Photographer vs. Wild: Interview with Jacques-André Dupont
Being a wildlife photographer is not exactly a walk in the national park. On top of organizing strenuous trips in remote places, you have to do a lot of zoological homework, follow ethical and security rules, know how to dance with the wolves (and many other species), and of course, master your gear inside out. Only after all of that, will you be able to take those captivating closeups of lions that you were dying to post on your online portfolio.
Have you always wondered what the life of a wildlife photographer looked like? We met with award-winning photographer and Wix user Jacques-André Dupont, whose approach is filled with humility, curiosity and passion. He tells us more about his stunning photos, his favorite techniques to work with animals, and some wild anecdotes along the way.
(Almost) Born to be wild
Hi Jacques-André. Glad to meet you and welcome to the Wix Photography Blog! Could you please introduce yourself?
Hi to the Team, glad to meet you as well. Thanks for reaching out to me! So very simply, I am a 53-year-old Montrealer (Quebec, Canada). For a few years now, I have been a very enthusiastic and passionate nature and wildlife photographer. Any free time I have, I try to be out in the field. And when I can, I take photo trips around the world.
Was there a specific turning point that made you decide to become a photographer?
When I was a university student, I used to do a lot of photography. I even paid in part my studies with photography (mainly commercial). But one day, all my equipment was stolen. And without insurance, I was not able to buy it back. So I kind of quit. Fast forward, 25 years later, I was in my mid-forties, quite successful in my business career, very happy with my lovely wife and my daughter. Yet something was missing. I needed to do something just for me. Not for my employees, my family, my friends. I guess it was the mid-life crisis knocking on my door! So with my dad (also a photo enthusiast) I went to a photo show. And I was hit by lightning. All those amazing cameras, the lenses, the new technologies… I had found it.
Do you make a living out of your art?
No. I have a full time job. I am the CEO of several major show business companies, such as the Montréal Jazz Festival. But having a “day job” does not mean I do not approach photography seriously – on the contrary. In a way, I believe I am a better photographer because of my business experience. The more experienced man I am today is probably more focused than my younger self. I also think that my vision of the world is more mature, and my work as a marketer helped me maximize the impact of my work. Finally, I decided that as long as I had a full time job, I would use my photography to help communities around me. So all the proceeds from my photography works are reinvested in good causes, mostly related towards wildlife conservation.
Would you say wildlife was your first “photography love”?
At first, I wanted to learn everything I could about photography. I got a personal teacher (Pascal Rameux) and touched on everything: portrait, studio, boudoir, fashion, etc. Being very curious, I read everything I could find about photography. Then I met two amazing new friends (Michael and Mark) who were also passionate photographers, but were focusing on nature and wildlife. I was lucky enough to get invited to one of their trips: a Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks private photo trip with master photographer, Tom Murphy. This had a profound impact on me. The nature I found was so beautiful. I was crazy excited about being witness to such amazing wildlife. This is when I decided that wildlife and nature was it for me.
Tell us about the first wildlife scene you ever captured?
One of the first real wildlife stories was such an exciting one, back in 2012, in Yellowstone with Tom Murphy. Tom taught us to anticipate where the animals were going, in order to position ourselves properly. As we noticed this beautiful coyote several hundreds meters away, we decided to try to anticipate where it was going. You have to understand that we should have never approach an animal like this – rules in the park say 100 meters minimum. However, this coyote decided it was coming at us. At that stage, I was lying down in the bushes and this amazing animal was trotting towards me. For a split second, I wanted to run away. But the animal seemed so relaxed… When I took the last image, the coyote was right next to me (still lying down). After that point, it was too close to me to be able to focus. Quite exciting!
How do you plan a photo trip?
When I go for a photo trip, I try to read as much as possible, both on the destination and the wildlife. Where are the best spots for landscapes? Where are the best locations for wildlife encounters? What animals I might see? And what are their behaviors? I will also research other information like when the animals will be at their best. For example, during which season wildlife will be more active or showcase their most beautiful coat or plumage.
Then, I have to decide if I go on my own, with friends or if I go with a guide or master photographer. As I work and have a busy schedule, I tend to choose the latter. This enables me to get the most out of my trips and I get to learn from the best. If I have more time, I will most probably travel alone or with friends. Being alone is a totally different experience. Time seems to slow down quite a bit, and I love that feeling of being in sync with nature.
Last preparation: just before leaving, I will prepare my gear, clean it and make sure everything is in perfect working shape.
Talking about gear, what equipment can we find in your photography bag?
I am a Canon guy! So when I do a wildlife trip, I might bring three different bodies: my 5D Mark III for landscape, my 1DX Mark II for fast moving wildlife, and my 7D Mark II with its longer reach for wildlife. Usually, I will mount a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM on my 5D, a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM on my 1DX and a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM on my 7D. I also use a Canon Extender (EF 1.4X III and 2X III) if a better reach is needed. I will always bring lots of memory cards and two portable hard drives to backup my Macbook. I make sure to separate those hard drives, so if something happens, they are not in the same bag and I will not lose my images!
