David Yarrow
Travel / Wildlife

David Yarrow is a world-renowned Scottish born wildlife photographer based in London.


Named 'Young Scottish Photographer of the Year' at the age of 20, David started his career in the same year, covering the World Cup for The Times newspaper and producing what is still recognised as one of the most iconic images of the tournament; Maradona holding the trophy aloft.

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Since turning his lens on the natural world, David has built an unrivalled reputation for capturing the beauty of the planet's remote landscapes and endangered animals. His Encounter Collection was exhibited in November 2013 in Hong Kong, New York and London's Saatchi Gallery. In November 2015, David is exhibiting in two single-man shows at Kunsthuizen Gallery in Amsterdam and a one-time-only exhibition at the world-famous Bührle Museum in Zurich.

David puts his understanding of key environmental and geopolitical issues to practical use in his long-term commitment to Tusk as their affiliated photographer. Tusk, whose Royal Patron is HRH the Duke of Cambridge, recently marked its 25th anniversary with a gala dinner in New York, where David's work raised $80,000. The value of his work has continued to rise and the image Mankind II from his South Sudan series sold at an auction at Sotheby's New York for $45,000 in October this year.

David is the author of two highly successful fine-art photography books, Nowhere (2007) and Encounter (2013) – the latter winning him the coveted Spear's Book Award 2014 for Outstandingly Produced Book. He is also due to release a new book in 2016, which will include a wide selection of his most iconic work to date.

As a lifelong user of Nikon equipment, David has put his kit through unimaginably gruelling conditions in search of the most transcendent wildlife images.

Did the invitation to be a Nikon Ambassador come as a surprise?

Yes. I was very flattered, especially as there are so many great wildlife photographers out there. I recognise that the picture Mankind of the Dinka cattle herders is an important image and put me on the map but, yes, it was a great honour. I know Nikon very well – I was a sports photographer in a previous life, starting with Nikkormat and the FM2, so I've been using Nikon cameras and lenses for 30 years, and they've withstood exposure to everything from the freezing cold of the Canadian Arctic to the heat of the Namib Desert. My D810 was kicked by an elephant last week while I was out shooting in Kenya, and it emerged unscathed – an accolade to the robustness of Nikon kit.

How did you get into photography?

I've had a passion for photography since my mother, an eminent sculptor, gave me my first camera as a child. I've always loved sports and sports photography – one of my heroes is Eamonn McCabe, particularly for his boxing, rugby and football shots – and as a mad-keen football fan, although an average photographer, the easiest way to combine the two was photographing football matches. This really took off in the mid-1980s while I was an undergraduate at Edinburgh University.

One thing led to another and in 1986, aged 20, I found myself in Mexico for the World Cup – I was the youngest FIFA-accredited photographer there. By the time West Germany met Argentina in the final at the Azteca stadium, I still hadn't taken a decent picture, and my head was on the block. At the final whistle, thousands of fans flooded onto the pitch to celebrate Argentina's 3:2 win, and Maradona was hoisted onto someone's shoulders holding the cup aloft. I quickly attached my wideangle and dumped my long lens behind the West German goal, hoping no one would walk off with it, but I had to risk it as this was my only chance to get a shot of Maradona. The result was syndicated all over the world, but the best bit for me was finding my £5000 telephoto untouched behind the goal afterwards – I've always had a fondness for the Argentinian fans since then.

Why the switch to wildlife?

I was lucky with the sports photography – fairly early on I was taken under the wing of the Allsport team, who were very thorough in their training. It was an exciting place to work. I travelled the world and covered over 200 international football matches, as well as the World Cup, the Olympics and the Masters, before parental pressure finally came into play and I swapped sports photography for a career in finance. But I've always found going on location cathartic, so I'd go off with my camera into the wilderness as escapism.

At a football match there'll be 160 photographers shooting in a confined area, whereas with wildife photography there's often no one else within five miles. For me it's about the solitude, the final frontier places; I'm very attracted to outdoor extreme environments, the ones that give you that frisson of excitement, where you have to sacrifice comfort for content. I go alone; I want to go where no one's around, and people don't usually want to go when and where I'm going! When I arrive in a place, to think that no one I know has ever been there is very exciting to me.

I know a huge number of sports photographers and most of them are better than me, but it is a very demanding brief to make good money. Sports photographs tend to be literal in terms of capturing a moment in time, and whilst picture editors like them in colour, that format doesn't sell well as fine art.

