Richard Peters
Wildlife Photographer

Inspired by the natural history documentaries he watched insatiably as a child, Richard Peters has always been drawn towards wildlife photography, and his passion has been rewarded with numerous awards both at home and internationally

Inspired by the natural history documentaries he watched insatiably as a child, Richard Peters has always been drawn towards wildlife photography, and his passion has been rewarded with numerous awards both at home and internationally, including the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the British Wildlife Photography Awards. His images – all taken with Nikon gear – are notable for the quality of their light and composition, his background in graphics honing his eye for strong shapes and colour.

Richard is a regular photography magazine contributor, has written content for wildlife, science and adventure channel Eden TV, runs photographic workshops and is a contributor to the prestigious Remembering Elephants book – hailed as a 'Live Aid' for wildlife photographers, the book aims to raise funds to fight elephant poaching, with top names in the field donating images. Richard is also currently finishing his own ebook, Back Garden Safari, which will be published soon.

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How has your career progressed?

I started taking pictures after leaving school, where I'd always enjoyed art and design, then in 2000 I went on holiday to Canada, photographed just about everything I saw, and realised that I really enjoyed it. Wildlife imaging felt like a natural progression – I'd grown up watching BBC wildlife documentaries and they'd been a huge influence on me. Although I'm ashamed to say that for many years I was something of a weekend/fair-weather photographer, in the last five years it's something I've seriously pursued, although it's only fairly recently that it's become full time. I've been lucky in that I was able to work 50% of my time as a photographer and 50% of my time for Sky News doing graphics, which gave me an income while my photography career was starting. More recently I've been getting into workshops, usually teaming up with other friends in the business. I'm also about to start doing photo safaris with an African travel company – I'll be covering the Great Migration next year.

How would you describe your style?

The 13 years I worked for Sky News doing graphics really went hand in hand with my approach to photography. I've always been about nice visuals – from photos, to the way things are laid out on a page or even how a room is decorated. As my style matures, I find myself increasingly drawn to how I use light, how it plays on the subject. And as my career progresses, I find I'm shooting less but shooting smarter, because I'm thinking more about what I want to achieve. I'm very critical of my own work, and always have been. I think people who are naturally artistic have this very self-critical thing going on, and in a way it helps keep you grounded.

Do you have a favourite image?

I do have one or two recent images that will make their debut in my book and which are fast becoming favourites. But aside from those, I guess the one I'm most associated with has to be the fox image 'Snow Pounce', which was awarded in the 2012 BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year. It was shot in Yellowstone, which was an amazing experience in itself, and to have that image come out of it… Yet I almost deleted it at the time. I captured a sequence of the fox leaping for its prey, and because it was half out of the frame in this shot I really wasn't too sure about it. I only decided to keep it as it was quite cool having the entire leap documented. I thought it would be an image most people would dismiss, but actually most love it.

Most challenging shoot?

Everything about wildlife photography is challenging, as animals rarely do what you want them to, but one subject that stands out for me is probably the waxwing. It migrates to the UK in winter but because it doesn't come down south – I'm based in Surrey – in big numbers, I've driven hundreds of miles around the country trying to capture it but never managed. Then two years ago waxwings came to a front garden, outside a bus stop on a busy high street, just a couple of miles from my house. I got some funny looks setting up my tripod in the bus shelter…

Is there any species you particularly prefer to photograph?

I've always favoured mammals over birds (although if I am shooting birds, I prefer raptors and owls to small species). With mammals, the bigger the better. I particularly like photographing African big cats. When you're faced with one and it's staring at you, you sometimes need to step back, put the camera down and soak it all it in, otherwise you can end up missing the experience and go home with a card full of pictures but no clear recollection of where you've been.

How does your workload split between work for yourself and commissions?

I rarely do commissions. It's great if I get them, but I wouldn't want them to be my main thing, as it would take the fun out of it if I had to shoot all the time for someone else rather than myself. If I put a picture of something cute on Facebook, loads of people will like it, but post something a bit more artistic and it gets nowhere as many likes, which is frustrating. It's the same with commercial work – wildlife images that sell easily are the standard straightforward ones, but for me it goes back to creativity and freedom of expression.

Have you always been a Nikon man?