Into the wild
Do you follow any ethical guidelines when working with animals?
I try to. I follow basic rules like, making sure I do not stress the animal. I also try hard not to modify the animals behavior since I want to document it, not transform it. Of course, I will never touch an animal or modify its environment. I do have to say that I have been in situation where birds were baited. I chose to be there. Of course, I got some great shots. But in a way, it felt unnatural. The images I took are good, but I am not as proud of them as I am of images caught in a 100% natural way. So I guess, I am aiming to be more and more ethical in the future.
Are some species more “cooperative” than others?
Indeed. Some animals or birds are more cooperative or easier to shoot. For example, shooting northern gannets is much easier than shooting Atlantic puffins. Puffins are smaller and much faster, so you need a lot of practice to get a good flight shot. Also, some animals are more nervous than others and will run away as soon as they see or smell you. So my advise is to read and learn as much as possible on the species you are hoping to photograph.
What is the ratio of luck vs. planning required to get a good photo?
This is a big question! Of course, the more you know about the location and the animals you will photograph, the better your ratio will be. On top of this, if you have good equipment, your ratio might be better for fast moving subject, for example. A semi-pro or a pro lens will focus better and faster and will track the animal better. The same way, a pro or semi-pro camera will shoot more images per second, increasing your chance of getting the perfect image (my 1DX does 14 frames per second).
And then there is good old luck. I will give you an example. I was with my friends Marc and Michael in Yellowstone and we positioned ourselves hoping a red fox would walk towards us. Indeed it did. My friend Marc was 50 feet left from my position. When the fox decided to hunt, it did so behind a big rock. So Marc got the perfect series of shots of a hunting-jumping red fox and I got nothing!
A lot of your pictures are close-ups. But at the same time, you always manage to find angles where animals seem to not pay attention to your presence. How do you do that?
I love closeups, but they can be a challenge to achieve. To get a great image, you need to be close enough. But to get close enough, you need the animal to be comfortable with you. So it’s important to take all the needed time to make an approach that will not stress out the animal. I remember at first I was way too excited and I moved too fast and basically ruined lots of moments. But with experience, I learned that I should start shooting from afar, then move a little bit closer and continue taking some shots, and so on, slowly. With this approach, if you are lucky, you will get images of the animal in its natural habitat. If you are patient enough, and the animal is not stressed, you might get to a point where you will be able to go for a close-up portraits.
I should mention that having the longest lens possible will make your life much easier. I myself have different lenses, but I often use my 500mm lens from Canon for those portraits. Sometimes I will add an Extender. So with my 7D Mark II, if I use my 500mm plus a 2X Extender, with the 1.5 crop factor, I get to shoot with the equivalent of 1500mm. More than enough to get a full frame closeup portrait of a roaring leopard!
What was the scariest moment of your work in nature?
I have never been scared while photographing in nature. I maintain a safe distance with the animals and make sure I follow the basic safety rules. I can tell you that I have had countless moments of pure joy and emotion. I often cry at the beauty of nature. I remember a sunrise in Yellowstone. The light was magical, and as the sun passed over the mountains, it was reflected like a mirror in the lake. Then there was a sudden concert of wolves howling for several minutes. Paradise!
In the same way, I often yell out of pleasure and excitement after a high adrenaline shoot with wildlife. One example comes to my mind. Again, we were in Yellowstone and we got to see this wolf go into a coyote den to kill the cubs. The mother coyote (which is half the size of a wolf and an easy prey) came running and bit the wolf on the back, to get it to come out of the den. She was so persistent that she got the wolf out and was able to lead it in a chase, away from the cubs. It was a true “Nat Geo” moment! Unfortunately the images are not amazing because it was too far away. But the memory is amazing!
I have never been scared while photographing. But I have had countless moments of pure joy and emotion. I often cry at the beauty of nature.
And what was the funniest thing that happened to you?
I was in Tanzania on a safari. We were getting ready to leave before the sunrise and I was by the truck waiting for my guide. I noticed this big male baboon coming towards me and the truck. Those baboons can be quite aggressive and somewhat scary. So when it started running directly at me I backed off. All of a sudden, the baboon jumped on the back of the truck, opened the backdoor (which was impressive since it’s a heavy door) and went in and out in a fraction of second, holding a big box of water bottles. At that point, everyone is yelling at me to go and get the box from the baboon. Of course I did not go for it, even if I was the laughing stock… The baboon, about a hundred feet from the truck, stopped, ripped open the box, and made a big noise of disappointment, while throwing away everything. I guess it realized that there was no food – just plastic bottles!
