WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY

Life after winning a Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year award

Do you shoot just for fun, or would you like to make photography your career? Marc Albiac and Michel d'Oultremont reveal the hidden secrets of their success, working their way up from young hobbyists to Canon Ambassadors.
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When Marc Albiac was a teenager exploring the craft of photography, he and his dad would spend hours on a website where leading Spanish wildlife photographers talked through the techniques behind their images. He remembers Mario Cea explaining how he'd created a double exposure of a moonlit owl in just one frame. Fast forward a few years and Marc was at a major photography fair presenting his work alongside Mario. Marc is now a Canon Ambassador, with many accolades to his name, including a prestigious Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year award he received at age 14.

Here, he and fellow ambassador Michel d'Oultremont, who lives and works in Belgium and is a two-time winner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Rising Star Portfolio Award, tell us how this contest kickstarted their careers, as well as sharing advice for young nature photographers eager to follow in their footsteps.
A portrait of Canon Ambassador Marc Albiac carrying a camera with a large telephoto lens attached.

Canon Ambassador Marc Albiac often uses lens extenders to achieve his close-up nature shots, allowing him to capture detail from further away, without startling his subject.

A portrait of Canon Ambassador Michel d'Oultremont standing in the snow.

"The most important thing is to have respect for the wildlife that you're photographing. It's essential. Living in contact with wild animals is fantastic, but you have to respect it," says Canon Ambassador Michel d'Oultremont.

Which came first – your love of wildlife or your love of photography?

Marc Albiac: Before I could even walk, my parents used to take me with them to the mountains. My father liked to photograph the landscapes and animals there. When I was seven years old, he upgraded his photographic equipment, and I inherited his camera, a Canon EOS 30D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 90D). My love of animals came first. The camera was a tool that let me take this wildlife back home with me.

Michel d'Oultremont: Definitely the love of wildlife. I started out birding for three years quite intensively. Photography is just the medium that allows me to immortalise my wild encounters. It could have been sculpture or painting, but I don't have that talent. My first images were made in a marsh. Lying on the mud waiting for the water birds. They were mundane images, but it was fabulous to bring those moments home. The marsh was less than a mile from my house, so it was really convenient. I started with a Canon EOS 400D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 850D) and a 20-year-old EF 300mm f/4L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM).
A conehead mantis perched sideways on a thorny plant stem.

Canon Ambassador Marc Albiac was just 14 when he took this picture of an elusive conehead mantis (Empusa pennata). It won him Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year in the 11-14 category. Mark photographed the mantis – which is capable of camouflaging itself – against a background of white paper so that its remarkable form could be truly seen. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/18 and ISO320. © Marc Albiac

Two stags locking antlers viewed through out of focus foliage at night.

Canon Ambassador Michel d'Oultremont waited four years to capture this image of a deer fight in the Ardennes region of Belgium." Every year I would go to the same place and hope to experience this incredible moment," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens and Canon Extender EF 2x III at 800mm, 1/400 sec, f/8 and ISO400. © Michel d'Oultremont

You both gained recognition early on with your Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards. What do you think you did that led to that success?

Michel: In all competitions, you need luck. Luck to be selected, but also to win a prize. I have been lucky enough to win this award twice. It's an honour, and it's nice to see that my view of the wild world appeals to the jury and the public.

Marc: I never took photographs in order to win a contest, I did it because I wanted to. I think that's the secret. I shot my winning image in my grandmother's garden. Wherever it is you can spend the most time is where you'll take the best photographs. Working close to home, you don't have the pressure of knowing you have to get on a flight in a few days. And if you don't get a picture you're happy with one day, you can just go back the next day.

What was it like to win – it must have been exciting but also a little overwhelming?

Marc: I'm quite shy, even now that I'm 22, and I was 15 then so I was nervous. But it was a dream come true. They sent me the email letting me know I'd won in the spring, and the ceremony wasn't until the autumn, so I spent six months not being able to tell anyone.

Of course, I have entered other contests and I haven't received any awards. One of the best things about photography is its subjectivity. The same photo can be liked by some people and disliked by other people – contests are the same. The jury has to like your photo more than the others but it doesn't mean that this photo is better or worse than others.

Like wildlife photography, photo contests require perseverance. In wildlife photography it's very important to persevere because most times animals don't show up and you come back home without any photos. But, if you try hard and you go after the photo you want, in the end, you have more chances to get the picture than by staying at home.

Michel: I was really surprised. When I was a young photographer, I used to look at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year winners with admiration. It is very gratifying and flattering to be able to say that my images have been voted among the best in the world.

Perseverance is the key, you have to keep trying and trying. I'm an optimistic person and quite stubborn so if I don't see an animal in the beautiful light I'm looking for I start again to hope to make the encounter of my dreams. There was an image that I had been sending out for three years into many contests and it had never been selected until 2014 – it was an image I really liked and I thought it had good potential.
A wild cat, looking directly at the camera, walks through a snowy landscape.

