Matthew Gillooley: Tips on Photographing Wildlife

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All images by Matthew Gillooley. Used with permission.

Matthew Gillooley is a 20 year old, international award-winning photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Now for just a little while longer, let that sink in. At the age of 20, Matthew has already won awards in the field. His work has been featured in publications such as BBC and The Guardian.

Matt started out as an action sports photographer but these days mainly focuses on wedding work to pay the bills. Like many photographers though, he has a more passionate side in regards to the arts; and that’s wildlife and travel work.

Upon showing us his portfolio, we were immediately captivated by lots of his photos of wildlife. And so we asked him about tips for photographing wildlife.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you first got into photography.

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Matt: When I was younger, I was always the person taking the photos in our family and I was fortunate enough to have a camera to use. I started taking photography seriously at the age of 14. When I began, I wanted to photograph nature and wildlife. But, being that young and not having many chances to explore I photographed the next best thing, my brother mountain biking. Dan rides pretty frequently so I had a readily available and willing subject, so sometimes I would tag along and we would shoot. This gave me the opportunity to learn my gear in a fast paced environment as well as a grounding in off camera flash. From there I’ve moved into wedding and portrait photography work over the past 4 years and although I enjoy it, I’m most passionate about travel and wildlife photography. I still shoot action sports for work, but If I could do one thing, it would be traveling and documenting this crazy world that we live in.

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Phoblographer: What attracts you to wildlife and taking pictures of animals?

Matt: I’m attracted to shooting wildlife because I believe that people need to see the beauty of the world around them so that it can be protected. My goal is to inspire others to care enough to help with conservation.

Phoblographer: Shooting wildlife out on safaris is dangerous business. Talk to us about a scary experience that you had.

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Matt: One experience stands out over the rest, and it’s mostly my doing, so I’ll admit to that first. As you can imagine, the first rule when around lions is don’t get out of the vehicle. There was a lioness walking quickly about 3-4 feet parallel with our truck and I was trying to think creatively when I realized that if I hung down off the truck to try to get a shot of the lioness walking at 24mm I might have a unique perspective that not many people see. No sooner had I hung out of the truck did I realize that I had made a horrible decision, essentially I was baiting a full grown lion. Thankfully she just walked right on by me and didn’t pay any heed to the overzealous photographer. It was a scary, adrenaline filled moment for me, but it all seemed to work out, even the photograph.

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Phoblographer: What hardships can a photographer face out on a Safari and how does one logistically prepare for them?

Matt: Running out of memory is a definitely a big issue, so either stock up on cards, or external hard drives, because it’s a horrible feeling knowing that you could still be shooting if you had space. Along with the extra space, bring extra lens and sensor cleaning supplies, because your gear will get way dirtier than you think it will after driving around for hours on end. Another hardship is not seeing the animals you want, but just keep in mind that’s the very nature of going on a safari. If you wanted to see exactly what you want you’d go to a zoo. Just remember that it’s the quality of images you get and not the quantity, to me if I get one to two great images out of a game drive from a handful of animals, I’m a happy man.

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Phoblographer: What do you personally think makes for great wildlife images?

Matt: Personally I think that a great wildlife image shows relationships. Not just physical interaction like two lions taking a swing at each other, I believe it is equally important to show the larger picture, where the animals are interacting with their environment and just going about their business.

“There was a lioness walking quickly about 3-4 feet parallel with our truck and I was trying to think creatively when I realized that if I hung down off the truck to try to get a shot of the lioness walking at 24mm I might have a unique perspective that not many people see. No sooner had I hung out of the truck did I realize that I had made a horrible decision, essentially I was baiting a full grown lion.”

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use.

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Matt: I primarily use a Nikon D800 and D3s, the D800 gives me those massive files that I love, and with the dynamic range you really can’t complain. That being said, the D3s gives me the speed that I need when things really get going. It’s an amazing workhorse and great in low light. As far as lenses go, I love the 200-400mm f4 from Nikon. It’ll get you pretty close to your subject and when you pair it with the D800, you can crop in a bit to make a stronger frame. I also love the 24-70mm, it allows you to keep shooting when animals are getting up close to the vehicle, or if you want to just capture a scene wide. Under it all I have a Manfrotto monopod with an Arca Swiss ball head that keeps everything very secure and sturdy. All of it fits into a packed F-stop Loka with a large ICU. To me the Loka is the best backpack I’ve used, it’s incredibly modular, light, and quality is out of this world.

Phoblographer: How close are you typically to these animals? How do you typically react when you first see them and how do you ensure that you always get the best photos that you can?

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Matt: The distance you are from your subject really varies from animal to animal, You can generally get pretty close to lions maybe about 30 or so feet away. But some animals like rhinos and elephants you either don’t want to get close, or they’re just so darn big you don’t need to. The first time you see an animal is exhilarating, just being able to get a sense for their size and place is absolutely incredible. I ensure that I get the best photos that I can by going into it with a creative attitude and knowing the type of photos that I’m looking for. That being said, I believe an important thing you can do is listen to and trust your guide because they know how the animal will behave and can have a general idea of where it’s headed. If you work as a team, you can come away with some incredible photographs.

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Phoblographer: What areas do you feel give you the best opportunity to get the best wildlife photos that you can?

Matt: Honestly I think that you can get great wildlife photos just about anywhere, because you’re not looking for the best location to pose a lion in, you’re looking to photograph the lion in it’s habitat, and being able to see such incredible animals in their element is truly breathtaking. However, the Maasai Mara is one of the most incredibly places that I’ve ever been. The light is so amazing in the morning and evening that it’s hard not to get good images. I was also fortunate enough to spend a few days in the Mara North Conservancy, You’re allowed to offroad there so it makes getting close to animals so much easier. To my knowledge there are no rhinos up there, but there is a higher concentration of leopards and cheetahs than down on the Mara, so if you’re looking for the spotted cats, that’s the place to be.