Tim Flach is not a conventional wildlife photographer. He’s known for his immaculately-lit studio portraits of animals, from dogs and horses to monkeys and lions, which emphasise their expressive, human-like qualities. But while Endangered, Tim’s fifth book, applies a similar approach, it’s driven by an underlying message – our relationship with nature is on the precipice.
“We’re at a unique time in our history. We need to culturally change – I sense that urgency,” Tim says. “For the first time, it’s not natural forces that are endangering species and marking the planet, it’s us. In the past, nature was seen as robust and we were vulnerable. Now nature is vulnerable.”
Another difference with Endangered is that instead of bringing animals to his studio to photograph them, he shot them in a range of different environments. Over two-and-a-half years, Tim travelled the world taking pictures, photographing white rhinos in Kenya, monarch butterflies in Mexico and Philippine eagles. He was keen to show not just the obviously charismatic species such as elephants, pandas or tigers but other, sometimes less glamorous, life forms – stick insects, or lichen, for example.
Guiding the selection of subjects was zoologist Jonathan Baillie, who wrote a prologue and epilogue for the book. He also wrote the text that accompanies the 180 pictures, all of which was rigorously checked for accuracy by experts. “I worked hard chasing stories and then they helped me write them up," says Tim. "It was important to find a balance between the poetic and the technical. We wanted to bring people in.”
There’s a balance in the book between the more stylised animal portraits, against plain backdrops, and those that show creatures in their environment – a new venture for Tim. “Some portraits are quite deceptive because I’d put a black background outside and wait for a bird to fly across. They weren’t always in zoos, and they certainly weren’t in the studio. It wouldn’t be appropriate to bring a gorilla into a studio.”
Yet looking at one shot of a gorilla drinking water that's so detailed, so seemingly controlled, it’s hard to believe this was shot from afar in natural light. “That was shot from a boat – you can see the reflections of the water on the gorilla’s fingers,” Tim reveals.
Using Canon kit, he was “able to realise something that wouldn’t have been possible four or five years ago. I couldn’t shoot at ISO 1600 without creating a bit of noise, and I certainly couldn’t hand hold from a boat and get images like this.” Shooting on the Canon EOS 5DS – with its 50.6 megapixels and full-frame CMOS sensor – allowed Tim to achieve extremely high resolution photos, even in low light.
“[For Endangered] I needed to shoot with long lenses, often with a Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 lens, or to shoot things, such as the fireflies, in the dark, which required long exposures." It was all achievable first take – testament to the camera's 61-point High Density Reticular AF system that includes 41 cross-type AF points and EOS iTR AF.
“I think photography is interesting when it extends our experience, when it allows us to see something you couldn’t see with your eyes alone," Tim says. "The Canon lenses I used allowed me to go in and see tree frog eggs in incredible detail, and to see birds flying at high speed with their wings really sharp while bending from the pressure of flight.”
The Canon EOS 5DS’s body is compact enough to easily manoeuvre in response to a moving animal subject, while offering medium-format resolution. “With the larger file size it offers, I’m able to print these photographs large for exhibitions – they can be part of museum shows as well, not just a book.”
Ultimately, Tim hopes to bring the project to as wide an audience as possible. “You could influence a small art community but you also want to influence future politicians, scientists and conservationists. Maybe it will take them on a different course."
Making work that is both artistic and accessible is something that Tim, who describes himself as a “communicator”, relishes. “It’s always much more challenging to have a layered type of work,” he tells us. “On one level, you might find out more about a species, on another a particular animal might remind you of a science fiction character, such as Yoda or those fireflies from Avatar. As you move through this process of connection and association, you start questioning how people have traditionally represented nature. It’s very important to bring the otherness to us, to touch hearts and feelings as we bring it into our world.”