Interview with Martin Steenhaut

Martin Steenhaut

Date of birth: 7th of May 1977

How did you become passionate about nature photography?

My passion started from childhood on. Looking at things and especially at nature fascinated me again and again. It was as if my eyes were an extra developed sense. I could spend hours watching everything that flew, crawled or moved. Factor was that my 10 year older brother was a huge nature freak and activist with Greenpeace. Climbing on nuclear power plants, manifesting at ministries,… I looked up to him. My brother already photographed at that time and often he took me with him in the early morning to the forest to spot deer. I really got a kick out of that. That incredible feeling has never left. Later I graduated as a photographer and I still have the passion for it.

What subject do you prefer to photograph and why?

Favorites are hard to choose but I’ve always had an affinity with birds. Such variety and elegance. Their difficulty makes it a challenge. What fascinates me most is their migration. How do they manage to fly such long distances every year and still return in one piece, unbelievable.  The last years I also focus on other subjects such as landscapes and macro and in that way you get new fascinating things before your lens that used to get less attention. The most fascinating thing is that you’re going to find out that everything is related to each other, you will discover the real circle of life in nature.

What is your favorite nature preserve?

There are many great nature reserves but I like the Kalmthoutse Heide/Grenspark and the area around Doel and Saefthinge the most.  The Grenspark Zoom-Kalmthoutse Heide is so extensive that it is one of the only areas where you have a natural view without masts, chimneys or other. As if you are standing in the savanna, looking infinitely far away.  Of course the species of birds, amphibians and plants is very impressive over there. It is an important hangout during migration and provides breeding grounds for many rare species.  The polders around Doel and the sanctuary ‘Verdronken Land van Saefthinge’ are in my opinion forgotten gems. Amongst the industry you will find an impressive number of species and the area gives you a feeling of absolute tranquility. A buffer alongside an oversized port that still wants to expand. Fortunately the size of the nature reserve is increasing so it can only get better.

What is your favorite lens?

I love working with a wide angle and an extreme telelens.  Wide angle gives you a tremendous feeling of space and can nicely highlight things in the foreground.  With a wide angle you can achieve beautiful bokehs and of course with filters you can make beautiful landscapes. I also use quite often the 600mm f/4 telelens. Ideally suited for animals but I also use it for landscapes or close-up shots. With it you can create beautiful cutouts and the aperture f/4 gives you a beautiful luminosity to separate things from the background. Creative use of lenses is fun.

Which nature photographer do you admire?

There are so many inspiring nature photographers, but some are so creative and persevering that I admire them. Vincent Munier (FR) is a fine example of creativity and creating an atmosphere at the right time. Bence Maté (Hungary) gets fantastic results with his various shelters. In the Netherlands I am good friends with Han Bouwmeester which I think is a very strong nature photographer as well as Jasper Doest. In Belgium Philippe Moës is also very good. He is fortunate to be a ranger in the Ardennes so naturally he knows the best inaccessible places. But I also admire the work of many others such as Glenn Vermeersch, Bart Heirweg, Tom Linster and Sam Mannaerts.

What quality must a nature photographer absolutely have?

Patience and respect for your subject, those are the two golden rules.  First of all patience, a good picture you can only make when you blend into the environment and the animal doesn’t experience you as disruptive. Become one with your subject, give it some time and try to understand it. First learn everything you can about your subject and then go to work. Knowledge is an incredible asset.  Nowadays, nature photography has become so popular that the less experienced photographers dare to exaggerate to make that one shot anyway, this is very wrong!  It can’t be about THE picture at all cost. You have to respect what you see and once you get to know your subject after well observing it, you will sooner or later create some beautiful images. I fear that many nature photographers could use a lesson ‘ethics of nature photography’.

Which light situation do you prefer?

Obviously I prefer the beautiful soft shades of morning and evening light, which is generally so I think.  I rarely photograph during the day, unless it is exceptionally beautiful or mysterious light, like on foggy days. I also like to play with backlighting so birds form silhouettes against an orange sky for example.  Backlight works fine if you work with waders on water level for example. That way hard contrasts can still be beautiful.

Which setting do you prefer: Manual-Aperture Priority-Shutter Priority?

My method I adjust constantly to the subject. Often I chose aperture priority because then you still are in control over your unsharpness. Of course, some situations demand more speed so you have to switch. Luckely I’m still raised in the analog era, so I learned to work manually. Sometimes I feel the need to work that way because our high-tech cameras are far from infallible and that you should be able to rely on feeling and intuition. So a word of advice: learn to work manually as well.

Do you have any advice for future nature or wildlife photographers?

First learn to observe before shooting. By watching quietly and really getting to know your subject you will learn to photograph better and more aware. You will know the animal and its environment, and know how to prevent disruption. Shooting at random is ineffective.  Do not forget to enjoy what you see, even without a camera. It often happens to me that I’m intensively photographing an animal or bird and yet suddenly want to stop, just to have a look, quietly next to the viewfinder. Without a camera between you and the subject, however, it feels more direct.  But bottom line is … love what you do!


You can find out more about Martin Steenhaut on his website: