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Nature photographer Ernst Dirksen about raising the bar and inventing oneself over and over

door | mei 4, 2024 | Blog, They let Nature Talk

How can you as a nature photographer remain interesting and inspiring for your audience? 

To get an answer to that question, I interviewed Dutch nature photographer Ernst Dirksen. At the NPOTY contest 2022 he was category-winner and highly commended in the category ‘Black and White’. Ernst describes himself as a person who always gives 100% effort. He is always looking for something special and will do (almost) anything for it. His pursuit of the right photo resulted on several occasions with a number of forest keepers chasing after him. But in the end, all this extra effort resulted in several national and international awards. Among others, National Geographic, Argus photographer of the year, making it to the finals of BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Grasduinen/Roots. 

NPOTY Interview Bas van Laarhoven Nature Talks

That being said it’s good to know that Ernst Dirksen is a modest man who doesn’t like to show off his prizes, but he is certainly proud of it. Time to get to know this modest ‘diehard’ photographer a bit better.

Ernst grew up in a little village called Putten, at the edge of one of the sparse woodland areas in the Netherlands called the Veluwe. His parents had bought a little piece of wood land so Ernst Dirksen spent lots of spare time in the woods. At the age of fourteen he asked for a photo camera for his birthday and started with nature photography in his own little stretch op wood land. He had a very good relation with the local forest keeper and many times he was allowed to accompany the man, especially in the weekends. These trips with the forest keeper gave him many insights in animal behavior and how to photograph them. He learned the importance of studying animal behavior. And how to use this information in planning ’the making of’ the photo he had in mind.

Pine marter stealing an apple © Ernst Dirksen
Pine marten stealing an apple © Ernst Dirksen

Many nature photos show the animals running away from the camera (looking the animals in the butt), because people do not prepare enough. To get the photos he wanted, Ernst sometimes spend several days in a little photo blind. But photographing wildlife has many challenges. Sometimes he experienced that his approach didn’t work or that it was the wrong period. But every time he learned how to improve his preparation in order to get better results. 

Ernst Dirksen always maintained a good relationship with the people controlling of a piece of wood land, both professional forest managers and private owners. In exchange for receiving admission to the area, he offered them photographs he had taken while being in the area in question.

NPOTY Interview Bas van Laarhoven Nature Talks
Fish transfer © Ernst Dirksen

Ernst Dirksen now earns his money by giving tennis lessons and with (bridal) photography. He previously worked for the state forestry departement for ten years. This gave him the opportunity to travel across the country photographing the properties of the forest keepers. Due to his (working) relationship with these forest keepers, he could go everywhere. Including places that are inaccessible to others, such as the vicinity of bird colonies. During this period he learned even more about animal behavior and was also able to photograph much of this behavior.

NPOTY Interview Bas van Laarhoven Nature Talks
Blow flies visiting common stinkhorn © Ernst Dirksen

“My passion for nature photography really came from within myself. My father did a little bit of photography but not too serious. When I was about twenty years old I met Fred Hazelhoff, a famous Dutch nature photographer. Together with Fred Hazelhoff I went to Denmark on several occasions to photograph Red deer (Fred was sometimes referred to as ’the Deer Whisperer’). I’ve learned a lot during these trips with Fred. Another good friend with whom I photographed a lot was Rob Reijnen. My friendship with Rob lasted 25 years and we spend many weekends together out in nature.  When I became a member of the NFG (Dutch photo society) I met Frits van Dalen, a real bird photographer and an inspiration for me.

NPOTY Interview Bas van Laarhoven Nature Talks
Green woodpecker at an old cemetary © Ernst Dirksen

Also nature itself is a source of inspiration. I see nature as an outdoor studio. For example, I once saw the behavior of bearded reedlings on a feeding table and that gave me new ideas. I wanted to imitate that behavior in an outdoor studio, where I have (a large part of) the control.

I also used to give lectures on nature photography, let others look behind the scenes and saw (with pride) that it was imitated. I like to talk about photography without holding back, that’s the teacher in me. And sometimes the people I tell about what and how I photograph do it better than I do. And that challenges me again.”

NPOTY Interview Bas van Laarhoven Nature Talks
Bluethroat on broadleaf cattail © Ernst Dirksen

“I prefer to work on a project basis. I start at home with sketching the desired outcome upfront. One could say I actually take the photo before I even go out to do it. Nowadays I work a lot with flashes and I try to make stroboscopic shots (curtain open for some time during which the flashes fire multiple times). At the moment it’s my challenge to capture in fine detail something that moves super fast. 

Take my ‘pine marten’ project as an example. I wanted to make a photo in which, during a jump between two branches, a pine marten is captured six times in one shot. First I taught the pine marten to jump from one branch to another in search of food. Then I installed the flashes and in addition I used a remote control and a bell and or light to detect the marten at night. I invested a lot of time, tried a lot of different set ups and even left my equipment ‘unmanned’ in the forest, but in the end it didn’t work out. It was an ordeal for me and my wife said I became completely obsessed with this form of photography. But despite te disappointment in the end I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it. 

Later I managed to be successful with the same setup capturing a kingfisher four to five times in a diving photo.

NPOTY Interview Bas van Laarhoven Nature Talks
Kingfisher diving - stroboscopic flash © Ernst Dirksen


“I have always strived for the perfect picture. People used to say that my backgrounds are so beautiful. They said I photographed nature far too beautifully; nature wasn’t that beautiful. And I still strive for perfection and can be annoyed by a wrong twig in the image. My goal is to have the photo 95% finished in the field so I hardly need to do any cropping and little post-processing afterwards. I started with slides many years ago and have always continued to work from that experience.

