Sixteen-year-old South African wildlife photographer Skye Meaker was the only teenager invited to attend the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, which took place last week. He was in noteworthy company: more than 3,000 world leaders and experts were there, including conservationist Sir David Attenborough, Bill Gates, and International Monetary Fund chairwoman Christine Lagarde.
Young Post got hold of Skye for a chat over Skype, to learn how he landed this gig, and get some tips for aspiring wildlife photographers. Skye has been taking photos since he was very young. After whining and “stealing” cameras from his amateur photographer parents, Skye got one of his own aged seven. Since then, he’s been snagging awards for his unique work; and most recently, he was named Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2018.
Organised by Britain’s Natural History Museum, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards is the largest and one of the most prestigious wildlife photography competitions in the world. Tens of thousands of entries are submitted for the chance to win one of the 16 adult, and three youth categories.
Invited to the award ceremony as a finalist for his photo Lounging Leopard, Skye was still surprised by the win. “I was just enjoying the food and chatting with my family, when someone called my name and asked me to go onstage and accept the award,” he says. After the event, the judges explained that they had selected his image for its intimacy, and “subtle beauty”.
In his acceptance speech, Skye talked about the importance of conservation and how young people can play a huge part in that. He certainly got his message across to the event’s organiser, as they later invited him to represent them at Davos this year. “The next thing I knew, I spent more than two months writing my speech,” he laughs.
He gave a talk alongside renowned English primatologist Jane Goodall, “sharing my photographic journey, and how it’s led to my conservation standpoint, as well as how I can use photography to protect nature by showing the beauty of nature,” he says.
We asked the award-winner about his process – everything from planning the trip to getting that “perfect shot”. Wildlife photography is unpredictable compared to studio shoots and landscape photography, so prepping beforehand and knowing your subjects are key to capturing those fleeting moments, he says.
“Growing up in South Africa, I’ve always visited game reserves with my family and have managed to picked up certain animals’ behaviours and traits along the way,” he says, “so even though I might be visiting somewhere I’ve never been before, I’ll still have a idea of what to expect as there might be similar species in my hometown.”
He and his family have been photographing Mathoja, the female leopard in his winning photograph, for the past eight years at the Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana.
“This photo is so special to me, because I started photographing her when she was still a cub and just a while ago I came back from a trip where I saw her second litter,” he says, “so she’s grown alongside me as I’ve become a better photographer.”
Despite his success, Skye only lately started using professional, high-end cameras and lenses. “I’ve always used hand-me-downs until recently,” he says. “Even one of the photos I’ve won awards with was taken on a Canon 7D, a semi-professional camera.” Nowadays, he’s fortunate enough to carry two cameras, one of which has a 3kg 500mm lens.
As for post-processing, Skye tries to keep it as minimal as possible. “Most of the competitions I enter don’t allow any big adjustments – besides, my philosophy is to show the beauty of nature, not the beauty of Lightroom,” he laughs.
“Don’t be afraid to break the conventional rules of photography, such as focus on the eye etc” he says. “Take the photos that you love and that’s all that matters.”