According to you, what are some of the criteria that make a good wildlife photo?
Apart for the technical aspects, my view is that it needs to create true emotion within the viewer. Sometimes an image will work because of the storytelling and in other cases, it will be the aesthetic of the image that creates the emotion. In some rare cases you will be able to get it all. So I am most happy when I see true emotions created by my work. I chose nature and wildlife photography probably for a very selfish reason: because I, myself, get to experience amazing emotions when I am in the field in front of such a grandiose beauty. So in return, with the greatest humility, I try to give my viewers a similar experience. But truth be told, this does not happen every day!
What tips would you give to our readers who want to start in wildlife and/or nature photography?
First of all, you need to know your gear inside out. There should be no secrets between you and your camera and lenses. So read your manuals and make sure you know everything you need to know about them. Then, make sure you understand basic photo techniques and understand light. Read as much as you can or better, go to workshops or field classes.
Then (or at the same time) start small. Try to shoot backyard wildlife. Go for those little birds near your feeders or the groundhog ruining your landscape. Try to get close. Try to get good portraits and moving shots. And experiment! When you are proud of those shots, move along and push ahead. Go to your local nature reserves to shoot wildlife. You will probably also meet other passionate photographers, and be able to exchange tips on where to find wildlife and how to improve your techniques. I myself never stop trying to learn. So I do master classes, workshops and photo trips with master photographers like Tom Murphy or Christopher Dodds (whom I consider my mentor).
How important is the digital editing aspect in your work?
It is very important. I always shoot in RAW, which means I have to edit each photo I take. It’s important for me to have full control on the final image. I personally use Lightroom by Adobe, which is the most popular editor for serious photographers. But other very good solutions are available on the market. This being said, I want a pleasing image, but it has to be natural. I am less and less drawn to over edited and unnatural images.
Inspiration, respiration, conservation
What’s your favorite image? And what is the backstory of it?
What a tough question! I love all my children equally 😉 But if I had to choose only one image, I guess it could be the image I call From Above which shows a top view of a northern gannet flying over its colony, in search for its nest and mate. This image created a lot of amazing things for me. First of all, it was that image that got me noticed by National Geographic. Can you imagine how excited I was when I received an email from the Nat Geo editor wanting to do a feature?
This was the beginning of a new era for me. I was contacted by a lot of other people and was able to get several of my images published all over the world, from France, to the UK, to China, Russia and more. And From Above is probably my most awarded image. It won several recognitions in both Canada and abroad. At the end of the day, the best thing about all of this was that I have been able to shed some light on the challenges facing wildlife. For example, the image was taken on Ile Bonaventure in Quebec (Canada) where you find North America’s largest colony of northern gannets (50,000 couples). Sadly, this colony is facing very serious ecological challenges. So with my photography, I am able to add my voice to many others to remind people just how beautiful wildlife is, and how important it is to conserve these natural habitats.
What are the difficulties faced by a wildlife photographer on a regular basis?
I would not presume to be able to answer this question the same way full time photographers would do. And if you don’t mind I would like to talk about a serious issue facing full time photographers (wildlife or any other type of photography). Let’s face it, I am a simple weekend warrior. Professional photographers are in the field 12 months a year and have to do much more than I do to make a living out of their art.
Being in the music industry myself which was revolutionized by new technologies (and still is!), I see a similar situation in photography today. It is now easier than ever to create images with digital cameras. And there are probably more photographers than ever taking wildlife and nature images. So for me, one of the worst phenomenons affecting professional photographers are newcomers giving away their images for nothing or just for promotion… By doing this, they are crashing the market value for everyone. This is why, I have decided not to give away my images. I make sure to get the same price a pro photographer would get. Yes, I could be perceived as a competitor. But at least I will not undersell other photographers just because I am not living off of my photography.
And the greatest sources of joy?
One word: beauty. I know it sounds a little cheesy, but I do believe that beauty can transform you. Anyway it works for me. I am happy and alive in the field. To a point where I always want to go back. For me I could even say that it is some kind of a spiritual experience. The rest, the images and the impact you create with the images is basically a collateral benefit of this beauty.
Do you have a cause or a motto that guides you through your work?
Breath and take your time! I will admit, I am the competitive kind. I like the process of “hunting” for a great image. But at a certain point I realized that it should not just be about getting the image. It should be about the nature and the beauty. So now, when I am out in the field, from time to time, I will just stop, smile and breath. And remember that I am such a lucky man to be able to experience this. And a quick tip… Breathing while shooting will help achieve sharper images. Too often photographers will be so focused that they will stop breathing and their hands will eventually start to shake 😉
Do you see your work as a contribution to the conservation of the wildlife and/or endangered species?
