An interview with Wildlife Photographer William Fortescue

13th October 2020

William Fortescue is a wildlife photographer, storyteller and explorer. His travels have taken him everywhere from hiking in the Simien Mountains with geladas to photographing wild dogs in Tanzania.

 'Beyond my commitment to capturing the natural world, I feel a strong sense of protection over these awe-inspiring animals who do not have a voice. My hope is that my work goes some way to showing what an incredible place Earth is, why we cannot let its biodiversity slip away and what must be done to ensure its safe keeping.' 

William spends half the year working in Kenya where he also runs photo safaris; this is catered to photographers of all abilities, from beginners to seasoned veterans.

Images © William Fortescue

Hi William! Why did you choose to explore Kenya in 2012 and how did you get into wildlife photography?

I’d left school in June of that year and wasn’t too sure what to do with myself. I was 18 and hadn’t applied to university so instead found a volunteer position in a school in central Kenya. When the kids went away on half term I went on a camping trip with some friends to the Masai Mara and loved every second of it. Taking hundreds of photos, (most of which were useless) I knew I wanted to do more with it. 

I was lucky enough to then be put in contact with Dominic Grammaticas, the managing director of Governors’ Camp Collection, one of Africa’s first tented safari operators. I sent him an email explaining my situation and love of wildlife photography and he kindly invited me down to the Mara to spend four months as an intern learning all about working on safaris and improving my photography. 

I ended up doing this twice, once in 2012 and once in 2014 before applying to Falmouth University to study Marine and Natural History Photography. I graduated from this with a first class degree in 2017 and came back out to Kenya as a professional photography guide in 2019. 

Images © William Fortescue

What is your creative process like? I imagine flexibility is key! 

It depends on the situation I find myself in and the species I’m photographing. With wildlife, even the best laid plans can go out the window pretty quickly. In the Mara where I work every safari is different, so I rarely know what we are going to see on each outing. This means when we do find something interesting you have to adapt to what is in front of you and the key here is patience. The longer you stay at each sighting, the better the images you produce. I also prioritise looking for good light over a good subject, a picture of a poorly lit huge male lion is nowhere near as interesting as a shot of an impala under a stormy sky.

For some shoots though I can approach them knowing what I’m after. The best example of this was the cover shot for my book of the bleeding heart monkeys in Ethiopia. I was travelling to Ethiopia specifically for this image and so I had a plan in place. The night before I took it, I scouted the area, finding an area the monkeys were likely to be the next morning and visualised the shot in my mind. Luckily for me the next morning they were exactly where I’d hoped they would be and a male posed beautifully in front of the mountain backdrop and gave me thirty seconds to take the photo I was after. A months worth of planning all came off in that half minute. 

What is it like taking groups on Safari? What are the main skills you have to employ? 

It’s one of the best jobs in the world. I love meeting new guests and what’s great is hearing them discuss how the images they capture are going to be shown to all their friends or hung in their house for years to come. It’s great to see the progression in their photography skills and I'm still in contact with lots of guests I’ve taken out. 

It does come with the occasional challenge, the main one being trying to encourage patience. Watching natural history tv shows make some guests expect safaris to be like that, with action every second. Often it’s not the case  and it usually takes hours of patience just to get one shot. One of the main problems I have is trying to encourage people to remain at a sighting when nothing is happening. Lions for instance can sleep up to 20 hours a day and you have to sit through this in order to get the photos you want. Usually the wait pays off and something magic happens, very rarely though it doesn’t and you end up watching lions sleep for a few hours in the sun and it can lead to the occasional unhappy customer. 

Images © William Fortescue

Being so close to wild animals can be a very moving experience, what’s the most memorable scene you’ve witnessed? 

I was really lucky last year to see Tira, the spotted zebra, in the Masai Mara. It’s one of, if not the first, recorded sighting of a melanistic zebra in this part of the world. 

It took our safari group 4 hours of searching to find him as he was amongst the great migration, a never ending journey of 1.5 million wildebeest and 400,000 zebra. We were trying to spot one animal amongst almost two million, think "Where’s Wally” but with animals. We eventually found him but he was a very anxious foal, never straying too far from his mother. We had time to take a handful of photos before leaving him be and beginning the four hours back to camp. Incredibly on this drive we found a coalition of five cheetah (one of the largest ever documented) feeding on a wildebeest. To see one of these sightings is a once in a year story, to see two in the same day was exceptional. 

What are your top tips for aspiring wildlife photographers?

Hard to say. It’s an incredible job but it is also your lifestyle, you live and breath what you do and often spend great lengths of time away from home (last year I was away for 8 of 12 months). You have to be prepared to not have the most exciting social life in the world in exchange for one of the best jobs in the world. 

This should not discourage anyone though and one of the best things to do is get out and photograph locally. To pursue a career in photography you need a portfolio and it’s rare that someone will pay you to create one. I’ve spent a lot of time taking photos in Africa, but my favourite image is of a shaggy cow at home in the UK. 

When building a portfolio, focus on things that you love and not what you think someone on social media will like. Your passion for your subject will shine through in your work and the more you enjoy something and the greater your knowledge on it the better your images will be. Once you have your portfolio, start to contact the people you want to work for/ with. By all means aim for the sky and try your hand with the Nat Geo’s and BBC’s of the world but there are thousands of conservation groups and safari lodges out there always looking for good quality content. Find their contact details, get in touch, show them your amazing portfolio and ask to work with them. I was extremely lucky with falling in to a job with Governors’ but I did 8 months of interning (stock checking the bar and cleaning shower heads) before becoming a photo guide. 

Images © William Fortescue

Do you have any tips for photographers who want to create digital content for safari companies? 

Wildlife photos will make up about 20% of your safari portfolio, the rest will be of guests, food, rooms, safari vehicles and anything else the company may require. Learn how to photograph everything you can, and when sending them your portfolio don’t just include wildlife images, they need so much more than that, I spend as much time photographing cocktails on a sundowner deck as I do photographing wildlife. 

Also learn how to create killer video content that tells a story in under a minute. Short films that will ensure ’thumb stopping’ content on social media. Including this in your portfolio will add an extra dimension and go further to helping you get the job you’re after.

How can people  find out more about your work? 

Either through Instagram @willfortescue or through my website - I spend half the year hosting safaris at Governors’ Camp in Kenya and the other half freelancing. Anyone wanting to learn more about safaris either with Governors’ or privately can contact me directly through my website or for regular updates Instagram is the place! 

Images © William Fortescue

Interested in creating your own wildlife photo book? Get inspiration from Will’s book here, which won Book of the Month, or head over to our create page to get started.