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Denis Palanque: Photography, Biology and Passion

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Denis Palanque won the Best Story prize from National Geographic magazine in 2010 and is actually the Special Advisor in Europe for the Meet Your Neighbours international project. We caught up with the French photographer recently and asked him a few questions for you.

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I discovered Denis Palanque through the MYN, Meet Your Neighbours, project, whose co-founder Clay Bolt, I interviewed here at Phototuts+ recently. The first images I saw from him were made with the white backgrounds used in MYN, but exploring a bit further I found other images and perspectives that I liked so much I kept digging for more.

Denis Palanque has done various types of photography, even exploration of white backgrounds in a way different from MYN. It was great find his other work. I especially liked the "design by nature" series, that contributed largely to lead me to contact the photographer for this interview. So without further ado, let's dive in.

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Q Who is Deny Palanque and what does he do?

I am a professional photographer specializing in wildlife photography, conservation photography, environment and science photography. But I am also a strongly engaged conservationist, with an insatiable curiosity, and a great admirer of Art Wolfe, Frans Lanting and Jim Brandenburg. All three are my contemporary inspiration alongside Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter.

I am both an artist and a scientist, sensitive and rational! A very strange blend which, however, reflects the spirit of my work.

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Q You've studied biology at the University of Lyon, France, but ended up being a photographer. Why did you choose this path and how did you become interested in photography?

In fact, already [when I was] very young, I was a real budding naturalist and spent my time observing insects, birds and mammals. But what is certain is that I was (and still I am) constantly impressed by the diversity of the animal world and the ingenuity with which nature could create as many forms and adapt in the most extraordinary ways.

My desire to become a biologist was the logical continuation of my insatiable curiosity and need for knowledge. I must admit, I was not the best in class, but I was hooked and I persevered in this direction until I entered the University of Lyon and reached my goal: a Masters in Biology of Animal Populations and Ecosystems.

However, I have been taking photographs since I was 14 years, when my father gave me my first SLR, a Minolta X300 that still works fine! And being a perfect self-educated photographer, my father had created at home a B&W darkroom. Thus, even before knowing how to handle a SLR I already spent my afternoons or evenings watching my father's photographs appear on the photographic paper in the developer. It was like magic to a child's eyes. So, it was my father who taught me the basics of photography, through B&W photography. And the task was not easy!

Photography has become, naturally, a great tool to accompany my discoveries as a naturalist, because for me the most interesting part of it was to share those views! But over the years, what was initially a production of descriptive and naturalist images, evolved into a form of expression, used to create reactions and feelings.

After some time working in the world of scientific research, I decided to shift my priorities to something that suited me more. So I undertook vocational training in photography at a private school in the area. Then I started to learn certain techniques of shooting in relation to science through the implementation of various internships or jobs, particularly in university. With this dual training my job allows me to keep a close contact with the world of science. And I have the chance to enjoy the best of both worlds, science and expressive arts.

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Q In 2010, you won the Best Story prize in the International editions categories of National Geographic Magazine, for the report "At the stalking of chytrid," with text by Céline Lison and your photographs. The prize was awarded during a ceremony at the National Geographic Society in Washington. Was that experience important for your career?

Yes, of course! National Geographic is a magazine that is surrounded by a special aura for all photographers worldwide. The greatest have worked for NG and the best still work with the magazine. This award is obviously a great honour and a great recognition. For me, it is all the more important that it was the first story that I proposed. This work took me three years in the field and all my savings!

Céline Lison, with whom I collaborate regularly, made a great journalistic work for this article. I unfortunately could not attend the award ceremony. The results are kept secret until the last moment and even François Marot, editor of the NG-France, didn't know that the French edition would be honoured.

Ultimately, this award has strengthened me in the path I have chosen for myself, and it represents a great moment in my career.

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Q Your photography covers various subjects, from landscapes to amphibians, gardens and parks, but all are related to nature. Do you consider yourself a nature or a conservationist photographer?

I don't like the idea of labelling my work, I find it a bit too restrictive. I hope to be both a nature photographer capable of producing beautiful images rich in emotion and with an artistic side. [Also] I'm trying to be a conservationist photographer able to work on sensitive issues and produce work that will encourage people to respond and ask questions on the subject, about themselves and how they understand the world around them. A busy and ambitious program, I must recognize! But it is the work of a life and after all, I'm in no hurry.

Q Does your background in biology define what you shoot these days?

Yes, of course. My background in biology influences my way of seeing things and especially the choice of subjects. Specifically my background allows me to work faster and more efficiently when I report on scientists work. Similarly, when I prepare topics, that scientific knowledge is very useful because it allows me to go to the basics and what will be important to illustrate, and it's better to anticipate my images.

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Q The report "At the stalking of chytrid" deals with a disease affecting amphibians. It brings to light animals close to vanishing. This is somehow connected with the Meet Your Neighbours international project, for which you're a Special Advisor in Europe. How did you enter the MYN project?

If my memory is right, I knew Niall Benvie and Clay Bolt, the two founders of the MYN project through the website "Images from the Edge" which I watched regularly for new posts.

Niall and Clay are both writers on this blog, the third contributor and not less talented photographer being Paul Harcourt Davies, that Phototuts+ also interviewed some time ago.

So I communicated with them on their images and through conversations we realized that we had the same point of view concerning the urgency of educating the public [about] large fauna and flora that despite their proximity remains largely unknown.

Following our conversation, they asked me if I was interested in participating in the MYN project and becoming one of the photographers on the team. Obviously I accepted their proposal because it is not only very important to support projects of this magnitude, but it was also a real honour to be asked to work with such photographers.

