Charlie Hamilton James is an English photographer, television cameraman and presenter, specialising in wildlife subjects. He started his career at 16, working on David Attenborough’s The Trials of Life.
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Hi my name is Charlie Hamilton James and I’m a National Geographic Magazine photographer. As a kid all I wanted to do was shoot for National Geographic and finally, after a lot of years, I work for them pretty much full time. Many of us who shoot for the magazine specialise in certain areas and subjects. I started out specialising in wildlife then I broadened out to cover other subjects - vultures was my favourite wildlife story. Now I tend to shoot people and animal stories - usually conservation based. I recently finished a story on wildlife poisoning in Africa which is a huge problem and an untold story. It’s pretty depressing stuff but an important story to tell. Currently I’m shooting four stories for the magazine - one on sea otters which I haven’t started yet but can’t wait to get going on - I’m a massive otter fan. Before working as a still photographer, I made wildlife films for the BBC and worked as a wildlife cameraman; but I love shooting stills far more than shooting movies.
Photos of Yellowstone: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/05/yellowstone-photographer-hamilton-james/
Thanks so much everyone for the questions - they were all nice ones! Have a great day. I'm taking the doodle out now to check my camera traps. See ya!
For years and years my dream job has always been 'National Geographic Photographer'. Seen as I'm likely to never make it, can you humour me and give me some of the downsides to doing the job that you do? :)
Hey EasyTigrr - never give up! Its fun and adventurous but we spend a lot of time cold, bored, tired and hungry - I certainly do when I'm shooting pictures of wildlife - oh and a lot of time needing the toilet! But i vowed I would never complain about my job so I cant say too much without breaking that vow!
Hi Charlie, while taking pictures for nature if u see a prey vs predator moment in wild are you allowed to help the prey survive?
HI kd2135 - thanks for your question. We get asked this a lot. My answer is always no - I would never get involved in a predator v prey interaction in the wild. It's really hard sometimes to watch moments when prey animals get attacked but my job isn't to rescue them and change the dynamic of predators and prey.
What was the most difficult photoshoot you ever went on?
Thanks for your question - anything in the Amazon! the Amazon is such a hard place to work. It's not just dark but it's hot and full of mosquitos and it all basically looks the same. I have spent over a year in the Amazon and really only have a handful of images I'm happy with. Technically the hardest was shooting an image of a beaver under the Teton mountains in Grand Teton National Park - the image was half under water and half above - it took three weeks to get the shot. Thanks!
Hey Charlie, did you go to a photography school or did you teach yourself?
Im wondering if its worth going to school for photography or nat (geo) :)
HI one-two-rule - i failed spectacularly at school and left when I was just fifteen. However a year or so later I got onto a course studying photography at Falmouth School or Art and Design in Cornwall, UK. What the course taught me was the basics of photography and that really gave me good grounding; certainly as a wildlife photographer. Too often wildlife photographers forget that they have to also be photographers and learn and practice what that means. There is no set way into Nat Geo - we all come from completely different backgrounds and disciplines. Many worked for news papers and some went to college to learn. There are also plenty of courses people go on to take their photography to the next level. I guess the Eddie Adams workshop is the most well known. There you get set assignments and you work with editors to create stories. The key thing to remember is - National Geographic photographers are all story tellers as well as being photographers and journalists. Our images need to tell the story we are telling visually. Hope that helps!
What's the best shot that you missed? Either by equipment trouble or something you saw on the way to location?
That's a hard one as I've blocked all those moments out of my head and never want to relive them. I have spent days fuming over missed moments. I remember flying over Victoria Falls in a helicopter shooting stills of it and there were four guys fishing on the edge and a huge rainbow was rising through them and I got the shot but i was shooting with a shutter speed that was too slow so the image was not sharp. It was totally my fault and I still get annoyed about that when I see the picture.
Hi Charlie, do you work with a team on site to capture photos that are so close to the animals? Agree, otters are the best. Thanks!
Hi thanks for your question. I tend to work alone or with just one assistant. But if I want to get very close to animals I work on my own as it's hard enough getting close to animals as it is - extra people just make it harder. I use remote cameras a lot - cameras I can control from a distance. BY doing that I can get my camera very close to some animals without disturbing them at all - which is a always the aim. Yes otters are the best!
