Through The Lens Of A Biologist: A Wildlife Photographer Shares His Story

Over the last two years, I had the chance to spend over 100 days at sea on board the German research vessel Sonne, transversing the Atlantic and examining all sorts of fascinating deep-sea animals. On these trips, the scientists were joined by someone whose goal it is to bring the science to the people: Solvin Zankl, who has been a professional wildlife photographer for over 20 years.

When the deep-sea nets reach the surface, the biologists start stressing, frantically ensuring the catch is properly documented and preserved. This is when Solvin’s smorgasbord starts, as he calmly looks through the catch and picks out the more interesting specimens, some of which he knows and some of which he has never seen before. Then he slowly maneuvers his small canisters of cold water into the cold room to spend the next hours meticulously portraying each animal.

Since I believe his job is an absolute dream job for many biologists, I asked him a few questions on how he got into this profession and what some of the challenges are.

Eva Paulus (EP): How did you become interested in photography?

Solvin Zankl (SZ): I grew up right at the edge of a forest and really wanted to show others what kind of magical things you can discover there, so I brought along the family camera. I started by taking pictures of the dragonflies, documenting them mating and hatching at a little lake close to my house.

After I finished my high school diploma, I knew I wanted to become a wildlife photographer, but it was quite daunting to immediately go into self-employment. It just seemed obvious that it would be helpful to have a solid background in biology to become a good wildlife photographer, so I signed up and did my bachelors and masters at the University of Kiel in northern Germany. I taught myself more photography on the side and was also able to go on photography expeditions during my studies.

Olive ridley turtles on the way to the ocean, unbothered by Solvin’s presence. © Solvin Zankl

EP: What are some of your favorite species to photograph?

SZ: My dad was on a research assignment in Saint Croix in the Caribbean and brought me along. There I got to spend a lot of time with sea turtles, volunteering at a research station where we monitored their nesting and conservation on the island. I took a lot of pictures of them underwater as well as nesting at the beaches, they are still one of my favorite animals to take pictures of.

EP: And how did you make the jump from a biology graduate to wildlife photographer?

SZ: After I graduated with my masters in 2001, I applied for start-up funding in Germany. With this money, I was able to buy the equipment I needed and many rolls of film, and I could fund some expeditions. Very early in my career, the GEO (a German wildlife magazine comparable to National Geographic) editors invited me to participate in an event called the “Day of Biodiversity,” and thankfully they were quite impressed with my work. The breakthrough picture that got me a deal for my first photo reportage with the GEO was a shot of a Celebes crested macaque that was looking at itself in a mirror (see below). On a trip to Sulawesi, I had encountered a troop of macaques that found a broken-off car mirror and were looking at themselves for hours, which yielded quite amazing pictures. Those pictures convinced the editors of GEO to buy the whole set from that trip and run a story about them. From then on, I was sent on assignments to take the pictures that would go with their stories.

The picture that started a great career: a Celebes crested macaque (Macaca nigra) looking at itself in a mirror. © Solvin Zankl

EP: Did it ever happen that you weren’t able to find the animals you were supposed to take pictures of?

After careful planning, Solvin did manage to find a brown hyena in Namibia.
© Solvin Zankl

SZ: Thankfully no, but it got close once – I was assigned to take pictures of the brown hyena in Namibia, and for the first ten days of the 14-day trip, I did not see a single one. They have such good senses that they can smell you long before you see them. Only thanks to the help of the local scientists and my thorough preparations did I end up finding them and taking enough pictures for the magazine!

EP: How has photography changed since you first started?

SZ: Modern technology has revolutionized photography – especially underwater. Back in the day, we could take 36 pictures on one roll film, so during a dive we would come up, take the camera out of the housing, replace the roll film, meticulously place the camera back inside its housing, make sure it is sealed tightly, and dive back down. Now, I can take as many pictures as I want, and my only worry is the air running out. Thankfully, I have a trusted colleague, Tom, who has joined me on my underwater assignments and makes sure I am safe, don’t get lost, don’t dive too deep, and never run out of air.

EP: You’re especially well-known for your deep-sea photography, how did you end up in that field?

SZ: Since I had studied biology in Kiel, I had connections to the Alfred Wegner Institute in Bremerhaven and was asked if I wanted to join a research cruise associated with the Census of Marine Life Project to take pictures of the deep-sea animals. This was in 2007 and we went from Bremerhaven in Germany to Cape Town in South Africa. It was so much fun to be on this cruise and I got to photograph so many extraordinary animals. Ever since then I have accepted every opportunity to join research cruises.

EP: How do you manage to take such great pictures of deep-sea animals?

SZ: First off, it’s very important to have a good relationship with the scientists on board. I have to make sure I don’t step on their toes when I pick animals from their catches. On the technical side, my priority is for the animals to be as comfortable as possible: they are constantly kept in cold sea water and handled very carefully. My photo studio is set up in the cold room at 4-7 degrees Celsius, where they normally recover a bit from their time in the net (author’s note: The animals Solvin brought back to us were often even more alive than when we first caught them). This gives me plenty of time to take pictures of each one.

Usually each animal takes a few hours, some because they are so unique and nobody has ever taken pictures of this species, so I want to do them justice. Others because they are especially difficult to photograph and I have to experiment a lot, for example with the lighting. For really small animals, I do bring a microscope that can be connected to my camera, and I can take very detailed pictures, for instance of algae or dinoflagellates.

EP: When we met on the Sonne for the IceAGE3 cruise in 2020 we caught a lot of benthic animals. Was that a special cruise for you?

SZ: Yes, it really was! My other cruises were more focused on the pelagic, but in 2020 the research focused on the ocean floor, so I got to see and photograph a lot of animals I had never seen before, such as deep-sea sea cucumbers or amphipods that live on the deep-sea sediment and on corals.

EP: How important do you think your work is for science?

SZ: I think it’s important for scientists to make sure their work is easily accessible to the public. Since it is usually financed with taxpayer money, those taxpayers should be able to see and experience the science in some way. I see myself as kind of an interface between science and the public. Especially with the deep-sea ecosystem, I think its conservation is only possible if we can show the general public what kind of wonderful creatures live there. Raising awareness is a first big step in mobilizing the public to help scientists preserve biodiversity.

EP: What’s your favorite and least favorite part of your job?

SZ: I love that I am able to pick what I really want to do, it really motivates me every day to be able to choose what I want to do and then realize my vision. The worst part is that I have to make money off this – I just want to be able to have a simple life, but the market constantly changes and it makes it really difficult.

EP: Do you think social media has a positive or negative effect on your job?

SZ: Sometimes I think it’s great that I can so easily share my pictures with the public. However, I see a lot of misinformation that is spread through social media, lots of things that you would never see in nature, for example very questionable techniques to get reactions out of the animals, just to get likes on social media. This really bothers me.

A portrait of an ostracod, without bioluminescence. © Solvin Zankl

EP: What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen during your travels?

SZ: Tom and I were in Bonaire on an assignment about animals whose lives are controlled by the moon. Five days after the full moon, we went diving and witnessed the mating ritual of ostracods, tiny seed shrimp. The males rise up from the sand and squirt out a bioluminescent substance every few centimeters. The females follow their trail and about 5 meters above the ocean floor, they meet and spawning begins. This happens millions of times within a small area, causing a breathtaking firework of bioluminescence.

Eva is a marine biologist currently living in Austria. Follow the links to check out her other articles on the deep-sea environment and the daily life on research cruises. You can find Solvin’s work on his Instagram, Twitter, and on his website.

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