The best-selling pictures are usually black and white, the format is timeless and a blend of perception and reality. Elephants are majestic and spiritual, tigers are fabled, lions are loved… these are the images that sell, so that's what I concentrate on. You could spend an awful lot of time and effort photographing komodo dragons, but they're never going to sell that well. I have to make this worth my while, especially since selling my finance business and concentrating solely on photography. I started taking pictures 34 years ago, and there is no going back now. I'll be doing this for the rest of my life and my desire to excel and get better has never been stronger.

What prompted the move to devoting yourself to photography full-time?

It came in 2011, capturing Jaws – a great white shark eating a seal. It's probably my most widely published reportage shot, and in my darker moments after an unsuccessful shoot, I sometimes have to remind myself that this is my image. It came after 28 hours of lying face down on the deck of a boat in False Bay near Cape Town. It was very tiring, being bumped about by the swell, hand-holding the lens – I couldn't use a tripod and I couldn't put the camera down because the moment you do a shark is going to come flying out of the water. I got this shot on the ninth morning at sea. I came back onshore and sat in a coffee shop in Simon's Town and could see on the camera's LCD how pin-sharp the photograph was. I remember being quite emotional; it was a big moment, the moment I knew I had to go and do this full-time.

Out of the many places you’ve travelled, which is your favourite location?

East Africa, and the Amboseli National Park in particular. It's a majestic place, a place where you can get evocative, spiritual images. March, April, October are the best times to visit, and October especially for the first rains – it's a magical time. I've just got back from a couple of weeks out there, photographing giraffe and elephant – it's where you see some of the world's biggest elephants. There's nowhere better to be than the Amboseli at six in the morning, with Kilimanjaro behind you, and the light changing every ten seconds. You've no idea what you're going to see, and every morning is different. It's one of the most elemental places on Earth.

Do you concentrate exclusively on wildlife?

I don't want to be pigeonholed purely as a wildlife photographer; I photograph things that happen outdoors, and there are so many things to photograph outside as long as they're different.

One thing I want to do more of is photographing people in their natural environment in a kind of biblical way, and more storytelling series. Telling stories is liberating because we do all become so immersed in the repetitious reality of daily life. It's good to dream and to conjure up imagery that is the stuff of fantasy.

And I still love shooting big sporting events. I was in the Ruhr recently for a big Borussia Dortmund v Bayer Leverkusen home game at Westfalenstadion, where I wanted to turn the camera on the spectators in the south stand – it's a single tier holding 24,500 home supporters, which is more than any other goal-facing stand in the world. I wanted to capture the raw, timeless feel of the crowd. There are over 10,000 Dortmund fans in the resulting image, Unity, all celebrating a home goal against their rivals; there's something tribal, almost gladiatorial about it.

What characterises your photography?

To get a picture that transcends the generic mainstream, you have to work really hard. I'm always trying to get better. I think I'm a better photographer now than I was five years ago because I'm always learning and I'm always looking for that special image.

I spend a lot of time working on the logistics of how to get a unique point of view. A key part of my prep is studying what types of images of my subject have already been taken, to look at the best pictures and figure out what went wrong with the others. You don't want something that is generic and hackneyed. Remember the Tarantino film, Pulp Fiction? Pulp fact is even worse than pulp fiction, and there's simply no place for generic pulp in photography today. You have to offer something new. That requires preparation and luck, as well as technical precision. I spend a long time thinking about the importance of compositional balance; you also have to have content that's strong, lighting that's not too harsh, do your research, learn the animals' habits…

After all that, if you get one good shot in five days, that's a good job. Over the years I've taken thousands of mundane images of wildlife, and no one's going to see them. You learn from failures – I know 100 ways to take a poor shot of a lion! All you can do is give it your best shot, make sure you're in the best place, and believe that you will eventually get the image.

In Africa I tend to shoot remotely, particularly with elephants and big cats; it creates the element of menace combined with the ground-up proximity that have become hallmarks of my African work. Sometimes, though, it's simply not possible to use a remote – hippos are a case in point, due to the sheer number of practical difficulties involved in capturing them, not least that their natural habitat is water, which is not a good environment for remotes. So, in those situations, I revert to the 'traditional' method of shooting handheld from a safe distance with a longish telephoto. Hippos kill around 3,000 people in Africa every year, so it would be stupid to try getting too close – 15 yards is near enough for me.

