It is not often one finds someone willing to traipse around the chilly Alaskan countryside, looking for moose. But, that is precisely what I found when I met Clemens Vanderwerf last spring. We had already spent a week on the Kachemak Bay photographing eagles, sea otters, Stellar’s Sea Lions and a host of pelagic seabirds. But on my last day, I wanted to go looking for moose in the countryside and Clemens joined me.
We saw several moose off in the distance, but none close enough to make it worth pulling out our cameras. Clemens had a flight to catch and it was time to head back into town. As a last-ditch effort, we decided to take an old logging road that ran along the highway. Around the second bend, we found our quarry: a young bull moose standing in someone’s front yard. It was a scene right out of Northern Exposure. Thirty minutes later, we had our frames and were headed to the airport.
At that point, I knew I had met a kindred spirit; someone I wanted to shoot with again and someone I wanted to talk to more about our craft.
You are an accomplished wildlife photographer with a broad range of subjects and locations. What is your favorite and why?
I love the colder regions of our planet, especially when ice and snow is involved. Snow provides a great canvas for my subjects as it is clean and makes the subject stand out. Penguins are one of my favorite birds to photograph, from single birds to large groups of penguins or even feather details. There is a lot of variety possible.
You have a talent for capturing a lot of an animal’s “personality” in your photos. How do you accomplish that when the subjects are wild animals?
When you get low and eye-level with the animals, you already create intimacy as the background tends to be further away and out of focus. This makes the animal pop in the frame. You need to be patient once you have the right framing and wait for the moment that the animal’s eyes lock in with yours. That is the moment when you create a sequence of images by holding the shutter down for 2-3 images. Understanding your subjects behavior also helps to be ready when the action happens.
You have been to both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Aside from the subjects, what appeals to you about shooting in such extreme environments?
Both polar areas stayed relatively clear of human intervention but are heavily under threat as a result of global warming and climate change. The extreme raw beauty of ice is rapidly disappearing especially in the Arctic. I wanted to document as much as I can because it will change faster than we expect. Experiencing the vast emptiness and remoteness in the polar regions makes you realize that we need to protect this for future generations.
Any tips to share for cold-weather shooting?
Make sure you prepare yourself. The cold can be tough on the human body and photo equipment. Dress appropriately and make sure you bring enough batteries in the field, as they tend to drain faster at colder temperatures. Getting to the polar regions involves lots of travel on aircraft and ships. Make sure you bring the right equipment but travel as light as possible.
Aside from the mechanics of photography (e.g. the exposure triangle, framing and composition), what one piece of advice would you give a person picking up the camera for the first time to help them capture the best image.
Keep it simple. Try to leave as much clutter out of the image in order to focus all the attention on the subject. I pay actually more attention to the background of an image than the subject. If you take care of the background the subject will take care of itself.
What book or film to you like to revisit regularly? Why?
I like the Jason Bourne movies because they combine the right amount of action and suspension with beautiful and impactful imagery, camera angles, etc.
What creative habit did you add, remove or alter, which resulted in a breakthrough in your work?
I always like it when there is a connection between the subject and the viewer. This creates an intimacy which adds to the strength of an image. I try to achieve this by getting eye-level with the subject and wait for the right pose. I make sure I get myself in the best position to minimize the impact of the background in order to focus maximum attention on the subject. Once I became aware of this my photographs started to improve.
When leading a seminar, what is the one question you wish your students would ask?
Most people are focused on exposure and equipment questions, With what lens did you take that image? Although all this is important, I wish they would ask: What makes a great image? Most of the time this has nothing to do with exposure or equipment.
What one tool or technique would you give every one of your students to improve their business?
I see a lot of photographers who present their images on so-called photo websites which are not really practical to show the images in the most impactful way, or are difficult to navigate through. This is a missed opportunity, as there are options available that are relatively cheap and present your work in a very professional way. Do not forget that there is only one chance at a first impression.
Some artists embrace the unknown. Others try to control for it. Which are you? Why?
I like being surprised by the unknown. Since my focus is on nature and wildlife photography you never know what is going to happen, what you will see or when it will happen. This is part of the fun. Sometimes you have to wait long and other times action happens right in front of you. It is important to know your subject or location so that you can anticipate what might happen. This will usually put you in the best possible spot. Preparation will increase your chances of success, and when everything comes together, and you walk away with some great images, you feel excited, fulfilled and happy.
Name an active photographer whose work consistently inspires you?
I really like the creative approach of Jasper Doest, a Dutch wildlife photographer.
When you need a creative kickstart, what does it for you?
I spend a lot of time looking at other photographers images. I scan their websites and try to verbalize what I like and do not like. This is a great way to improve your own way of looking at things. Ultimately, in the field all these impressions merge into something you created consciously or unconsciously.