Vladimír Čech Jr. stands out among wildlife photographers. I am not only referring to his tattoos, but mainly to his work, thanks to which he has gained worldwide renown. Along with winning awards in many photo competitions, he has appeared in magazines such as BBC Wildlife Magazine, Travel Digest, Anima Mundi, Wild Planet Photo Magazine, TravelFocus and more. Today, he agreed to sit down with me for an interview regarding his wildlife photography.
Vladimír took up photography intensively in 2010. The first subject he photographed was his newborn son. He soon moved on to much larger, stronger, and more exotic animals, such as tigers, lions, and leopards.
He has photographed the hidden life of animals in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. To photograph these challenging subjects, he uses not only traditional telephoto lenses, but also self-made camera traps, which give his images an unusual level of intimacy. It’s these things that Vladimír Čech Jr. will talk about in today’s Secrets Of Professional Photography.
Vladimír, let me start with a question that I would like to ask to every wildlife photographer who successfully combines photography with family. You’ve said that the trigger for your photography was the birth of your first son. That’s normally a time that photographers put away their gear, or start shooting subjects closer-to-home. How did you manage to become a wildlife photographer instead?
What you focus on in life, that’s what you get! So if you just focus on photography instead of anything else…
That’s what I hear from photographers who later divorced!
Yes, I’m joking around! I’m not a prime example of a typical photographer. I don’t carry a camera with me all the time and point it at everything that moves. When I’m with my family, I’m with my family. As you said, I started out photographing my son. But once I started taking pictures, I couldn’t stop, and gradually found some time to photograph wild animals and nature. When I’m out with my camera, nature has my full attention. Of course, I’m also lucky to have a tolerant wife and children, and even employer.
Let’s talk about DSLR camera traps, which you’ve specialized in using for almost a decade. To follow up on the previous question, do you use traps because they don’t require you to be constantly on location?
No, not at all. I was drawn to this technique by the desire to capture something that no one had captured before, and in a unique way – with a wider angle and very close. I don’t think that photographers should seek laziness or convenience, and certainly not time saving. In 99.9% of my work, I focus on one particular species, and I put all my efforts into that. I study in detail the animal itself and the environment in which it lives, which alone will make for weeks or even long months of fieldwork! And I haven’t even touched on the technique itself yet.
Looking at your portfolio, it’s obvious what animals are your favorites. Tigers and large cats in general have always fascinated you. Why?
By the magic of personality, I guess. Why do some people like Coke and some like Pepsi? One likes Nikon, the other likes Canon. In my country and perhaps globally, it’s very popular to photograph birds of all shapes and sizes, which I’ve never been into. But for whatever reason, cats are a different story – from the domestic cat to the tiger, I love photographing them.
A key issue for wildlife photographers is finding animals in the first place. This seems even more challenging when photographing with camera traps, or am I wrong? How do you solve this problem? Tiger population densities are, I assume, quite low.
I don’t really see it as a problem in the first place, but more of a challenge, and if it weren’t like this, I might have gotten tired of it a long time ago.
Fieldwork is absolutely crucial – not just work that I do, but work done by other people who I’m working with. My international projects in particular are backed by people who spend an enormous amount of time studying a specific species in the wild. It is from their invaluable knowledge and experience that I depend.
It’s the same on safari, where, as a photographer, you are practically dependent on the skills of your guide or driver, for example. If that’s the case, I always try to mention their help. That said, with photography in my country, I mostly rely on myself.
The population densities of the European Lynx and the Wildcat, which you have successfully photographed, are extremely thin. How do you choose suitable locations or specific places in Europe? Is it any different compared to Asia or Africa?
Monitoring the Wildcat in the Doupov Mountains is the work of my friend Jirka Sochor, who invited me to Doupov two years ago. He supplied the field knowledge, and I provided the technical knowledge. On the other hand, I search for the Lynx mostly by myself. Of course, I must mention the Šumava National Park, which helped me a lot in the beginning, and we are still successfully cooperating.
Do you also use traditional camera traps to get a feel for the terrain first?
Yes. It’s the easiest and definitely the fastest way to find out, for example, how often a lynx visits scent-marking sites. It’s also how I study the movement in front of the camera trap – which way the animal came from, what it did, how long it stayed, which way it left, and so on. Of course, it’s never 100%, but cats have their habits, so you can learn a lot from basic camera traps before setting up the “real deal” in the right spot.
