CHRISTOPHER SWANN

CHRISTOPHER SWANN
interview • liz rice mccray

“Cetaceans might look like the fish in the sea, but cetaceans are closer to you and me. They’re warm blooded, like us, but with fins and no legs. They give birth to live babies and do not lay eggs.” ~ A Whale of a Tale! By Bonnie Worth

Dear reader, this month we had the pleasure of interviewing the lovely British photographer Christopher Swann, who photographs cetaceans (sih-TAY-shunz). With over 25 years of experience whale-watching and observing marine mammals (whales, dolphins and porpoise) Christopher Swann’s love and knowledge for his aquatic subjects reflect in his stunning photographs. We were happy to catch up with Swann and ask him a couple of questions about his photographs and what consistently catches his eye. Make sure to check out more of his photography at www.cswannphotography.com.

Hello Christopher, thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. We feel lucky to catch you before you go offline again. Your photographs are stunning. When and how did you originally start photographing cetaceans?
I ran whale-watching holidays for almost 30 years and have just stopped. For the first dozen years or so I had no interest in taking photos, partly because there seemed to be so much to see. I couldn’t fathom how one could see anything stuck behind a black box, and the clients appeared more interested in the photo than the reality. Eventually I thought I would have a go myself and try to take photos that were beautiful – the beauty was what I lived with day-in, day-out and what I loved.

Do you shoot film and digital? What kind of camera do you shoot with?
I was very kindly given my first digital camera (a Nikon D70) in 2006 by some clients because I couldn’t afford one and that got me started. Then I began to make an effort. My first photos were accepted by an agency but then rejected because they said the camera wasn’t a high enough spec. So I saved up and bought a Nikon D200. Little by little I learned that better equipment helps and I now have some very good Nikon bodies and lenses.

What kind of boat are you sailing? 
I started chartering on the west coast of Scotland in 1990 with a traditional 75-foot gaff ketch called the Marguerite Explorer. I found her in Holland and rebuilt her to run whale-watching holidays. She was a beautiful old wooden boat. Then after 14 years I started using modern fiberglass catamarans. I now have a 43-foot Robertson and Caine called the Star of the Sea. They are polar opposites and nothing is as beautiful as a wooden boat, but the catamaran is so roomy, comfy and practical and I am just as fond of her.

Your photographs have a unique perspective and beautiful composition; you can see the years of experience and love for your aquatic subjects. You are an observer and photographer. What are the moments that inspire you to pick up your camera and shoot? Are there particular things that consistently catch your eye?
There is so much in nature that is thrilling. I am often tingling with delight at some small detail observed – the droplets of a whale’s blow, for example, as they spatter the water, the way water lifts around a whale’s head, the texture of a whale’s skin – there are all sorts of things that are small, unnoticed miracles. Recently I have been photographing birds, and they have the most fabulous eyes, yet I suspect they go utterly unnoticed. They’re little jewels whizzing through the skies. It is endless and that is great because I can go out and try to take a photo and revel in the beauty of it all while I am doing it, and even if I get nothing it has been fun.

Will you tell us a little about your black and white photographs?
I like black and white because if it is good it gets right to the essence of a thing and there are no distractions, mostly I guess it is form and texture. It doesn’t suit all cetacean photography and it would be a shame to lose those fabulous deep ocean blues, but sometimes it works very well.

What do you enjoy most about shooting cetaceans?
I love the sea. I love the purity of it and nature and cetaceans epitomize the sense of freedom and honesty of animals. They roam wild, open spaces, their lives are uncluttered and simple and I get lost in their world, becoming like them – dawn, dusk, night, day, meals, it all becomes irrelevant as one moves with the animals in a natural harmony.

How do you manage to get so close up to your subject?
Getting close to most cetaceans is not that easy; some are curious but most are perhaps indifferent. They tend to shy away as they get close and it can be very hard to get in front of them. If you are ahead of them they just bend away gently as they get near. Sometimes I try just hanging about waiting for them to come closer and sometimes I move closer myself. I am not sure I know any special secrets for getting close, but I always say to people trying to swim with a whale, just try to tell the whale you’re not really there, don’t rush at it, sidle along gently as if you are not interested. Of course it is not easy, as they can give one swoosh of their tail and be gone, fading away into the blue along with your chance of a picture.

We saw your photos of sharks and dolphins preying on a school of mackerel. Do you ever feel nervous?
Mostly I feel very relaxed around whales. Some are different – killer whales and false killer whales – but generally they are not worrying. I am nervous about sharks because I don’t know much about them although I have friends who dive with them all the time. I was once in very green, murky water with sperm whales when I got midged by a shark – it came out of the gloom and would bump into me – I got out pretty nippily.

You have been all over the world photographing and running whale and dolphin watching holidays. Where are some of your favorite places to photograph marine life and where are some places you hope to go?
I have been very lucky to have been to a lot of places, and although there are places I would love to see (BC and Alaska and the high arctic) I never want to go anywhere for a week or two – I long to get really stuck in. I have spent almost 20 years in the Sea of Cortes, which is a miraculous place and I love getting to know it better rather than go somewhere new. The same was true for the west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides. In these places I know where to go to find miracles, but it takes many years and much effort to find those things and places, but that slow “coloring in” of a place is a joy.

Where can people see more of your photos and possibly buy high-resolution originals?
My website is www.cswannphotography.com.

Any last words?
I have been very fortunate in life but it seems most of the old adages are true. I always followed my heart, never money, and I worked very hard. We all need luck but you can choose the path you want to tread.

We very much appreciate your insight. Thank so much and please stay in touch.