I also translate my pursuit of perfection into the assignments I present during photo workshops, consistently setting the bar high to provide ample learning opportunities for participants. It is also reflected in the tennis lessons that I give to children. I get back from them that what they learn in one year from me would take five years elsewhere.

I like to be challenged. Over the years, nature photography has risen to great heights, partly thanks to the development of good photographic equipment. I would like to take distinctive photos. That’s why I look at a lot of photos from other photographers, so that I know what has already been photographed. 

NPOTY Interview Bas van Laarhoven Nature Talks
Great cormorant feeding the young © Ernst Dirksen

Like the most of us I started by buying a telephoto lens and then set out to photograph animals, where the animal completely filled the frame. About 15 to 20 years ago I started using a wide angle lens for nature photography. The question arose how I, as a photographer, could get as close as possible to my subject. Then things like using a remote control and/or a photo blind come into play. For example, take a look at my photo of the squirrel looking into the lens. Using a wide-angle lens produces very intimate images, where you can also include the landscape in the photo.

Lately I spend a lot of time with flash and use all kinds of flashes to highlight the forest.

My appeal to nature photographers is to look for new challenges. And if you choose to pick up the telephoto lens again, use it differently than you did before. Challenge yourself and constantly try to renew yourself.”

NPOTY Interview Bas van Laarhoven Nature Talks
Badger at night © Ernst Dirksen


“There is a lot of beautiful nature, but much has also disappeared. Let’s be careful with what is left. I regularly come across sad images; mostly misconduct, many animals killed on purpose. I want to show the beautiful side of nature, but there is a risk that people will think that nature is doing well. And I also want to convey the enjoyment and conservation of nature to other photographers. We should not want to create what we consider to be a perfect picture if this is at the expense of nature. 

If I show how beautiful nature is with my photos, people can start to love it. 

Let me tell you the story of the Goshawk. I remember when one time I knew there was a Goshawk on a private owned piece of land. I offered the lady who owned the land but knew nothing of Goshawks, one of my Goshawk photos and she was over the moon and then gave me permission to photograph on her land. Thanks to my photo, it was decided not to cut down all the trees around the Goshawk’s nest. A little bit of education, pointing out to people what is there and making them part of it, contributes to the preservation and restoration of nature.”

NPOTY Interview Bas van Laarhoven Nature Talks
Northern goshawk wit a caught squirrel © Ernst Dirksen
Photography contest

“I used to not participate in competitions, but now I do because I like to know whether my images appeal. In preparation of the competition, I first explore the work of the jury members. I then try to submit work that matches the work of the same jury members.

For a contribution to competitions, it is important to be able to distinguish between the emotional meaning of a photo for you as a photographer versus the qualitative aspects of a photo for competing in a competition. In my opinion, an important element for competition material is that animals must exhibit (almost human) behavior. For example, the photo of a mother badger getting a kiss from one of the cubs. Or the photo of a squirrel hanging with its hind legs on a stick and stretching completely. For this photo I had made a scaffold so that I could take a photo of the stretching squirrel in a beautiful setting.

I don’t do it to meet colleagues, I see (more than) enough of them in the field. I do want to meet people like Fred Hazelhoff, who are inspiring. A competition is also interesting because it challenges people to show new work. Can top photographers from the early days still excel in the modern era? Some photographers specialize and therefore bring beautiful work to the market, even if they have to work for 10 years. That is also inspiring.”

NPOTY Interview Bas van Laarhoven Nature Talks
Squirrel stretching © Ernst Dirksen
Social Media

“I hardly invest time with social media. I prefer to spend my time outside. I do recognize the value of being visible on social media, but I cannot bring myself to actively work on it. For example, my website is already a few years old, every now and then I ask my daughter to update some things so that it can last for a while. I do admire photographers who make the most of the possibilities of social media to be in the spotlights.

For me, a presence on platforms such as FB and IG is not interesting for obtaining paid assignments. It must be related to my modesty, I don’t need to be in the spotlights.”

At the end of the interview I asked Ernst Dirksen the question: “if you could ask another nature photographer one question, who would that be and which question would you ask?

Ernst Dirksen took a moment and then answered: “I’m curious whether the heroes of the past in the field of nature photography can still distinguish themselves. I would therefore like to ask Frans Lanting whether he can still distinguish himself from the large group of excellent nature photographers, given the current level of nature photography.”

NPOTY Interview Bas van Laarhoven Nature Talks
Kingfisher diving for three-spiked stickleback © Ernst Dirksen

Erik Ruiterman

Hi there! I am Erik Ruiterman. I love birds and photography so I am an enthusiastic nature photographer. I like writing as well so I am a blogger. And because there must be food on the table I also work as a consultant. Due to my training as a fashion photographer my view on 'natural beauty' has change for ever. You can find my portfolio on Nature in Stock. (https://www.natureinstock.com/search?s=ruiterman) My photo adventures often form the basis for my blogs in which I try to view the phenomenon of nature photography in a relative way. For me that is always with a wink and a nod. You can of course find my blogs on this site. But also on topic2.nl.

nature photographer of the year

NPOTY 2025 is opening on December 20th








Conservation project

At Nature Photographer of the Year competition we like to do things different. So therefore we share a percentage of the entry fees and contest profits to nature conservation projects throughout the world. So next to the chance of winning great prizes you also support nature conservation!


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