Yes, right from the beginning. When I was first starting out, I had a friend who was into photography and used Nikon, and I wanted to borrow his lenses, so I got an F80 film camera. Six months later I switched to the D100, and I've steadily upgraded my way through the DSLR range ever since. I'm now mainly using the D810, probably 95% of the time – prior to that my main camera was the D800 – and I also have a D4 and a D3200. The D4 only comes out if I really need the speed and the D3200 was actually a recent purchase, for use solely in a camera trap set-up. The speed of the D4 is great, but for me speed is not as important as that high resolution, which is why I favour 36MP bodies.

The main reasons I switched from the D800 to the D810 were because I didn't want an anti-aliasing filter – I wanted to get my shots as sharp as I could; and also the fact that the shutter on the D810 is so much quieter. That is really important with wildlife; to have that with all the bells and whistles of a top-end camera is amazing. The high ISO sensitivity is very handy too, although I try to keep it low if I can; I don't usually go higher than ISO 3200, to ensure the best dynamic range. That being said, I'd rather a noisy image than no image at all.

Which lenses do you use?

I've just upgraded to the new 400mm f/2.8E FL from the old 600mm VR. It's purely a weight thing; although I loved it, the old 600mm is very big, heavy and awkward to carry around. I damaged the cartilage in my knee a while back, so weight is a big issue. I borrowed the 400mm for a trial, and it's become my current baby. Aside from the weight, I was also hugely impressed with how versatile it is, working so well with teleconverters, so there is no real loss switching to a lens with less native focal length. I also love the 18-35mm G – it's a brilliant little lens. OK, it's not pro grade, but the quality is spot-on at f/8, and because it's a wideangle, stopping it down isn't an issue. It's so small and compact that it's very easy to put in your bag. I've also got the 200-400mm f/4 VR – the older one – the 50mm f/1.4 and the two main teleconverters.

I recently sold my 70-200mm, and before that the old 28-70mm AFS, as I'm in the middle of an equipment transition (the 200-400mm will go next). As I've developed my style I've realised there were focal lengths I simply wasn't using. Optics are getting better all the time; newer versions are ever better, and tend to be lighter, too. So my kit list is getting smaller as I mature into what I'm doing. I'm no longer so worried about what I've got – it's more about how I'm using it. It's amazing how versatile even one lens can be. That said, although it's quite a niche optic, I've always had a soft spot for the 200mm f/2, and I've been hugely impressed with the recent 300mm f/4E PF.

Is there any such thing as a ‘typical' working day, week or month?

Although many people assume that, as a wildlife photographer, I spend most of my days travelling, I actually spend a lot of time at the computer. I do quite a bit of writing for magazines and websites, I do a lot of social media, and this year's been a bit different from usual as I'm just finishing writing my first ebook, Back Garden Safari – it's taken me quite a long time as I'm as fussy about what I write as I am with what I photograph, and it's quite a substantial book. With the e-book taking up so much time, this year my travelling has been restricted to Greece, Africa and Skomer, but next year I'm planning to be away more, although it's also equally important to me that I balance my home life with my professional one.

What would be your dream assignment?

It's a cliché, but it would have to be something for National Geographic. I'd also love to spend a month in one location, on my own, to really concentrate on one particular subject or area. I've always wanted to go to Alaska to photograph bears and eagles – I know it's been done, but I want to experience it for myself.

Do you have a photography confession to make? (We promise we won’t tell…!)

I nearly gave up in 2008-9 – there came a point where I didn't pick up a camera for a year. I hadn't taken anything decent for a long time, I wasn't as technically accomplished as I am now, my inspiration was low and hanging up the camera became a hard habit to break. Then a photographer friend – the same guy who introduced me to Nikon – invited me to Marwell Zoo in Winchester for the day. With the animals right in front of me, it was so easy to shoot there and I got some images I really liked. It made me realise that wildlife photography was what I wanted to be doing. That was kind of the light-bulb moment I needed turning what I deemed before as a hobby into being a part of who I am.

How did you feel when you were asked to contribute to the Remembering Elephants book?

It was lovely to be asked to submit an image. I looked at the list of names that have been asked to contribute, including Frans Lanting, Art Wolfe and David Lloyd, and aside from the satisfaction of having a picture in a book alongside them, it's raising money and awareness for a really good cause. It's amazing how quickly it's been successful, and it's heartwarming to see so many people taking the cause on board.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Don't judge your own success by other people's. Other people have things going wrong all the time, but you only hear about their successes. So do it for yourself, because you want to be taking photos, because you want to be creative. And don't be put off by the fact that something has been photographed already – if you did that, you'd never shoot anything! It's all about experiencing things for yourself and not trying to please others.