2023.04.28 Jeffrey Van Daele

Creatures Great and Small

Jeffrey Van Daele

Until 2010 Jeffrey worked as an IT Coordinator in education. By means of self-study and many years of though practical assignments he was able to give up his job in 2010 to become a full time photographer. On the one hand this consisted of teaching photography lessons in adult education and on the other hand by photographing events, products and portraits as a freelance photographer. But “the call of nature” was stronger than expected and it did not take long for Jeffrey to make the decision to follow his passion and only focus on the discipline of nature photography.
To this present day, Jeffrey is still a dedicated teacher who inspires and motivates his students, not only at his own school, but also during the many workshops, lectures and international photography tours he guides.

For those engrossed in the natural world, there is little desire to grapple with technology. Animal lover, Jeffrey Van Daele, teaches you to leverage your camera seamlessly, remain in the moment and improve your wildlife photography

Humankind has an innate fascination with animal life. The simple drive for survival among the animal kingdom contrasts against its complex adaptations, striking the fine balance we know as nature. Unlike observations of our own lives, nothing is guaranteed and little is known. Those intrepid enough to photograph wild subjects do so to provide a poignant reminder: we are not alone on this planet.

Jeffrey Van Daele is one such image maker, who has dedicated decades to documenting wildlife near and far. He is not far removed, however, from the passions that sparked it all.

“When I was young, I always had a love of animals. I would spend a lot of time as a child drawing them, looking at any sketches I could find. I used to bring home strays, too,” Jeffrey reminisces. “At one point, I’d taken in so many kittens that we had 20 cats on our street. I’m still working on a documentary series of rescued wildlife.

“Photography began for me as a backpacker. I’d spend five weeks a year travelling to see animals in the wild. Of course, you want to remember those experiences, so I began making memories through pictures. Naturally, that evolved into a desire to improve.”

Photo 2023 © Jeffrey Van Daele | FUJIFILM X-H1 and FUJINON XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR, 1/850 sec at F8, ISO 400

It’s easy to think of wildlife photography and conjure visions of the rarest of beasts, but most of us will never witness a big cat in its natural habitat. If we were to, in all likelihood, it would be an opportunity lost – at least without years of experience to fall back on. To be relied upon in the unmissable moments, skills must first be developed in an arena of lower stakes.

“My home country, Belgium, is small, but beautiful. It’s easy to create wildlife photography here, if you know the right locations and remain open to all kinds of subjects,” Jeffrey expresses. “Birds are among the easiest animals to find here. Before I was taking regular trips abroad, I would photograph birds all spring, researching what species would appear at which picturesque locations. When I was away too much to follow their movements any more, I began documenting rabbits instead, and had an amazing time. You can witness great moments of action at dusk.”

While many look for larger specimens, there’s plenty of fascination to be found on the smaller scale. Insect photography can be pursued virtually anywhere, and these minuscule scenes provide just as much drama as any other, when photographed skilfully.

“I love creating macro images of butterflies and other creatures,” Jeffrey reveals. “It’s easiest in the morning because the animals are not so agile. If you get up early on a quiet morning, it’s just you and nature.”

Next steps comprise of creating a frame that’s technically proficient and artfully inspiring. The former is a question of settings.

“I would suggest pairing Shutter Priority with Auto ISO, then using Eye Detection autofocus,” the professional advises. “With the right settings, your camera will deliver a sharp image for you, letting you focus on the complete picture.”

Photo 2023 © Jeffrey Van Daele | FUJIFILM X-H1 and FUJINON XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR, 1/125 sec at F5.6, ISO 8000

In recent months, Jeffrey has been equipped with FUJIFILM X-H2S – an ideal wildlife photography body. Between a stacked 26.1-megapixel sensor, blackout-free bursts of 40fps and deep learning-based subject detection autofocus, it is equipped to meet anything nature can throw at a creator.

“I use X-H2S mostly with FUJINON XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR. They make the technical side of wildlife photography so easy. It’s amazing. I first tested the camera in Africa, where you have animals running in and out of frame constantly. I was the only one in my jeep that could rely on Eye Detection autofocus all the time,” Jeffrey states. “It’s improved further since then, with a firmware update.

“Focus usually finds the eye. If it doesn’t, it detects a head. If it misses that, it locks onto the whole animal. I ask myself, if ever focus didn’t land perfectly, did it do a better job than I could do quickly? The answer is yes. That’s how I know it’s a good setting.”

