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Interview with British Wildlife Photographer of the Year Paul Colley

Marianne Stenger
10th February 2019

When you’ve spent countless hours in nature documenting wildlife and observing the delicate balance that supports all life forms, it can become difficult to ignore issues such as climate change, habitat destruction, and human-wildlife conflict.

For this reason, many wildlife photographers also end up working in conservation on some level, whether this means using their photographs to raise awareness or actively supporting specific conservation programs they feel passionately about.

This was certainly true for award-winning British wildlife photographer Paul Colley whose wildlife images are now used widely in conservation.

Paul is known for his underwater photography as well as his innovative bat and bird images. His photograph of bats taking flight was the overall winner in the British Wildlife Photography Awards for 2018, and he was also a category winner in Underwater Photographer of the Year.

In addition to his photography and his conservation work with organisations like the Blue Marine Foundation and Fauna and Flora International, Paul designs, builds, and develops new equipment to photograph wildlife.

We asked him to share a bit about his work as a wildlife photographer and conservationist working throughout the UK and internationally.

1. Can you tell us a bit about your background as a photographer? What inspired you to focus on wildlife photography in particular?

Although I had used a film camera professionally in my first career, it was not until the Millennium that I really started to pursue photography as a serious interest and then about seven years ago I knew that it would be a full time career worth pursuing.  

I was inspired to focus on wildlife photography initially through my love of the underwater world, which I had been exposed to as a scuba diver. I also wanted to get involved in conservation, having seen first hand how the oceans are being slowly but surely destroyed by overfishing and climate change.This naturally led into wider conservation efforts in the natural world.

2. How do you choose your locations for wildlife photography and what are some of your favourite locations for photography?

Sometimes the locations chose me. This is particularly true in conservation, because if I’m working with a conservation agency, its staff will normally decide what needs to be photographed, and therefore, where I must go.  

For example, when I worked with Fauna & Flora International, they commissioned me to create a portfolio of images for three habitats in the Kong Rong archipelago in Cambodia, where there was a major effort to create a marine protected area. The project succeeded and there is now protection for the coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass areas that were under threat from local overfishing.  

I love to work in the UK too, though, and I really enjoyed working on the chalk streams in southern England, where I photographed trout, grayling and other underwater life. One of my favourite locations, Coate Water Country Park, is only seven miles from home. It’s where I photographed the images of bats that have now become well known through the British Wildlife Photography Awards.  

3. Your photograph of bats in flight was the overall winner in the British Wildlife Photography Awards of 2018. What were some of the challenges of capturing these nocturnal creatures on camera?

I first spotted the unusual behaviour of the tiny Daubenton’s bats at dusk, whilst packing up my cameras after I’d spent a day working on the river Anton in Hampshire.

I was fascinated by the small bats and their behaviour as they hunted for insects at the water’s surface like small hovercraft, and I wondered whether I could capture that behaviour. I had no idea how difficult this would prove to be, but there’s nothing like a good challenge to help develop a really memorable image.  

The project started with some serious research into bat and insect behaviour. This is important because if you don’t understand your subject, there’s little hope of photographing it well.

The biggest challenge was the simple fact that these bats are not much bigger than an adult thumb and they fly at 40km per hour in the dark. This means that normal photography techniques were unlikely to work.  The next challenge was that these bats are protected by law, so you must avoid disturbing them, which means avoiding intrusive lights and staying away from their roosts.

This led me to the idea of using infrared photography and laser camera triggers, but I had to experiment, test and re-develop my equipment continuously over many months in to build a camera set up that worked reliably. Even then, it took many photographs to achieve good compositions, because you simply cannot see what’s going on, and the bats fly fairly random flight paths.  

Sometimes I would spend the whole night from sunset to sunrise waist deep in water, and often without getting a single useable image. So you’ll understand that patience and determination were absolutely essential to this project.

4. How does photography tie in with conservation?

Powerful images have a great role in conservation, because they can help to draw people in to the issues behind them. I’ve created photographs for many organisations to do exactly this.  

The list of organisations I’ve worked with includes Fauna & Flora International, which I already mentioned, but also the Blue Marine Foundation, the Bat Conservation Trust, and the Wild Trout Trust.  All of these organisations work very hard on different aspects of conservation and need good imagery to support their work, which includes scientific papers and education programmes.

5. What are some of your future projects? Is there any species you would love to photograph but haven’t yet had a chance to?

I will continue to work with many bat conservation groups and individuals this and next year, because there is much more that I want to achieve with my bat images. I’ll be photographing different species and hopefully some of the behaviours that are so difficult to document in the black of night. But I would like to photograph other nocturnal creatures like owls, because I’ve now developed a fantastic new capability to work covertly with shy animals in the dark.  

I’ll also keep going with my river and ocean work. An important next project is to photograph wild trout and salmon in some of the Scottish rivers.  

Paul Colley is an award-winning wildlife photographer and conservationist. You can see more of Paul’s work through his website and by following him on Twitter (@paul_colley) and Instagram (paul_colley).