Markus Varesvuo is an award-winning, world-renowned nature photographer and Canon Ambassador. He began his career in business, but always had a passion for birds and in 2005, after seeing one of his images in a magazine, he decided to become a professional wildlife photographer.
It's the unpredictability of photographing animals – birds in particular – that appeals to Markus. No matter how well-made your plans, you can still end up without any images – and the best photos often come when you least expect them.
Markus specialises in photographing Western Palearctic birds in their natural environment, shooting only in natural light, and has a reputation for high-quality images. He seeks out everyday species as eagerly as he does rare birds, but refuses on principle to photograph birds in captivity. He will often sit in remote environments in freezing temperatures for days at a time just to get the perfect shot.
Markus advises aspiring wildlife photographers to find a subject that not many other people shoot, identify the types of images missing from the crowd, and go to shoot those. He recommends thinking ahead about what you want to achieve – advice he still follows when it comes to his own work.
These days Markus tends to go out on location with a specific project or target in mind, often with a clear picture of the type of material he hopes to get. But nature photography is full of surprises, so whatever images he has in mind may turn out very differently, or be of another species entirely. Or he may come back empty-handed.
"You can make all the best plans, but the playing field is really quite unpredictable," Markus says. "As a wildlife photographer it's just something one has to learn to live with. The key to success is to turn changing situations into opportunities," he says. "The more time you spend in the field, the more chances you'll have to get it right, so shoot as often as you can."
Since making the leap into professional photography, Markus has written several books, including Birds: Magic Moments (2011), Fascinating Birds (2012) and Birds in Pictures (2017). He co-wrote the bestselling Handbook of Bird Photography (2011), which encapsulates the skill and experience of three professional wildlife photographers.
Markus has received a number of prestigious accolades throughout his career. In 2010 he won the Society of German Nature Photographers (GDT) European Wildlife Photographer of the Year award in the Birds category. In 2014 he was second in the nature category of the World Press Photo Awards and in 2017 he won the prize for Best Portfolio in the UK's Bird Photographer of the Year competition. He also went on be the first ever nature photographer to win Fotofinlandia, Finland's major photo competition, in 2018.
Do you have certain gear for certain species?
"Not really. My kitbag covers pretty much everything. If the project requires long treks over rough terrain, I will usually need to pare down and then the decision on what to take is based on how skittish the target bird is: the harder it is to approach, the longer the lens needed."
What's the biggest challenge when photographing birds?
"On top of many species being prey animals and therefore skittish, a great number are also game species: for legal shooting and for poaching. And many are persecuted for being a pest or nuisance, or competition. This all makes the birds very wary of people, which makes approaching them quite difficult. Birds are fast, they flit and fly off. Add the desire to have great light in the picture, an interesting angle and the best background and you have an equation with many variables. But the more time you spend in the field, the more chances you'll have of getting it right."
What are some of your go-to camera settings?
"I work with time-value (TV) because I want to control movement in my pictures. I use a safety function, which automatically drops speed if there isn't enough light to reach the speed I want. I set the ISO that I want, and choose either continuous shoot or one shot depending on the situation. I shoot RAW."
If you could give one piece of advice to someone just starting to photograph wildlife, what would it be?
"Get to know your subjects: learn about their behaviour, try to understand what makes them tick. This helps you to figure out where and when to find birds, to anticipate action and to work with nature and the birds rather than against them. You will grow to take better images, and to stand out from the crowd. Work extensively with one species or family of birds, instead of trying to cover many species in a short time."
"While still enjoying an income from your day job, start building an extensive library in your own field. Try to develop contacts with picture researchers and picture libraries. Take part in competitions. Be active on social media. Become a good photographer and build a reputation before launching a professional career in wildlife photography. You may become a superstar, but in most cases it's fair to say that nature photography isn't the easiest path to riches, so it might be useful to build a financial buffer for the first few years."