What I learnt from David Yarrow

All Images included in this post belong to David Yarrow. They have been included purely for educational purposes.

We all have role models—people whose work infuses us with roaring enthusiasm. In any creative pursuit, one stands on the shoulders of his predecessors. It is how we hone our craft.

I have many such heroes. And in studying their work, I’ve gleaned many lessons. Learning and emulating the masters in any field has been a recurring theme in my life. It gives me great joy and wisdom.

David Yarrow is one such hero of mine. He is a British fine art photographer specialising in wildlife and stage work. He shoots in a contemporary style, with a modernist take on his subjects. Principally in black and white, his photographs are immersive and evocative, visually engaging with the viewer. 

Yarrow’s work has had a massive influence on me. I chanced upon a video of him while browsing through youtube. At the time, I was beginning my photography journey. And ever since I watched that video, I began to look at photography. It was then that I truly believed that photography could be an art form.

His work has influenced me on a deep, personal level. I recall the thrill of inspiration that surged through me when I saw his photographs. It has been many years since I came across his work, and they still invoke the same feeling of awe and wonder. In an era of content abundance, his work stands out as world-class.

Several attributes distinguish David Yarrow from other photographers. The perspectives, colour scheme, and narratives of his photographs—all are riveting and distinctive. They stir emotions in a way that transcends traditional photography.

David Yarrow got interested in photographing the natural world because he felt it hadn’t been photographed well before. He found that most wildlife images had been taken with a long telephoto lens. Wildlife photographers could not get close to wildlife (because animals are typically skittish) and thus resort to shooting them with longer lenses.

But the problem with this approach is that long lenses compress the image. They eliminate depth from an image. Moreover, since most photos are taken from a high elevation. Most images are taken above the animal’s eye level, whether from a safari jeep or hideout in the jungle. This is an issue because when you shoot from an elevation, you can never accurately capture the character or personality of the animal. The elevated position of the photographer gives the image a look of dominating the subject. It takes away from the subject’s spirit. The distance and angle give most photos a bland, dull look. 

David Yarrow contests these approaches. He says that if you’re going to photograph a beautiful woman, you would never shoot her from 200 yards away. You’d be close up, using a portrait or wide-angle lens. It should be the same with animals. Proximity is vital for impactful photography.

David has three maxims for a powerful photograph. One, they should hold the viewer’s attention for a long time. Two, it should be one of a king, i.e. one shouldn’t be able to replicate it. Three, there should be something in the image that tugs on the viewer’s heart.

So how does he get this intimacy? Getting close to wildlife is no mean feat. Many animals react aggressively when one enters their personal space. David was faced with the challenge of obtaining close-up shots while remaining safe.

His solution was doing remote photography. He would place cameras on the animal’s path and take up position far away. Then, he would trigger them with remotes when they approached the device. That way, he would get a close, ground-up perspective while being stationed several yards away.

Using this technique, Yarrow has shot some of the most stunning images of wildlife that exist today. This extraordinary method makes wildlife appear more powerful and dominant in their environment. He photographs from a lower elevation, making his subjects appear massive and dominant. This new angle entirely alters the atmosphere of the shot, making it forceful and mighty. His image “The Untouchables” best illustrates this concept. When David is shooting hand-held, he gets down to the animal’s eye level. 

One might wonder how he makes money from photography, not a traditionally remunerative field. These questions bothered David for quite a while. And then, an experience showed him the potential market for fine art photography.

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One day, a lawyer from Texas called up David, enquiring about a photograph of his published in newspapers across the world. It was his shot of a shark breaching the water, hunting for a seal. He said he wanted a large print of that image for his office and wanted to know the price. He had taken in of the coast of South Africa on a trip that cost him a fortune. David was at a loss, making less money from having his image published worldwide than he spent taking the image ( On the trip, logistics etc.). So when he received this call, he was taken aback.

Not knowing what price to quote, he tentatively said he’d charge 5000 USD. The lawyer gasped in shock. So David naturally assumed that he had gone too high. Attempting to recover, he said he’d put it in a nice frame and deliver it for free. But to his amazement, the lawyer said he’d buy 2! That was his Eureka moment. He knew then that there was a market for limited edition prints of fine art photography. Today, his works sell for £10,000 minimum, a testament to their quality.

