Telling a Story about the Natural World through Photography

Interview with Daniel Beltrá, Out of the Blue Judge and Professional Photographer

Daniel Beltra

Can you tell us about how you got into photography?

That’s a bit of a funny story because I took kind of a back door into photography. I was always interested in photography since an early teenager and by the time I came to study Biology at University I was always around with my camera and taking photos. In Madrid at that time, the Basque Terrorist Group, the ETA, was very active. One day while taking a shower and getting ready to go to university, I heard about one of their bombings on the radio. Apparently a bomb had exploded nearby, so I drove there and I arrived before all the photographers. I took my photos to the Spanish National Press Agency (the EFE), which led to a job offer without any formal training! So I basically started as a photojournalist, covering all kinds of events but unfortunately not many around Natural History or Biology, which was where my real passion lay- so two paths sort of developed.

Those two paths started to converge later in my career when I did a lot of work for Greenpeace, through which I could use both my knowledge of photojournalism and my knowledge of Nature and Biology as well as my concern for the environmental state of our planet.  So I put those things together and that’s where I am right now. I have worked as a photographer for Greenpeace many times since 1990 (until recently). I worked for them all over the world. Lots of the images on my website were taken on assignments for them, including most of the work I have done on forests.

What do you most enjoy about photography?

Photography for me, I always say, is the perfect tool for a curious person. It opens the door to anything you want to do or are interested in. It is a great way to learn, because you study a subject and can satisfy your curiosity, whatever that is, for example, if you want to see a panda in the wild you might figure out a way to do that. It opens the world to you. For me in particular, it gives me a sense of purpose, I am concerned about conservation, about the environment and I try to make it my mission in photography to highlight the problems we are having and hopefully inspire people.

Do you have any advice for new photographers on simple techniques they can use to take great shots?

I’m really not a very technical guy; I know what I need to know but I don’t like to make photography very technical. So when people ask me for advice on techniques, I think there are many other things that are more important. Today cameras are so good, even smartphones, and many of the basic cameras you can get are very clever. For me it’s more important to study your subject so you know what you are going to be photographing. Like when you study biology, oceanography, anthropology or any other big subject that might interest you. It is definitely very important to read a lot about what’s happening, to talk with other experts, to see other photographers’ work and to spend a lot of time in the field. If you are really interested, that is when you learn about the subject and spend time studying it. Lastly, I would say to photographers: be a harsh editor. We all take bad photos, regardless of how good you are. When people say I take good photos, I say: I don’t show you all the bad ones I take! Be a tough editor and don’t let bad photos slip through, think about what you like in others and apply that to yourself. Also, look at the frame, look at all the corners. Composition is really very important. And a photo that you have already composed on camera is going to be better than cropping and cutting it afterwards.

What sort of equipment do you use? And how much do you really need?

I think that in general you can do a lot with very little. This is an easy mistake to fall into, thinking that if I have better equipment I will take better photos. It doesn’t work like that at all. Some of the most phenomenal photos in history were taken with nothing. It’s training the eye, it’s learning what you want; learning to see is what results in good photos and not so much the equipment. And in that sense I go back to what I said before: it’s important to spend time in the field so when I have students or people ask for advice I always say “don’t spend time on the gear, spend time working the stories”. Instead of buying a very good camera and having a weekend to shoot, you buy a medium quality camera and you can spend two weeks out, working on the same subject – it will result in much better images. Of course later on, if you are in a position of professional photography, you need slightly better equipment. But really, I am not too interested in equipment. It’s a mistake we all make because it’s [the gear] that is part of the fun of photography. I never use smartphones professionally but more and more we probably could, they definitely have very good quality.

Do you take photographs to tell a story? What is the best way to ensure that your photograph tells a good story?

Do I take photos to tell a story? Definitely! What’s the best way for that? Well I think, again you have to know your subject. The best way to know your subject is not about neutrality, I don’t try to be neutral, I try to be fair. I learn about an issue and I have an opinion. The more I learn, the more I study, the more I talk with people – the more I develop an opinion. It’s my opinion that I express through my work. I try to be fair; try to show all the sides [of an issue]. So to tell a good story: just spend time and study and talk with as many sources as you can find.

How can photographers link their description of the image more directly with the photographs they submit?

I always say that photography and language are two completely different mediums and it’s not always easy to translate one into the other. Very good photos don’t require too much transcription. [However], sometimes they need a little help.  With my work that’s happening more and more because I am starting to concentrate on things that are more abstract; that you don’t understand very well when you are looking at them but that it’s also a process of engagement. Once people realise what they are looking at, I want them to really think about what I am portraying or talking about or warning about; the destruction of the forests or whatever it is. So there’s that tension in the image that really helps to convey the message. For this competition, I suggest providing information from all the previous investigation you should have done, all your homework in telling the story. Be self-critical, if you are serious about photography you need to understand what you like and you need to study the work of photographers. Photography is not an exact science; the interesting thing about photography is, you put ten photographers in a spot and you’re going to come out with ten different views so there is not one clear answer. It’s about developing your own vision, its learning to see the things in a way that you feel engaged with your subject. It’s not any easy thing to do; it is something that you develop over time. It is a long-term relationship of patience and love that develops until you manage to extract what you want to show.

What is the starting point for your own photography? Do you begin with the story or the image?

For me, it’s a combination of going out with a vision and improvising on the spot of how to tell a story.  With an assignment I ask myself: how can I tell this story, which kinds of images would be good to tell this story? I make a list of things that I will probably never photograph but which is helpful in creating a visual in my head. Through a good collection of photos you can then tell the whole story- that’s very important, creating all the chapters and the narrative that you want to have.

As a judge in this competition, what are you looking for in the photographs that are entered?

I want to be surprised!! Because there is so much photography and so many good photographers [out there].  So what would make it through the contest are things that I haven’t seen before or that are incredibly well made and developed. I want to learn about the ecosystem, about the animals portrayed, the relationship between humans and the animals and about the issues. I want photography that is surprising and inspiring and that teaches me something.

This interview was conducted during a phone call with Daniel Beltra on the 2nd July 2016 by the Out of the Blue Team. Photograph by Robert Leslie.