Robert Irwin: Continuing a Wildlife Conservation Legacy with a Camera

Robert Irwin is a published wildlife photographer, conservationist, Australian television personality, actor, and zookeeper at age 19.

His father, Steve Irwin, was the famous Crocodile Hunter who became the most well-known figure in wildlife conservation and education from the 1990s to the early 2000s. Steve Irwin died in September 2006 after being pierced in the chest by a short-tail stingray barb while filming in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

“For me, it’s always been something to do with the camera,” Irwin tells PetaPixel from Australia Zoo. “Whether I’m in front or behind and then navigating how you can use that platform to create positive change — to get your images, voice, story, and what you stand for out into the world.

“The difficult part is understanding your subject, knowing the story that you want to tell, figuring out how you can put yourself in a position to get an image that no one else has gotten before you. That’s where it starts to get tricky, and then navigating the world and having a platform with whatever your craft is.

“In wildlife photography, it’s more about focusing on how you will approach your subject. Learning how to respectfully approach wildlife, learning how to tell a story, and how to express your individuality through images. You can’t learn that from a YouTube video or a book. I always say focus on that well.”

Crocodiles are a Favorite

“My favorite animals are crocodiles,” says Irwin. “I always love photographing crocodiles because they’re not a very well-photographed animal. They are incredibly important animals as they’re an apex predator. They sit at the top of the food chain, so from an ecological standpoint, they are arguably the most important animal in an ecosystem.

“They are very misunderstood as a lot of people see them as big scaly, you know, scary looking animals that just go around eating people. That’s not true at all, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re very intelligent, quite loving toward one another, and good mothers who are very protective.

“There’s a real soft side to crocodiles that a lot of people don’t see, so I think photography is a good way of demonstrating that, but in a broader sense, my favorite subjects to photograph are the subjects that a lot of people may misunderstand as they’re fearful of them. They might not like snakes, crocodiles, and bears, and people are a little unsettled with them. I like to show a softer side to them.”

Birds are the Most Challenging

Irwin considers birds, as a group, to be the most challenging to photograph.

“Birds definitely [are the most difficult],” says Irwin. “[I have spent a vast] amount of time trying to track down and photograph them. I can talk about individual species like leopards that are very hard to photograph. But as a broad group that is challenging, it’s birds. I love photographing birds because it’s very challenging.

“I once spent three days trying to photograph a bowerbird here in Australia building one of their bowers. They [males] make these amazing nest-like constructs [with colorful objects] that are used to attract mates. I’ve spent many days out on frozen tundras in Oregon, capturing golden eagles hunting swans. I’ve probably spent more hours in the field in crazy conditions to photograph birds than any other animal.

“I’ve also been fortunate to spend a lot of time tracking down and photographing palm cockatoos, a species found in Australia, and they’re an extremely rare bird with not many left. They only exist in two main strongholds in Australia right up north in the very remote regions of Northern Queensland called Cape York and live in Papua, New Guinea as well.

“They’re very intelligent birds that are the only animal, I think, if not one of the only, that use tools to create music. They will create a drum beat with a stick on the side of a hollow log to attract a mate, and much of their behavior has never been documented.

“I’ve been very fortunate as we have a conservation property of 300,000 acres of protected land, one of their last strongholds. I spend a lot of time photographing them, which gives you an idea of the rarity of some species of birds and the amount of time you must put in to capture them on camera.”

The young naturalist (born 2003) has photographed in Australia, Africa, and North America and is looking forward to visiting Antarctica for the first time in his next photo foray.

“It would be Antarctica, it would definitely, there’s no hesitation it would be Antarctica,” says Irwin. “I think South Georgia island [a breeding ground for seals and king penguins in the South Atlantic Ocean] has been at the top of my list for a very long time for its concentration of wildlife. I have a lot of friends who’ve spent time there and they say it’s incredible.

“There’s really no continent that I wouldn’t want to explore. I would love to explore South America very much, more of Asia. I have gotten to photograph a bit in Asia and Taiwan. Some of the wildlife there is incredible, but Antarctica will be at the top of the list for now.”

Irwin has spent time in Africa as the Australia Zoo collaborates on projects there.

“[I have spent] quite a bit of time in Africa as our family, through our Wildlife Sanctuary at Australia Zoo supports non-profit efforts worldwide, and we have a charity that helps many of the conservation projects based in Africa. We work with cheetah conservation and rhino anti-poaching in Kenya and anti-poaching work in South Africa.

