Jim Brandenburg explains how he took his atmospheric shot of an oryx in the deserts of Namibia

Photo Insight with Jim Brandenburg

For more than 30 years, Jim Brandenburg travelled the world as a photographer with National Geographic magazine. His work has been published in The New York Times, Life and Time, among others, and he has won numerous awards, including Kodak Wildlife Photographer of the Year by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine. He is the chair of this year’s competition. Every month, Jim will share the story behind one of his nature images

Like many of the shots that I’ve written about in Photo Insight, this image of an oryx was taken while I was on assignment for National Geographic magazine. The difference with this one is that I wasn’t sent there to take this picture – I was there to produce a culture story about Namibia or, more specifically, the war that was taking place there at the time.

In that period, Namibia was fighting for its independence from South Africa, so this would have been before 1990, when the country finally gained its independence. There was a lot of terrorist activity and plenty of landmines on the road back then. I spent many of those nights listening to the sounds of gunfire and bombs going off in the distance. Yet despite all this, I ended up coming back with a nature story. The editors actually teased me about that. I would often go off somewhere to get a war story and end up coming back with a lot of shots of wildlife. It wasn’t necessarily criticism – it was actually quite complimentary.

I did end up producing National Geographic’s war story, but the nature images were the strongest of the bunch. This is one of the most powerful nature photographs that I took during that trip and potentially one of the most powerful pictures I’ve ever taken. Rosamund Kidman Cox, who was the editor of BBC Wildlife magazine for many years, has told me this is one of her favourite pictures of mine. That’s high praise indeed from someone who is generally considered the godmother of wildlife photography.

This is an image that I like for a number of reasons. One of them is that Namibia, as you can imagine, was a near impossible place to work due to the political tension and the fact that sand would always get into your camera. These days, we see a lot of pictures coming from that region, mostly from European photographers.

The area you see here has the largest sand dunes in the world. When you work for National Geographic, you look for a location that can give you information and context. That’s what I wanted to show here – the expanse of sand and the oryx giving a sense of scale. A lot of wildlife photographers will try to get as close as possible to their animal subject. They’ll use a zoom lens or attempt to approach the animal to show all the details. It’s called trophy shooting. My approach is to pull out and show the animal within its environment. I want to make a piece of landscape art and show the animal in it. I don’t tend to go for conventional portraits. This is one of the more successful examples of that point and it was something that I learned a long time ago.

The other reason that this image works for me is the light. It was shot late in low light – not quite sunset, but pretty late on. The image was taken on Kodachrome film, which is why the blacks really are black. Had I shot it on one of today’s digital cameras there probably would have been a little more detail in those areas. I scanned the negatives myself several years later and there really is no detail at all in those blacks. Kodachrome is a film with great contrast anyway and I actually underexposed this shot when I took it. I always did that by rating the Kodachrome at ISO 80, rather than the ISO 64 it was out of the box. Sometimes I regret that because I end up losing a lot of shadow detail. However, on this occasion it works.

What’s rare about this shot is that it’s one of the few photographs where I’ve known what I wanted. I previsualised the image, which is a rare thing for me. That’s simply because nature can be such an unpredictable subject. This is one of those lucky times when I surpassed my own expectations. I knew that I wanted to get a picture of an oryx on the sand dunes and set about putting myself in a position where I knew I could achieve that. I remember how excited I was when that whole image developed in front of me, both on location and when I saw the negative.

The sand dunes are almost sensual in that they look like a human form. It has implications of the beautiful curvature and shadows of a body. I’ve heard that from several people. Nude photography has always been a highly regarded genre, particularly in the photographs of someone like Bill Brandt, and this is my own little addition to that world.

Jim Brandenburg was talking to Oliver Atwell

To see more of Jim’s images visit www.jimbrandenburg.com