Also—you seem to be a big proponent of camera traps. How do you think this technology has changed the field of wildlife photography & filmmaking?
OK otters - OMG they are just so cute I cant stop photographing them. That's really the crux of it. I could look for other reasons that may be deeper but it all boils down to just how awesome they are. They are actually hard to photograph - they never stop moving and they're generally pretty shy. Also I've spent my life trying to get images of them underwater which is a real struggle but incredible when it actually pays off. Kingfishers first drew me into photography - i watched them for a few years before I decided I need to channel that obsession and start photographing them. And yes camera traps - I love camera traps. I think they give us an eye into a world we would otherwise not witness and I think they've been an extremely valuable tool in the world of discovery and conservation of species. Currently at National Geographic Society my job is to advance camera trapping technology - it's a real challenge but slowly starting to pay off. We're getting images of wolves now and wolves are very difficult to camera trap. It's all down to reducing size and noise. Thanks!
Hey Charlie, do you remember the first camera you ever had? Also, what is your favorite picture you've ever taken?
Thanks - my first camera was a NIkkormat EL - my Dad gave it to me when I was 14. I was mad on photography and really terrible at it until I was in my 30's. I was very happy when we went digital - taking pictures became much easier. If I had a favourite picture it would probably be one of a young girl call Yoina with a monkey on her head. I took it in the Amazon a few years ago. thanks!
oh and here is a link to it if you want to take a look http://charliehamiltonjames.com/yoina/
Hey Charlie, I love your work! I am an aspiring wildlife photographer. I have started to amass a portfolio and Instagram following and am just now starting to work on more in depth projects such as searching for mountain lions in Western Alberta. I am wondering if you have any tips for someone who is looking to enter the wildlife photography world? Thanks!
Hey thanks for your message - ok - be different. That's my suggestion. You're entering a world saturated with images of wildlife so you have to think of ways of shooting that work for you and are perhaps a little different from standard. When I first got an assignment from Nat Geo on otters I looked at everything that had been done - every image I could find on google. I wanted to know what had been done by everyone else so that I could not do the same. It's a really hard thing to do but you have to if you want to stand out. Mountain lions would be a wonderful way to go - check out Steve Winter's incredible work on them - good luck!
Hello Sir! It must be great seeing and capturing all those wonders of nature. What's the most dangerous situation involving an animal, person(s), or just the environment you've been in while on the job?
Thanks for the question - i get asked this a lot. It's weird because I haven't had very many dangerous experiences. I try never to put myself in dangerous situations with animals as i'd be being really irresponsible if I did. As for people - kind of the same. I smile a lot and treat people really fairly and as a result i've never been in a hostile situation. I'm sure it will happen at some point - and I'm not looking forward to it. Canoeing across Victoria Falls in a deflating canoe and getting pulled into the rip going over the edge while trying to avoid a crocodile in the dark, before reaching the island we were heading for and following hippo trails in the dark and climbing down the face of the falls to get a shot of a moon rainbow, in a country I was working in illegally while the secret police were looking for us - well to be honest that was pretty scary - but it was a long time ago now!
HI, thanks for doing this. Can you describe a typical shoot in terms of time commitment? I mean, I have the impression that you go to a location where you think your subject might be and then just sit there 18 hours a day for weeks on end. Is that accurate or typical?
thanks for the question - well yes that's pretty accurate. The older I get though the less I choose shoots where I have to do that though. But the deal is - the more time you put in to shooting images of animals, the more you get out. It's a really simple equation. It also depends where and what your shooting. If I'm shooting a specific bird at a nest for instance it's all about sitting in the blind and waiting - for the bird and the light. If I'm shooting in Africa its about driving around and looking for the subject. You do have to get used to lots of early mornings and long hours though - but its fun. Thanks
Hi Charlie! If you weren't a photographer, what would you be doing?
I'd be a failed stand up comedian. Thanks!
I really enjoyed watching the 'I Bought A Rainforest' programme you made a few years ago, and it raised some very interesting points. Do you still own or regularly visit your patch? More generally, what do you think the best options are for 'us' (relatively wealthy westerners) to conserve rainforests or other habitats elsewhere in the world without obstructing the development of local communities?
