Billy Dodson Wildlife Photography: Totally Captivated by Africa

An Interview with the Wildlife Photographer

Lion Cub Plays with Mother, Photography by Billy Dodson

Billy Dodson is sitting inside a dry and shallow trough. His eyes are fixed far into the horizon. He has been told that a herd of elephant is on its way to the nearest waterbody. Like a skilled marksman, he too is ready with all his arms and ammunition, his camera with an optimal setting.

The excitement starts building up in him with every passing minute. But his many journeys into the wilderness have taught him the value of patience. He knows it may take several hours. It is also possible that the herd changes its track and do not even come anywhere near the area where he is waiting.

The whole endeavour may turn out to be fruitless. But he takes heart in knowing that Africa has never been a source of disappointment for him. He simply needs to find more ways of exploring the treasures tucked in every nook and corner of the continent.

It is a trip to Tanzania in 2001 that influenced Billy’s course of life in many ways. Not only he visited and revisited the continent many times since to fulfil his passion for photography but also to collaborate actively with many institutions striving to preserve the wealth of African fauna. He is a patron of Giraffe Conservation Foundation. He also regularly donates images both for spreading awareness about the cause and also to help in raising funds for African Wildlife Foundation, the Nature Conservancy and other conservation initiatives. That his art has found a greater purpose beyond being a source of a positive delight for the audience is perhaps his greatest achievement.

Growing up how did the environment you were in prepare you to have an empathetic understanding of the world and also shaped the vision for the future? Did you always have the urge of broadening your horizon through experiencing people and places and their issues that are perhaps only superficially understood?

During my early formative years, I didn’t have much time to think about the world beyond my own doorstep. My time was consumed by school and very hard farm work. But I did become a prodigious reader somewhere along the line, and that piqued my interest in life and made me want to travel. I learned to be curious about the world in general. Africa was especially enigmatic and interesting to me and I dreamed of going one day … but I never thought it would actually happen.

Having said that, I should also point out that the Africa of your dreams can’t do justice to the physical reality. I’ve been fortunate to visit almost every continent many times over, but no place matches the beauty and mystery of Africa. It is, in every respect, incomparable.

An African Buffalo, Photography by Billy Dodson
An African Buffalo

A big part of your photographic portrayals is about emotions in the animal world. How many times have you been enthralled by observing animal behaviour, denuded of any artificiality, from such close quarters?

I’ve been enthralled and amazed by animal behaviour and emotions more times than I could ever hope to count. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had a day in the field in Africa when I haven’t experienced something absolutely wonderful. Photographically, I’ve also been disappointed many times. I’ll wait in vain for hours for an animal to appear from a heavy bush, or I’ll want to capture a very specific behaviour that doesn’t happen. But always, within a few hours, something incredible happens to compensate for the disappointment. Africa and photography are special in that sense … there are always more rewards than disappointments.

How do you research and prepare for photographing animals in their natural habitat? What are the challenges you normally face?

I do read up on the behaviour of the animals that will be my subjects. But I also try to be sure that my camera settings are always appropriate to whatever the existing lighting conditions are. The trick for me is to be ready to capture the action or interesting behaviour when it happens. You have to think ahead in order to do that. For example, I was in Namibia last month, sitting at a waterhole at sunset. The light was fading when my guide saw large clouds of dust erupting from the bush. He said ‘the elephants are coming’. I took my time and carefully checked all my cameras for aperture and ISO settings to make sure the shutter speeds would be fine. When the elephants emerged from the bush I was prepared for them and captured some of my best ever elephant photos as they rushed down to the water to drink.

A herd of elephants sprinting towards water hole, Photography by Billy Dodson
Sprinting Towards a Water Hole

Photographically, the biggest challenges for me are (a) I feel that I never have enough time in the field. I’m totally captivated by Africa and its wildlife but I’m resource constrained like the rest of the world, so I don’t travel as much as I’d like, and (b) keeping abreast of all the processing software and techniques. What’s captured in photos in the field is the raw material and the post-processing is what makes it (or fails to make it) art or something close to it. You have to be a good photo processor if you want to be competitive these days.

On your journeys are you more of an open-minded traveller willing to be surprised or a meticulous story-teller with pre-determined focus area? Have you focussed on a different facet of life over there in each of your visits?

I don’t usually have a plan. I don’t feel that I can pass up a lovely photo of a waterbuck to go looking for leopards or lions. My philosophy is that I have to work with what’s there. The opportunities for the rarer or more exotic animals do come along; sometimes you just have to be patient.

My focus is evolving. On the last couple of visits to Africa, I’ve spent a good deal more time photographing indigenous peoples. That’s been thrilling for me because I’ve found that I’m still learning, and learning is invigorating. Most recently I spent time in a Himba village near the Angolan border and came home with some photographs that I really like. It was so interesting and so much fun. I made a lot of mistakes … but I’ll learn from those and improve next time. I think it’s important to find new subjects and develop new techniques. It really keeps the interest level high.