Michel lay in the snow and waited until the perfect moment arose to capture this stunning shot of a wild cat in the Belgian Ardennes. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 600mm f-4L IS II USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/4.5 and ISO800. © Michel d'Oultremont

A young Iberian bear in green-yellow conifer-like foliage.

Marc was in the mountains with his uncle and cousin in the summer of 2020 when he spotted this wild Iberian bear." I was waiting in the mountain in order to attempt to see Iberian wolves and this young bear approached. I like what it represents, total freedom," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM lens and Canon Extender 2x III at 1000mm, 1/320 sec, f/9 and ISO1600. © Marc Albiac

How did your win kickstart your wildlife photography career?

Marc: It was through winning this award and the Youth category in the 2011 MontPhoto International Nature Photography competition that I started working with Canon Spain, doing workshops and talks at big nature fairs alongside photographers like Mario Cea. I still don't think of myself as a professional photographer, although I am. I'm currently studying for a university degree in biology, which is something I've wanted to do since I was five years old.

Michel: Thanks to my first win in 2014, I was able to participate with Contrat Agency and David Hayes in The Wait – a short, 10-minute documentary film about my work that was widely shown afterwards. The competition also helped to make me known to the general public. In 2015, I decided to give professional wildlife photography a shot. This was right after my photography studies – I tried to study biology at university, but I gave up quickly, as I preferred to be in the field and photography offered me that luxury. I gave myself three years to see if it was feasible. It's been six years now.

Do you feel you've developed your own style in wildlife photography?

Michel: I shoot a lot by feel, without worrying too much about what will work and what won't. I don't create my sets, and I just take things as they come. Wildlife encounters allow me to capture my feelings when I come face-to-face with a wild animal.

Marc: I still don't see a common style across all my photographs. For each animal, I try to do different styles of images, some more documentary and some more artistic, some black and white, some in colour, some close-up, some showing its habitat. I'm most interested in photographing vertebrate animals: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians. You have to know about them, their habits and where to find them.
A close-up of a red fox staring directly at the camera. The animal's nose is in focus, while the rest of his features are slightly blurred.

Michel sometimes takes a minimalist approach to composition with his photographs, drawing the eye to the natural beauty of his subjects. "In Japan, a curious red fox came to me. I decided to focus on his nose," he says of this delightful image. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 600mm f-4L IS II USM lens at 1/2500 sec, f/4 and ISO2500. © Michel d'Oultremont

A genet leaping from rock to rock at night, with the stars in the background captured using a double exposure.

This image, for which Marc was a finalist in the 15-17 category of the 2015 Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards, is an in-camera double exposure." One for the genet jumping, illuminated with flashes, and the other for the stars in the background," he explains. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens at 40mm, 15 sec, f/4 and ISO1600. © Marc Albiac

Are you still learning and are there any mistakes you made when you were first starting out?

Marc: Yes. There are mistakes I still make now. For example, if there's an animal I really want to photograph, I get nervous and try to get a little closer. This sometimes means it runs away and I miss the photo.

Michel: I would say waiting for animals. It takes a lot of knowledge about wildlife and a lot of patience to observe them without disturbing them. But that I learned from a very young age. I am extremely patient in all areas, which means I don't get frustrated easily and can always be optimistic.
A family of boars crossing a large, streetlight-lit road at night, appearing to use the marked pedestrian crossing.

This nighttime shot of a wild pig with her piglets crossing the road earned Marc a place as a finalist in the 15-17 category of the 2017 Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards. Wild boars are prevalent in Barcelona, where they can cause problems for the local ecosystems and are often involved in road collisions. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens at 1/25 sec, f/2.8 and ISO6400. © Marc Albiac

A small bird with orange, white and black feathers perched on a reed that is bending severely under its weight, in a misty landscape.

Michel used a floating hide to capture this image of a bearded reedling grasping a reed amid swampy terrain. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM) at 1/2000 sec, f/4.5 and ISO800. © Michel d'Oultremont

What are the challenges faced by young wildlife photographers trying to break through?

Michel: Young photographers are too quick to want to get countless likes on their images on social media. For me, this race has to stop because it is by wanting more and more that you end up doing something in the field that disturbs the animals.

Marc: The most difficult part is finding someone to take you out in the field. I was lucky that my parents were interested in mountains and animals, but I have friends who don't have that opportunity. If you live in a big city like Barcelona, it's harder to see a wide range of animals.

What one piece of advice would you give amateur photographers keen to follow in your footsteps?

Michel: Learn, read and understand animals before you photograph them. This is very important. The animals and the environment need to be calm and not disturbed. Scaring an animal away for a picture will make the photography ugly.

Marc: Photograph what you like, in the way you like. If you want to shoot in black and white, do it. If you like shooting with a telephoto lens, do it. Don't take the kind of photograph that you think you should, take the photographs you want to take.


Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton

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