June 2007


Fritz Pölking

A Small Synopsis of Time

Almost unheard of: General photography is in part a child of wildlife/nature photography, or better yet: The driving force for the discovery of photography came from the desire of one of the founding fathers of this medium to take wildlife/nature pictures.

William Henry Fox Talbot wanted to keep more accurate and exact impressions of his travels then was possible with his drawings. That is why he was looking for a type of fixing agent in order to make the blackened silver-nitrate within the Camera Obscura more resistant to light. He started his experiments in 1834 and was able to take first photos in August of 1835.

Wildlife/Nature photography started towards the end of the 19th century. Ottmar Anschütz (1846-1907) made his famous photo series of storks in 1884 and R.B. Lodge took the first outdoor pictures of a brooding peewit in 1895.

Outdoor wildlife photography became possible when the collodion process was replaced in 1880 by the factory made dry gel on paper plate. This plate was twenty times as sensitive to light and 4 years after its introduction Anschütz took his sensational pictures of storks. The Zoological Society of London organized an exposition as early as 1912 in which already 174 types of birds, 95% of which were taken outdoors in nature, were displayed.


Richard Kearton

One of the first nature and bird photographers was Richard Kearton. He was born on January 2, 1862 in a small village called Swaledale England , where his ancestors had lived as farmers since 1350.

In the fall of 1882, when Kearton was going on 21, Sidney Golpin visited this place called Swaledale to hunt ducks. Kearton showed him the moor with all its fascinating natural beauty and this impressed Golpin in such a way that he invited Kearton to London and gave him a job in his publishing house.

Kearton started to write articles on nature and soon he wanted to illustrate these articles with his own photos of animals living free in nature. Richard Kearton “invented” the camouflage tent which in a more progressive way is still used by bird photographers today. He discovered that birds are oblivious of other animals such as cows, horses or sheep. That is why his first camouflage tent resembled a cow. Later on his camouflage tent became more and more abstract until finally the idea itself became to be a universal fact in the guild of bird photography: that camouflage tents could look like anything except for “Gods greatest creation”. The free-living birds seemed and still seem to hold it in very low regard.

Kearton, together with his brother Cherry, traveled all over Great Britain as far as St. Kilda. His adventures on the group of islands off the coast of Scotland were described by him in probably the best book about St. Kilda “With Nature and a Camera”.

Kearton published many photographs, books and held numerous lectures. When he died on February 8, 1928 he was considered the classic senior champion in the art of wildlife/nature photography.


This is what the standard equipment of bird photographers looked like before it changed to the small format SLR: a 9x12 plate camera with a swiveling back, so that you could put the main focus on the front edge of the nest and on the parent bird that is either sitting and/or feeding at an angle to the nest.  

Eric Hosking

Eric Hosking was born in 1909. When he was a student he already answered the typical questions from his dear aunts about what it was that he wanted to be when he grew up, in contradiction to the standard answer of “train engineer”, with a firm and distinct:”bird photographer”.

This answer had a small flaw to it: there was no profession called: bird photographer. No one had ever specialized in and concentrated their effort as consistently on bird photography as he did. Today many live FOR bird photography but no one besides Hoskins has ever been able to live FROM it.

Eric Hoskins has published innumerable pictures of birds, he has written many books about birds and bird photography and released his autobiography, “An Eye For a Bird” in 1970 with a preface written by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. A clear sign of position and high standing enjoyed by a bird photographer like Eric Hosking in Great Britain : Just imagine the biography of Hermann Fischer published here in Germany with a preface by President Horst Köhler. Imaginable? Would someone buy the book? Hoskings autobiography had multiple editions and even a paperback concession. Hoskings break-through as a bird photographer came in 1937, when he was attacked by a tawny owl in Whales and lost an eye. The media reported it everywhere and Hoskings was suddenly famous in all of Great Britain . Since that time all bird photographers who take owl pictures on that island wear masks just like in fencing.


Barn owl with a captured rat.

Photo: Eric Hosking (1936)

Sanderson Field Camera, 21 cm Dallmeyer-Lens, Aperture of 16, flash bulb.

Taken from out of a tent on a raised stand that Eric Hoskings built on a pedestal in front of a tree (see the picture below).

Back at that time there was no link which synchronized the shutter speed with the flash. That meant that Eric Hoskings had to wait in utter darkness until he heard a scratching noise on the tree trunk signaling that a barn owl had landed. He then opened the shutter speed of the camera, sparked the flash and then closed the shutter speed of the camera again.

These flash bulbs only flashed once and then the bulb was burned out and Eric Hosking had put his hand out of the camouflage tent, screw the flash bulb (careful! hot!) out of the socket and still in complete darkness, replace it with a new one for the next approach of the owl. He was not using sheet film at that time, but glass plates as a base material for the emulsion of B/W.

When I saw this picture by Eric Hosking for the first time, I was enrapt and it is still my all time favorite picture from the early times of wildlife/nature photography. Eric Hosking had no idea how photogenic the animals pose was, he didn’t see that until after developing.    