Rampaging Buffalos, Photography by Billy Dodson
Rampaging Buffalos

Wildlife Conservation had to draw your attention considering the close association you have built with the African fauna over the years since your first visit. What has been your own firsthand experience of the work carried out for the sake of wildlife conservation and its impact through your collaboration with such foundations as African Wildlife Foundation and the Nature Conservancy?

I began donating my photos to the African Wildlife Foundation about six years ago. It was the smartest thing I ever did because there will never be a better use for my images than wildlife conservation. I spent six weeks in southern Africa in June and July and saw firsthand the quality of AWF’s work, and believe me it is impressive. They are investing heavily in anti-poaching initiatives and security in general for some of Africa’s iconic species. Their efforts are paying dividends. I saw it with my own eyes in the Save Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe and at Great Fish River in South Africa. I’m also a patron of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and I’m very proud of that. My friends Andy Tuchings, Greg Edwards and Julian Fennessy are doing the Lord’s work to protect these animals and their habitat. Most people tend to focus on the great cats, elephants and rhinos, but giraffe habitat is evaporating as well and several key subspecies are in trouble. The GCF is working diligently to protect these wonderful and highly implausible animals.

How much does your adventurous spirit fuel and supplement itself through your journeys into the wilderness of African savannah? From the many gems of experience you have collected over the years is there any one in particular that you would like to share with us?

It’s a funny thing. I never feel quite as alive as I am when I’m in the field in Africa with a camera. When I do anything else I have this sense that I’m just marking time. I’m also fascinated by interesting stories from the bush … in fact, I’ve launched a youtube channel expressly to showcase those stories from guides and rangers throughout Africa, and I’ll very soon be uploading one of my own stories. So stay tuned …

Bird atop a Twig, Photography by Billy Dodson
Bird atop a Twig

You capture the many moods of wildlife in monochrome. Do you feel that such portrayal helps in revealing the emotions of the moment more vividly being devoid of the distraction of colour? How important does a role post-production play for the photographers nowadays?

I don’t see colour as a distraction. To me, it’s simply a matter of aesthetics. Some images are more striking in black and white and some are more effective than colour. As I process them I usually just make a judgment call … and frankly, I’m wrong once in a while.

I cannot overemphasize the criticality of post-processing and learning the nuances of the various software applications. I’ve seen many photos that wouldn’t normally even be classified as ‘keepers’ become marketable images with adept post-processing. It’s important to capture the best possible images in the field, but it’s now equally important to process them well in the digital darkroom. My primary tools are Photoshop, Nik Color Efex and Nik Silver Efex.

How has your experience from the African safaris and your eventual love affair with photography affected you as a human being and helped in your evolution? Would you be able to identify a time when you feel blissfully happy and one with your art?

Africa changed my life completely. I lived what would normally be considered a normal existence until my first visit to east Africa back in 2001. I wasn’t a photographer then, but I was so captivated by the animals, people and landscapes that I obsessed about returning. Since travel is expensive, I also needed to find a way to make it pay for itself. So I studied photo magazines and learned as much about photography as I could without taking any formal training. I returned to Tanzania in 2005 with a used 500mm lens and my first digital camera, and even today I still sell photos from that first trip. It’s all came together better than I could have ever hoped. I’ve since photographed in eastern and southern Africa many times and have been able to support my obsession with the sale of my images.

I’m happiest with my art when I capture an image in the field, evolve a mental image of how I want the print to look, and then process the image to achieve the exact effect I wanted. And I’ve found that my ability to do this improves as I advance my expertise in the various software applications I use. I love holding a finished print in my hand that reflects my precise interpretation of the image captured.

Portrait of Billy Dodson

Billy Dodson prefers…

My favourite place in the world is the southern edge of the Serengeti during the month of February. I love the endless expanse of rolling plains and the incredible herds of zebra and wildebeest. And, of course, my favourite book is about Africa. It’s ‘West With the Night’ by Beryl Markham. It is a powerful, beautiful and moving book, with the most heartfelt tribute to an animal I’ve ever read. I am still first and foremost a musician, and my taste in music varies widely. And that’s a good thing. The more a person enjoys music, the greater that person’s ability to savour life. I love jazz, classical and some older rock music. But my favourite genre is blues, which is what I play. I love the old Muddy Waters acoustic tunes. I also like Furry Lewis and Howlin’ Wolf. Another favourite of mine is the jazz great, John Coltrane. I’m in awe of him, especially his early recordings. I also like all types of food, but am especially fond of anything Indian. The spices are wonderful and sensual.

Find more of his work at his website.

Image Courtesy: Billy Dodson