David has often stated that he is more an artist than a wildlife photographer. I couldn’t agree more. Aside from wildlife, he frequently works with models and tame animals. His model photography embraces his contemporary outlook on the world. His photos seek to ask questions rather than provide answers. They leave the viewer with amazement, wondering how they were conceived.

Many wildlife photographers seem to dislike photographs of tame animals. Such people feel that images dilute the spirit of wildlife photography.

David has a different outlook. While many images are taken in the wild, some occasions call for unique perspectives that can only be shot with a trained animal. We must remember that David is an artist at heart.

His other style of photography, the staged work, engages his creative faculty. Often involving models and trained animals, these images are meant to be visual stories. 

He does this by placing unusual subjects together. His favourite involves a model in a car, seated along with a wolf or a cougar. The amusing normalcy of the scene makes the viewer introspect. It’s the perfect blend of theatrics and contemporary photography.

At times, he’s attempted to recreate iconic scenes/moments in history.  

This series includes images recreating scenes from Alred Hitchcock’s classic movies “North by Northwest” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”. He adds his spin to these events in his shots, showcasing his artistic understanding.

David, in his photography, performs many seemingly contradictory actions. For one, he shoots against the light instead of with it to add drama and strength to an image. Moreover, he prefers cloudy skies over clear ones. The clouds add mood to the scene, a recurrent theme in David’s photographs.

Monotone embodies simplicity, and there is elegance in simplicity. 

Going against the grain beckons a new outlook on art. I find this insightful as it demonstrates that contradictory actions have their benefits. If you do whatever everyone else is doing in your creative endeavour, you kill your chances of being unique. This is what unites renowned artists: they see the world differently and know how to depict their vision.

Shooting against the light adds a certain biblicality to his image. His ability to make his images appear sanctified, almost theistic, is what most draws me to his images. I have a spiritual connection with wildlife, so seeing images that depict them as angelic, deific creatures deeply moves me.

His gravitation to black and white is what first struck me as exceptional. Most photographers seem to view black and white photography as an outdated style. Many convert their images to B&W as a last resort, not their first choice. If the shot does not work well in colour, they switch. But David chooses monochrome. He strives to get the high contrast in his images, which is only possible in B&W. 

I very much accord with this mindset. Visualising and then composing with B&W in your mind influences your final shot. Monotone embodies simplicity, and there is elegance in simplicity. 

In Post-processing, he enhances the textural detail of the animal. The incredible proximity and high-end gear he uses make for highly detailed portraits of his subjects. He often likes to print his images life-size, and even then, each detail appears pin sharp.

Tack-sharp photographs are an essential motif in his work. In his portraits, each strand of hair, each wrinkle of skin, or the structure of its eyes is visible. Such incredible detail adds to the quality of his work.

David has three maxims for a powerful photograph. One, they should hold the viewer’s attention for a long time (Best seen here). Two, it should be one of a king, i.e. one shouldn’t be able to replicate it (Best seen here). Three, there should be something in the image that tugs on the viewer’s heart (Best seen here). And of these, the last tends to be the most elusive.

For images to sell for enormous sums of money, they must be earned. Such shots come only after intense determination and critiquing one’s own work.

I find significant meaning in this approach to art. After all, what is it that makes art good or bad? It had no practical uses for us. They tend to be static objects, providing no physical benefits for us. So then, why do we value art in the first place?

We treasure artwork simply because it elicits an emotional response in the viewer. Evocative art pieces move us. That is the one factor that unites all forms of art.

I have wondered about the contrast between taking an image and making one. I feel Yarrow truly embodies what it’s like to craft an image. He is a photo-smith, if you will. Because for him, pressing the shutter is a small part of the process. There is a lot of spadework behind the images. His creative faculty requires him to photograph famous or dangerous individuals/animals. A vast amount of logistical work is needed before he can take the shot.

David Yarrow often says that we live in a world that is heavily spoilt by the vast amounts of content out there. From Netflix to Instagram, we live in the age of abundance. This proliferation has diluted the quality of content out there. For art to rise above that, it must be compelling.