Thanks - yes an important question. Glad you liked the series by the way. I just think we need to take more collective responsibility for the eco-systems that are of global importance - like the Amazon. And the more I try to understand conservation the more I realise that that means understanding the dynamics of poverty and figuring out what we can do to make peoples lives better and more productive in these sensitive areas so that chopping down forests is not the key to their survival. We get very cross in the west with poor people who chop trees down in order to survive - it makes me mad. Of course we all wood do the same in their position. Sadly the answers to these problems are very complicated and too often we say things like 'if we just changed the values of the global economy and if we just did....' the truth is we are very bad at changing - especially on a global scale. But we need to ultimately. That starts by all of us doing our bit and investing in schemes that are designed to lift people out of poverty and provide them with jobs and education and options beyond destroying globally important resources. I worked with the CREES Foundation when I made IBAR and they have some great agro-forestry programmes - getting loggers into replanting forests is a pretty good scheme. I haven't been back to the land for years by the way - last year I signed over a lease to the National Park for 99yrs. They are going to build a ranger station on it. cheers!
What's something you could share with us that surprised you about vultures seeing as how you probably observe them more than the average person?
Thanks for your question - I guess the thing that struck me the most was that when you take them away from the fighting and brutality of a carcass, they become very regal and beautiful creatures. watching them at the nest you really see this - they are very caring with their chicks. I love vultures- they're awesome. Thanks!
Hey Mr. Living My Dream, have you ever gotten into underwater photography? Wildlife photography is easily my favorite hobby, and I really enjoyed the challenges I found when I took my camera underwater (especially, cold murky water). I always wondered what a real pro would think of the contrast between under and over water.
Hey how are you? love underwater photography - i tend to specialise in fresh water as I'm not a very good diver. Exploring river sis awesome though and I love it - we need more people doing it - hope you are. and you can do it with a snorkel.
Are the poisons that they use on the animals dangerous to the humans who try to help conservation efforts? I was not aware that poachers used poison so I look forward to your stories.
Yes! very dangerous. In africa they generally use carbomate poisons such as aldicarb and furudan - both are nematicides (insecticides) a teaspoon would kill several people. Awful and terrible - we have an article coming out in March in NGM called Poisoning Africa - look out for it
Have you ever had the chance to interact with the Great Apes (excluding humans) and if so what is your most interesting story/observation?
Thanks for the question. I've only ever hung out with orang-utans but I very quickly fell in love with them. I didnt spend enough time with them to get any depth - only a few weeks. I remember one day though photographing an adult female who had a young baby called Tido - Tido was all over his mum and her elder son Thomas who was about seven was being ignored. He kept trying to climb on his mum but she shunned him and eventually moved away and Thomas sat with me looking very depressed and abandoned. I photographed him with his head in his hands. Poor wee guy! But he had to grow up and become an independent orang and his mum know it.
What are your top tips for taking photos that look nearly as good as yours?
Light, light, light and emotion. You know so many people obsess about megapixels and cameras and lenses but its always to me about emotion and that trumps everything else. You can have a picture thats technically useless but is loaded with emotion - thats the image the editors at Nat Geo will pic. Hope that helps
Hi Charlie. What is the most brutal aspect of your job?
HI thanks for your question. To be honest I don' think any part of my job is actually brutal. Its often physically very demanding and often very uncomfortable but not brutal. I do, I have to say, get a bit bored of 'ego warriors' as I call them who appear on tv and the media saying how tough and hard and I guess brutal their lives and jobs are - the truth is we spend a lot of time sitting in cars and planes and boats. It's physically tough sometimes but always in extraordinary places> thanks!
Do you feel like capturing moments like these for as large an audience as National Geographic will help people care more about conservation and climate change?
Hi - I hope so but I am also very realistic about not over exaggerating the value of what we do. I think if any organisation on earth can exact change it's National Geographic and I'm proud to work for them trying to do that. But I'm also realistic about my own impact. I guess I do some good - is hoot conservation stories that I hope will change peoples minds. The issue that we really need to fix however is that we tend to change the minds of people in the west far more than people on the ground in the countries where we tell the stories. We need to make more impact in places like south america and Africa - I have to say that Nat Geo is working on this and making real in roads. Thanks!
