Everyone’s got a dream. For photographer Shannon Wild (real name Shannon Benson), that dream is to capture amazing portraits of wild animals on her camera.
Shannon is one of the lucky few whose dream has become a reality. Since relocating to Africa from her native Australia to work full time as a wildlife photographer, she has had the opportunity to travel the vast continent tracking down all kinds of animals, from entire families of elephants to tiny baby monkeys.
While the experience has been incredible, Shannon’s career hasn’t always been easy. Some of her animal encounters have pushed her to the limit and revealed why the instincts of certain creatures should never be underestimated. We spoke to Shannon to find out what happens on some of her most gripping wildlife journeys.
When did you first become interested in photography, and why?
My interest in photography developed well after my interest in wildlife, which has been a lifelong passion. Before I was a photographer I was a graphic design and art director, so have always had a creative side.
It seemed natural to combine my love of wildlife and interpret it in a creative way. I happened to get a camera as a designer and started taking photographs of my own pets and wildlife every chance I had. I educated myself on the technical side of photography and, after a few years, decided to pursue it full time.
Tell us a bit about some of your earliest experiences as a wildlife photographer.
I mostly practiced on my own pet reptiles. I’ve been fascinated with reptiles for a long time and was quite active in the herpetological community in Australia. After taking photos of my own reptiles I then moved on to other people reptiles, then shooting wild reptiles for magazines and publications. I spent a lot of time photographing snakes and really enjoyed that. They can be very challenging to photograph, but like all animals they do communicate through body language if you take the time to learn and understand it.
Why did you decide to move from Australia to Africa?
I left Australia after having worked professionally as a photographer for almost 10 years. I was ready for change and a challenge and had dreamt of Africa all my life. I always knew I would visit Africa but never dreamed I would live there!
The opportunity arose and I was ready to pack up my life, sell everything I owned except my camera equipment and make a go of it. It was certainly challenging, especially after having established myself in Australia for so long. It’s been a hard journey but I haven’t regretted it for one second! Africa has my heart and its wildlife has my soul.
What are the biggest differences and similarities between the two countries in terms of photography?
Australia has an abundance of wildlife and plenty of dangerous animals that I have worked with, but Africa… well, nothing compares to it! The animals are much, much larger. I love going out and never really knowing what I might find. There is also more opportunity to make a living as a wildlife photographer in Africa than there is in Australia, although it’s still a very challenging way to earn a living.
What have been some of your most memorable photography expeditions?
There are so many it’s hard to single them out. Every day in the bush is a privilege and an adventure.
I do remember the very first time I heard a lion roar in the wild—it was incredibly emotional for me. That sound is unlike anything else. You don’t just hear it, your feel it vibrate through your chest. I had a massive male lion only metres from the vehicle I was in and he started to call to his brother who was out of sight. The sun was starting to set in the distance, and I can still remember that sound and feeling. I became teary at the experience and the reiteration that I was in Africa, finally.
Which animals do you enjoy photographing the most?
I love all animals, but since living in Africa I’ve really become a cat person. I’ve had many encounters with lions, leopards, cheetahs, caracals and servals over the years, and it’s always special.
I also thoroughly enjoy encountering rhinos in the wild. They are such an endangered animal and knowing I get to see them in the flesh and in close proximity… well, the importance is never lost on me.
Have you ever been in a scary or dangerous position while taking photos in the wild?
There have been many, which is not really that surprising after 12 years as a wildlife photographer. It’s inevitable that I’m going to get some cuts and scratches along the way. But my most dangerous encounter so far was definitely when I was mauled by a cheetah.
This was a habituated animal who was part of a breeding program. Cheetahs are endangered, and great work is being done to bring them back from the brink of extinction. This particular cheetah I had never met or worked closely with before.
It was an extremely hot morning in November and I was asked to photograph the cheetah running. She was giving off signs that she was impatient and was ready to do the run, knowing she would get a nice big chunk of meat at the end.
In my own complacency I was discussing with one of the handlers how I would like to position myself to shoot, and I foolishly knelt down. The cheetah came straight in from behind and tried to do a neck hold, like she would on a prey animal. She wasn’t being playful or even aggressive—she just instinctually went into hunt mode.
Fortunately I had been pretending to take a portrait image while showing the guide how I would be positioned, which meant my ear was pressed up to my shoulder, effectively protecting my neck. Since my hair was out and running down my arm from behind, the cheetah thought she was going for my neck but instead bit into my upper arm. It was a full force bite. She also pinned me down with her paws so I knew I had nowhere to go.
Fighting her would have resulted in worse injuries, so I simply relaxed into the sitting position I was in as people scrambled around me to get her off. After about 20 seconds— which seemed like much longer, as you can imagine—we managed to get her off, and I stood up and started to walk to the vehicle nearby.
The cheetah tried to go for me again, obviously feeling as though her hard won meal had just been taken from her. Instead she got her chunk of meat and went off into the shade of a tree to focus on that.
My injuries put me out of work for over two months as I couldn’t bare weight on the injured arm for a while. Usually cat wounds aren’t closed up due to the risk of infection, but the doctor felt he needed to stitch them and put me on a course of antibiotics. We left the wounds on my side from her claws to heal on their own, and all is now fine.
The arm still hurts even after a year and a half as there was significant muscle and nerve damage, but I learned a valuable lesson that day: regardless of how many cheetahs or other animals I may get to work with closely, never become complacent. I have far more respect for cheetahs in particular now, and remind people when I tell them this story that it is my privilege to be in the presence of that animal, not the other way around.
I would never blame an animal for acting instinctively. It’s the very reason I love them so much!
What do you personally think the secret is to capturing a great animal photo?
Passion. No question. If you’re passionate about the subject you’re photographing then it will translate in your work—certainly far more than technical ability.
Patience is also key, and many people don’t have the patience to combine with that passion to wait for the really amazing moments. It’s also imperative to have a solid understanding of photography fundamentals and your equipment, so that when those moments happen you are ready and able to capture them.
What are the key differences between a professional and amateur wildlife photographer?
As a working professional it does get harder in this day and age when dealing with paying clients who think they can also just pop out and get a great wildlife image. The difference between a professional and an amateur is that professionals can deliver consistently. They know how to capture a powerful image regardless of environment or time.
This is because professionals understand how to work with wildlife and interpret animal behaviour. They understand light and their equipment, so whatever the conditions may be they know how to utilise their tools and use the appropriate settings rather than relying on auto and hoping for a great shot.
A professional with utilise the camera to work for them, not the other way around. Anyone can manage to take a great image here or there, but they often don’t know how to replicate it or why the image is so great, or what settings were used.
What are the biggest tips that you share with aspiring photographers?
I’m an open book during my photographic workshops. I’m not the kind of photographer that will hide certain techniques for fear of being outdone. You see that insecurity a lot in this industry and it’s a shame.
I will usually deal with small groups so I can customise my teaching to the individual needs of each attendee. I drive home the importance of patience—that’s the first thing I touch on before getting technical. And, of course, I deal with field craft and safety; what is appropriate and ethical behaviour around wildlife.
After that it is fundamental to drive home the importance of how various settings work with and interact with each other. I cover best techniques for static and then moving subjects. If the attendees are more experienced then we start getting creative with settings to create some really unique imagery, such a techniques with slow shutter speeds, panning, zooming with flash and so on. Anything an attendee wants to know about wildlife photography, I am there to help them.
Learn more about Shannon’s awe-inspiring wildlife adventures on her website, www.shannonwild.com