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Q Nature subjects photographed against white backgrounds is a "watermark" for MYN images, but you were already using white backgrounds before. When did you start using them and why?

I decided to use white backgrounds for the first time when I started to develop my photography work on amphibians. In fact, I was very impressed with the rendering, aesthetics and power of images of David and Susan Middleton Liittschwager during their work on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands inventory (photographs that can be seen in their book Archipelago). Furthermore white backgrounds seemed obvious to get the effect I wanted.

This work started from a simple, but revealing reflection. Most of the people with whom I could talk around me knew wildlife living on the other side of the world better than the small animals living in their own garden (a reflection certainly reminiscent of another [larger] project, right?).

Even people unfamiliar with nature knew South America Dendrobates and their impressive colors, but none had heard of no less extraordinary crested newt that lives in ponds of our fields. In addition, a photograph of a toad or a frog in its environment has little chance to capture the attention of a person who is not already aware of the alarming situation of amphibian populations.

From this constant has come the idea of using white backgrounds to subtract the animal's environment and put the spotlight on the individual itself. I tested the first results showing my family a common toad portrait with a white background and the result was more than convincing. The toad monopolized their attention as no amphibian picture in its environment would do. The results allowed me to have my first story for National Geographic France!

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Q Is the technique used in MYN photography different from the method you used?

In fact, my first technique used on amphibians is not exactly the same as that used by Meet Your Neighbours. Although my basic approach was the same, namely to photograph animals in the field and not in a studio, to maximize my impact, my photographic technique was slightly different.

In my first project, I did not use a backlit background. I used a homemade field studio with a white background but it was illuminated by two flashes in reflection and not backlit. I was not looking specifically to remove every shadow. Instead, I wanted to use classic techniques of studio portrait. I even got to use black or grey gradient backgrounds.

Q Looking at your pictures, one finds that although you use completely white surfaces, you sometimes play with the animal shadows on it, for a different effect. Has MYN project changed your photography a lot or do you continue to explore other ways to show images?

For the MYN project, I continue to use the technique developed by Niall. However, according to my needs in reports, I would not hesitate to use or experiment other techniques. The idea is not to limit yourself by a technique, but to successfully implement the ideas that will get a nice picture. The technique is important, but it should generally remain in the background.

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Q You have a collection of images in your portfolio under the name "design by nature." Is that a personal project and how did you start to explore that way of looking at nature?

Nature is my main source of inspiration and if you look around, you quickly realize that nature is a great artist. We just have to learn to open your eyes!

I always look for this kind of composition, even if I am working in a series that is based on a specific approach. For images in this collection, I particularly play with the purely abstract composition. It may be that little artistic side that allows me to balance my other side, much more scientific.

Q What equipment do you use?

I work with Canon since I bought my first autofocus SLR... a long time ago! So I use Canon optics and a few Sigma lenses to make my photographs.

In terms of cameras, I use the EOS 5D and 7D that I associate with lenses from 17 mm to 300 mm. I love to use the 150 mm macro Sigma EX which provides a bokeh absolutely breathtaking. For very high magnifications, the MPE-65mm Canon has no equal.

As for lighting, when I do not use natural light (which I prefer), I use three Canon 580 EX II flashes with a range of accessories to shape the light: diffusers, reflectors, cones, and light boxes. These flashes allow me to work with precision and subtleness, from simple fill-in lighting to more sophisticated situations. I use them regularly with a radio control system. I complete this with several tripods (for cameras and flashes), wired and wireless remotes and some filters for landscape (graduated grey filters, polarizing and neutral density filters).

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Q Do you spend a lot of time editing your images in Photoshop or do you try to do most of the work in the field?

My approach is always the same. I prefer to spend more time in the field, following my stories, and less time in front of my computer to process files. But beyond my simple personal preferences, the image quality is greatly improved if you take the time to do the best in the field when shooting.

While current technologies allow us to correct many errors, like poorly exposed images, blurred or misplaced subjects will never offer a good result if they're not solved locally, at the taking stage. I apply this approach to both the photographs I make in the MYN project, as all my other work.

On the MYN photographs, white backgrounds are obtained from shooting with the use of white backlit [backgrounds]. There is some post production to do, but if you do it properly during capture there is no need for a tedious work in Photoshop.

Of course, as the vast majority of professional photographers working in the field of nature, I work in RAW. This implies much work for my post-processing image files. The RAW file is unrefined and it's absolutely imperative to readjust the contrast, saturation or vibrance, and sharpness, otherwise you end up with a faded photograph.

Q Can you give some advice for people interested in following the same path you're on?

My first advice, and perhaps the most important, would be to perfectly know your subject. Obviously we cannot know everything, but it is necessary to research all that is available about a subject: life, habits, use of the environment. All this knowledge is absolutely essential to minimize disruption.

In my opinion, a good wildlife photograph can not be done without good ethics on the part of the photographer. Otherwise, the resulting photograph will lose all credibility and would go against the very meaning of this profession.

My second advice would probably be simple: always remain capable of wonder. To my mind, curiosity and wonder are great incentives for creativity.

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Q What are your future plans in terms of photography?

I am currently working on some new stories, which are not yet advanced enough for me to mention here.

Along with these personal works, two fellow photographers and I have created some photography workshops last year (www.atelier-grains-de-lumiere.com). We offer traineeships and trainings on various topics ranging from ancient processes of photography (wet collodion with photographic darkroom) to wildlife photography, covering macro to landscape.

Photographic education has always been important to me. I taught in a photography school for two years and I always have a great pleasure sharinb my passion and my knowledge. For me, teaching is the ideal medium to make people aware of the natural world.

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