David Cottridge: The life of a wildlife photographer

Internationally renowned wildlife photographer David Cottridge  has travelled the world, photographed most of Europe’s bird species and worked with the likes of Bill Oddie, Nick Baker and Chris Packham. He tells Conservation Careers Blogger Charlotte Rixon why wildlife photography matters and how to follow in his footsteps.

David Cottridge
How did you get started as a wildlife photographer?

“I was born in Cornwall and used to draw birds when I was growing up. I did an art diploma at a local college before getting a degree in painting and print making at the Gloucestershire College of Art in Cheltenham and went on to study photography in Manchester. I then moved to London and taught photography there for 16 years. My career as a wildlife photographer took off when I won British Birds magazine ‘Bird Photograph of the Year’ in 1983 with a photograph of a female Red-necked Phalarope. The picture was taken on the island of Fetlar in Shetland with a macro lens from about 18 inches away and was very clear for the time.”


Bittern fishing, Lea Valley

Which wildlife photographer has most inspired you?

“I was presented with my award by Eric Hosking, the father of modern bird photography, who inspired me to become a full-time freelance wildlife photographer. He pioneered a technique of capturing birds at 1/5,000th of a second with an electronic flash and automatic shutter. He took a famous picture of a hovering nightjar, which showed for the first time that they rotate their wings in opposite directions. He was way ahead of his time.

On one occasion, Eric was sponsored by a flash bulbs company to photograph a Tawny Owl on a farm in Wales. One night, he was climbing into the hide when he felt a terrible stab in his eye and realised it was the tawny owl. He was rushed to Moorfields Eye Hospital but the doctor said that although he could operate, it might cause a sympathetic reaction in his other eye and he could end up going blind in both eyes. He was given 24 hours to make a decision.

Eric thought that he’d be no use as a one eyed photographer but then a priest visited him and told him that the bird photographer Walter Higham, whom Eric greatly admired, only had one eye, so Eric decided to have the eye removed. The farmer wanted to shoot the owl but Eric wouldn’t hear of it. He was back working within two weeks and called his autobiography ‘An Eye for a Bird’.”

Blue tit with hawthorn

Blue tit with hawthorn

What key steps have you taken in your career?

“I started off travelling around the country taking pictures of rare birds and selling them to birdwatchers. I also supplied photographs to agencies like the Oxford Scientific and the BBC. I realised that I couldn’t make a living entirely this way so I started giving photographic talks and workshops and even led birdwatching tours around the world with Limosa Holidays.

Then I got into publishing and worked as the photographic editor on several books with (TV naturalists) Bill Oddie, Nick Baker and Chris Packham. I have photographed 95 percent of the bird species in Europe but have also had to photograph other forms of wildlife, such as the life cycle of a dragonfly.”

What is the most memorable wildlife photograph you have ever taken?

“I had to take a photograph of the Asian Desert Warbler for a project, which took me through Europe, Africa and the Middle East. After about nine days in the Negev Desert, I noticed that the desert warbler associated with the desert wheatear, which sits at the top of bushes and looks out for danger, while the warbler forages around the bottom. Whenever the wheatear moved, the warbler followed, so I knew that if I could find the wheatear, I could find the warbler too. Then one day the wheatear disappeared and I realised that it must have gone deeper into the desert to breed. I was wondering how I was going to find the warbler when I looked around and saw that it appeared to be following me, as if I had become its desert wheatear.

It followed me to a bush and stopped in front of it in the open. I took a whole roll of film, but its neck feathers were ruffled in the wind, which looked odd, so I walked around the bush and it followed again and sat back down in the same spot facing into the wind. It then moved to the top of the bush, I pressed the shutter once and it flew off. I got the exact picture I wanted. It was a pivotal moment for me because it was as if the desert warbler had accepted me into its environment.”

Asian Desert Warbler, Negev Desert.

Asian Desert Warbler, Negev Desert.

Why is wildlife photography important?

“I think that it can help remind us that the world is a beautiful place, which we must strive to protect and that we must never think that we are the most important species in it. This is particularly relevant nowadays because so many people are closing their ears and eyes to the beauty around them and living in a virtual world.

I’ve often wondered what I’m doing this for when I’m sitting in some wilderness and what I’m there to photograph is nowhere to be seen and I’m thirsty and tired and hungry, but I’m old enough to know that the answer will come when I take the next picture of value. I think it’s important to be creative when there is so much destruction in the world.”

Your career has taken you all over the world; do you have a favourite place?

“It may sound a little trite but whenever people ask me this question I always say ‘wherever I am’. If you spend your time wishing you were somewhere else you might miss something interesting on your doorstep. The composer Stravinsky wrote that ‘art proves the ordinary is extraordinary’ and I’ve always lived by that philosophy, so you could say that the whole world is my favourite place.”

Puffins, Island of Foula, Scotland.

Puffins, Island of Foula, Scotland.

What are you working on at the moment?

“I’ve just completed a series of photographs taken in Hertfordshire called ‘Landscapes in Flight’. The pictures are about the transient nature of rural landscapes, not just due to seasonal change, but also due to the lines and textures made in the fields by farmers, who are unknowing artists. The pictures were taken on days when there was this extraordinary light and shadow moving quickly across the landscape. The light was moving so fast that it felt like trying to photograph birds in flight, so that’s how the project got its name.

I’m working on a book called the ‘Language of Photography’ and I’d also like to write a book about the history of bird photography, beginning in 1892 and ending with the advent of digital photography in 2000.”

Early Growth, Landscapes in Flight.

Early Growth, Landscapes in Flight.

What’s your advice for budding wildlife photographers?

“You’ve got to build up a portfolio of pictures to show what you can do. Study photographs you admire and ask yourself how they were taken and learn from them. Look through natural history magazines and see what sort of pictures they feature. Editors like a package deal, so if you can write well too then so much the better, or else team up with someone who can.

It’s very difficult to earn a living simply by selling photographs. You will have to cast your net wide to increase your opportunities, but stay within your interest. I think the best way is to specialise, that way you will get more unusual pictures. It also helps to understand the subject matter. Just keep at it and don’t give up.”

Who is your favourite musician?

“I’m fairly eclectic in my musical tastes and have embraced all, starting with 20th century composers like Stravinsky and Messiaen and working my way backwards through Handel operas, Baroque and Beethoven’s string quartets. I also love Mahler’s ‘Song of the Earth’. I don’t think music gets much better than that.

Poetry influences me too. In The Four Quartets, T.S. Elliot says: ‘We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ That to me is what art and life are all about.”

Black-eared Wheater with lichens.

Black-eared Wheater with lichens.

Find out more about David’s photography and for an insight into his studio.

About the Author

Charlotte Rixon

This post was written by Conservation Careers Blogger Charlotte Rixon. Charlotte is a freelance journalist and writer based in London, who specialises in wildlife, conservation, travel, gardening and all things green and outdoorsy. She has a particular passion for trees and woodland and a complicated relationship with urban foxes.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Communicator