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Candid Conversations: Christian Ziegler and Marc Albiac

Continuing our new series, two pro wildlife photographers – one an industry veteran, the other a rising star – talk candidly about camera traps, conservation, and the value of talking to each other.
A clay-coloured thrush with a red berry in its beak perches on a branch covered in palm fruits.

A clay-coloured thrush eats a palm fruit in a forest in central Panama in this image by tropical ecologist turned nature photographer Christian Ziegler. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens and Canon Extender EF 1.4x III at 420mm, 1/320 sec, f/4 and ISO1250. © Christian Ziegler

Wildlife photographer and Canon Ambassador Christian Ziegler, a trained tropical ecologist, has worked in rainforests for more than 25 years. The four-time World Press Photo award winner is a founding fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and says: "Meaningful work, for me, is all about conservation – not the pretty picture, but the content that helps conserve a species or an area."

Here, in the second of our Candid Conversations, connecting esteemed photographers with rising stars in their field, Christian joins fellow Canon Ambassador Marc Albiac in conversation. Marc, who was Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner in 2014, is also a biology student and shares an interest in conservation. The two talked from their homes – Marc from Barcelona and Christian from southern Germany, near Lake Constance, where he recently moved after 15 years living mainly in Panama.
A black and white headshot of wildlife photographer Christian Ziegler.

Wildlife photographer Christian Ziegler has collaborated on projects with the National Geographic Society in Panama, Peru and Bhutan, is a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine and has held exhibitions all over the world.

Wildlife photographer Marc Albiac carrying a Canon camera with a long lens attached.

Born in 1999, award-winning nature photographer and student Marc Albiac started using a camera when he was just five years old. He is looking for guidance on pursuing his work in conservation photography.

Marc: Can I ask, how and when did you get into photography?

Christian: Late! I was 20 years old. I took a course to learn drawing, and I realised I'm not good at it. I looked at photography because I thought maybe I would be better at that. I got an old camera. Then I went to Thailand for a year. Back then not many people photographed the rainforest, and I wanted to share my experience with my friends. This is how I started seriously considering taking nice pictures. I went back to study biology, and then I recorded everything just to show people what I was doing. It was very scientific, at first. This was 27 years ago. I'm old!
Marc: Do you usually take photos near your home?

Christian: Lately, yes, because I started a new job with the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz. They do amazing research, so I was here and I followed them in the field where possible. However, usually I take care of international travel for Max Planck. In three weeks, I will leave for Congo to photograph the whole ecosystem of the Congo Basin.

Marc: Wow. How long will you be travelling in Congo?

Christian: Only a month, but I will go there at least six times over the next three years. This area urgently needs documenting, because they have an arrangement with villages to not hunt in this region. It's a big area, 120 square kilometres, and I think it's unique in the Congo Basin. It is like the Eden of Africa because there is no hunting there, and they have a normal population of monkeys, pigs and bonobos, too. I will report the whole ecosystem from plants and insects up to mammals, and see how the Congo Basin used to be 200 years ago.
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A spotted genet stands on its hind legs in the entrance to a cave.

Marc photographed this genet – a slender, catlike carnivore – using a camera trap, which he set up at the entrance to the cave in which the animal was living. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens at 15mm, 1/160 sec, f/8 and ISO800. © Marc Albiac

A pine marten stands in the middle of a forest clearing, the trees curved around it by a fisheye lens.

When you have to be patient and return time and time again for the shot, Marc says, it feels even more satisfying when you finally succeed. This eye-catching photograph of a pine marten, taken with a fisheye lens, was one of two that Marc captured after a lengthy wait. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens at 15mm, 1/400 sec, f/7.1 and ISO1600. © Marc Albiac

Marc: I'm excited to see the results of this trip. Which cameras and lenses will you take with you?

Christian: I'll take Canon EOS R5 cameras. They're smaller! I have been working with them for half a year, and the quality is superb. For me, it's important that the camera is very quiet too.

Marc: Yes, because to do close-up photography, you need to be quiet.

Christian: Yes! Because of the moisture in the forest, I try not to change lenses a lot. I use the Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM, the wide-angle Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM, the Canon RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM, and the Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM for general background shots. I also have five flashes. I like to use flash for small subjects. I think you use flash a lot too?

Marc: Well, it depends. I like to photograph snakes and frogs and all these kinds of animals, so most times I don't use flash, unless I don't have light or if I want a special photo. If it's possible, in order to be fast, I photograph them using natural light.

Christian: Okay. I use flash a lot, but with a flash exposure compensation setting of -1 or -1.2 to reduce the flash intensity, just to put in a little light. I think most animals like frogs don't care about flash?

Marc: No, they don't care. I went to Costa Rica in February and most of my photos there were taken during the night.

Christian: I saw the pictures. Nice crops. Costa Rica is one of my favourite places. Where did you go?
Marc: Thank you. It was fantastic. We went to the central part of Costa Rica and the forests, then we went to Corcovado. I photographed a lot during the night, using flash, but it was the first time I had been there, so we weren't very lucky tracking animals. Maybe I should have tried using camera traps.

Christian: I have used camera traps for 25 years. I invented the first digital camera trap for National Geographic in 2004. I have a new system with a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens. It's a nice system and I'm going to try it in Congo because they need to be out there for two or three years. For lighting, I use a custom camera trap box with three flashes and a commercial Wi-Fi monitor. They are all wireless, no cables, and it's totally watertight. I hope it survives this first year!

Marc: Those cameras will be out there for three years? They stay set up?

