For Russian wildlife photographer Sergey Gorshkov, 2020 saw a childhood dream realised. His image of an Amur tiger in Russia’s Far East forests rubbing herself against a Manchurian fir tree won this year’s most coveted photography prize and captured global attention.
Now, in his own words, he takes us through the astonishing process which turned out to be far more complicated than he once anticipated. To photograph one of the rarest animals on earth requires a combination of remarkable skill, the right kit and plenty of patience.
The importance of hidden cameras
Tigers are almost impossible to see in the wild, so I decided to try using hidden cameras. For many the process might seem relatively simple – you set up the camera, go home and relax and then wait for the animal to cross the line of the motion sensor, click and your masterpiece is ready. I thought like that in the beginning too, but the reality turned out to be far from it.
Taking a good photo with a hidden camera is extremely difficult. You don’t see the subject the moment the camera is trigged so everything needs to be directed beforehand for the image to turn out the way you had envisioned.
Everything was new and incomprehensible at the beginning, and the first year was spent studying, testing equipment and training. It takes a long time to set up the camera – it’s important to choose a composition, build a frame, repeatedly test the triggering of sensors and choose the correct number of photos to be taken the moment the sensor is triggered.
Learning about the habitat
Shooting with hidden cameras meant I had no control over a lot of factors, so I invested a lot of time in studying the creature and its natural habitat. I installed 100 hidden cameras to help me find the places that tigers visit and how frequently they visited.
Analysis from small cameras allows you to think completely differently, develop a different type of creative imagination and, most importantly, choose the location for the main camera – my Nikon Z 7; a compact, full-frame camera able to capture exceptional detail while requiring little room, which I paired with the stunning NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.8 S lens.
It’s important to accurately focus on the location where the animal is supposed to pass and then switch the autofocus to manual mode, so that the focal point does not ‘float away’ during the process of shooting.
Once you’ve chosen your location, you need to compose a photo on the spot and predict the behaviour of the animal. You need to understand where the tiger will go, what position it will stand at the moment of shooting, how the sun will shine… you need to literally calculate every movement and every step. There is no room for mistakes. You may only get one opportunity a year and so you need to be technically prepared to make the most of it.
Even with such meticulous planning, I can only anticipate, predict the results and hope for luck!
Choosing the right exposure when you don’t know when the animal will pass
You would be forgiven for thinking that you can put the camera on automatic mode and everything will just work out – the camera will correct the shutter speed, aperture and ISO. In fact, this was how I started the process. However, the challenge came when I realised animals are more active in the early mornings and evenings, and the dense foliage during the summer months meant it was very dark in the forest.
This created a very specific environment which, combined with the exact shot I wanted to achieve, meant that it made sense for me to use the camera’s manual mode. I placed the shutter speed at 1/320, the aperture at f 5.6 and the maximum ISO to 3200 – the perfect settings to get the crisp, clear image I desired. Indeed, one of the key benefits of the Z7 is its light sensitivity range; you get rich tonal definition in bright light and incredible detail in low light scenarios – perfect for the seasonal changes in the forest.
Improvising with a silent shutter
Hearing is very developed in animals, and when the shutter of the camera is triggered, the animal hears this sound and more often than not turns its head in the direction of the sound, which can make the picture appear unnatural.
Quite often when animals hear the sound of the shutter, they come up to sniff, look or touch the source of the sound with their paws – sometimes they might even move them aside. Cats rarely ruin camera traps, however bears who are curious by their very nature, sometimes do.
To avoid this, I installed my Nikon Z 7 mirrorless cameras in boxes. I turned off the shutter sound and the camera shot silently, without attracting the attention of animals.
Quality over quantity
From the first day I started wildlife photography, my aim was never to capture plenty of images; instead I've always worked to deliver the highest possible quality within a single shot. And quality is often born through the embodiment of a creative intention.
So, when shooting with hidden cameras, I wasn’t looking for lots of photos of a passing tiger, I only wanted one image of exactly what I had imagined in my mind. And as I hope my image shows, with plenty of practice you can get there.
For me, shooting with hidden cameras is where I can give free rein to my directorial imagination – aided by the very best kit and a long, scrupulous implementation of my plan.
I installed the first full camera trap system in January 2019, attaching it to a tree 10 metres away from a giant fir. From then I could think of nothing else. I would trek to the camera sites every three months. But tigers are extremely cautious of anything new in their environment so it wasn’t until November 2019 that my winning image was captured.
You might question if doing all of that just to get one photo is worth it. The simple answer is yes, without any doubt at all.
A dream realised
I dreamt of a career in wildlife photography for my entire childhood. My career really began in Kamchatka, one of Russia’s remotest regions. I saw a documentary filmed there and was so impressed with its wildlife. Years later I eventually visited the region to take pictures of the bears and I was absorbed by the process.
I remember my first bear shot well. I took the picture in 2003 using my Nikon F5 and since then I have not let go of my Nikon kit, as I’ve continued to capture wild Russia.
Fast forward to 2020 and I couldn’t believe it when the Duchess of Cambridge said my name. It’s been a long and challenging, but very interesting path to victory. I’m pleased to not only have won such a prestigious award, but to be the first Russian to do so in 56 years.
Looking ahead, I've never felt this inspired before. The tigress pictured now has three cubs – so my next quest is to capture an image of her with her new family. Wish me luck, and patience!