Wildlife photographer Felix Rome shares the story behind his photographs and explains how photography can protect wildlife.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Where does your passion for photography come from?
As a young boy, I was exploring the outdoors all the time. There are many old home movies of me running in woodlands and exploring the garden. My parents saw a great benefit in making sure their child played outside rather than on a console. I’m very grateful for this.
From there, I became increasingly fascinated by the natural world, specifically wildlife. Like most people, I loved the David Attenborough programs on TV. Watching giant mammals roaming the open plains of the Masai Mara to small frogs that had enough poison to kill a human, I was hooked on nature from a young age. Even when I was little, I said I wanted to be a wildlife photographer or filmmaker.
Over time, I became fascinated with creating a story in one image. My father and grandfather both love photography and I loved seeing their pictures. I was always exposed to photography without really thinking about it.
It was when I first went to Canada in 2012 that the photography fire within me was ignited. Watching bears and whales for the first time captivated me. Maybe because they were the first large mammals other than the UK mammals like deer that I had seen and appreciated.
Why are you particularly fascinated by wildlife?
In photography, for the most part, you are in control. For example, a portrait photographer has control over lighting and the models posing. In landscape, street and journalism photography, you can often control at least one element, like the framing or composition, and you wait for the subject to be in the perfect place or the light to fall just right.
With wildlife photography, it is totally different. Of course, you can control it with trail cameras or if you wait in the same place for weeks on end, hoping something will come into frame. But you mostly have no control of where the animal will come from, what the light will do and how the landscape interacts with the subject. You have to make split-second decisions on composition, camera settings and making sure you have the focus bang on.
There are arguments that other types of photography are just as split-second, but most would agree you have very little control over the scene in wildlife photography. I can leave my house hoping to take a picture of a deer, but I have no control of the weather or if I’ll see one. I could go to a zoo, but that isn’t my style. I always prefer seeing animals in the wild where they belong.
The main reason I like wildlife photography is that you never know what to expect. I am currently in the Masai Mara, going for game drives (a safari in a vehicle to observe animals in their natural habitat) every day. I don’t know what I will see each time. It also takes me to some of the world’s most beautiful locations. Even if you don’t see any animals, you are still out in nature, and it’s hard to be anything but peaceful.
How do you get such close-up photos without disturbing wildlife?
Patience. It is a misconception that you will get an amazing wildlife photo by walking around. You might get lucky by doing this, but most of the time, you have to sit and wait. Sure, if you’re on a safari, you can find lots of animals in a short space of time, but this still doesn’t mean you will get a great photo right away. By sitting and observing the animals, they become comfortable around you and coming close to you.
I have spent a lot of time around grizzly bears. They are seen as these big angry animals that will attack you. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If you annoy them, they can attack, but if you sit and wait and let them know you are there, they will come close to you, allowing you to take some beautiful photos.
If you try and walk towards any animal, big or small, they will usually run away. You have to let them come to you. In some situations, I use a “hide”, camouflaging myself, so nothing can see me. Other times, I am fortunate that I’m in a jeep or boat and the animals aren’t afraid. You still have to wait to see some unique behaviour.
What role does photography play in protecting wildlife?
I believe it’s a great way to protect animals. One, it shows people the beauty of the species, making them relate to the animal; they become more likely to help protect it themselves. Two, you gain a sense of satisfaction when you take a memorable picture of an animal.
Running safaris and photo tours creates jobs around the conservation of animals and the area, and people want to go to get the picture for themselves, bringing money into areas that need it. Eco-tourism provides jobs for people who might otherwise hunt the wildlife to sell. Instead, this way, they get paid to protect animals and not destroy them.
The other side to wildlife photography is that it can show the horrors of poaching and human activity. Capturing a powerful, tragic picture of an elephant killed for its tusks, or a shark killed just for fins, can be very emotive and create action for better protection and conservation.
Ocean plastics is also a huge issue, and without photography, a lot of people wouldn’t be able to see the effects and take any notice. But seeing a photograph of a dead Albatross because its stomach is full of plastic brings the issue home.
Do you have any ambitions and long-term goals for your career?
Ideally, I would love to see some of my images become so well known that even people who aren’t interested in photography or wildlife know the pictures and what they represent. The dream is to be exhibited in galleries with huge prints of majestic wildlife that people gasp over and want to buy a copy to put on their wall at home.
I also want to run photography tours all over the world, teaching people how to take images and appreciate wildlife. Through this, I want to employ local guides and people to help protect the areas I’ll be photographing.
I also want to use my work to help charities, by selling prints on their behalf so all proceeds go to funding them.
Where’s your favourite place to go? What’s your favourite time of day?
Knight Inlet in British Columbia, Canada. It is where I refined my craft and fell in love with wildlife photography.
But, to be totally honest, it is wherever I am taking pictures. Submerging yourself into the environment is the best way to get results in wildlife photography.
My favourite time of day is the morning. The light is beautiful and the animals are most active.
Does your work suffer as global warming worsens?
Yes! Climate change affects almost everything, really. The one big difference I have noticed is in Canada. There is a river I spend a lot of time at photographing grizzly bears. If you compared salmon numbers in 2019 to 2015, it would be so extreme you’d think I was lying. In 2019, virtually no salmon migrated upriver. The ones that did couldn’t spawn as the water temperature was too high.
Large pods of dolphins hung around the mouth of the river, eating any salmon they could. Dolphins weren’t used to be seen so far inland as they have enough food in the open ocean, but now, that’s not the case.
Bears with cubs were starving as they had no salmon to eat, and a diet of berries is not going to sustain them. It was a shock to see. I have noticed a change in a short space of time, which is the most worrying part. I recently got word that the summer of 2020 was even worse for that region.
What is your all-time favourite photograph? Can you tell us the story behind it?
Castaways. It’s of two sub-adult grizzly bears that are spending their first year away from their mother. It was a foggy morning, making it difficult to spot any bears. I spotted these two on the beach and they were playing. I saw that the tide was rising and a small sand bar was exposed.
As I watched the bears, I prayed they would stand on the sand bar as the fog would make them pop out of the image. To my delight, they chased each other across the sand bar. Just as they got to the middle, the second bears gave me a glance that made the perfect image.
They ended up getting stuck on the small island, but bears are very good swimmers. After an hour of feeding on mussels, they swam back to the mainland. I was so happy with the image; to me, it sums up Knight Inlet. The fog acts as a white backdrop, only revealing selected details.