“I’ve spent a lot of time on the continent of Africa, mainly South Africa and Kenya, and that’s afforded me some of the greatest photography experiences ever. One that sticks out in my mind was being one of the fortunate individuals to photograph Sudan, the last Northern White Rhino, before he passed away, which was a really moving experience.

Predicting an Unpredictable Animal

Even the most experienced wildlife photographer knows that there is no saying how a wild animal will react.

“There’s always an element of unpredictability with wildlife,” says the young but experienced photographer. “You’ll never know exactly what an animal is thinking, and anyone who claims they do is wrong. You’ll never know a hundred percent what an animal will do, and the second you think you know everything you need to know about that animal is the second you should hang up your boots and stop.

“With every animal, particularly dangerous wildlife, you must have the utmost respect, care, and conscientious way of being. You must watch body language. I’m very confident, to say pretty much any animal you can put me in a one-on-one scenario with, I’m gonna be able to read what they’re thinking. But there’s always that element that you must have full respect for that animal and the fact that it can do whatever it wants.

“I want to capture images of animals in their most true wild, raw format…to that, I pride myself in not being the photographer who captures an image of a crocodile or a venomous snake way over there in the distance on a big, long 500 mm lens. No, I want to be right up close to it.

“I want to be face-to-face with it, and not a lot of people can do that because not a lot of people have the upbringing that I’ve had, the dad that I had, and the family that I had. I’m very lucky I’ve been around animals since I was a baby, so I can read animals incredibly well and get close. But no one will know everything an animal can do, so having the utmost respect for that is very important.

“I have photographed big cats. They are incredibly difficult to get close to in the first place, especially if you’re on foot. I’m gonna get as close as reasonably and safely as possible, but there are some animals where you do have to have your telephoto lens in the backpack because you’re never gonna get incredibly close. The palm cockatoo is an animal that you do have to use your long lens every now and again.”

“For the animals that I’m particularly well versed in, like reptiles, particularly crocs and venomous snakes, you have to have confidence in yourself. There’s a difference between ego and confidence. You can never have an ego when it comes to wildlife, but you must know your limitations. I’m confident with a croc. I know I can be nose-to-nose with a crocodile safely and respectfully and get incredible images. But I still say you’ve got to know your limitations.

“I find my knowledge of wildlife is probably more important than my knowledge of photography when it comes to wildlife photography.

“When it comes to portraiture or landscape, of course, your artistic individuality is the most important thing, but when it comes to wildlife, especially when you’re initially getting yourself in the best position, understanding wildlife is the most important thing to do. To do that animal justice safely and respectfully, you must have incredible knowledge of that animal.

“We are part of the biggest crocodile research project in the world. I’m in the wild in crocodile territory every year for about a month, and I get to be one-on-one with them. They’re a difficult animal to approach, but there have been instances where I’ve been in a boat and able to get right up close to crocs, actually hands-on with them, which is a very moving and incredible experience.”

© Kate Berry / Australia Zoo

Many wildlife photographers have inspired Irwin.

“There’s, oh my goodness, I could go on and on and on. Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier have been two of the greatest inspirations for me, not only in their amazing photography but also in what they stand for in wildlife conservation. They definitely feel like kindred spirits in what they’re trying to do, mainly with oceanic conservation, and I look up to them greatly and admire their work.

“There’s a photographer here in Australia called Russell Shakespeare, and he is a great portrait and reportage style photographer. He’s the one that inspired me to get into film photography, and so I really look up to him as well. There are so many different names, and I look up to people like Frans Lanting, Steve Winter and Ami Vitale.

Besides experienced wildlife photographers, Irwin is also influenced by young photographers.

“There are so many young photographers who I’ve gotten to work with and who inspire me. It is stimulating to see other young people using their platform to create positive change and take the industry in a new direction.

“I was in Washington DC to accept an award for my photography, and I spent time with two photographers, Isaac Spotts and Ashleigh Scully, two really great photographers based in the United States who I think are incredible and amazing in their craft. Another great photographer that I’ve worked with is Harman Singh Heer.

“A common thread in my life, someone who’s always a big inspiration in every aspect, is my dad. And my dad was an excellent photographer, and many people didn’t realize that. Most or all of his work went unreleased, but he was an outstanding wildlife photographer and spent a lot of time behind the camera photographing animals.

Irwin wants to assemble and archive all the wildlife photos of his famous dad, Steve Irwin, and maybe publish them in a book.

