Nature & wildlife photographer Václav Šilha

Photo: Václav Šilha

Václav Šilha is one of the Czech Republic’s best-known nature and wildlife photographers, whose work has been published in National Geographic Magazine and BBC Wildlife. Last year, Šilha visited and photographed on the Sandwich Islands near the “last continent”, Antarctica.

Photo: Václav Šilha
Many fans of nature & wildlife photography will be familiar with Václav Šilha’s work, featured in the highly-respected National Geographic Magazine and other publications: portraits of cheetahs in the late afternoon, bears, maws opened fiercely, fighting, a lion tearing into its prey. Šilha has travelled the world as a photographer and to some it will come as a surprise, the 51-year-old only took up photography 14 years ago, a fairly short period he himself says. He picked up what became his life’s calling by mere chance, on travels to French Polynesia with his wife, a well-known journalist.

Since, he hasn’t looked back. He was hooked immediately, soon discovering he preferred to focus on wildlife and nature. He began to photograph in Africa and travelled extensively: but Antarctica eluded him until last year. He told me more about his journey to the frozen continent and surroundings when we met up recently:

“I was there three times for three two-month periods, travelling aboard a small yacht known as the Golden Fleece, 18 metres long. That’s small of course, and my first thoughts were ‘My God what am I going to do aboard this vessel’? Because space is restricted things are quite uncomfortable. You are limited in how often you can wash, you have to ration food, and so on. On the other hand, it is a real adventure and that is what was most exciting.”

Václav Šilha, photo: Adam Kebrt
The Golden Fleece is captained by Falklands-based Frenchman Jérôme Poncet who has sailed in the Antarctic area for the last four decades, an excellent guide to the region who took Šilha to remarkable areas he otherwise would have never seen. The photographer again:

“Jérôme is a remarkable guy. He led all three expeditions and I am really happy I got to know him. [You mentioned the Irishman from Braveheart who says ‘It’s my island!’]. That describes him perfectly. When he shows you around, he presents areas in the Antarctic as his discoveries. He makes it clear you are a guest on his land.”

As a first-timer in Antarctica, the photographer says he relied on the captain’s expertise to choose stunning locations, for example, in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

“You get two kinds of day: either gorgeous blue sky with a little wisp of cloud or gray steel. The latter is notoriously hard to shoot, so those are the days you might switch to B&W which can bring out the tones better.

Photo: Václav Šilha
“As for taking photographs there, you are often working within geometric composition: the sky, the earth, the animals. On the Sandwich Islands I experienced something I had never seen before: a colony of three million penguins. Taking a portrait of one penguin under such circumstances makes little sense. I shot wide scenery and large tableaux, paying attention to the composition and geometry.”

Often in Antarctica one is alone. But then there are areas where, while you won’t meet another person, which are teeming with local wildlife including King penguins. Seals. Offshore? Killer whales.

“I had read a lot about killer whales and had a great desire to photograph them. But I never imagined what it would be like to capture them on camera during the hunt. They hunted in groups of six or so, fully organized, moving in a sweep against seals or penguins. Their natural intelligence really came across.”

Photographing wildlife can come with fairly obvious risks: when photographing in the African savannah, Šilha understandably relies on longer lenses to shoot big cats, but his appreciation of fixed lenses sometimes brings him closer to the action than is ideal. He is wary of getting too close (in his words, no photograph is worth receiving a prize In Memoriam). At the same time, the viewfinder can at times make one feel removed or the situation unreal. The photographer again:

Photo: Václav Šilha
“Looking through the viewfinder can be a problem. Sometimes, I sort of forget where I am because my primary concern is the light and composition. So it happens that I realise I am probably closer to a wild animal than I should be.”

Many times the stunning results have paid off, published in the world’s best wildlife magazines. And you might be surprised to learn that if the acclaimed photographer chooses an average of only five photographs out of hundreds to exhibit.

“Twenty would be too many: if I come back from a trip if there are five photos which I can exhibit, than I am happy. In the past, I used to press the release button much more often, taking thousands of photo; the ratio has gone down to the hundreds, with still only a few final pictures chosen.”

How does he reflect on the time he spent in Antarctica? There was heightened weirdness, he suggests, when returning home from such a harsh and desolate part of the world just two days before Christmas. Sometimes it can be tricky to adjust:

“It was strange: I came home two days before the holidays from the Sandwich Islands where we hadn’t seen another person or boat for two months. And I came home and everything was on consumerist overdrive and it was too much: Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, playing everywhere. It left me spinning.”

Photo: Václav Šilha
Being away, he says, one experiences time differently, not least in the wide spaces of a continent like Antarctica. Priorities, too, change, when things boil down to basic survival.