Wildlife / Nature Photographer on the "focusing screen":

Fritz Pölking

The goal of this new column is to put some professional wildlife / nature photographers on the "focusing screen" . Not their photography, but their opinions on specific things and their experience in the world of wildlife / nature photography. To include an interview in every "Obectief" has not been possible up to now, but I am hoping to be able to bring "conversations" of this sort on a regular basis. The first one is with Fritz Pölking, co-founder of the GDT (Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturfotografen) [German Society of Nature Photographers] and presently still one of the "leading masters" and part of the ethical "think tank" of the world, of (not only) Germany. The conversation is written as recorded, with the objective to have as clear a rendition as possible.

" How did you begin your career as a wildlife / nature photographer: Were you a photographer, a lover of nature or a conservationist of nature?"

" Actually as a photographer. When I was 14 years old, I saw a starling who came to get ripe cherries under the tree in my garden at home, a small black bird with this red cherry in its beak..... and I thought, you have to take a picture of this, that really looks wonderful, a green lawn and a black bird with red berries in its beak. So I took a picture of it. After that, I saw a peewitt and I wanted to take pictures of it, too... and that actually is how it all started. That was back in 1951."

" And nature still has a hold on you?"

"Yes, and it surprises even me, since most of the colleagues do not find that much pleasure in this work any more, when they are about 60 or 65 years of age, whereas it has always been the same for me and actually has even grown in intensity. I take even greater pleasure in photographing today than I did 20 years ago."

"Even though, in your own words, "it is hard work"?

"Yes, yes....absolutely, most people think that is such a great pleasure to travel throughout the world, but it most certainly is not; to fly, waiting around constantly and sitting in hotels... hahahaha J "

"You still travel to Florida, to Sanibel Island. What is the attraction there?"

"Yes, well, the food at Jerry´s (Restaurant in the department store on Sanibel – B.J.) is the only really good food ...hahahah J . I always call it a kind of vacation. If you go there during January, February or March, the weather in Central Europe is still pretty bad. It is rather seldom that we have nice snow or good wintery weather in which you take good pictures. Most of the time it rains here and is cold, while it is warm enough over there and you can meet up with a lot of colleagues. You can work together with them, three of us can stand next to one another and take a picture of a red shouldered buzzard or five of us can be close to a heron, without it being bothered, while at home you would have to work constantly. The animals are so fascinating, especially since they are a lot less shy. It may well be good for a hunter that the animals are shy, because it heightens his pleasure of the hunt when he ends up outwitting them in the end, but it is totally different with a wildlife photographer. The less shy the animal, the less scared and cooperative, the more photographic possibilities are given to take good pictures. To give an example: to take a picture of a heron in Germany is practically hopeless, through being hunted they have become so shy during the past century and an approach is impossible. In Florida you can get up to 20 meters close to them and they are not bothered by it. This way, of course, you can take totally different pictures of them. Actually, all these different reasons are what makes Florida a special place. The colleagues from America, Germany, Belgium, the pleasant temperatures and the gripping motifs."

"You have been taking pictures for many years, what is the most prominent change for you: the photo material, the photographers or is it the nature?"


" When I started taking pictures, I started with an EDIXA-camera without an automatic film transport lever, no motor; you had to transport the film with two fingers from frame to frame. The focusing screen was so thick, that almost no light passed through it, shutter speed went up to 1/1000 but you were only able to set it up to 1/250, since the shutter was not able to follow at 1/500, and turned the picture bright on the left and darker on the right side. Lenses were very weak lighted and did not have an automatic aperture, and so on and so forth. It certainly can be said that the technical advance has been unbelievable. The quality of the lenses, the use of auto focus, cameras that can take 6-8 pictures a sec., present film material like Sensia-100, Velvia-50, they all are fantastic tools. These are all things that moved the level of wildlife photography up with incredible speed in the past years. If you take a look at the books of the BBC – Wildlife contests over the last 10 years, you can see that the pictures turned out more interesting and appealing each year. The big difference for the photographers is the fact that now, while wanting to take a photo of a heron, you can choose if you want to go to Sweden or Florida or somewhere else in the next few weeks. In the past you went to Sweden anyway, today it is a lot less expensive to go to Florida. It is cheaper to fly to Florida then to drive to Sweden, and living expenses are not so high there either....... With the money I need to buy a drink in a tavern in Sweden in the evening, I could live on in Florida for three days. Some people are still under the impression that going to America is too expensive, but that is´nt so. You just need to know where you can get some good fool....." hahaha J .

"What are your up-coming projects?"