Where in the world are your camera traps scattered right now? How many do you have?
I currently have one camera trap in Sumava, two in Doupov (there are also two 4K video traps!) and four in Sumatra, but at least one of these four is no longer working. The humidity and weather have taken a pretty nasty toll on it, so it’s drying out in the warmth of its “spare home.”
Are there any legal issues to deal with if you want to put your gear inside a national park?
Absolutely. As far as national parks, protected areas, or military areas are concerned, I wouldn’t be able to do anything at all without the proper permits. That’s true both in the Czech Republic and abroad. Even outside of specially protected areas, I’m just as careful. I always talk to the land manager for permission.
What does your camera trap actually look like in the field? I know that standard camera traps are usually just tied to a tree, but yours is probably quite different, isn’t it?
Well, tree-mounting often helps me too, but the essential difference is the amount of equipment. I need to place not one tiny box, but at least four slightly larger boxes that house the camera, flashes, and motion sensor (the brain of the whole system) separately.
So you set up your equipment in a place where you expect some interesting action and just walk away and leave it there? I can’t imagine that happening in a European forest full of people. Have you ever had your equipment stolen?
I’ve had more than ten cases of theft or destruction so far, but somehow, all of them have been on the cheap “classic” camera traps that I use for scouting purposes. Knock on wood, but I haven’t lost a “big” camera trap this way yet.
I hope it stays that way. But when shooting in locations like India and Africa, do animals also damage the gear? How many of your camera traps bear signs of teeth, hooves or fangs?
Well, in Armenia, two of my big camera traps were damaged by a bear just a few days after installation. I found one of the camera boxes a few meters away. In India, the same thing happened, but I’m not sure if it was a bear or monkeys. It’s not aggressive behaviour though. Bears are extremely curious, and any new thing in their territory will immediately come under thorough scrutiny. I don’t take it personally.
I’m assuming, based on what we’ve discussed, that you don’t use the most expensive models of cameras and flashes. If I came across your gear in the jungle, what would I find?
You assume correctly, I’m not a millionaire. In the absolute majority of cases, I use older DSLRs from Canon, a brand I’ve worked with successfully for years now.
I started with an old 300D (the original EOS Rebel), then took advantage of the great price/performance ratio of the 1200D and 1300D series (EOS T5 and T6 Rebel) combined with ordinary 18-55mm kit lenses. They are not very durable plastic, but since I’m stuffing them into a box anyway, I don’t care – and the picture quality is great. For example, my photo of a fox crossing a frozen stream was taken with a cheap 1200D and has won several national and international awards.
Since I mainly focus on animals that are active at night, I had to figure out artificial lighting. Nowadays, you can find flashes on the market that are designed specifically for camera trap wildlife photography, but a few years back, finding suitable lights was much harder.
So far, it sounds like you’re using the usual equipment of an amateur photographer. Is there any other equipment necessary for your setup? You already mentioned a motion sensor.
That’s right, the motion sensor is the key part of the whole system. You have the choice of either a passive infrared motion sensor or an active laser gate. Laser is the more accurate option, but it is more complicated to set up and install in the field.
Whether passive or active, the sensor is either wired or, in newer types, wirelessly connected to the camera. The camera is connected in the same way to the flashes. If I want to leave the setup “unattended” for weeks or months, I have to count on an external battery source, especially for the flashes. And if I want to leave the whole setup exposed to weather and other natural elements, then just plastic over the camera is not enough. That’s why I usually make plastic boxes separately for the camera and flashes, and sometimes for the motion sensor.
You mention a battery source. How long do the camera and flashes last before the power supply needs to be charged or replaced?
That depends on the number of animal visits or false “clicks” that you can’t avoid. When these are at typical levels, an external battery can last for a few months. Using just the internal batteries, a couple of weeks at most.
Is there anyone who recharges the cameras for you in the field, so you don’t have to tell your family you need to go to India urgently to recharge your batteries?
I rarely have that luxury, although now there is a handy guy in Sumatra who might be able to do it. However, there is a problem with even visiting the place where they are installed. It’s a three-day journey through the rainforest.
It’s also not just a matter of changing the batteries, because apart from the camera, the cameras and flashes return to default settings and need to be set up again. This means a non-photographer won’t know how to solve the problem. Plus – shockingly! – there’s no signal in the rainforest to remotely connect and discuss it via video call. So yeah, I just have to pack up and fly there again.
I can imagine the anticipation when you go into the forest to pick up your camera. Will there be anything interesting? Will there even be a camera there? Or do you get notifications or previews through some GSM gateway when the trap catches something?
Nothing like that. I like to keep the element of surprise and enjoy the moment of triumph. Although, what usually awaits me instead is the moment of disappointment!
How do animals react to flash lights? Do they disturb them or ignore them?
It’s a big topic that cannot be generalized. Every animal reacts differently, or sometimes doesn’t react at all. Even different individuals of the same species (e.g. lynx) react differently. One is more cautious, and another is totally at ease.
Overall, though, I think it’s not a good idea to place lights too low and set the flash intensity too high. I try to install the lights well above the ground and with minimal flash intensity. I prefer to use 2 or 3 flashes with lower power and then increase the ISO on the camera. It’s better than firing full-power, even if the shots aren’t as “clean.” As with almost everything, you should approach it responsibly and not let your ego win over rational thinking.
Is there anything you need to pay special attention to in order not to disturb the animals? For example, if you place the setup near a badger or fox burrow.
Oh, of course. Again, a sensitive subject should be treated carefully. But in the example you give, it’s easy – you can study the animal’s movements near the burrow and photograph it there rather than right at the mouth of the burrow.
What about the issue of bait? Do you feed your subjects at all, look for carcasses already in the wild, or neither of the above?
I don’t use bait. At times, I do seek out the natural kill caught by lynx or other carnivores. However, it’s really rare to find such fresh kill. Here again I depend on external help and reports from my friends in the area.
It’s the same as with the burrow, though. Mealtime is a very sensitive matter for animals, and you definitely don’t want to discourage the lynx from its prey. If I can shoot nearby the kill rather than right at it, I will start to see the lynx coming and going. If I can tell that the flash doesn’t bother this particular individual, then I can take the next step and move the camera trap closer to its prey.
But this is very much on the edge, and you really have to be very careful not to disturb the animal. I set the motion sensor to the absolute minimum in such a case, so it takes a photo no more than once every ten minutes. The flash must be minimal, so as not to disturb the subject.
There are about as many birds in your portfolio as there are mammals in mine. Does that mean that birds can’t be photographed with camera traps?
Of course they can, but as far as birds specifically are concerned, it’s not an interesting topic for me and I’m happy to leave it to others.
You have unique photos that are fascinating looks into animal life. Do you see any higher purpose to your work than “just” creating top-notch photos?
I’m not gonna play the positive hero. It fulfills me immensely to take different, unusual pictures of hard-to-photograph or critically endangered species.
But on every single project I work on, I collaborate with organizations for conservation of nature or a particular species. They then, of course, use the photographs extensively to “promote” that species and raise awareness of the threats it faces. Even one good photo can attract the attention of people or potential partners who may not have been interested in the species or its natural habitat before. And it works.
If we keep things down to earth, what is the commercial potential of such photos? Can your camera traps feed you?
No, not me! I’m a part-time photographer. Good photos from a camera trap can engage a wide audience, because they’re different than most photos. This makes them ideal material for charity, more so than other purposes.
My photos don’t financially support me, but they do help organizations that have been successfully involved in the conservation of these species, and I am proud of that. Now and then, I can sell a photo, and I do sell my knowledge and know-how on the camera trap technique. But pandering is not the way I want to go on.
If someone would like to try this method of photography, what would you recommend as the best way to start?
I found out everything by trial-and-error, which was quite a slow and costly way to go. I recommend talking to experts who use camera traps already, to help get you started. Any of your readers can contact me if they wish, and I would be happy to guide them. I can help with choosing the right equipment and some background information on the techniques that I mentioned above. There is also much more information on camera traps, lighting setup, and other equipment online than there was when I started.
Thank you, Vladimir, for your interesting talk. I wish you many nice surprises when checking your camera traps.
Thanks a lot!