Interview with Claudio Vidal: photographing nature in Patagonia

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 Photo: Claudio VidalPhoto: Claudio Vidal

 
By Patrick Nixon
 
Claudio Vidal is a founding partner of Far South Expeditions, a travel company dedicated to bird and nature watching expeditions and photographic safaris. He is also a photographer and co-author of several books, including Birds of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and the Antarctic Peninsula, and Birds of Chile, its Oceanic Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. Vidal is also part of the panel of judges of the 5th Patagonia Photo Contest. Recently, I spoke to him via Facebook Live of Patagon Journal part of an online series of conversations the magazine is organizing on photography in Patagonia in conjunction with the contest. Excerpts:
 
Nixon: How did you first get interested in photography? 
Vidal: My interest in photography came as a child and was encouraged by my parents. Without their encouragement, my passion for nature would never have blossomed and I would have dedicated my life to something else. My first camera was a Zenit, a very heavy and analog Russian camera. It was always great for me to be able to capture a moment of nature. But at the same time I always had something inside asking me, what is that plant called? What is the name of that bird? What am I photographing? It was not for aesthetic reasons. Rather, my approach to photography is documentary. I am interested in knowing more about the natural world, more than just taking a good portrait.
 
How did you get interested in Patagonia?
I have a natural affinity with Patagonia because I was born in Punta Arenas, on the Brunswick peninsula, on the beaches of the Strait of Magellan. My brother and I share this passion for nature and he went on to become a botanist because of this connection we had with Patagonia in our childhood. With the passing of time I have always tried to keep that childlike curiosity as both a naturalist and as a photographer.
 
Tell us about Far South Expeditions.
We started out with another company called Fantástico Sur, with CORFO financing, many years ago, developing the idea of bringing tourists down to Patagonia and showing them nature, but through a more scientific approach. We started with this idea when the term bird watching was still unknown in Chile. It was a very niche segment in tourism and we developed it. In addition, we needed guidebooks to inform the tourists about the birds and plants they were observing. Therefore, the other part of our company focused on publishing. Over time we have published some 20 books, most of them guides to be used in the field. So, it is not only about taking people out into nature, and organizing trips to promote Chile, but also about getting people interested in Patagonia and producing texts that enable people to study the subject and to use them.
 
What is the "Festina Lente" concept about?
It is a proverb that accompanies me whenever I go into the field to prepare to photograph a bird, a mammal or a landscape. It is a maxim I always use that reminds me to not to get carried away. Its best definition would be to hurry slowly. The work of the photographer is a balance between the urgency of the moment and being diligent. You have to do things methodically, without making mistakes. If you hurry, you are going to make mistakes when handling the camera, or you are going to cause undesired behavior in the subject. To achieve that, you have to be committed to the moment, without worrying about the time.
 
 

What kinds of skills are important for this type of photography?
In addition to patience and calm, you need to be aware of your abilities, your skills and shortcomings. For example, I am very shy about photographing people. You must become familiar with and anticipate some of movements of the subject you are photographing. Know what you are photographing, because you do not want to disturb the fauna that you are photographing. Technique and equipment play a role, but you must also always be aware of not intervening too much. When you go out to photograph with more people it is important to observe how they behave with the camera. They all have their own way of composing. 
 
How does the equipment you take with you vary depending on what you are going to photograph?
About 10 years ago, when I started photography, I often used to take 10 to 15 kilos of equipment in my backpack, it was ridiculous. I was wondering why I need to bring so many things into the field. Over time, I have learned that the more minimalist you are with the equipment you bring, the better the results are because you are more focused on the moment. I am interested in the three branches of nature photography. For landscape photography, I carry a wide-angle lens or a lens with a 24-70 or 24-105 range. But I am also interested in macro photography, so I carry a 100mm or 180mm macro lens, depending on the occasion. If it's a plant, the 100mm is perfect, but if it's a lizard or an insect, the longer the focal length, the more relaxed the subject will be and it won’t run away. In conclusion, you have to be minimalist so as not to get confused by so many accessories.
 
In that context, when you go out, do you go with a clear objective of what you want to photograph so as not to carry extra equipment?
Absolutely. You will have time to play with your cameras and prepare the equipment at home, in the hotel or in the tent, and then be prepared for when the time comes. That is what "Festina Lente" is about, playing with time, speeding up slowly, reaching the place knowing already the daylight hours you need for your photographs. We all fail at some time when experimenting with photography so don't get frustrated. For whatever reason, take all this as a collection of experiences that helps us to get better final results.
 
You started out with analog photography, but today everything is digital. What do you think of the evolution of photography?
I like documentary photography. I like to be true to what I am looking at. To achieve this, for example, I use my binoculars. I don't like color filters very much, because I like to portray the exact color of each thing, but if Adobe Lightroom variables bring me closer to the reality that I saw when taking photos, I use them, but not in an exaggerated way. I am old school. I believe you should capture the most natural representation of what you are seeing. If you want something more natural, stick to the moment that was given to you. You have to play with the light.
 
As part of the panel of judges of the 5th Patagonia Photo Contest, what will you look for in the photos?
Personally, what draws me to a photo is that it captures a precise moment. But I also look for the identity of the person behind the lens and what they were seeking to capture. I look for what motivated the person in the photo, their viewpoint. Is it an original approach? Is it a shot that is highly influenced by other photographers? I love to find an independent view that is adventurous and daring.
 
 

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