Call of the Wild – David Whelan


Jake - Taken by David Whelan

David Whelan uses his lens to give a voice to those without. He may spend his days as a payments delivery leader for a financial services company but any spare time the 52-year-old enjoys is usually dedicated to his “second job” shooting intimate portraits of tigers, lions, snow leopards and other big cats and birds.

David says animals have always held a fascination for him and this interest has been inspiring him to take photos of them since receiving his first camera as an 18th birthday present in the early 1980s. “[My interest was cemented during a visit] to Melbourne Zoo. I’d taken my camera, a Nikon D700 at the time, and took a few photos. I was fascinated by the expressions and facial shots of the animals and I started looking for a way to capture a portrait-style photo showing the animals going about their daily routine of sleeping, eating and playing. They have different moods and facial expressions so I’m always wanting them to look into the camera and establish a more intimate photo,” he says.

Hutan - Taken by David Whelan

And it seems the animals are more than happy to oblige. David says Kiani, one of the Sumatran Orangutans he enjoys photographing at Melbourne Zoo, takes a keen interest in looking at the photos he’s taken and frequently comes up to the glass to view them on the back of his camera.

Clearly David’s unique approach to his work has also struck a chord with those sharing his interest in exotic animals. Several animal charities – including the Zoological Society of London’s tiger charity, 21st Century Tiger – display his photos on their websites, and David frequently fields requests from artists eager to use his photographs as a point of reference for their own artwork.

Dewi - Taken by David Whelan

A Nikon fan since first discovering the brand in 1992, David’s current camera arsenal includes the Nikon D700, D7100 and D810 camera bodies and battery grip. Accompanying these are his impressive array of lenses which include the NIKKOR AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G IF ED VR, the NIKKOR AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, the NIKKOR AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR, the NIKKOR AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR, the NIKKOR AF-S 50mm f/1.4G, the NIKKOR AF-S 85mm f/1.4G, the NIKKOR AF-S Micro 105mm f/2.8G IF ED (1:1) VR and the NIKKOR AF-S 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR. His kit bag also incorporates two Nikon teleconverters and a Speedlight SB-900.

“I take the D810 and 70-200mm and 400m lenses with me all of the time. The 400mm is to get as close as possible for a full head portrait, and the 70-200 for smaller animals like snakes/frogs. I might take the 105mm, especially if I’m looking to do some macro work,” he says.

Kanzi - Taken by David Whelan

In the years he has been operating in this niche, David says he has noticed a number of changes impacting his ability to work, in particular the number of wild animals available to photograph. While regional breeding programs to ensure the survival of endangered animal species have gone some of the way to redress the balance, David says he is now forced to shoot primarily in zoos and woodlands close to his home which has brought with it a new set of challenges.

“My biggest [issue] was working out a way to create a black background giving my photos a portrait effect. This removes man-made items, such as bars and fences etc, and also highlights the natural beauty of the animal. I’ve tried several different ways but found that the dodge/burn tool in Adobe Lightroom to be the most effective. I try to have the animal in front of a dark background as this makes it easier.”

Lazarus - Taken by David Whelan

David says his optimal shooting conditions are when he is able to source natural light and on days that are overcast or rainy. Very occasionally he is forced to shoot through glass and this can prove problematic owing to reflections showing up or debris on the pane, he says.

That aside, David says the most frustrating element of his work can also prove the most enjoyable. “Sometimes I have had to wait several hours to get the shot I’ve been looking for. Sometimes a rattle of my car keys will get the animal to look at me. I can’t have the animals pose or be where I’d like them to be or doing what I’d like them to be doing, which can be frustrating. However, this gives me the opportunity to observe their behaviour. In my photos it often looks like the animal has adopted a pose but in reality I’ve only selected one frame from many, as the animals are almost always moving.”

David intends spending the remainder of the year honing his skills locally before undertaking a trip of a lifetime in 2018 to shoot his subjects in the animals’ natural habitats. The journey will see him head to Pantanal in Brazil to photograph jaguars in September before he heads across to South Africa and Zimbabwe the following month.

Johari and Nairibi - Taken by David Whelan

“I think patience is essential and allowing time for the animals to get used to me being there. They soon go back to whatever they were doing which is what I want. It’s always fun taking photos of animals. At times I’m so fascinated just watching them that I forget to take photos.”

To see more of David’s work, check out his website here, like him on Facebook here or follow him on Instagram here.

[Words by Tracey Porter]