"I am usually busy with one or two things at a time and about four or five on top of that, which I have in my head, but I don´t like to talk about upcoming projects. During the lecture of Franz Lanting we saw, that the time when photographers strapped a camera around their neck and went off into the woods to take pictures of rabbits and sending these to the magazines are over. Our work has become a lot more demanding. Nature / wildlife photography has become a lot more meaningful and achieved greater reputation in the past ten years. Up until 10 years ago, nature / wildlife photography formed an unimportant part for the larger magazines. Today this is not so any more, on the contrary. The level of publications is higher as well, as for instance, just to name one, the Tecklenburg – Publishing House, their quality of print, the photos, everything of a fantastic quality.

"A word on digital photography?"

"Digital Photography will certainly enter into the world of nature / wildlife photography. I believe that we will take all pictures as early as in three years or at the latest in five to seven years with a digital camera, like for instance the latest model NIKON D1. The advantages of digital photography are too important for us. For instance if I take a trip to America, Africa or the Antarctica today, I have to take three hundred rolls of film with me which I have to carry in my hand-luggage since it is not safe to put them in the check-in luggage anymore. So when these films are developed, I have 10.000 slides but I won´t see any of them until I am already back home for days. After a four-week trip, I have another four weeks of work. First to have the slides developed, then to view all 10.000 slides, then to label all slides I want to keep and send them off. When I take digital photos, I don´t need to take another film with me. So for instance, if I take 50 pictures during one day, I can view them in the evening. Right there and then I can send 45 pictures off to my agencies and keep five. Lets just presume I am in Africa for four weeks and on the second day I am able to take a sensational photo of lions slaying a zebra – or another picture of three lions on the back of an elephant - , I would be able to send it by GSM – (satellite) telephone to my office at home and when I get back after four weeks, this picture has already been published twenty seven times over. That is an advantage. Another advantage: if I have a really super picture today and have to make 100 duplicates for publishers and agencies, they have noticeably less quality. Today we can not make duplicates of truly 100% as good as the original. If I do this digitally, then all the 100 duplicates are actually originals. So with this, all my work is actually done when I come home. I do not have to check my slides when I get home, because I have done that already there. Now, as a professional, I need 1000 to 2000 rolls of film a year, but I don´t have to buy these anymore working digitally. It is money I can save and am able to take some additional trips with it. So, it will happen in any case, the question is, how many years it will take for it to happen. The cameras are already available, but the logistics are not. At present, I am not able to make a telephone call from Alaska or the Antarctica with the GSM. This will be possible when satellite GSMs are available. But in a few years I will be able to send my data from anywhere in the world to my home. The publishers are still working primarily with slides, but are in the process of slowly changing. More and more often I have agencies that tell me: "Yes, we are in the web and have already digitized our first 30.000 slides....", - it is starting to roll. The effort is not worth it....yet, but it is coming."

"The danger of picture manipulation.....?` one click with the mouse and truth turns into a lie`?"

"Yes of course, but that has been going on for a while now. I remember pictures from twenty years ago. In the hunting magazine pictures of a shooting hunter were seen while about twenty geese flew away from him, or a hundred ducks. These pictures were double exposures. Takes with a sunscreen and giraffes in front or a leopard in a tree and the sun going down behind him...., all of them pictures that were manipulated. I would think that in the future there will be a indication under every picture. Under one picture you will find `original document of nature ´, under another there may be `captive ´, and another one still will have the label `fiction / illustration ´. This will slowly but surely happen. I am already so far, that at times when I see a truly breathtaking picture I think "is it real or did someone just have a great imagination?"... it would be deadly for us, if people do not believe in our pictures any more. In America it is already happening. If you see a picture of a wolf there, you can bet that it is a tame wolf from a game farm or from a zoo. Out of all pictures of wolves, only 1% are truly taken in the wilderness. If people do not believe in the originality of a picture any more, then their interest to look at such pictures has already diminished. That is why it is necessary, and it will come to that, that every picture will have such a byline."

"Do you believe that the NANPA (= North American Nature Photography Association), which is the largest nature photography group, will be able to convince its members to use such indications or labels?"


"NANPA has already tried to implement good solid labeling for all pictures, but about 50% of the members have refused this, because they are afraid they will sell less pictures if they are honest. So following this, NANPA has chosen a toned down wording: `Wild ´, `Captive ´ and `Digital ´, whereas the label `wild ´ is pretty ludicrous. Under this labeling you can take three frogs, set them on a mushroom and call it `wild´ ... and that has nothing at all to do with `wild´ , and is a clearly manipulated picture. But the beginning is there, a first step. But a foundation has been laid and perhaps some will build on it in order to have a solid labeling in about five years."

"Mr. Pölking, thank you very much....."

Bob Jorens


(Reprint from the magazine OBJECTIF, information for wildlife / nature photographers (June 2000 edition) of the BVNF (Bund für Naturfotografie in Belgien) [Union of Nature Photographers from Belgium].