Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year 2018 finalist Justin Gilligan reveals his process and the stories behind the images.

Justin Gilligan headshot
Justin Gilligan headshot Image: Justin Gilligan
© Justin Gilligan

What role do you think nature photographers have in raising awareness of environmental issues?

I think our role is critical. Most of us have busy lives in the city and suburbs and we rarely get the opportunity to go diving underwater or into the bush. So as nature photographers we have an important role to go into these places and bring back stories. It’s really critical.

For example, the sea horse shot was taken in Manly Cove, about 10 metres away from Australia’s largest city. Many people don’t realise there’s creatures just off shore there. I was trying to show the interaction between the marine environment and humans by photographing a sea horse on a shark net. The chip packet was totally unexpected. To have that drift across the back of the picture in that moment in time brought another element, and raised another issue – the ever-increasing issue of marine debris in our waterways. That was a bit shocking, right off the shore here in Sydney.

Tell us about the image of the whaler shark washed up on the beach

It’s a dark and brooding image. I usually take underwater photographs but this was an opportunity to tell the story of a whaler shark that had washed up on the beach and had had its jaw removed. It was one I had to take.

It was taken on a beach on the south coast. It was a still evening and as the sun set I was alone on the beach with this shark with its jaw removed. I had my tripod, because it was dark it was a long exposure. I had my camera on top of the tripod with a cable release. I was really exposing for the moon. It was coming up in the background and it was quite bright, and as the moon dipped behind the clouds it made exposure it a bit easier. It was around a 30 second exposure, so I’d take the picture and then run off to the side and use a torch to light up the shark. So it wasn’t a flash; that technique is called light painting.

What drew you to take the picture and is it typical of your subject matter?

I usually like to tell a story through my photography. Seeing the shark on the beach, it was a sad story, but it was an important story to tell because shark numbers are declining. I’m trying to educate the viewer as much as possible.

Sharks are a theme for me – they’re quite thrilling to photograph under water. But it’s not just about sharks. I’m happy to take photos on land too, so long as it’s telling an interesting story and combining photographic techniques to bring attention to that story.

Could you tell us about your process

There’s a couple of ways to approach a subject. Occasionally I’ll know what that subject is going to be and where it’s going to, so I’ll think about the best way to try to photograph it and how to get the best light, and I’ll adjust the equipment to suit that situation. Other times, like in the case with the shark washed up on the beach, you don’t have a whole heap of time so you have to just have to try to make the most of that opportunity. So sometimes it can be a lot of preparation, going back to the same spot over and over trying to get the best conditions and sometimes it can be more like, “Okay this thing is happening, I’ll do what I can and try to capture the image.”

How much post production do you do on your images?

With the competition you’re bound by certain rules. You have to take raw files, and you’re allowed to adjust levels and contrast and do minor crops and things like that. So that’s the extent of post-production. If you make it to the final round the judges will request the original raw file to make sure you’ve met those regulations.

What does the photography competition mean to you?

It’s an opportunity to have your work featured and it’s also an opportunity to meet other photographers and see their work. It’s useful to push photographers as well – it’s largely a solo pursuit, you’re on your own in the field trying to push yourself to get these shots. So having competitions and exhibitions like this one is good because you’re competing against each other and you’re pushing each other even when you’re working by yourself. I think it’s good to foster that competition and also a sense of community.