“I recently found my dad’s old film camera and all his lenses when I cleaned part of his office. I’d like to shoot a photography book with his gear and camera. It was a Pentax [with a bayonet mount], and his longest lens was a 400 mm.”

Film Teaches You Minimalism

“I don’t have a dark room. I have not had the opportunity yet– being the operative word — to process my film photos. I want to take a course and learn how to do that, so it’s just another instrument in the tool belt of photography.

“I’ve been shooting film for a while. I think it’s probably the best way to learn minimalism for someone like me, born in a digital age. I was born when every camera you buy is digital- a DSLR or now mirrorless.

“Everything’s fast. It’s fast frame rates; memory cards write 128 GB at 500MB/second. It’s fast, fast, fast when you can take as many photos as you want. So, it’s easy for an image to have less meaning when you can take 5,000 photos, but film teaches you minimalism.

“When I pick up a film camera, I like to shoot with one camera and one lens, that’s it. I shoot on a Leica MP [released in 2003, representing the now legendary Leica M3, released 50 years before. MP is said to stand for “mechanical perfection”] a film camera with a Leica Summilux 35mm f/1.4.”

“Shooting on that, you’ve only got 36 frames in your camera. Every image instantly becomes so valuable that you must think about every image so much more. You don’t have 5,000 photos to take.

“Film was a great opportunity for me. When I shot film, then and only then did I truly understand and appreciate the art form of photography.

“I started shooting film with a little camera that a family member in America got me. I probably would have been 14 years old [when I got this] Kodak Retina IIIC [first introduced at Photokina 1953 and had leather bellow for close focusing] in 2017. That was my first film camera, and now I collect film cameras.

Cameras for Wildlife Photography

Irwin has been a Canon shooter from beginning to end and is still holding on to DSLRs.

“My first serious DSLR camera was a Canon 700D [known as the Canon Rebel T5i in the US],” says the conservationist. “I still shoot Canon a 1DX Mk II, a Canon 5D Mk IV, a Canon 5DS R, and a Canon 7D Mk II. My lenses, I couldn’t even name them all. There are that many, but my workhorse lenses are a Canon 500mm Mark II f/4, a 70-200mm f/2.8, a Sigma Art series 14 mm f/1.4, Canon 24-105mm, Canon 16-35mm, and a series of prime lenses. I also shoot film on a Leica MP with a Leica Summilux 35mm f/1.4. Then I have dozens and dozens of film cameras that I also shoot with and have collected over the years.

I’ve shot on the Canon R3 and love it, but I’m a purist. I like DSLRs.

Irwin shoots RAW “every day.”

“My ISO, mainly in the field, is set to AUTO until I secure the shot, and then I set it to manual. But I will go with my 1DX Mk II up to 6,400 ISO.

“Irwin always tries to use natural light but sometimes adds a flash. When a flash is unsuitable for the subject in low light, he will add a small off-camera Manfrotto light, which he has had for ages.

“I’ve shot macro for a long time, and it is incredibly difficult and tedious, but it opens up a whole new world. It’s like photographing another planet, one of my favorite photography styles.

“Drones have helped me so much. I was honored to win the Wildlife Photographer of the Year People’s Choice Awards using a DJI Mavic drone, capturing an image of a bushfire and drawing attention to climate change.

“Landscape would be my second preference [after wildlife], but portrait, street photography, and reportage are also becoming my favorites

“I see myself as a wildlife photographer and wildlife conservator. I wish to broaden my reach and influence everyone on the planet so that I can have the most incredible reach of any wildlife conservationist and spread a message of positivity to draw attention and shine a light on the most critical conservation issues facing our world.

“There is always hope for the future, but we need to take immediate action now and try to make a positive change and leave the world a little better than we found.

My dad always said people would only save what they love. So, if you can see a beautiful image and connect with that animal through imagery, you’re gonna want to save it in the wild. I believe photography plays a hugely important role in protecting animals, and that’s what I wanted to achieve in the book.

“There are going to be more books. We’re planning on it to be part of a series of which Robert Irwin’s Australia is the first one. I wanted to create a summation of my photography in my favorite place in the world, Australia. Thus far, many years in the making, but there was a lot of demand for this book. Many people wanted to see it, but I wanted to create a book demonstrating photography’s role in conserving the environment.

© Kate Berry / Australia Zoo

Getting Into Photography

“I discovered photography because, for my whole life, I had been around cameras. My dad and mum did their incredible documentary series The Crocodile Hunter [The series was Animal Planet’s highest-rated at the time and internationally syndicated]. They did a film and all sorts of amazing things, and my childhood was captured on camera with film crews that would always be around.