Sorry I just wrote you a huge long reply but it weirdly got deleted. I basically said - Nat Geo has probably the largest audience for change in the world and i think if anyone can exact change on conservation issues they NG can - and we try our hardest. However on a personal level as a conservation photojournalist - i think my value is not huge and I'm not going to kid myself that it is. The key to success really is using what I do, working with Nat Geo and making sure that the people on the ground in countries where we cover issues - actually see them. Nat Geo is certainly trying to make this happen - we're seeing many more in roads into places like south america and Africa - thanks
Hi Charlie. Any thoughts on Sean Penn's character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty? When not taking photos of wildlife, what subjects do you like to photograph?
Thanks for the question - loved the film by the way. What struck me about Sean Penn's role the most was that at the moment he was about to get the shot of the snow leopard he pulled away to just watch it - that really impressed me (although it was just a movie). I remember doing the same the first time I ever saw an otter underwater - a moment I'd waited my whole life for (even though I was only 17 at the time) i just thought - i need to see this rather than ruining it by shooting a picture. I watch people on safari in africa and wish for their sakes they'd do the same - but then I rarely do! I shoot tons of stuff other than wildlife these days - i particularly love photographing tourists taking selfies. thanks!
Hey! I coincidentally just watched a show that you appeared on last night while surfing Netflix. "The Great Yellowstone Thaw" or something like that, in which you were out in Yellowstone on the Snake shooting Otters. Fantastic stuff and Kudos for hanging out in the Wyoming winter like that. I live in Jackson and can commiserate a bit.
Do you stay in the park while conducting these projects, and what have you found is the best way to stay (relatively) warm while hanging out motionless in the dead of winter?
Thanks for your question - i live in JH TOO AND LOVE IT!!! I tend to work mainly in the park and in the NF. And to stay warm - hmmm - the oxbow at -20 is not somewhere I've ever managed to stay warm - four toe warmers on each foot and they still freeze. we were doing 8 hrs without moving on The Thaw shoot - it was not nice and the otters didnt show up much that year. Thanks for the question!
What was the most exotic/beautiful places you've taken photographs at?
Thanks for the question - nowhere beats the Serengeti to me for wildlife but for shear stunning beauty I think the Namib-Naukluft desert in Namibia - thanks!
What are some of the more dangerous encounters you've had?
Have you ever worked in Alaska? I'm personally intrigued and terrified by Alaskan Brown Bears/coastal grizzlies and love to see and hear of encounters with them.
Thanks - i answered a similar question a few back so scroll and take a look. As for bears - they scare the hell out of me. I'm off out in bear country this afternoon - will have my wife and dog and two cans of bear spray to protect me! Be careful out there!
Hey Charlie! I'm a huge fan of your work. I'm an aspiring photographer myself, and am in the "learn as much as possible" stage of my career. If I covered my own expenses, could I come volunteer as a production assistant on one of your shoots sometime?
Hey owninobrien -thanks for your question. The truth is that these days I tend to only use assistants who live in the countries where I work and rarely sue assonant otherwise. I get hundreds of requests every year but I cant really help these days. When I worked in TV I had full time assistants but I dont anymore - they are all much better than me these days! so sorry but worth asking other photographers. cheers!
Hi Charlie! What is some of your "go to gear" that you take with you on every shoot?
My Leica M240 and my iPhone 7. I can live without the rest if I have to! thanks
My Leica M240 and my iPhone 7 - thanks
Hey Charlie, Whats in your travel bag? And Why?
My headphones - i cant travel without tons of stuff to watch on my phone - i'm a tv junky. and obviously a few cameras - iPhone, Leica and Canon or Sony - I juts bought a Rollieflex too
What would be your advice to get into wildlife photography as a profession? Also love your work.
thanks! my advice - be different - i wrote up a similar reply a few questions back - take a look. But be different is the key to entering a world saturated with wildlife images - thanks!
What is the most uncooperative animal subject you've ever had to photograph?
my doodle 100% he hates standing for photos. Actually Dave my border collie used to hate having his photo taken too. Other than that - small mustelids - weasels and stoats are a total nightmare because they never stop moving.
Hi Charlie, what does it take to get a career as a National Geographic wildlife photographer? Also, what has been your favorite experience so far?
