National Geographic Magazine assignment 2014 I’m obsessed with kingfishers. I have been since I was seven years old and to date I have shot and written two books on them and one National Geographic magazine article. So I’m on assignment for National Geographic magazine in Wyoming and I find a belted kingfisher nest – well I have no choice, I’ve got to photograph it.
I was given my first camera for my 13th birthday, it was my dad’s old Nikkormat EL. It had a dent in the side, he claimed he’d dropped it out of a plane but I’m sure that was just to make the clunky old silver body a slightly more exciting proposition.
I loved it though (and still do). I took it everywhere with me for years and took appalling photos with it wherever I went. I had a selection of terrible lenses and my Grandfather’s crappy old wobbly tripod. I spent weeks on end sitting in hides trying to get shots of kingfishers. They were all terrible. I spent days on the bus going backwards and forwards to the lab to get my rolls of film put through the E6 process and I walked out of the lab a million times with the weighty feeling of frustration and failure. I got bored of school shortly after my fifteenth birthday and effectively left in order to photograph kingfishers. My pictures were terrible, my exam results worse - 3 GCSEs. Although I did get an A in Woodwork!
I took myself off to Shetland at 16 armed with 30 rolls of Kodachrome to photograph otters. My pictures started to improve. I loved it there. I was alone with a camera and lots of otters. I became obsessed with Shetland and its otters and filming them for the BBC and photographing them for National Geographic Magazine became my life’s ambition.
I managed to get myself into Falmouth School of Art and Design after returning from Shetland. I studied photography there for 2 years and got a B-Tech National Diploma. I was young, stupid and arrogant at the time and still had the schoolboy rebel about me so I don’t think I flourished as well as I perhaps could have.
College taught me one thing above all others though - making a living as a photographer is bloody hard. So I began to drift into television. Over the next few years I scrabbled around for the smallest bits of work that the BBC would give me, between working as a laborer in Shetland and a kitchen porter. I had some great jobs though. I got to spend 6 months in a cottage with my dog Bill on the Isle of Skye filming otters and I got sent off to Ethiopia for three months to film Ethiopian Wolves.
Filming lions in the Serengeti.
My work load started to increase as I started to get a reputation for being able to film otters and kingfishers. They were both species that were perceived to be hard to film and they were both in high demand. In my early twenties I got onto the BBC Natural History Unit cameraman bursary scheme and my career as a wildlife cameraman was confirmed. I barely took a still photograph until my early thirties. It wasn’t really until I went to the Wildscreen film festival.
I had just won the award for Cinematography at the festival and was walking out when I bumped into a friend who introduced me to a lady called Kathy Moran. Kathy was and still is the Senior Natural History Editor for National Geographic Magazine. I called my friend up later and asked if she and Kathy would be around for dinner later in the week. We met up in London and I told Kathy that I wanted to shoot pictures of otters for her. ‘You got any pictures to show me?’ she asked. I explained that I had none - not the best way to break into the Geographic! She was great about it though and I said I’d go and shoot some.
A few weeks later I was in Shetland. It was winter, dark cold and windy. I’d bought a Canon 10D and was shooting otters so I was happy. A week later I emailed them over to Kathy. She got straight back to me and told me very politely to go away and take some decent pictures. A year later I met up with her again, this time armed with a selection of kingfisher pictures. She liked them and suggested how I could improve them. I then shot kingfishers for five more years before the magazine finally accepted them. Breaking into National Geographic Magazine was by far the hardest thing I have done in my life. The demands for quality are unsurpassed in the industry. It’s that obsession with perfection that I thrive on.
When I’m not out taking pictures I run Halcyon Media LTD with my wife Philippa. We specialise in making wildlife documentaries, mainly for the BBC. Films include - My Halcyon River, The Wild Wood, On the Trail of Tarka, Wye - Voices from the Valley (Natural World BBC 2) We also made Saving Grace for Animal Planet which was reversioned by the BBC into An Otter in the Family. Our last series - Halcyon River Diaries was a four part series for BBC 1 2010. It told the story of me and my family, as we spent a year on the river outside our house getting to know our wild neighbors.
Filming with the kids for Halcyon River Diaries was an eye opening experience.
It was my first big venture into presenting for television. However I was determined that I was not going to put on a presenter personality, I was just going to be myself. So I was a little bit grumpy in some of the scenes and I did shout at the kids in some others! We had great fun all being out on the river together. I enjoyed being in front of the camera, although I did get bored being filmed every time I walked out of a door.
Occasionally I also write Books include – Kingfishers Published by Colin Baxter Photography (1995) was a pretty poor stab at a book on kingfishers but I was only young. The Matewix published by Harper Collins (2007) was a parody on the Matrix trilogy. It’s very silly and just basically a load of teenage toilet humor. It is by far my best selling book though and despite only taking three weeks to write, sold 40,000 copies! Kingfisher – Tales from the Halcyon River published by EM Books (2009) was a lifetimes work on kingfishers. Halcyon River Diaries published by Preface (spring 2010) Philippa and I wrote together and was the book to go with the series