Artists must acknowledge that there is wisdom in showing a few substantial works rather than a portfolio of mediocre pieces. Ultimately, it is quality that sifts the good from the great.

David says that he probably takes four good pictures a year, four pictures that are worthy of showing the world. He is the harshest critique of his work. This is opposed to the approach of most photographers. It is not uncommon to hear a photographer coming back from a trip with “200 great images”. But this is a farce. If photography were so easy, then everyone would be an award-winning photographer. For images to sell for enormous sums of money, they must be earned. Such shots come only after intense determination and critiquing one’s own work.

No more is this obvious than among photographers on Instagram. With the latest cameras capable of shooting at 30 frames per second, photographers capture each of the animal’s movements. But photographers deem each image worthy of display. They share every photo, unable to pick one from the many. Yarrow shows one or maybe two images from each shoot.

Yarrow continually brings up the significance of research and access in art. Using your creativity in framing and composition is only 5 % of the job. 95 % is the spadework you put in to place yourself in the position to pursue your creative pursuit.

Yarrow works a lot with dangerous animals. Many of them live in remote parts of the planet. Planning these arduous journeys, getting the relevant permissions and so on is the unseen work behind the photographs. Many of his best lion photographs are a result of this. Working with Kevin Richardson – The Lion Whisperer gives him the proximity to take immersive pictures.

The same goes for his staged photography. He works with famous models and tame animals. There are a lot of logistics that have to be sorted before the photograph is actually captured. He has worked with Cara Delivingne and Alessandra Ambrosio, to name a few.

In The Adventure Podcast, he talks about a dilemma he and many other professional artists face. They often must decide between projects that ignite their creative spirits versus projects that help pay the bills. He brings up his image “A Ship Called Dignity”, an image he took in rural Lagos, an area brimming with insurgency. He had to spend many thousands of dollars to take that photograph (on protection etc.), but it only made one sale. He said that he couldn’t work purely motivated by creativity to pay his bills.

One reason why I connected with Yarrow’s work is that he used similar gear that I had. I found it hard to shoot wildlife with a wide-angle lens. Until then, I was convinced that I’d be unable to photograph wildlife until I procured a telephoto lens. Like so many beginner photographers, I blamed the gear, not myself.

I learnt that your gear is not the reason behind mediocre photography. It is your inability to envision an image and capture it well that results in imperfect photos. I’ve found an artist who deliberately uses unconventional gear to shoot world-class photos.

When I look at David’s photographs, I admire his resolve to think outside the box. He has broken several conventional photography rules in unearthing his distinctive style. He shoots against the light, stages a lot of his work, uses the “incorrect lens”, and shows the world few images. He asks us to re-evaluate your approach to photography.

One of David’s underrated traits is his flair for business. He recognised that there was a niche market for high-quality, fine art images of wildlife and thus proceeded to fill that gap. He was able to turn a passion of his into a business. Making money when working with wildlife is a challenge that few manage to overcome. But David has shown that it is possible.

Many creative professionals struggle to monetise their passion. After all, the world of art is highly fluid and subjective. Doing art as a hobby is a whole other world, from creating work people want to buy to put up on their walls. David has found that thin middle ground, where he can channel his creativity through his images whilst making a sizeable living off of it.

I continuously return to David’s work as a reminder that deliberation, persistence, and a creative eye are all that is needed to invoke an emotional reaction. It is this marker that makes him the world-renowned photographer he is. Through this post, I hope you’ve gained some appreciation for the work of this sublime artist.

The images included in this post are a mere selection of his work. His entire collection is comprised of many such images. I cannot recommend looking at his portfolio enough. I’ve spent many days purely analysing his work. Immerse yourself in the evocative reverie of his photographs.

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Published by Ishan Shanavas

I am a young adult, interested in nature, photography, art and culture. An aspiring polymath, I share my learnings through my blog. I also include insights from my favourite books.

2 thoughts on “What I learnt from David Yarrow

  1. Great article! I finished David Yarrow’s course on Masters of Photography, and I was instantly inspired by his dedication and approach to his work. I don’t think I have it in me to follow in his footsteps (and I certainly prefer color photography over monochrome in most cases). And I doubt I could ever make money off of it. But he remains an inspiration nonetheless.


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