Thanks - it takes years of obsession passion and determination - i have to say it was really tough getting in as NG demands such high standards and is so competitive. I really had to shoot and think differently and become a story teller as much as a photographer. If you can combine the two then you have a good chance but one without the other wont work. thanks!
Have you explored any other types of photography? If you weren't shooting wildlife, what would you be taking pictures of?
Thanks for the question - more and more these days I shoot stories of people. I'm off shooting a story on isolated tribes in the Amazon in a few weeks. It was hard going from wildlife photography to people but I love being challenged and tend to get bored easily if I'm not. I just completed my first shoot suing studio lighting too - that was tough! thanks!
I'd like to be a wildlife photographer with an emphasis on conservation. Do you have any advice for a young professional working her way though this career? Thank you!
Thanks for the question - i guess my advice is cover subjects you are most passionate about and really understand them. If you want to shoot wildlife and conservation stories then I would start out by getting work in conservation - ideally in the media side of it and work from there. It's a really tough job to making a living in but a valuable - we need more people working in conservation so go for it - good luck!
I want to get closer to working with animals but most places like zoos or sanctuaries don't hire unless you have experience. What are some ways to get my foot through the door if I want to work with exotic animals? Would I have to be physically fit? (I have autoimmune health problems).
Hey thats a really tricky one for me - i have never really working with exotic animals in captive setting. I guess volunteering at animal rescue centres could be both really helpful to them and rewarding for you and then you'd get some real hands on experience to take elsewhere - good luck
Seeing as you'd be a failed stand up comedian if you weren't a photographer, I totally assume you watch comedy specials. Any stand ups you watch?
Stewart Lee is my favourite
Hi Charlie I'm a massive fan and do quite a lot of wildlife photography in the U.K., what would be the best affords camera to take pictures of underwater wildlife?
anything you can get your hands on - gopro - phone - whatever. Don't worry about megapixels - worry about getting images that are well lit and evoke and emotion in the viewer. I'll shoot with whatever I have closest and thats often just my phone
Hi Charlie, from your observations working with otters, are they really jerks as made out to be by the countless articles about their behavior? What is the worst thing you've witnessed an otter do?
Otters are ace and all the articles about them being jerks are wrong. Sea otters have a bad rap for their, well, pretty bad behaviour sometimes with sea lions. but on the whole otters are wonderful fun loving creatures who like to eat lots of fish - which is why fishermen moan about them all the time. I have read tons of completely 'fake news' in articles about otters - almost always by people with vested interests.
How do you bridge the gap between being an unpaid experienced photographer and becoming a paid pro?
Its really really hard and getting harder. Honestly I dont know. I never worked as a photographer for anyone but Nat Geo - as I transitioned out of TV in to the magazine a few years ago. I'm sorry - if I tried to answer the question I'd just be thinking of stuff to tell you rather than actually knowing the answer. I bet places like PDN online and other sites have some thought out answers - good luck though
What action did a vulture or otter take that really surprised you (e.g., out of "character" or a demonstrating a trait you didn't know they had)?
I once watched a lappet faced vulture break off a small twig from a bush and give it to his partner - it was very touching and amazing to watch such a huge ugly bird being so generous and sensitive.
Love your work about otters - they truly are amazing animals. Best otter-related experience so far ?
Swimming with them in florida - hands down the best wildlife experience I've ever had in my life. thanks!
I'm a budding young photography graduate, have you got any tips for breaking into the industry? And can I please please come and have work experience with you?
I'm sorry but I cant do any work experience! however my advice - be different. There are millions of people shooting the same stuff in the same way - stand back reconsider your subject and the way you approach it and do what everyone else isn't doing - then you make your own path and find your own voice as a photographer - good luck
I read that NG photographers take hundreds of pictures and only get selected one or two. Is that true? How long do you usually have to wait at a place to get the perfect picture sometimes?
No its not true - we take thousands of photos and only get one selected! People often say - well if you take that many surely you'll get some good ones. Well the truth is I dont care how many I take to get the good ones I just want the good ones. It doesn't actually work out either that if you shoot tons you'll get good ones. It also depends on what you're shooting. Sometimes I'll take 20 photos on a shoot and others times thousands - i took 5000 photos of chickens a few weeks ago over a weekend - i had to to get the action I needed and its only by doing that that we got the shot the magazine needed. Anyway hope that helps.