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Capturing the Wild: An Interview with Theo Allofs

Caption: Snowy owl flying over snow field, Canada COPYRIGHT:©Theo Allofs

Last summer, I went to visit friends in Baku, Azerbaijan. As part of the visit, my friend, Faik, took me to the Heydar Aliyev Centre, famous for its unusual architecture. In case you do not know, Heydar Aliyev was Azerbaijan’s President from 1993 to 2003; his son Ilham Aliyev has been President since then. We went through all of the exhibits and as we were heading out, I noticed a section we had missed “Africa – Untamed”. As we walked through the photo exhibit, I was blown away by the pictures and so was Faik. They had this unique style and perspective that we had never seen before. As we read the descriptions, we learned that the photographer paraglides to take pictures from above without disturbing the herds. As we left the exhibition, I made sure I noted the name of the photographer because I definitely wanted to see more of his work. His name? Theo Allofs.

Caption: Namibia, Namib Desert, Namibrand Nature Reserve, aerial of running zebra herd in desert (Equus burchelli) across plain covered with fairy circles. They are believed to be caused by termites. COPYRIGHT:©Theo Allofs

The striking images throughout this article are the work of Theo Allofs, an international photographer who has been capturing nature’s finest for over 30 years. You might be wondering who is Theo Allofs and why we are writing about him. As the title tells you he is an international photographer. His focus is on nature photography: animals and landscapes. He was born and raised in Germany, but now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has been a professional photographer for over 30 years and has been given awards for his work many times in the past, including receiving 11 awards as part of BBC’s Wildlife Photographer Of The Year. His work has been featured in National Geographic Magazine, Time Magazine and the New York Times.  

Caption: Japan, Japanese Alps, young snow monkeys in hot spring COPYRIGHT:©Theo Allofs

In the middle of a snowstorm in Philadelphia, six months after discovering Theo’s work in Baku, I was thinking about pitches for Freely writers, when a picture from Theo’s latest trip to Japan appeared on my Facebook newsfeed and I realized that he would be a perfect interviewee for Freely Magazine. When I reached out, he kindly agreed to an interview. On a Tuesday morning in a coffee shop in New Orleans, I called him, eager to learn more. . The rest of the article has been written based on our conversation during that phone interview.

Caption: Botswana, Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta, Little bee-eaters (Merops pusillus) huddling together on papyrus branch at sunrise COPYRIGHT:©Theo Allofs

When Theo started out as a photographer, he wanted to find a niche market to fit into because he knew that there were a lot of photographers out there already. He decided to focus on photographing areas that had not already been over-photographed and on species that were not generally seen as charismatic. With the quality improvement of cameras on smartphones, the market for professionals has shrunk considerably and has pushed Theo to innovate in his domain. Few people would turn to an extreme sport, but with the use a powered paraglider to capture pictures from the air, Theo Allofs quite literally dives into the landscapes he is portraying.

Caption: Thorny devil on sand dune; Australia, Western Australia COPYRIGHT:©Theo Allofs

First things first, Theo had to actually learn to paraglide. When he had the idea, he had never even attempted paragliding before. In fact, he was afraid of heights! Eight years ago, Theo signed up for lessons near his home in Phoenix, Arizona. After only a week of lessons, his young instructor gave Theo a one way radio and told him that this was the day that Theo would be going up on his own. He would not be able to contact his instructor, and he would only be listening to him. Despite this initial terror, 8 years later, Theo’s work is admired by many across the globe.  

Caption: Kenya, Rift Valley, lesser flamingos taking off at Lake Bogoria COPYRIGHT:©Theo Allofs

The use of this new technique has meant that Theo mainly travels to countries with a lot of open space. He could not fly over a forest and capture the animals within it as clearly as he could capture the animals in  desert areas. So far, he has paraglided and photographed regions of Australia, Africa, and Japan. While he has photographed South America and Antarctica as well, he hasn’t been able to paraglide there yet.

