MICHELLE GUILLERMIN | Washington D.C.

Hello Michelle, can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and how you got into photography?

Photography is a second career for me.  After graduation from university, I pursued a career of business consulting, implementing bank mergers and acquisitions.  I am a Certified Public Accountant, so I also held roles as Chief Financial Officer at a number of organizations.

Photography was a serious hobby for me, that has fortunately transitioned into paying work with print and web publications and corporate reports, allowing me to pursue the side of photography that interests me and find a public outlets for that work also

Your primary focus in photography is on wildlife, especially East African wildlife. How did this come up?

As a child, I grew up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and Flipper on television.  Those programs really were the origin of my love of wildlife. 

In 1989, I took a leave of absence from my consulting job and traveled around the world with $3000, a backpack and a camera.  During that adventure, I spent two months in Kenya and fell in love with the country and the people.  Before the trip, I picked up Peter Beard’s book, The End of the Game, which graphically demonstrated the loss of habitat and the impact it was having on East African wildlife, primarily elephants.

Over the next many years, I traveled extensively, but primarily went to Asia.  I would photograph as a tourist and traveler, but again, didn’t really focus on my craft.  Finally, in 2006, I joined a safari to a conservation area in Kenya that has made significant contributions in protecting rhinos.  It all came together for me on that trip – the book I’d read in 1989 and learning what these wonderful people were doing to ensure endangered animals had a safe area in which to live and breed.  Some of my photos were included in marketing materials for the conservancy – and I haven’t stopped since.

You submitted a series of photographs with elephants from your latest trip to Africa. Can you tell us a little bit about the background behind this series?

This was a very special trip for me.  I have kept in touch with one of my Masaai guides in Amboseli National Park, which is one of the best places in the world to see happy, healthy elephants.  As I FaceTimed (yes, with a traditional Masaai!) with him, he mentioned that he was involved in creating a new conservation area – the primary wildlife corridor between Amboseli and Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Elephants move great distances on a regular basis, along paths that they have followed for centuries.  When we humans build a road or a town across these paths, all kinds of bad things can happen, none of which generally end well for the elephants.  This new conservancy was created to ensure that elephants could move safely between the park and the mountain, and at the same time, address the very real economic impact on the people that lived in the area.

We were the first people to go into the area specifically to photograph.  We witnessed hundreds of healthy, safe elephants in a very intimate manner.  It gave me great hope for the protection of this species.

I guess a huge problem is primarily poaching and the conflict of human/ wildlife and habitat conservation. Can you explain us a bit about the current status?

It’s a good news/bad news situation.  There are a tremendous number of very talented, dedicated and SMART people working to protect the animals and create safe habitats for them, recognizing that local communities can’t just stop farming or herding just so the elephants are protected.  If an elephant raids their garden, or a lion eats their cow, their family goes hungry.  These communities, NGO’s and local Kenyan leaders are working together to address all the issues in a comprehensive way and are making great strides.

At the same time, poaching has increased to epidemic proportions.  Elephants, rhinos, lions and pangolins are prized in certain cultures for their body parts, rather than as a living, thriving creature.  The cultures tend to have a significant amount of money they can use to enlist locals to kill animals and provide the horns, paws, tusks and other pieces of the animals to be sold as aphrodisiacs.

The number of wild animals is decreasing rapidly due to the poaching and human/wildlife conflict.  Much is being done to educate those who want animal parts

What do you find is the hardest challenge taking wildlife pictures?

Fortunately, I enjoy it so much, it took a minute to think about whether there were challenges at all.  My biggest challenge is finding the time to get to Africa for a couple weeks of dedicated shooting.

When I finally get there, wildlife photography is largely opportunistic.  You can plan a shot, find your place to wait, and the animal never does exactly what you hoped it would do.  So, getting a shot with the right background, the right behavior and in the right light is pretty exciting.

On the flip side, the unexpected moments, and resulting shots are so special.

Were there obstacles or dangerous situations while shooting the pictures?

This trip we were very well behaved.   I took two people who had never been to Africa, and who really didn’t understand animal behavior.  I felt responsibility to keep them safe, so I made sure we didn’t get into situations that could have ended badly.

I’m a little less careful when I’m out on my own and have been charged by both elephants and rhinos.  Fortunately, I was in a truck that could move fast enough to escape.  But, safety should be your number one concern when dealing with wildlife.  I read an interview recently with a man who grew up in the bush, and knows exactly how to manage difficult wildlife situations.  Just a few weeks ago, he was walking in the bush and happened upon a mother elephant and calf – he was thrown across the ground and almost trampled.  Thankfully, I have never come close to that, but always keep the inherent danger in the back of my mind.

What do you think might be a reason that there are just a few female wildlife photographers?

Oh my goodness, that question could take years to answer!  There are all the social reasons that women are not in many male professions – some by choice, some because they weren’t permitted to join. In many ways, the wildlife photography path starts with science education, which typically hasn’t attracted as many women as men. I see that many of the really talented wildlife photographers also serve as guides.  They are highly educated in animal behavior and biology, as well as the habitat.  I am starting to see more women graduate from these programs and becoming guides and rangers – and hope that will turn the trend to more female wildlife photographers. 

What demands do you have on your camera equipment? And what equipment would you suggest in shooting wildlife?

I’m a Nikon girl all the way.  Fortunately, the cameras are well built and take quite a bit of knocking about.  But the dust, oh my goodness, its dusty!  And, the best photos always seem to require rolling around in the dirt a little bit.  Annually, I ship everything to Nikon for a good take-apart and cleaning.

Long lenses are essential.  I generally have two cameras set up and ready to shoot.  One with a zoom lens, reaching 400mm and one with an ultra-wide angle lens (my favorite is a 10-20mm zoom, but also have lots of fun with a fisheye 10.5mm).  I’m fortunate in that I primarily shoot in private conservancies, which allow us to drive off-road and get very close to the animals.  I find that even though I can zoom to 400mm, most of my shots are taken between 150-200mm.  Aperture isn’t quite as important with the long lenses to capture the depth of field that you wish, but I generally open my lenses up as wide as makes sense.

Would I love a 400mm 2.8 prime lens?  Oh yes, absolutely!  But, I’m a firm believer that it is the person behind the equipment, not the equipment that makes a shot, so, while I dream, I’ve found that two zoom lenses can do the trick!

What is the biggest compliment you could be given for your pictures?

If someone said that my photos influenced them to take an active role in protecting wildlife, I would declare success!

You can find more about Michelles Photography on her Website, Facebook and Instagram.