“I always had an interest in photography and cinematography and visual arts. I was probably about five or six years old when I picked up my first still camera, and it was a very small, one of those waterproof cameras that you could throw off a balcony, and it would be safe.

“One of those little indestructible cameras, and I would photograph everything on our travel. But as I grew older, I started to appreciate the craft and the art form that is photography. And the power that it has to spread a story and [deliver] a message.

“I’ve always been very passionate about wildlife conservation, and when I started to hone my craft with wildlife and nature photography, I realized it to be a great tool to carry on my family’s mission, my dad’s message and legacy in my way.

“It quickly developed into a very big passion by the time I was hitting double digits 10, 11, 12 years old and consuming a big part of my life, and since then, it’s just always been a passion.

“It took me several years to learn all that [exposure, ISO, noise, grain, etc.]. Yeah, it was interesting. Everyone’s journey is so incredibly different with photography because it is a very individual thing. At its heart, photography is about the individual behind the camera. That is what makes or breaks a good photograph.

“I’m very lucky growing up in the day and age that technology is very advanced in that I have as many tutorials as I want at my fingertips. So, learning ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and manual camera settings came very quickly.

“I had a real passion for it and wanted complete control of every image I took, which meant I had to use manual settings. I just learned it all off YouTube, and with a bit of trial and error, I was there. The difficult and important part of photography for me wasn’t setting up my camera — that just came with a bit of time and practice.

“The real core principles are the artistic side of photography, not the analytic side. You must take notes from your mentors and people you admire in the field. You also have to use that as inspiration to create your style. It has to come from an original place, so hard work, trial and error, and originality are all you need.

“I’d always find out most of my good info from a little place called PetaPixel. I think they were pretty good; they had some good information, I must say. Every time I needed to know the nitty-gritty of aperture and what that means for your image, shutter speed, or ISO, I could pretty much look that up at a moment’s notice and figure it out. I could also talk to my peers in the industry and figure it out quickly.

Irwin’s Three Tips for Wildlife Photography

Irwin shares three basic tips for those wanting to get better at wildlife photography:

  1. Know your subject.
  2. Know the story you want to tell.
  3. Don’t be afraid to use automatic controls in the field until you’ve secured the shot. I always keep my shutter on speed high, my ISO on auto, and my aperture as low [large] as possible. If a bird comes out of nowhere, I can get the shots, and then and only then, once I have a good shot, do I go through and secure manual controls.

Irwin’s Three Mantras of Life

Irwin also shared three mantras he aims to live by in life:

  1. Treat all living beings as you would want to be treated. Remember, humans and animals are alike.
  2. Don’t be afraid to talk about controversial topics. Make sure you stick to your guns, be true to yourself, and stand up for your beliefs. Even if some people are going to disagree, it’s important to stand up for what you believe in.
  3. Always surround yourself with people who keep you humble and lift you up.

100 For the Ocean

Irwin’s Tundra Swan photo has been selected for the 100 for the Ocean Print fundraiser for ocean conservation.

Tundra Swan by Robert Irwin, Klamath Basin, Oregon, USA, 2017. On a rare, sunny morning in the marshlands of Southern Oregon, this tundra swan flew directly overhead. This is just one of the millions of waterbirds that would stop in this region as part of a huge migratory journey.

The ocean is the lifeblood of our planet and integral to our survival. Sadly, human impact has taken a heavy toll on the magnificent biodiversity of our aquatic ecosystems. Spending time underwater with so many unique oceanic species has given me an immense appreciation for the importance of conserving our oceans.  Robert Irwin

“We believed that by bringing together 100 world-class photographers, we could use the power of art and visual storytelling to raise awareness about the state of the ocean and inspire people around the world to take action,” says Chase Teron, who co-founded 100 For the Ocean with photographers Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier. “We are 100% committed to the ocean and taking full ownership to protect and restore it.

The unparalleled list of celebrated photographers from more than 15 countries participating in 100 for the Ocean includes: Paul Nicklen, Cristina Mittermeier, Steve McCurry, Jimmy Chin, Joel Sartore, Daisy Gilardini, Bertie Gregory, Michael Yamashita, Chris Burkard, Robert Irwin, Keith Ladzinski, Jodi Cobb, Pete Souza, Brooke Shaden, Pete McBride, Steve Winter, and many more.

About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.

Image credits: Header Photo of Robert Irwin with camera © Kate Berry / Australia Zoo. All photos courtesy Robert Irwin/Australia Zoo