Both a biologist and photographer, Canon Ambassador Christian Ziegler's wildlife photography techniques have won him awards and global recognition for capturing the intricacies of life in Panama's rainforests. Often working in a world of miniature, he captures all sorts of creatures in incredible detail.
"I wanted to communicate science and conservation issues to a broader audience," he explains. "I felt that as a biologist I wasn't doing that, and that I could play an important role as a translator. Stories are what people learn from; what I do is visual storytelling, so the context is very important."
If Christian is shooting a story about a particular animal species, he wants people to understand the environment in which the animal lives, forages, breeds and – in some cases – gets eaten. "I want to show the challenges to the species; maybe it has a tough time in the winter, or the dry season. I aim to present every bit about the life of the animal, so that people understand it personally and care for it, and maybe want to preserve it."
Christian started taking photographs after he finished his biology degree almost 20 years ago. His first assignment was shooting a bioblitz (an intensive audit of all living organisms in an area) near Lübeck, Germany, for GEO's Biodiversity day. "They were surveying mammals and insects. I greatly enjoyed it, but we had very bad weather," he recalls. "It rained all day and I had only two hours in the afternoon, when it was clear enough to shoot.
"After that day, there were several small assignments, which led to my first real story about leaf-cutter ants in Panama." Fast-forward and two decades in conservation photography has won him a string of World Press Photo Awards in the World Press Photo Nature category four years running (2013-16), two category awards in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year, and the Grand Prize in the National Wildlife Foundation’s annual photo contest.
Nowadays, Christian lives on the edge of a rainforest in central Panama and spends much of his time in far-away locations. Being cut off from the modern world on a shoot doesn't phase him at all. "Actually I like it, because I experience wild nature away from development and away from the buzz of emails, the internet and phone calls," he says. "I think it enables me to dive deeper into the subject."
Christian usually travels with a team, and often accompanies biologists who are working on their own projects, tagging along to document their work. "I may visit a camp where biologists live, to learn from them. I go to places such as the Max Planck camp in Salonga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, where I went to photograph bonobos," he says.
"The access to good information is key to understanding the organism you're trying to capture." It is this understanding of his subjects that sets Christian's wildlife photography apart.
Another favourite trip was the one he took to photograph chameleons in Madagascar. "I loved it because it allowed me to illustrate a difficult subject, namely the loss of biodiversity on the island," he says. "I focused on chameleons because they are super diverse – there are 76 species in Madagascar alone – and are found in all the different habitats around Madagascar. With the help of a local biologist, Dr Bertrand Razafimahatratra, we found more than 40 different types."
Christian will often return from a three-week trip with more than 60,000 pictures to sort through and process.
Of course, the challenging conditions of the rainforests that Christian visits demand some hardy photography kit. "I use a Canon EOS-1D X and a Canon EOS 5D Mark III along with a selection of lenses," he says. "But the two lenses I use often are the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM and sometimes the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM. I like how the wide-angle incorporates the bigger picture of the surroundings while still enabling me to focus on a specific subject."
For lighting, Christian usually brings three Canon Speedlites, with a bounce attachment, which he uses off the camera in Manual mode. "This allows me to be very precise and adjust the angle and strength of each flash. It's often surprisingly dark in the rainforest understory and rain is always an issue, especially with the flashes. I've lost many Speedlites to wet conditions."
All three Speedlites are fired off the camera, he explains. "Two flashes are positioned to fire at the front at around 45 degrees, with one above and one below the lens. The last flash is fired from behind the subject, around 45 degrees, to create a good backlight. All flashes are usually fired at around 1/8 power.
"I usually don't use tripods, since I'm in the field and it's too complicated. So I set the the camera down on the ground, or in the branches – whatever's available. I like to use what I call a 'mudpod', which is just a heap of leaves, mud, whatever I can find to make a solid base at the right height."