Hermann Fischer

Hermann Fischer was born November 2, 1885 . All of his life he photographed wildlife – painstakingly and with great success. He died in 1975, shortly before his 90th birthday, in Braunschweig. He was the role model of an entire generation of post-war wildlife photographers in Germany .

The 1953 edition of his book “Tierjagd mit der Kamera (Hunting Animals With a Camera)” became the bible for wildlife/nature photographers of his period.

Hermann Fischer started out as a painter before WWI and was to be accepted in the School of Arts in Weimar through a scholarship from the city of Braunschweig . The First World War wanted something different. H. Fischer returned to Braunschweig puzzled and worked for the car maker Büssing. He became self-employed in 1923 as a wildlife/nature photographer. He may have possibly been the first German to put into effect what many nature-loving junior wildlife/nature photographers try nowadays: to live and work as freelancers.

He illustrated the books by Hermann Löns and Meerwarth and his pictures were such a sensational success that we can hardly imagine it in these jaded times. His main area of operation was the Lüneburger Heide (the heath by Lüneburg) where he documented landscapes, people and animals. His work shaped an entire era.


Walter Wissenbach

Walter Wissenbach, born in 1901, was the first master of photography of a new generation of wildlife/nature photographers following Hermann Fischer. He brought the technique of quick flash photography in connection to the photo sensor developed by Eric Hosking in England during the Second World War to Germany and he was also the first to have tremendous success with it in Germany in the fifties.

Pictures of flying birds, very sharp and of incredible richness in detail had not been seen until then. Even large weekly newspapers like the “Frankfurter Illustrierte (Frankfurt Illustrated)” at that time very often printed reports of Wissenbach´s work on a several page spread.  Whereas Hermann Fischer lived as an all-round wildlife/nature photographer, Walter Wissenbach, 16 years younger, was purely a bird photographer.  He won many awards with his pictures, starting with the Leica Photo Contest all the way to the Senckenberg Medal.

During the last 15 years before his death fewer and fewer pictures by him were seen due to his health.

Whereas senior master photographer Hermann Fischer represented the pioneering generation during the post-war years, Walter Wissenbach was at the peak of bird photography, all by himself, during the 50s and up into the 70s in Germany .


One of my “earlier” (1954) remote controls before there were modernized electric wireless remote control releases. I cut an opening into the center of a roll of toilette paper and on it there was a 250-gram weight above a match. If I pulled on the string at a distance of 100 m, the match would be pulled out, the weight fell onto a wire trigger, pushed it in and set off the shutter of the Agfa Box 6x9 right next to it.  You put flash powder into the pan on top of the box.  Actually, I should have gotten a Nobel Prize for this ingenious construction.  


Kingfisher is feeding his fledgling  
Photo: Fritz Pölking

Eltings Mühlenbach in the Hüttruper Heide (Hüttrup Heath) close to Greven (1975). 
Olympus OM-1, 2.8/135 mm, Agfapan-400, tripod, camouflage tent.

Small format cameras, lenses and even film material were improving constantly while the great era of black and white photography was coming to a definite end. The first motorized winders were already available.  


Some important Stages

1955 is when modern times began as far as equipment in wildlife/nature photography was concerned, the Noflexar 5.6/400 mm, which represented the highest standard until later on the lenses with internal focus (AF) and TTL (through the lens metering) came onto the market.

1960-1980 The first zoom lenses slow and not very good, were already available in 1960. This changed, became much better with improved light conditions in the 80s and the wildlife / nature photographers started to become more acquainted with it.

1980 the first photo back packs (or rucksacks) that made our lives much easier were available.

1980 we were also introduced to the first split filters with which we finally were able to bridge the contrast of the dark Tundra in the foreground and the snowy mountains in the background.

1985 we got the AF (auto focus) in the SLR (Single Lens Reflex) cameras and Minolta was the first company that brought a 2.8/300 mm and 4.0/600 mm lens with the AF onto the market.

1985 the DX (Digital Index) encoding came and we stopped exposing the 200 Kodachrome, i.e. 25 ISO.

1990 is when Adobe-Photoshop 1.0 came, but no wildlife/nature photographer took any notice at all of it.

1991 the first digital SLR from Kodak with 1.3 mega pixels was available for Photojournalists.

1993 the first Coolscan from Nikon, the most common used slide scanner among wildlife/nature photographers was available, today it is called Nikon Super Coolscan 5000 ED.

1994 the first tripods made of carbon fiber that make life easier for us and keeps frostbite from our hands came out.

1995 we got the first lens with a stabilizer, the 4-5.6/75-300 mm Canon EF

2004 was the time the first professional digital Canon-SLR for wildlife/nature photographers came out, the EOS 1 D Mark II

2005, the year of the first professional digital Nikon-SLR for wildlife/nature photographers, the D2x.




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