Tenba Traveler: Wildlife Photographer Nicola Destefano
By Aimee Baldridge
/ Published by TenbaThe photographer talks with Tenba about the importance of understanding the ethology of wildlife subjects, what he's learned about people while photographing animals, and what he always keeps in his bag when he's in the field.
All photographs © Nicola Destefano.
Aimee Baldridge: How did you become a nature and wildlife photographer?
Nicola Destefano: I've been a nature enthusiast since I was a child, when I spent most of my leisure time wandering through woodlands and along streams, watching animals and writing down their behaviors in a notebook, and devouring books and documentaries. My grandparents gave me a very simple camera when I was six. I think that somehow things just came together from the beginning, and as an adult I could not wish for more.
AB: Where have you traveled as a photographer?
Nicola Destefano: I have traveled to many countries in Africa and Europe. Those are currently my favorite destinations. I’ve visited environments as diverse as tropical forests, afro-alpine highlands, savannah, caves and deserts, taiga and lowland forests, high-altitude mountains, tundra and wetlands, Mediterranean coasts, and oceanic coral reefs.
AB: Are there particular animals that you enjoy photographing most?
Nicola Destefano: I am a very inquisitive generalist and, as an all-around passionate student, I have a naturalistic photographic approach, so I can’t specify preferences. I feel a real empathy when I relate to mammals. I’m also fascinated by reptiles and amphibians, and when I was a child I wanted to become an entomologist. I’m interested in everything, including plants. I don’t do “landscape photography,” because it’s a kind of non-naturalistic photography and doesn’t fascinate me. After all, the "landscape" does not exist in nature, but there are environments, habitat, ecological niches, and so on.
AB: Have you ever found yourself in a dangerous situation with an animal?
Nicola Destefano: I've been attacked by spotted hyenas in Botswana and charged by elephants in Namibia. I've had hippos make a mess during the night in a tent camp and I've run into lions during a walk. But I always try to avoid getting into trouble, especially when I'm dealing with poisonous and venomous animals or large mammals, and if I’m in wilderness, far from civilization and all alone. This is an excellent way to ensure my safety and that of my photographic subjects, as well as to respect my subjects.
AB: Do you ever interact with the animals you’re photographing?
Nicola Destefano: The most direct interaction can happen when I'm dealing with certain invertebrates or herpetofauna, or when I’m making pictures of fish, amphibians, or aquatic bugs in a field-aquarium.
AB: What kind of gear do you use in the field?
Nicola Destefano: I use full-frame and APS-C camera bodies, and my photographic equipment ranges from a 15mm fisheye to a 500mm supertele with a camouflage cover. I take almost all my shots handheld, but I use tripods and Gorillapods too. I also use reflective panels, extension tubes, and often flashes with subjects that otherwise would suffer from insufficient lighting. My equipment varies depending on the environments and the climate that I have to deal with. To take pictures of some animals, it’s indispensable to use camouflage clothes or blinds and stay uncomfortably hidden for hours or whole days.
AB: What kind of bag do you carry your gear in, and why do you prefer it?
Nicola Destefano: I usually use large camera backpacks, which have to be able to hold most of my equipment. If the kind of trip and means of transportation allow it, I use a rolling camera bag and a comfortable shoulder bag. I usually take a Tenba Roadie II Hybrid. It's an excellent and robust trolley and a perfect carry-on. It's very versatile, and one of its advantages is that it converts into a comfortable photo backpack in a few seconds. During my workshops I use a Messenger bag. It's very useful for carrying around some lenses and flashes for students to use.
AB: Are there any special items that you always keep in your bag when you travel?
Nicola Destefano: I always carry things for protecting and repairing myself and my equipment in violent weather events and other difficult conditions. I carry dry bags and camera covers, repellents and antihistamines, a head flashlight and UV torches, tweezers for removing ticks and other parasites, and some gadgets that produce small electric shocks, which I use to render inert the venom of certain plants and insects if I’m bitten by them.
AB: How do you keep your gear clean and protect it from damage in the field?
Nicola Destefano: If you wear a t-shirt, you've already solved most of the problems! It can have endless uses. For the kind of photography that I do, I don’t care a lot about keeping things clean. Of course I try to limit damage, but moisture, dust, mud, heat, and cold cannot be avoided. If I wanted to avoid things like that, I would be an interior photographer. It's impossible to go into a cave and come out clean. Even deserts, forests, and bitter cold put a strain on the equipment. For that reason it’s often necessary to give my gear a deep clean after using it, in addition to taking steps to protect it. I do use a camera cover called a Storm Jacket to protect my camera and lenses when I'm photographing in the rain or the snow. It's also good in a strong wind. I often travel with a watertight bag in which to insert my backpack and equipment as well.
AB: Are there special skills you have learned to travel over rough terrain and find animals?
Nicola Destefano: In some environments it’s extremely necessary to know what you’re doing. Good fitness is required during long walks in the mountains where you load a photo backpack that exceeds 15 kilograms or during long hikes in extremely cold weather or dry, hot weather.
Many birds and mammals are very suspicious and shy by nature, or they are hunted and scared or are not “used to people,” so you need to take the proper approach with them. Sometimes that means long and exhausting stakeouts. For that reason it’s essential to know what you’re doing and to understand the biology and ethology of your subjects, especially if you want to create a narrative about them in the correct way and avoid the unlikely or absolutely artificial situations that you often see on the web and elsewhere.
AB: Do you use any special tools and techniques to photograph birds, especially when they’re moving fast?
Nicola Destefano: It depends on the result you wish to achieve. If you want to freeze them in flight, you must use very fast shutter speeds, but if you want to pan or do a more “artistic” shot, you have to use a slower speed. I handhold my camera for most of my photos, but sometimes I use a beanbag or a Sidekick tripod head.
AB: How do you stay in shape for your trips and keep yourself in good health during them?
Nicola Destefano: It’s not a matter of being an Ironman, but you have to be healthy and not particularly delicate or unlucky. Obviously you need to be able to adapt and have a minimum of training. My vegetarian diet is very healthy, simple, and inexpensive. I have no difficulty in finding food wherever I am.
AB: What is the market for your images like?
Nicola Destefano is a nature and wildlife photographer based in Italy. Visit his website to see more of his work and find information about his workshops.
Nicola Destefano: The market, particularly in my country, is very limited and circumscribed. It consists of publishers and magazines, museums and parks, and non-profit organizations. Image banks also offer a great way to sell work.
AB: Who takes your workshops, and what do you think is the most valuable thing students learn from them?
Nicola Destefano: My workshops and travels involve different kinds of people, both amateur photographers and experts, but the thing that they share and that I try to convey is the passion for nature and for what they’re photographing. My activities cannot be separated from the practice of observing animals and sharing information on the characteristics, biology, and ethology of particular species.
AB: Have you learned anything about people while photographing animals?
Nicola Destefano: I could answer, "almost everything." Courtship, battles for territorial control, the defense of offspring or food resources, symbiosis between species, parental care, games, monogamy and adultery . . . there is no human activity that cannot be observed in nature. We are animals, and our closest relatives look strikingly similar to our species.
AB: Why do you do what you do? What do you love most about it?
Nicola Destefano: In a few words, because I do what I am, and it would be difficult to do anything else. I love what I do and I am overwhelmed by it and totally involved in it. The trip, the discovery, the usefulness of what I do, the physical pleasure of photographing and working hard, contact with nature, the beauty that permeates everything you are willing to learn—those are the main things that lead me to do what I do.
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