Most people dream about giving up their day job to become a wildlife photographer. But Henry MacHale went one step further and turned the dream into reality. Nick Smith hears his story…
Henry MacHale read business studies at Edinburgh University, but in his holidays he spent much of his time in east Africa. In Kenya he took the first steps from being a burgeoning amateur to entering the world of the professional. Over the past decade he’s lived there, worked as a guide, managed a game reserve and got to know his way around the bush. ‘I can speak the bit of the language and so I just get in my Land Rover and go.’
After college Henry worked in a well-known financial institution in the City, but after a year it was clear that it wasn’t working out for him. He wasn’t enjoying his job and the call of Kenya’s wide-open spaces was too strong. And so at the age of 25 he turned his back on a lucrative career and a jet-set lifestyle and set off with just one camera and two lenses.
Success came quickly for Henry, who within a year had his first exhibition of his evocative black and whites in London. Called ‘Images of East Africa’, Henry’s work can also be seen online.
Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?
Henry MacHale: I’ve been taking photos seriously since I was about 16, but the moment I realised I wanted to become a professional was about a month before I left my job. I thought: I’ve got an eye for photography. I love Africa. That’s it. I’m going.
NS: What was your first camera?
HM: A Nikon F65 film SLR. Quite basic, but I liked the control and the way you could take real photos with it.
NS: What formal training do you have?
HM: I went to London School of Art for four months where I did a crash course on the marketing side of photography. This was hugely helpful, not so much form the creative side of things, but from the business angle.
NS: How important is it to specialise?
HM: It’s important to me. I’ve always been interested in Africa. I’ve got a huge competitive advantage out there because I’ve spent so much time in the bush and know my way around.
NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?
HM: Gorillas in Rwanda. I think I enjoyed it so much because I’ve only done that once, and there was a novelty factor in that it was a very different kind of photography from what I’m used to.
NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?
HM: I’m away seven months of the year and my friends are in London. So I’m saying ‘no’ to weddings and parties. But you can’t have it both ways. Also you tend to worry about where the next pay cheque is coming from.
NS: Film or digital? Why?
HM: Digital. It’s cheaper. You save all that money on processing. I suppose the equipment is more expensive, but you’ve got that ability to edit in the field.
NS: Which photographers have had the most influence on your work?
HM: One of the photographers I most admire is Sebastião Salgado. His work isn’t wild or wacky or crazy, but it’s beautiful and simple. He’s done quite a lot in Africa and so that links in a bit. Peter Beard shot exactly the same areas that I photograph now, and so I’ve always been interested in his work. Nick Brandt’s stuff is really cool too.
NS: What does photography mean to you?
HM: In twenty years time Africa will be a different place – some of the people and wildlife will simply not be there in the same way. It’s important to try to capture this moment in a skilful and beautiful way. It’s impossible to capture an African landscape as you see it sitting on a hill. But I want to get as close as possible to that.
NS: What makes a great outdoor photograph?
HM: Everyone knows what a wildebeest or a Maasai looks like, and so what you’ve got to try to do is make the familiar look beautiful, perhaps with the light, or the dust or the way they’re standing.
Henry’s 5 golden rules
1 You can shoot a 1000 shots but don’t
2 Be patient and willing to sit there for five hours
3 Be prepared to throw yourself into it
4 Spend a long time on location just looking
5 The unusual is not always a good photo
Camera: Canon 1DS MkIII
Lenses: Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS, 24-104mm f/4 IS
Check out Henry’s website: www.henrymachalephotography.co.uk