Juvenile King Penguin; Salisbury Plains, South Georgia COPYRIGHT:©Theo Allofs

One surprising aspect of Theo’s work is that he chooses the projects he works on and once they are completed, he sells those “stories” to magazines. It is quite common for photographers to be assigned projects, but in order to have the freedom to travel wherever he wants, Theo prefers picking his own subjects. This also means that he chooses how long he travels. On average, Theo will go for 4 to 6 weeks to take the set of pictures that he will be using. If he does not get what he wants from that first trip, he will then make a second one. As a result, Theo is also entirely responsible for his own expenses.

Caption: Black-browed albatross feeding chick on nest; Falkland Islands COPYRIGHT:©Theo Allofs

His wife is also a photographer and they generally travel together. They have different photography styles and different methods. For example, only Theo uses a powered paraglider to take photos. His wife stays on the ground and uses drone photography. This combination allows them to cover all points of view during their trips. Style wise, his wife has a more emotional approach to photography, she will focus on capturing the emotions of a particular moment whereas Theo focuses on the composition of his photo.

Caption: Alaska, Katmai Peninsula; Brown bear (Ursus arctos) trying to catch salmon in creek during salmon run in fall COPYRIGHT:©Theo Allofs

But just how did an American Photographer from Phoenix end up having an exhibition in Baku, Azerbaijan? In 2014, Theo accepted an assignment from a Russian agency to accompany a group of tourists to Australia for a week. He soon discovered that the client he was accompanying was the daughter of President Iham Aliyev: Leila Aliyev. She was on a trip to Australia for a week before being the keynote speaker at an IUCN conference. During the trip, Leila Aliyev mentioned that they sometimes held exhibitions within the Aliyev centre and so in 2016, Theo  visited Azerbaijan for the launch of his ‘Africa Untamed” Exhibition. Click here for more details.

Caption: Australia, NSW, Murramarang National Park, Eastern gray kangaroo with joey in pouch on beach at dawn, mother showing tongue, joey looking out of pouch COPYRIGHT:©Theo Allofs

Recently, Theo and his wife launched Wild Focus Expeditions, a tour company. They offer group tours in which they teach the travelers photography techniques. Travelers learn about all aspects of natural photography: light composition, equipment, timing, etc. Generally, for these tours, Theo and his wife take the groups to more touristy places that they might not visit on their own. On their last group trip, they went to the Japanese Alps to photograph the snow monkeys and the red crowned cranes among other animals in Japanese wildlife.

Caption: Botswana, Makgadikgadi Pan, Kalahari, suricate or meerkat (Suricata suricatta), adult standing on photographer’s shoulder. This is a wild (not captured) suricate that has been habituated by humans. They like to climb up on sitting or kneeling humans for a higher vantage point to look out for predators COPYRIGHT:©Theo Allofs

As I was going through Theo’s website to choose which pictures I wanted to include in the article, I wanted to take them all. Making a decision of which ones to take and which ones to leave out was difficult. Since the interview, Theo has released a new album of photos taken in Svalbard (a norwegian archipelago) that is once again full of gorgeous pictures. Check it out here. What is it about Theo’s pictures that has had such a big impact on me? Is it his composition? His choice of subjects? Or is it something else entirely? As I watch the photos, I feel like I am an invisible presence observing the day to day life of these animals. If you ask me, the combination of this impression, the flawless composition and capturing species I am not used to seeing in pictures are Theo’s secret recipe.

I highly recommend you visit Theo’s website and see more of his work: https://theoallofs.photoshelter.com/.

To learn about the tours he offers with his wife visit their website: www.wildfocusexpeditions.com

You can also follow him on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/T.Allofs/ or on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/theo_allofs_photography/ 

This way on days where the sky is grey, your newsfeed is illuminated by these great pictures.

Caption: Namibia; Namib Desert, Skeleton Coast, web-footed gecko, Palmato gecko (Pachydactylus rangei) on sand dune COPYRIGHT:©Theo Allofs.

View more at www.wildfocusexpeditions.com