More and more. I see that images do create emotions and definitely can have an impact. So I have decided lately to be more vocal about conservation. I hope to be able to grow what I can personally contribute towards great conservation causes, both locally and in other countries I visit. The more we show of the beauty of nature and the more open the dialogue about conservation issues, the higher the chances of being able to achieve something meaningful.
Who are the photographers, from yesterday and from today, who inspire you?
I am a huge fan of Sebastião Salgado for his photography in general and for his nature and wildlife in particular. A few months ago I saw an exhibition showcasing some of Ansel Adams work I had never seen before. This was a reminder of how much this amazing artist influenced all of us. More recently I have been following several amazing master photographers who blow me away with their artistry, like Vincent Munier (France), Jim Brandenburg (USA), Will Burrard-Lucas (USA), Andy Rouse (UK), John E. Marriott (Canada) and last but not least Christopher Dodds (Canada). But there are so many others!
The more we show of the beauty of nature and the more open the dialogue about conservation issues, the higher the chances of being able to achieve something meaningful.
You received a lot of awards from photography contests. How important are those for you?
I entered my first competition after my wife pushed me to do so. It was the Canadian Geographic Wildlife of the Year competition. I entered it, and forgot about it… But several months later, I received an email telling me that I was a finalist in the “Bird Category” and that my image was to be printed (full page!) in their yearly Wildlife Special Edition. I was so happy and proud! So I decided to enter other competitions.
For me it was a way to see how good I was, compared to other serious photographers. On top of this, these competitions (the serious ones!) bring a lot of visibility to an image and a photographer. Since I am aiming to have more and more impact towards conservation of nature, this kind of visibility can be used as a major tool.
Is there a dream project you’ve always wanted to make happen?
How long do we have 😉 ? Seriously I have a bucket list the size of Montana! And every day, it’s growing as I find new destinations I want to visit or new species I would like to photograph. Then there are all those projects I would like to achieve to increase my impact on helping some conservation projects. This year, I will probably go back to Yellowstone in winter. I will visit South Africa, Botswana and Kenya. I will also return to Tanzania. Other projects I want to do soon include doing a road trip where I would drive up North in Canada, and stop where the road ends. And I’m dreaming to go photograph Tigers in India. At the same time, most week-ends I still love just picking up my camera to walk in my woods and just be in nature, and sometimes take a picture of a friendly animal.
Through the online jungle
How do you promote your work online?
If you are serious about promoting your work, social media and major photo platforms are amazing tools. I use them to sell some of my photographs as well. But it’s a full time job… Good thing I don’t sleep long nights! I have been quite active on 500px where I have about 2,500,000 views. I am also active on ViewBug which is a fun platform. At the moment I am working on growing my Facebook community. In the near future I will do the same with my Instagram.
To what extent is a good website important for you as a photographer?
As I decided to pursue this passion seriously, It was the most important thing for me. I wanted to have a professional website, a place where I would put a limited number of images to show what my art is all about. In brief, for me my website is a major statement that I am putting out there in the universe.
What made you choose Wix to build your online portfolio?
To be honest, Wix was my second choice. I had chosen another platform to create my website. It took quite a while to set it up, but eventually I was able to put the first version online. However, I quickly realized I had made a mistake. My first choice was the wrong one. It wasn’t flexible as it should be, nor was it as social media friendly as it should be. In the end I did not love it. And you should love your website! So one Sunday morning, I got angry and I did what I should have done the first time. I erased my first website and purchased a Premium plan on Wix.com. Very quickly, the same day, I was online with my new Wix website!
This was the best decision! I always get great comments about the quality of my website. More importantly, it is easy, flexible, well organized for referencing (so important!). I love it! The best part of it all is that I now am part of a community: the Wix community! I am impressed just how active it is and what an exciting place it is to be.
If you had web design tips to give to our readers, what would they be?
Oh I am no designer! Good thing that Wix did the soul searching on this subject for me. I was happy to find on Wix websites designed specifically for photographers. So I guess I would say, choose the template that you feel will best represent you and your art. Then be selective for what images you present. Let the images be the star!
Creating my website with Wix was the best decision. It’s easy, flexible, well organized for referencing. I love it!
Thanks a lot for your time and kindness Jacques-André. The final word is yours. A dazzling thought to share? A quote to savour? A love declaration? A photographer manifesto? You have carte blanche!
God! This is a big ask. Well I guess I want to thank Wix and the passionate people behind it. Photography is driven by passion and I am driven by the desire of showing the beauty that surrounds us… And Wix is now part of our army of wildlife and nature lovers and I want to sincerely thank you for giving us a voice and a place to share.
And if I may, I will leave you with these words from Ansel Adams: “To the complaint, ‘There are no people in these photographs,’ I respond, There are always two people: the photographer and the viewer.”
Ready to get wild online? Start by creating your own online portfolio – it’s free!
By Jonathan Sitbon
Editor-in-Chief of the Wix Blogs