After shifting his focus from ecology to photography, Christian Ziegler has become a celebrated photojournalist specialising in natural history and science-related topics.
A tropical ecologist turned nature photojournalist, Christian Ziegler has combined his two passions of photography and science to create an internationally-reaching reputation for producing engaging images rich in informed narrative, to highlight species and ecosystems under threat. "Most of the species that I photograph are endangered," says the German photographer. "We are at a tipping point in human history where we are over-stretching our natural environment and driving our fellow species to extinction. I hope my photography can make more people aware of this."
Conservation is the ultimate motivation for all of Christian's work, and it was this that prompted his dramatic career change. "I wanted to communicate science and conservation issues to a broader audience. I felt that as a biologist I was not doing that, and that I could play an important role as a translator, explaining conservation issues and natural history stories. Stories are what people learn from; I see what I do as visual storytelling and so the context is very important," he says. "I aim to present every bit about the life of the animal, so that people understand it personally and care for it, and maybe want to preserve it."
Christian, who has extensively photographed life in rainforests across four continents, works with several NGOs and is a founding fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic Magazine, GEO, BBC Wildlife, National Wildlife, and New Scientist, and has held well-received exhibitions all over the world. He produced the imagery for A Magic Web, an award-winning coffee table book on tropical ecology, and created Deceptive Beauties, a book on wild orchids and their pollinators. His book, Jungle Spirits, was published in 2017 by teNeues Media.
Since 2001, Christian has been an Associate for Communication with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama, where he lives today on the edge of a rainforest. "Every tropical forest is different, with distinct communities of plants and animals. To tell a good story I need to understand the ecosystem. Having a background in biology is very useful; it informs me while shooting a story and gives my images more depth. I research around the subject and read a lot, so that I know the focal species, its behaviour and habitat, and how it interacts with other species.
"I tend to think about an assignment for months before I actually get into the field. I try to plan out an original point of view and create a wish list of images that will tell the story. My goal is to generate something new and to capture people's imagination, because the readers are often saturated with pictures. Nature is fascinating – I want to captivate people with the beauty of tropical forests and bring them to understand that these ecosystems are truly endangered."
During his career, which spans several decades, Christian has won multiple awards, including World Press Photo awards four years running (2013-16), two category awards in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year, and the Grand Prize of the National Wildlife Foundation's annual photo contest.
Are there certain elements you like to incorporate into your images?
"I usually photograph a small subject with several flashes, taken with a macro lens or a wide-angle lens, and I like my image to tell the whole story. For example: an orchid in a stunning setting with a visiting pollinator, illustrating the complex interactions that underpin its lifecycle."
Typically, what should a nature photographer know before photographing an animal?
"Knowledge is crucial for success. Seek to answer questions like 'When and where does it forage, for how long and what does it eat?' 'Does it return to a certain place to sleep?' 'Is the animal habituated to humans or very shy?' and 'Do I need to build a hide?'"
What is the light like in tropical forests?
"It is often surprisingly dark in the rainforest understory and rain is always an issue, especially with the flashes. I use three Canon Speedlites, with a bouncer attachment, that I use off the camera in manual mode. This allows me to be very precise and adjust the angle and strength of each flash."
What's the most important lesson a nature photographer must learn to succeed in this genre?
"Persistence. To capture a good image of wildlife in its natural habitat you have to keep trying… sometimes for weeks and even months!"
Where's a good place to start with nature photography?
"Try to see the detail and beauty in nature. Almost anything can be interesting: a decaying leaf, flower bud or ant. Your subject doesn't have to be a polar bear or a lion. There are many diverse elements to our natural world, so try to highlight something unusual, and show people the beauty in something they would never expect to see beauty in."
"First, the humid climate of tropical forests is not friendly towards camera equipment; I have lost many lenses to rain and fungus. Second, the very biology of tropical forests conspires against photographers; the dense vegetation reduces the sunlight, and due to the high species diversity most animals are rare and cautious. These factors combine to make tropical forests subtle places, where animals are hidden from the visitor, and only with time do you detect some sign of them. Tropical forests taught me a very important lesson: be patient – only with much time and effort will you be successful."