Getting up close to elephants can be quite scary, too, but the most terrified I've ever been was meeting a huge grizzly bear while out alone shooting in the woods in Katmai National Park, Alaska. You're briefed on what to do if this ever happens, and the advice is counter-intuitive – not to run away, but to move calmly to one side and talk to them as you do so. So I stood there, heart pounding, and said, 'Good afternoon, Mr Bear.' It just looked at me in contempt and walked off. In retrospect, it was rather comical, and it says little in favour of my sense of self-preservation that my first instinct when seeing it approaching me had been to raise my camera and take its picture…

You must have had many other interesting wildlife encounters over the years…

I have a custom-made steel casing to protect my remote camera, and then it's a matter of waiting for the animals to get close enough, and getting the timing perfect. To make it more attractive to a particular species, I'll scent the casing – rhinos are attracted to their own droppings, so for them I'll cake it in rhino dung, while lions in the Amboseli are interested, bizarrely, not in meat but in Old Spice, as that's what the local Masai have worn for years. So, for The Prize – a lioness walking across the dried-up bed of Lake Amboseli at sunrise, looking directly into the wideangle lens – we covered the casing in Old Spice stick aftershave, set everything up, retreated to the jeep 150 yards away and waited. It worked; the lioness came straight towards the camera against a clean backdrop. I was incredibly lucky. We'd spent four mornings trying to get this shot. Then, a second after the image was captured, the lioness picked up the casing in her mouth and loped away 500 yards into the bush with it. That case is heavy, around 14lb, so it says a lot about the power of a lioness's jaws. We had to follow her into the bush to get the camera and case back.

What’s in your kit bag, apart from the lion-proof casing?

I use the D4S and the D810 – the D4S for its fast motordrive and the D810 if I need very high resolution. My two biggest pictures in terms of sales were taken on the D810 – which is testament to the power of the resolution. With lenses, my view is that you have to be close or there's no point. The great war photographer Robert Capa said, 'If the picture is not good enough, you are not close enough.' No sentence has more influenced or prompted my photographic journey. A 400mm flattens everything; you need proximity to get the soul. I generally use wideangle lenses, including the 24mm f/1.4 and the 35mm f/1.4. If wideangles are the best lenses for portraits, then they should be for lions and elephants. I also really love the 58mm f/1.4, my 'warrior' lens – it's very expensive, but very high performance, and with the D810 it's a great combination. It's what I used for the Unity shot. If I do need the reach – which you do if you feel the animal, such as a polar bear, is a fatal threat – I tend to use the 200mm f/2, which is a beautiful lens.

What do you think has been key to becoming such a collectible photographer?

There is constancy in my commitment to the pursuit of excellence. I am very tough on myself and my view is that for a photograph to be bought by someone else, it has to really be exceptional.

I spend as much time looking at the business of photography as I do taking pictures. Galleries take a 50% cut, and there's no money in stock. To sell, and to sell for high figures, you need scarcity in your work, you need to make it exclusive, and you need to be known. We've got about 100,000 social media contacts at the moment, and if that were to reach 250,000, that would be a result.

There are so many photographers these days; far too many. In 2015, the key is not the camera per se, it's access – that's the most important thing, being able to access the right people, the right places to go. When I look at where my work sells and doesn't, I can see there are a lot of markets still to be tapped – Russia, China, Australasia…These days it's as much about sweating your arse off making contacts, getting your name known, meeting the collectors, as it is about capturing the image.

So what’s next on the agenda?

My largest single-man exhibition, Getting Close, opens on November 7 at Kunsthuis Gallery in Amsterdam, so I'm looking forward to that. As a Nikon Ambassador, I've got a lot on, including articles to write and a Nikon workshop to run in Zurich next year. I'll also be continuing to work with Tusk; I'm their affiliated photographer and it's a charity that is at the top of people's minds. Prince William is the patron, which opens doors for me, so if I can make a speech for Tusk which helps raise awareness and helps open doors for me in Africa for more photography, it's helpful all round. But I've probably finished photographing for this year. Out of everything I've done in 2015, I've taken two powerful images, and 15 that are strong; less is more is my mantra. If I can take three or four good wildlife pictures a year, I'm very happy.

Do you have a photographic confession?

I used to think the most important thing was how much you sold a picture for. Now I know the most important thing is the length of engagement that the picture engenders – the longer people want to look at it, the stronger it is. If I can gain and retain people's attention, that's the height of my objectives. That's what I aim for in my images.