Christian: Yes. I have an assistant there to service them once a month – he exchanges the memory card, and the lithium battery lasts for five to six weeks. I saw on Instagram that you use camera traps?

Marc: Yes, but I have only used them during the night, for four or five hours. I don't have too much experience with them because whenever I've tried them, I haven't had a lot of success.

Christian: That's normal. I think 99% of the shots are failures. It happens to everybody, but when it turns out well, it's really amazing. That's why I use them. I need to document unknown creatures, and maybe I only get one or two pictures in the year, but when they're good, they're very special, because these animals have not been photographed before.
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A bee drinks nectar from a large flower with a pink and yellow centre and purple and white petals.

Christian likes to employ flash when photographing smaller subjects, such as this bee visiting a beautiful Gustavia superba flower in a secondary forest in Panama. "Interactions between plants and animals maintain healthy tropical forest ecosystems, where animals are responsible for pollinating more than 95% of tree species and disperse the seeds of up to 90% of these species," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III at 21mm, 1/250 sec, f/20 and ISO3200. © Christian Ziegler

A keel-billed toucan sits on a branch, holding a small palm fruit in its brightly coloured beak.

A keel-billed toucan feeding on palm fruits. Toucans play an important role in forest conservation as they help disperse plants with large seeds and regenerate abandoned land. "They are especially important in young forests," says Christian. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens and Canon Extender EF 1.4x III at 840mm, 1/800 sec, f/8 and ISO1600. © Christian Ziegler

Marc: Four years ago, I wanted to photograph a pine marten that was 150km from my home. My father took me there six times before I managed to photograph one. I think it was December, and it was fantastic to see – I got only two photos.

Christian: Amazing. That's the trade-off – invest a little more in the shot, maybe get a better result.

Marc: Are there times that you haven't gotten the shot?

Christian: I tried for a tiger in Bhutan for a year and a half, and I got a nice picture, but I think I need a better one – he's a little off-centre.

Marc: Is there any animal that you haven't got pictures of?

Christian: Yes, many. The orange pigs of the Congo Basin – herd animals in a group of 20-50. I think many of the little, weasel-like creatures, of which there are about six or seven different sizes. Civets, a weasel, genets, the golden cat. No pictures exist of these animals in the wild. I hope to get pictures of a giant pangolin.
A Mexican fruit bat hangs upside-down from the branch of a fig tree, holding a fig between its teeth.

A specialist in tropical ecosystems, Christian spends a lot of time researching a location before he arrives. This image of a Mexican fruit bat (Artibeus jamaicensis) was taken in Panama, as part of a project entitled Secondary Forests In Panama – A Hopeful Story. "Be patient and thorough in photographing a species or an area," he advises. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 35mm, 1/80 sec, f/20 and ISO2000. © Christian Ziegler

Marc: Have you captured pictures of animals you didn't expect in camera traps?

Christian: Yes. A pheasant that appeared and danced in a trap for a red panda. And then, really deep in the forest, a common dog appeared! It was a full day from the nearest village, so I don't know how. Basically, there are a lot of false alarms – leaves falling, maybe a blade of grass. The most common thing is nothing. A moth often triggers it, or a bat.

Marc: I have those too. When you achieve the photo, I think it feels even better after the challenge. Okay, so I was hoping to talk about conservation.

Christian: It's really important to talk about it. What I do is all for conservation.

Marc: Has that always been the most important thing for you?

Christian: In the beginning, it was not. But then I travelled to Borneo, Thailand and Africa, areas where the forest is really threatened. In Madagascar, only 7% of the forest still exists. I now choose projects that highlight conservation issues – I did a lot about cassowaries, bonobos and chameleons, because they are all threatened. I highlight these creatures in their natural habitat, because it is shrinking massively and we need more coverage of this. Borneo right now is 27% forested, but in 20 years it will be less than 10%. Africa is worse – in Madagascar, it's worse still. This is why I'm travelling to Congo – because it's the last area that is un-hunted, maybe for the next 10 years.

Marc: How do you think photography can help conservation?

Christian: When I publish in GEO or National Geographic, people learn about this amazing area. I talk with the writer to explain how amazing it is, and how it's threatened. When I look at a project, I ask whether it is helping to conserve nature. If not, I don't go.
A snake begins to swallow a frog clinging to a plant; the whole of the frog's head is already in the snake's mouth.

Marc normally uses flash only at night or when looking for a specific aesthetic. This incredible image of a snake consuming a frog, which Marc describes as "wildlife in its purest form", was captured on his first night in Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/4 and ISO200. © Marc Albiac

Marc: How can photography influence people?

Christian: It's all about the information that goes with the picture. The tiger I photographed in Bhutan exists there because it's fully protected from poachers in that country, but there are only 80 tigers left in Bhutan. It's really important to say that there are so few, and that when they cross the border into India they're lost to poachers. We really spell it out, to support Bhutan.

Marc: I think really well-known photographers can do conservation. But it's difficult to get into if you don't have a magazine to run your work.

Christian: I think this is why competitions are good, because you reach many people who learn about your photography and its purpose. I think competitions are also useful for us to meet other photographers, to get new ideas, to hang out and maybe learn from each other, because we are alone when we are in the field. Photography is a really hard job – you need friends who do the same, who listen to you, to know that you're not alone.

Marc: One of my dreams is to do conservation photography.

Christian: I think you need to look at it in the long run. I hope many people do the same. My advice is to be a specialist, to be really good at something, ideally in several areas. For example, as a camera trap specialist, a macro specialist or a landscape specialist. So people think of you.

Írta: Emma-Lily Pendleton


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