye level; as you back away, you start to lower the camera. If you’re shooting the top of head to the waist, you want the camera at chest level. If you’re shooting full length, the camera is lower, maybe at the waist. You want to raise or lower the camera, rather than tilt it, to avoid distortion. All of those lessons transfer over to shooting wildlife as well.

Whooper swans in Japan © Charles Glatzer

Similarly, I like images where the animal is making eye contact. It draws the viewer in, just as it does in portrait photography. A lot of wildlife photographers don’t want that, because it gives away that the animal was aware of the photographer—but, trust me, the animal knows you’re there. I want that connection between the subject and viewer.

Wolf at seal river © Charles Glatzer

You’ve said that one way to get better as a wildlife photographer is to gain a better understanding of wildlife behavior. Can you give an example?

We were photographing three black bear cubs in a tree, and I heard the mom give a guttural grunt, which I know is a sign to call the cubs down from tree. I had the group stop what they were doing, come over, turn their cameras vertical, and get their exposure settings right. I also knew that as each cub came down the tree, the mom would touch it to reassure it. So it’s about being proactive rather than reactive.

Black bears standing © Charles Glatzer

Here’s another example: I know that loons are solid-boned. In order to submerge, they need to get the air out of their feathers and lungs. To become negatively buoyant, they squeeze their feathers and exhale. If you see them do that and sink straight down, that’s predatory mode. That means you should stop looking for the loon and instead look for something on the surface that they’re about to prey on. I’ve seen them eat duck chicks; I’ve seen them spear cormorants.

Your favorite animal to photograph is bears. Why is that?

I think we see a lot of human traits in bears, so we can relate to them. And each is unique in its personality and physiology. They’re amazing to watch: Even within the same species, different bears have different ways of fishing, and different tolerance for personal space. You never know how they’re going to react to another bear.

Bear with fish © Charles Glatzer

People also have that fear factor, so for me it’s about dispelling myths, the idea that every bear wants to eat you. We photograph polar bears while we’re lying on the ground 40 yards away. We stay safe by looking for specific behavioral “tells”: The bear’s head might start to jaw-pop, it yawns, it salivates—these are all signs of anxiety. If the head lowers and sways back and forth, and the bear raises its eyes, well, let’s just say that’s bad. The more quickly you recognize those traits, the more quickly you can defuse the situation—by backing up, talking softly, or spreading your arms to make yourself seem bigger.

Polar bear © Charles Glatzer

Spirit bear © Charles Glatzer

What I learned with snow monkeys in Japan is that they’ll tolerate your being a few feet away, but if you stare into their eyes and raise your eyebrows, that’s a sign of aggression.

Snow monkey © Charles Glatzer

You offer a four-day technical workshop each year. How did that come about? You must have seen a need.

I’ve been doing the Technical Workshop Series since the mid 1990s. I’m constantly pushing the idea that if you understand the fundamentals, then you can concentrate on the aesthetics—the composition, the decisive moment. Those things are going to make your picture different from everyone else’s.

We spend a full day on metering, a full day on visual design and in-field workflow, a full day on using flash, and a full day on post-production. By “visual design and in-field workflow” I mean seeing in your mind the image you want to get, and picking the tools and techniques to capture that image. And we’re able to go outside and practice what we preach. Not one person who takes the workshop doesn’t come back and say it fundamentally changed how they approach photography.

Bald eagles © Charles Glatzer

Are there any areas left in the world where you’d like to photograph more?

Yes. Borneo’s Komodo Island. The Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, which has the highest congregation of brown bears in the world. Musk ox in Norway. Madagascar. Greenland.

I’ve been doing black bears for 13 years, loons for 15, the Falklands for 14. So when I go to these repeat places, I know the subjects and the locations intimately—I know where the animals will be, based on location, weather, and time. It’s great for the participants—but for my own portfolio, and to maintain enthusiasm, I need the new locations.

Flock takeoff © Charles Glatzer

Looking to the future, do you think there’ll come a day when we’ll all be doing nature photography with very different gear than we use today? Mirrorless cameras come to mind.

I think mirrorless will be the future. We won’t have to worry about micro-adjustments to autofocus, because you’re focusing directly off the sensor. And the lighter weight is appealing because of airline travel restrictions. When they get the electronic viewfinders up to snuff, that’s going to be a game changer. Looking through the electronic viewfinder, or EVF, of a mirrorless is similar to using Live View on a DSLR—If it looks light, it’s light. If it looks too dark, it’s too dark. The only problems are that for wildlife, the superfast autofocus isn’t there yet, and the manufacturers don’t yet have the long glass you need for wildlife. They have the adaptors, but they slow down the autofocus. But I believe they will get there.

Chas Glatzer

About Charles Glatzer

Chas is a Canon Explorer of Light, a designation recognizing him as one of the most influential photographers in the world. Early in his career he worked in commercial photography, including portraits, weddings, advertising, catalog and product, editorial, professional sports, and underwater photography. In the mid-1990s he founded Shoot The Light, and he has since taught hundreds of photographers in his workshops throughout the United States and abroad. He is known as one of the top wildlife photographers and teachers working today; his work has received more than 40 prestigious awards, and his images have appeared in such publications as National Geographic, Outdoor Photographer, Popular Photography, Smithsonian, Birder’s World, Birding, and Nature Photographer, among others. He lives in North Carolina.

See more of Chas’ work at shootthelight.com, facebook.com/charles.glatzer, and Instagram.com/charlesglatzer.

About the Author

Tina Hay is editor of the Penn Stater, the alumni magazine for the 176,000 members of the Penn State Alumni Association. She’s also an avid traveler and photographer; recently one of her photos took Best in Show at Images 2016, a statewide competition in conjunction with the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. You can see some of her images at flickr.com/tinahay and visit her blog at sites.psu.edu/tinahay. Follow her on Twitter @tinahay.

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