Pekka Järventaus: Prowling with lions
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Can you please introduce yourself and tell us what first attracted you to photography?
One of the reasons why I got drawn to photography was that it's only your own creativity and ability to implement visions, that limits you. This compared to let's say video games development were projects can take 3-4 years and includes 100+ people, you are now suddenly depending on and juggling many aspects, just like in any large scale project. Photography simply offered me the ability to perform at my highest individual level with no restrictions or compromises. But most importantly it has giving me the opportunity to meet great lions and prowl with them.
Why are you so fascinated by lions, Pekka?
How safe is it to photograph wild lions?
By following the above precautions, I find it to be very safe and rewarding. I love being around lions and photographing them. I feel that I’m part of something that is bigger than me and that I’m truly blessed getting a glimpse into the life of these great creatures. Being around these amazing animals in their natural kingdom is a truly remarkable experience.
Your work is mainly black and white. That is unusual for wildlife photography. Can you tell us why?
Black and white photography is for me the medium that has the most impact, especially in portraiture, and I felt early on that my lion portraits were more engaging without the distraction of color. Just shape, light, shadow and that timeless feel of monochrome photography.
Can you tell us a bit more about your photographic vision?
The majority of my work is photographed in Masai Mara, Kenya. The kingdom of lions. The Mara is well known for its large lion population and also offers magnificent vistas and varied areas for photography, from the short grass and marshes in the north to the mountain ranges and tall grass in the south. I also prefer to photograph during rainy or stormy weather conditions. It adds a bit of drama to the scenes that I like.
What is more important to you, the story behind your images or the technical perfection?
What gear do you use and which software do you prefer when processing your images?
In terms of software, I use light room and PS. However I never remove anything in the image so I don’t do any ‘creative edits.’ I simply enhance certain areas to get a certain aesthetic look. Mostly dodging, burning and some vignetting.
Can you tell us something about your work flow?
Since I’m doing this on my own and I don’t have a big budget, I need to capitalize on my opportunities and stack the odds in my favor. Nat Geo or any of those guys can spend 10 months in the field at a time while I spend 5 weeks a year. Traveling in Africa is expensive so I want to get as much out of the trip as possible.
How do you plan and prepare your trips to get the most out of them?
If I'm interested in photographing portraits of female lions I would travel to a large pride with a large female population. That would give me the opportunity to find the lionesses that I think fit and have the qualities that I look for. It is almost like a casting session. It has worked great so far.
But before I travel to Africa. I try to visualize the trip and the potential photographic scenarios that might occur. Where do I want to position myself if I see a lion standing on a rock in front of me? What distance do I want to shoot from? What lens would I use? Do I want the lion back lit or lit from the side? I try to have a concept, as clear as possible, on how I want the image to look like and what I might actually encounter. Then I try to meet somewhere in the middle. And in most cases it works. When I photographed ”Lioness on the rocks” in the Serengeti in Tanzania,my concept was to photograph a lion on the rocky hillsides and I especially wanted a photograph including the unusual round rocks that are common in the Serengeti to be dominant in the image. I was driving around in circles around the rocky areas looking for opportunities. When I found the lioness on the rock I recognized the opportunity and took the shot. She got up, looked at me, I photographed 2-3 more shots and she walked away. The entire session lasted maybe 5-10 seconds.
Having already thought out the idea and planned it in my head really helped me take that photograph.
What is your most memorable photo experience?
While being on Safari you tend to spend your days driving around the savanna looking for animals and photographing them. It is normally referred to as game drives.
There is a very special feel that goes through your body when you are up at 6 am before sunrise, unzipping the tent and staring out into the quiet darkness while sweeping with your flash light over the tall grass, hoping you won’t see the glowing reflection of two eyes looking back at you. You just know at that particular moment that you are potential prey in the kingdom of lions.
We had been driving for maybe 15-20 minutes and I was still not yet fully awake when my driver said: Lion! The four wheel drive stopped and I picked up my camera while looking through the windshield, expecting to see a lion sitting on the road ahead of us but no lion in sight. Instead I heard something breathing heavily to the left of me. I turned my head and about 4-5 meter away from my open passenger window, I saw a great male lion sitting in the grass, looking at me with his large yellow glowing eyes. His head with the impressive mane looked so huge, that just by appearance, it looked as if he wouldn't be able to fit his head through the passenger window even if he wanted to. And for a while we were just sitting there in silence, looking at each other. In the early sunrise, the golden light gave him an orange look and his mane looked like it was on fire. Whenever he was breathing it looked like smoke coming out from his nostrils. He was truly an iconic king. I remember that I was thinking: Wow! Hey, this is so awesome. What a great Monday morning. I haven’t even had breakfast yet. It's 6:30 in the morning and I have already seen my first lion in the wild. What an experience! Then I reached for my camera again and started to photograph him. That lion encounter was also the turning point, is was at that moment that I decided to focus exclusively on lions and take my photography more seriously.
Do you photograph on your own?
What is your most important advice to a beginner in wildlife photography and how do you get started?
But the main advice would be to photograph the things that you are passionate about. It is easier to gain momentum and see progress if you are motivated and pulled by something that is bigger than you, something that you feel for, instead of trying to push yourself doing things that you're only half invested in. You can’t do anything great without passion. It's universal. It doesn't just apply to photography.
Who are your favorite photographers that inspire you the most?
Describe your favorite photograph taken by you and why it is special to you?
Are there any specific directions that you would like to take your photography in the future or any specific goals that you wish to achieve?
On a higher level, I want to continue to find new ways to take engaging portraits of lions, find new ways to evolve as a photographer and I want to be able to see my lion project as a tribute to the few brave lions that still prowl the African plains.
There may be less than 20,000 wild lions left in Africa. If you compare it to the late 40s when there were more than 450,000 lions, the future for lions does not look too bright, unfortunately.
Hopefully, my photography and view of lions will serve as an inspiration for a future with wild, healthy lions still roaming the great plains. We all live under the same sky and they have the same right to life as we do, and I'm sure most people would agree with me that our planet would be very boring and a dull place without these majestic prowlers.
I'm taking this opportunity to announce that the results of the prestigious ND-AWARDS 2015 were published yesterday. Pekka Järventaus won the 1st price in the category Nature - Wildlife.
Winning image ND-Awards 2015, 1st Price in category Nature-Wildlife by Pekka Järventaus
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