With long, fast primes available within X Series, Jeffrey’s choice of zoom is purely creative.

“I can use FUJINON XF200mmF2 R LM OIS WR – which is an amazing lens, and gets even longer with the 1.4x or 2x extenders – but I love the ability to zoom out. At this point in my image-making process, I try to show as much of the animals’ environment as I can.

“For macro photography, I use FUJINON XF80mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR Macro because the longer the focal length, the more you can play with depth-of-field. I love creating close-up scenes with a lot of bokeh.”

Photo 2023 © Jeffrey Van Daele | FUJIFILM X-T4 and FUJINON XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR, 1/450 sec at F5.6, ISO 1250

Further creative decision-making demands, as ever, the choice between colour and monochrome. For Jeffrey, despite opting for both with some regularity, there’s a clear preference with animal subjects.

“When the landscape is as important as the wildlife, or during golden hour, I’ll choose colour 80% of the time,” he notes. “The moment light becomes harsher, I switch to monochrome. I always tell my students, if colour isn’t giving something specific to your image, don’t use it. I also find that, in black & white, there’s less to detract from the emotion.

“The moment I saw a Fujifilm MONOCHROME Film Simulation, I was in love. My viewfinder is almost always displaying black & white, even if I intend to share the image in colour. When you look at a scene in black & white, you see more shadows, light, patterns and structures. ACROS+R is my preferred option because it darkens blue skies dramatically.”

Photo 2023 © Jeffrey Van Daele | FUJIFILM GFX50R and FUJINON GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR, 1/280 sec at F11, ISO 800

Then there’s composition to perfect. For some wildlife photographers, it’s a matter of luck, or waiting patiently with your camera pointed towards a predetermined frame, yet to include an animal. These fleeting moments – exciting as they are – do not make up the majority of Jeffrey’s work.

“It’s mostly a misconception of wildlife photography that you don’t have a lot of time with subjects,” he explains. “You can have these picturesque moments, if you know where to find them.

“My image of the cheetah on the sand dune is a good example. That’s actually an animal rehabilitation centre – which is a win-win, because I can support them with good money and, in return, get a rare opportunity. I asked them to leave a trail of meat leading to the dune and hoped the cheetah would follow it, then stand where I wanted it to for long enough to make the photo.

Photo 2023 © Jeffrey Van Daele | FUJIFILM GFX50R and FUJINON GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR, 1/2200 sec at F4.5, ISO 400

“You don’t only find these opportunities with animals like big cats,” Jeffrey continues. “In Belgium, we have bird hides set up to view diving kingfishers and buzzards with prey – it’s amazing what you can do. I don’t visit hides because I lose my connection with nature, but in those more controlled situations, you can choose your composition more carefully.

“Wild situations are difficult, because you have to be lucky to see anything at all, but knowing your subject helps. If I want a graphical image of giraffes standing on a plain in morning light, that’s almost guaranteed within a three-day safari, provided I know the animals’ habitual whereabouts.

“When I do come across an opportunity, like a bird in the park, I have two options,” the photographer considers. “I can immediately make the picture as it is, or look at the scene and say, this will not be a beautiful composition, I should be more to the left. I’m creating the image in my head before I raise my camera. Personally, I’ll always take the risk of the bird flying away, rather than accepting a boring image.”

Jeffrey’s final revelation comes from years of experience, and highlights the constant inner battle at the heart of every wildlife photographer. The excitement of a moment must be momentarily quelled, to allow a breathtaking image to be created and savoured.

Photo 2023 © Jeffrey Van Daele | FUJIFILM X-T5 and FUJINON XF50-140mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR, 1/8 sec at F5, ISO 160

“Forget about your subject,” he concludes. “If you’re photographing a lion and turn all your mental focus towards him, you’re getting an image of a lion. If you point your camera towards him and then look at everything else, there will still be a lion at the centre of your photograph, but you’ll notice the rock in the background that unbalances your composition, or how the light is playing through distant trees. If you want to enjoy the animal sighting, do that, but put your camera to one side.

“The lived experience is hugely important – and it doesn’t only come from the images. When I watch the sun rise over a landscape, or see a smile on one of my students’ faces because they’ve just witnessed some detail of nature for the first time, those things bring me joy. On every outing, I realise what privilege I have, to experience such a beautiful world.”