Co Down wildlife photographer Graeme Purdy on pioneering close-up collection Eight Feet

A new book by Co Down photographer Graeme Purdy finds him getting up close and personal with some of the worlds most dangerous – and endangered – wild animals. David Roy spoke to London-based Purdy about the creation of Eight Feet

Graeme Purdy deployed a remote control camera rig to capture close proximity shots of endangered wildlife
Graeme Purdy deployed a remote control camera rig to capture close proximity shots of endangered wildlife

"IT WAS the only time I've ever said to a driver 'we need to get out of here'," recalls Graeme Purdy of one particularly hairy moment on safari during the shoot for his new close-up based wildlife photography book Eight Feet.

"Three lionesses were prowling around our vehicle, which had no sides, and they were looking right at me – they'd identified my remote camera as a threat and now they were stalking me."

Thankfully, Co Down-born wildlife photographer Purdy (47) escaped to live and learn from his brush with death by teeth and claws to produce the handsome new 72-page volume, a limited run of 999 copies printed here in Northern Ireland which features 30 evocative shots of wild animals including lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants and gorillas all captured from distances of eight feet or less.

Despite being a wildlife photography veteran, the Eight Feet project was very much a step into the unknown for London-based Purdy, who was forced to experiment with different photographic techniques and equipment in order to create the intimate portraits he wanted for the book without incurring the wrath of his sensitive subjects.

Indeed, the aforementioned lions incident was provoked by a bulky prototype mobile camera rig the snapper had been experimenting with.

"I was using a little remote controlled car I nicknamed 'the G-Car'," reveals Purdy of the book's steep learning curve.

"But it was quite light and could wobble and fall over. So I made a 'G-Tank' with hand-built carbon fibre/Kevlar cover that was much more robust. The problem was, it was quite big: as soon as I put it down near the pride, the lionesses took one look and decided they did not like it."

The Ridge Pride from Eight Feet by Graeme Purdy
The Ridge Pride from Eight Feet by Graeme Purdy

Initially, Purdy had hoped to simply mount his camera on a static tripod and snap away via remote whenever an animal approached. However, yet again, this approach was foiled by big cats.

"The lions just came over, took the camera away and destroyed it," chuckles the snapper, who hails from Donaghadee and developed his photography skills at Regent House Grammar after picking up the hobby from his father and uncle.

He adds: "What I realised was is that there's different ways to create a unique image: you can just put yourself in one place and hope something happens, or you can try something different – and that's what I did."

Inspired by a desire to offer unique insight into the lives and personalities of the world's most iconic and endangered animals while also capturing a sense of their natural environment and highlighting the ongoing threat from humans (proceeds from each book go to African wildlife protection charity National Park Rescue), Eight Feet was two years in the making.

Lifelong animal lover Purdy conducted extensive photographic experiments with the Red Deer in London's Richmond Park – which provide a couple of the book's most striking images – before returning to Africa with a winning formula involving a camera mounted on his hand-made 'G-Car', both operated remotely from a nearby jeep.

Mega Stag from Eight Feet by Graeme Purdy
Mega Stag from Eight Feet by Graeme Purdy

The bulk of the book's shots were taken in Uganda and the Maasai Mara and it seems Africa has held a special place in Purdy's heart since his first visit back in 2004.

"When I go to Africa, I love the photography and the wonderful wildlife, but I also just feel at home," he explains of his now thrice-yearly African excursions.

"It's hard to explain: I've travelled all over the world, but somehow when you're on the plains and you've got the big skies and the sun and the animals, you just feel a bit of perspective on life.

"Everyone's running around looking at devices and phones and everyone's busy and stressed, but in Africa, I take my watch off. It's like therapy – 48 hours after landing, I just feel refreshed. It refreshes the soul."

Inspired to "go big, go bold, go harder and go further" by his partner Vanessa, a former top level triathlete who refocused on a lifelong love of painting when injury and illness derailed her Olympic hopes, this year Purdy will start running his own photographic safaris in Africa.

Buffalo Herd from Eight Feet by Graeme Purdy
Buffalo Herd from Eight Feet by Graeme Purdy

"I know the operators, the parks and the animals so well, it just seemed like a logical thing to do," he tells me.

"In fact, Red Bull's magazine The Red Bulletin are going to do a feature – I think they're going to make it sound like they're life or death adventures. That almost makes me feel cool, which doesn't happen very often."

However, before that, the snapper is off to Alaska to photograph grizzly bears fishing for salmon from the fishes' perspective using a special underwater camera housing – an escapade which will involve he and his guide spending a week in an isolated forest with only an electric fence around their camp site as protection from their potentially deadly subjects.

"We'll be able to see under the water as well as above, and the bears will be about three feet away," enthuses Purdy of his upcoming mission.

"Bears are a bit like lions, they are very destructive – so hopefully they won't manage to wreck the camera."

Even if they do, no doubt this resourceful Co Down photographer will come up with a winning 'plan B ' to get the shots he's after.

The King Rests from Eight Feet by Graeme Purdy
The King Rests from Eight Feet by Graeme Purdy

:: Eight Feet is available now via Purdy.photography/book and Amazon.co.uk, priced £35 plus postage and packaging. Proceeds from the book go to the charity National Park Rescue (Nationalparkrescue.org) which helps protect African wildlife.