The wildlife photography of Charles Davis is typified by a quality of intimacy that reflects where and how he grew up.
A large mob of eastern grey kangaroos hop away from a dingo at dawn in the mountains.
Where have you gone on your family’s farm to get phone reception?
I’m in the middle of a paddock. It’s stormy and I’ll go behind a tree if it gets too windy. It’s a 2000-hectare sheep farm on the Murrumbidgee River [near Cooma, in southern NSW]. It’s beautiful, quite hilly country and half of our land is pretty much untouched wilderness. My father’s family goes back six generations here, having first settled in about 1880. And 1840 on my mum’s side, just up the road. I live in my grandfather’s old house.
My favourite wombat Phil on the hunt for exposed grass on the edge of the tree line high in the mountains.
Do you do most of your wildlife photography on the farm?
Almost all of it’s here and within 100km of home. I have the snow an hour away, the coast an hour away, and a very big backyard to play in. I usually have a picture in my mind based on the weather, and I go where I know there are wombats, kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, wedgetail eagles, a whole list of smaller birds. Photos of kookaburras are very popular.
5 kookaburras huddle together in a blizzard. They kept very close to stay warm with the younger ones in the middle.
A white dingo hunts kangaroos in the thick early morning fog as the sun rises.
Dingoes are also important to me. I’ve been trying to photograph a white dingo in the snow. I know where she is, but it can’t be just a straightforward sort of portrait. She has to be doing something. It’s hard when you’re after a specific animal and a specific shot. But while I’m trying to get it, I get other things.
Currawongs gather in flocks during winter to better find food. They take advantage of visiting tourists and will gather around people where they find them.
What kind of weather do you like best?
The worse the better. If it’s dumping snow or 100kph winds, I know that if I find an animal, it’s going to be an amazing photo. Something no-one else has seen. I put a high value on originality. I don’t like to take pictures that look like someone else’s, and I’m in a position where I can get closer to animals than most people.
It doesn’t sound nice, but that includes the skills I have from hunting. That’s quite applicable because when I go out to take photos, it’s pretty much the same up until the point I push the button or pull the trigger. Getting close, learning what the animal is going to do before it does it. Growing up on a farm, you have to shoot feral foxes and the like, but native animals are different. I don’t like killing things anymore.
A very curious young roo that came to check out the camera during a snowstorm.
I think you have a particular style. Beyond a general appreciation of wildlife in its environment, it’s as though each animal in your photos is an individual character.
That’s what they are! I want people to understand animals on a deeper level – what they are and what they do. I want people to really feel that. When I sell a photo, I include the story of what happened. ‘I followed the echidna for two days and it went into a hole and I had to wait. Then it came out…’ Every story is different.
Big Hill, Little Legs
An echidna I followed for two days on The Main Range. I found him on the second day at 2000 meters above sea level just walking around.
Also, the picture has to be pretty, with leading lines and more than one element – snow, wind, rain. I come from a family of artists. My grandfather [Ian Davis] was a landscape painter, and two of my aunts [Angela and Belinda Davis] are painters. There has always been lots of talk in the family about composition, leading lines, what makes a picture, what draws a person to it.
Big Step, Little Step
A mother and baby wombat negotiate the fresh snow after a storm. The mother was much heavier and sunk with each step while her baby covered the same ground with no problems at all.
The changing seasons must have a big impact on your work.
We have snow from about June to October. I tend to get my photos in July, August and September, and only on a few really good days in that time. But on a good day I can walk away with a year’s worth of fantastic photos. Five of my best-sellers I took in one day. I went out in a blizzard and found a mob of kangaroos in deep snow, then wild horses in crazy deep snow. Landscapes as well. When heavy weather comes in, everything changes. Something that looked boring an hour ago can look prettier than it will ever look again.
How have the recent bushfires affected you?
We had megafires around here for about a month straight. I drove 100km the other day and saw one wallaby and no birds at all. I don’t know if it will be a long-term setback. I’ll just have to wait and see.
A young alpine dingo howls to the rest of it pack from the large Granite Tors.
When did photography first spark your interest?
I started travelling the world when I was 16, competing in snowboarding. When I turned 21 [11 years ago], I asked my parents for a camera and they bought me a point-and-shoot. Three years later, I bought a Nikon DSLR and lenses from a snowboarding photographer mate who said, ‘That’s okay, as long as you don’t undercut me in the snowboarding photography world.’ But I immediately found it more fun to photograph animals.
After snowboarding, I went to uni and did an ecology degree. I wasn’t too interested in that, but it kept everyone off my back while I took photos. I had a casual uni job, but the photos were selling, so I quit that and haven’t looked back since. The degree has given me some credibility when dealing with academics related to national parks. I turn up wanting to take photos and they say no, and I say I have an ecology degree and they’re okay about it. Also, I’m quite dyslexic, so I used the photography to help get me through the degree. I put photos everywhere in my assignments so I didn’t have to rely on writing so much.
An emu, covering its eyes from the wind with its foot during a blizzard.
Are you making a living out of your photography?
There aren’t many wildlife photographers anywhere who can say that, but I can – for the last four years. I sell big fine art prints mainly, plus some magazine stuff, which is more for advertising. And I’ve been helping out with documentaries – BBC David Attenborough, National Geographic, the ABC’s The Magical Land of Oz. For Attenborough, I filmed kangaroos in snow and also took still photos for the book of the TV series.
Lyrebirds love the subalpine forests. They sing when it rains but also when it snows.
What kind of gear do you use?
These days my kit is two Nikon D850s, 24-70mm and 70-200mm Nikkor telephotos, and Nikon’s new 500mm PF lens. I like the big files you get with the D850. I have a tripod I don’t use much, because handholding is more flexible. There’s always a rock, a log or whatever I can rest on.
Fire and Ice
Flame Robins come up into the alpine area in spring. Their bright red chests are such an amazing contrast against the white of the snow.
The weather must be hard on your cameras sometimes.
I haven’t really had a problem with my gear. If I drop a camera in snow, it’s clean, it’s dry. The batteries don’t seem to suffer in the cold. And when I’m standing out in the middle of a storm, I don’t worry about the camera getting wet. I’ve paid for it – I may as well use it the way I want.
Taken during moments after a sudden snowstorm on my family farm, this road on any other day is just a road, but this day it was magic.
See Charles Davis’s website for more of his work.
Article by Steve Packer
Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 84