ISTS Asks: A naturalist with a camera

7 min read

Since young, Adam enjoyed spending most of his time spotting animals in nature and observing their behaviour. Now, he is a wildlife photography hobbyist, specialising in capturing birds in flight. We spoke to him about his photos, and what it means to be a wildlife photographer. Adam also shared tips on developing a keen eye for photography, which we hope will inspire more to take up as an interest.

A common kingfisher (Singapore Botanic Gardens)

Why did you pick up wildlife photography?
I grew up in a kampung, with a big backyard filled with a lot of diverse wildlife. As a kid, I found excitement in observing the local flora and fauna. When I went to university in California, I met a zoology professor who shared about his sabbatical in Tasmania.

The pictures of wildlife there were stunning and completely blew my mind. This steered me toward studying wildlife, completing my zoology degree in Tasmania, and guided me into the realm of photography. To me, photography is about freezing the moment and keeping a piece of the memory.

“As a wildlife photographer, I seek to care for and learn about nature. Being able to capture a nice photo is just the icing on the cake but what I bring home is knowing the animal better.”

What makes a good wildlife photographer?
Animals are repetitive creatures and have certain routines. For that, wildlife photographers need to have patience and be willing to grind. To photograph a bird I am interested in, I would visit the bird almost every day for about two weeks. Initially, I would be watching to collect information about its day to day behaviour. I observe where it goes to feed, bathe, or perch, and I would only bring my camera when I have a plan.

Much like a science experiment, doing your research is part of the process. For example, when photographing birds of prey, I know that they don’t have moving eyeballs. When raptors are fixed on prey, they actually move their entire head to triangulate the distance between them and their prey. To anticipate the animal’s movement, I look for signs like these.

A good wildlife photographer is also resilient. As it’s all about being at the right place and at the right time, the failure rate is high even if you are well prepared. Some pictures can be taken quickly in a few minutes, while others have taken me more than a month.

A grey headed fish owl diving for prey (Ulu Pandan Park Connector)

“To capture an eagle diving down to catch fish, waiting and watching can take up to a whole day.”

Tell us the story behind your favourite shots!

A pair of mating black winged kites (Neo Tiew Harvest Lane)

This is one of my favourite photos because it took me a month to finally capture such a rare close up shot of this raptor. They are very skittish around humans, so I built a hide near their perch. I snuck in every day between 5 to 6am, as they would usually visit the perch before hunting, at around 7am.

One day, just as I reached the spot, it started to rain very heavily. It was too late for me to turn back as I had already hiked quite a distance there. I hunkered down, hoping not to get struck by lightning. My gear was getting wet, I was soaked, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go.

The rain stopped. The next thing I knew, I looked up and the female was already there, preening itself. An hour later, it made a call. The male flew in from behind and they started mating.

“Sometimes, it is just down to luck. Mating only takes a few seconds for these birds, and the direction of the wind happened to be just right for them to balance on the perch while facing in my direction.”

A buffy fish owl taking flight (Singapore Botanic Gardens)

With light reflecting in its eyes, the owl is looking up into the forest canopy at its male partner.

This is another one of my favourites. It is very hard to capture the buffy fish owl while it is flying like this, and the lighting in this photo was just right.

Although this was taken in the afternoon, to capture this motion with a fast shutter speed, the background is dark. Fortunately, the light filtering through the forest canopy hit the face and wings of the owl, drawing them into the focus of the picture.

Why do you think wildlife photography is important?
Wildlife photography is meaningful to me because it amplifies the wildlife that we have in Singapore, which I feel goes underappreciated by most locals. Many people ask me, “You took this photo in Singapore?! Where?” And I would show them the location so they can see it for themselves.

By sharing my pictures, I hope that Singaporeans realise that we have such species of animals. Wildlife photographers help to show how awesome nature is in Singapore. That we are not just a concrete jungle, but even in our HDB blocks, we are able to observe many animals that coexist with us.

“I want to captivate people’s attention – for them to see the photos as if experiencing these animals in real life, so they can appreciate them better.”

How would you encourage Singaporeans to engage with nature?
I would encourage people to go out more and simply walk around. Walking is the best way to observe as we see more things when we slow down. This way, you will discover that Singapore has a lot of wildlife that we can actually enjoy. At the same time, Singaporeans must remain respectful to nature and take care to preserve it.

To budding photography or nature enthusiasts, go ahead and do it! It’s awesome, it’s free, and all you need is to spend time to go out and observe. In photography, people often say they don’t have the money for it. But you don’t need to have expensive gear to start.

A crested goshawk with a changeable lizard in its talons (Singapore Botanic Gardens)

Adam’s dedication for his work is admirable – an extraordinary amount of work is put into every single photo, and it definitely shows. Thank you to Adam for sharing with us about the world of wildlife photography, and you can find more of his work on Instagram and Facebook!

Written by Kow Zi Shan
Photos by Adam Teo

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