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Wildlife Photographer Jack Perks on Nottingham's Critters

23 May 16 words: Lucy Manning

"When I tell people I'm a wildlife photographer, the first thing they say is 'Have you been to Africa?' I have to tell them, 'No, I’ve just been up to Beeston'"

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Kingfishers, Jack Perks

You studied at South Notts College. How did your career progress from there?
I did a BTEC in photography, then went to university in Falmouth, Cornwall, to do a degree in marine and natural history photography. After that, I came back to Nottingham to go full-time with the wildlife photography, and I’m finally making a living out of it.

How did working with the BBC come about?
Funnily enough, it started in Nottingham in about 2013 for a series called The Great British Year. It was a nature series and they were looking for as many people to film on it as possible –  young, up-and-comers in particular – so I got in touch with them via Twitter. I told them about these fish that eat fruit in my local river on Fareham Brook. From there, my name got spread around, and Springwatch and Countryfile contacted me.

They say never work with children or animals. What led you to taking up wildlife photography?
It’s cliche to say, but I’ve always been interested in wildlife – that came first. The photography came as a way of making a living and being able to see as many species as possible. And what I do is so varied – one day I can be in a river filming fish underwater, and the next I’m up a mountain filming birds. That’s what appealed to me – I could do anything as long as I could take a picture of it.

What’s your favourite animal to photograph?
I’ve been doing a lot of water voles recently, so I’d say that’s my favourite at the minute. They’re basically chubby rats, but a lot cuter.

How do you go about getting the perfect shot of a particularly wily animal?
It varies from species to species. Let’s say I want to photograph a kingfisher – you can’t just trundle up to it because it will fly away. Normally, I’ll work out where it likes to sit and fish from, and then I’ll set up a hide – a pop-up tent or some scrim netting. Then it’s a waiting game. Sometimes it comes in five minutes, and other times you can be sat waiting for five hours.

One of the advantages of working locally means that I can visit a location a lot more easily and more often. I try and scout a place out first, and talk to local people if I’m not familiar with an area. I’ll work out where the animal is likely to be and where the light is going to come in. There’s a lot that goes into it.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve caught animals doing on camera?
One of the things that always surprises me is the amount of urban wildlife in towns and cities. People assume that built-up areas are particularly devoid of wildlife. Recently, I’ve been filming an otter that’s very close to the city centre. There’re water voles in Mansfield and peregrine falcons on NTU’s Newton and Arkwright building. There’s all this amazing wildlife that you just wouldn’t think would be in an urban place.

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Water Vole, Jack Perks

Have you noticed a change in animals’ habitats due to human interference or damage?
I’ve lived on Fareham Brook pretty much all my life. It was really good for a couple of years, and then it’s kind of gone downhill. There was terrible pollution when they were building the trams – they dumped a load of stuff in the rivers and really knackered it up. The Trent is getting better, but it’s still pretty bad.

What would you say to those who argue that British wildlife isn’t all that interesting?
When I tell people I’m a wildlife photographer, the first thing they say is, “Have you been to Africa?” I have to tell them, “No, I’ve just been up to Beeston.” Almost 100% of my work is based in the UK and it never fails to amaze me how much wildlife we have. Whether it’s grey seal colonies on the coast, or migratory birds that come in. Just in your back garden, there is so much wildlife if you look closely. I would say that if you’re feeling bored by it, you need to look harder. You don’t even need to travel, it’s all on your doorstep.

What’s the most exciting animal that Nottingham has to offer?
I would say it’s exciting, but I don’t know if anyone else would. There’s a fish called a spined loach that lives in the Trent, and it’s one of the only places in the UK that you can find it. They’re only a few inches long and they live in the silt, so it’s hard to find them. They’re quite colourful and they can actually breathe air if the water’s really dirty. I think they’re fascinating.

Do you think there’s an expectation that artists should give away a lot of their work for free, in exchange for ‘exposure’?
With the advent of digital photography and smartphones, everyone’s a photographer. A lot of people take advantage of that and approach people who have just put something on Flickr. You can imagine that it’s quite flattering if someone doesn’t do it for a living, if someone says, “I really like your photo, can we use it in a magazine?” Because they don’t do it professionally, they don’t know what that image is worth. They’re missing out on a bit of money, but they’re also undermining the guys who are trying to make a living on what is already a difficult career path. I take it on a request basis – sometimes it can be handy as it leads to work further down the line. Some people are quite shocked when I ask for money, but they’re getting paid to do their job, so why wouldn’t they pay me to do mine?

You’re running a week-long wildlife photography course at NTU this summer. What can people expect?
We’ll go through the techniques, setting and equipment needed to photograph wildlife; how to get close to animals and where to find them. Then on the last day, we’ll have a full practical day on location in Nottinghamshire on a reserve that best fits that season. I’m showing off, at its best, how people can go from taking a snapshot of an animal, to taking a really good image of wildlife.

Do you have any tips for aspiring wildlife photographers?
My main ones are to shoot local, because it’s a pain to carry loads of gear around on trains. Whether it’s a park or your garden, you will find some form of wildlife. You can build up a knowledge base, and you’ll recognise that a certain sparrow always shows up on a certain hedge and you can pre-plan that around a time that gets a nice shot, like a sunset for example. And don’t be frightened to use a camera phone. People assume that you need to use a great big camera with a lens that could knock someone out to shoot wildlife, but that’s not the case.

If you could be any animal, what would you be?
I’d have to be a bird. Something like an eagle so I’m at the top of the food chain and nothing is gonna eat me. I could just fly around and do my own business.

Jack Perks website


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