May 7

How do you prepare for a Skype interview with one of the world’s leading wildlife photographers – or photojournalists (a big difference as you’ll soon read) – Steve Winter, whose breathtaking images of big cats around the world have resulted in positive conservation gains for species?

At ARKive, it’s a no-brainer. You turn to your audience of incredibly passionate nature fans who are bursting at the seams with meaningful questions on all things wildlife imagery and conservation. A few weeks ago, we asked you to send us the one burning question you would ask if you were about to Skype with Steve Winter. He is currently in the throes of capturing emotive images of the illegal tiger trade in India. Working with author Sharon Guynup, Steve has chronicled everything from the tiger black market to tiger sanctuaries ill-equipped to handle today’s sophisticated poachers.

A tiger photographed inside Bandhavgarh.

A male tiger in Bandhavgarh National Park, India
(Photo by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

We randomly selected five of your questions and each of them buzzed through my head in advance of the interview last week as I patiently waited for Steve’s Skype name to turn from translucent to green. It turned green, he called, and the interview was on…

“If you don’t tell the story, all the pretty pictures in the world won’t do a thing.”

Rafael asked, “How did you wind up on the wildlife and conservation photographer path?”

While Steve was very happy to answer this question, he was adamant about making one thing very clear from the beginning. “I don’t want the label ‘wildlife photographer’. I more consider myself a photojournalist with a conservation concentration. Being a photojournalist, you have to tell the story of the photography, the people, the environment and the animals. If you don’t tell the story, all the pretty pictures in the world won’t do a thing. All the incredible beautiful parts of the wild and species we work with doesn’t make a difference unless you tell the story.”

I had never heard this concept explained quite so elegantly before and I couldn’t help but completely agree with Steve.

Tourists at the Tiger Temple in Thailand view a “tiger enrichment” show. Young tigers entertain tourists daily, but adults rarely leave tiny, decrepit cages and are often beaten. There is documented proof of sales to tiger farms in Laos that illegally traffic tiger parts. (Photo by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

Tourists at the Tiger Temple in Thailand view a ‘tiger enrichment’ show. Young tigers entertain tourists daily, but adult tigers rarely leave tiny, decrepit cages and are often beaten. There is documented proof of sales to tiger farms in Laos that illegally traffic tiger parts.
(Photo by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

So, how did Steve end up sitting atop the back of an elephant in India taking pictures of one of the world’s most threatened big cats? He explains, “I got a job with Merck Pharmaceuticals photographing species in the Costa Rican rainforest and it changed my life 180 degrees. I didn’t know anything about being a wildlife photographer and I viewed what I was doing as photojournalism. I always wanted to be a National Geographic photographer but never thought in a million years I would be a wildlife photographer. I started as a photojournalist and having a concentration on the natural world happened in Costa Rica while working for Merck. It’s where it all began.”

“Camera traps are so worthwhile because you can put them places you can’t go.”

Sascha asked, “When is the best time of day to photograph a tiger?”

Just as Stefano Unterthiner answered in our last wildlife photographer interview, Steve said, “It’s the same as most wildlife photography – early morning and late evening but also whenever a tiger is moving. Tigers are cats so they sleep most of the time and they will be moving by the time you’re allowed to go find them in the tiger parks and up to the time you are forced to leave the tiger parks at dusk.”

Steve then went on to explain more about his technique in capturing powerful images of such an elusive species. “It’s one of the reasons camera traps are so worthwhile because you can put them places you can’t go. For a normal story, depending on the species, a camera trap will encompass 10 to 20% of the images, sometimes more for the rarer animals. They give you an opportunity to investigate and understand an animal’s movements and behavior. With that knowledge, which is given to you by scientists, researchers, and local people, you’re able to find locations similar to where you might set up a blind or hide. I use camera traps and a wide angle lens at a close-up, intimate location similar to where I would focus my long telephoto lens if I was using a standard camera. Using the camera trap, I center on a spot in the frame using an infrared beam to get the animal front and center. I know exactly where the animal is going to be.”

Mirchani Tigress cubs at the Patpara Nala waterhole and fence traps.

A camera trap captures 14-month-old sibling cubs cooling off in a watering hole. Bandhavgarh National Park, India.
(Photo by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

Camera traps were the tool of choice used to capture the incredible, iconic Hollywood cougar image which, Steve shared, took 15 months of trials and preparation to achieve!

“There are just so many moments out in the wilderness that transcends anything in your life.”

Claudie asked, “For you, personally, what is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen in a tiger?”

Steve didn’t hesitate a moment before answering, “Everything.” He then continued to say two of the most profound statements of the entire interview, in my opinion.  “There are just so many moments out in the wilderness that transcends anything in your life. It brings you closer to the whole universe, not just the animal.” He went on to tell the story behind the cover image for his new book, Tigers Forever, a pictorial and factual tribute to the tigers of India and Southeast Asia, the life they live, and the threats they encounter every single day. “The cover picture of my book, Tigers Forever, marked a moment in nature for me. I waited 24 days for the image, much of it on top of an elephant and the other part in a jeep. Just the fact that everything came together…it really was a moment, just 10 seconds! I got five frames and one of them was the moment.”

Tigers Forever cover photo

A wary three-month-old cub briefly investigates our intrusion before ducking behind his mother. This tigress gave birth in the same remote cave where she was born.
(Photo by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

He then described the transcendental experience of seeing a tiger in the wild. “You look into a tiger’s eye and it’s primeval. It takes you back to caveman times in your brain because it’s an absolutely amazing animal to me. I don’t like to have favorites because they are all special and have their own uniqueness to them. You become close to any species you work on for months or even years.”

“Just like an old western movie on horses, branches try to knock you off the back of a running elephant.”

Azhurel asked, “What’s your scariest encounter?”

Luckily, Steve shared that he hasn’t encountered any scary moments while working on tigers in India. However, he did recall a very scary moment while on assignment in Kaziranga National Park, India.

“I was on an elephant photographing rhinos but we were attacked by a rhino. The elephant tried to defend himself and was bit by the rhino. The elephant turned 180 degrees away and ran towards the forest. In the commotion, we lost the gun.” The rhino continued to chase the elephant, with Steve on top, for at least 300 yards into the forest and the only way the rhino relented was after repeated jabs with a long bamboo pole that Steve’s camera was attached to.  “Just like an old western movie on horses, branches try to knock you off the back of a running elephant!”

“It’s vital that we help when we can to bring the public to the story.”

Bernie asked, “In your words, how does wildlife photography support species protection and conservation?”

And in Steve’s own words, he answered, “How can you work on something without wanting your pictures to make a difference, support education, and give people a reason to care?  As a wildlife photojournalist, you don’t want the conversation to end on the pages of National Geographic magazine. You want the conversation to begin. Telling the story is important but in the end you want it to go further. Fundraisers and giving images to scientists and organizations you work with helps. It’s vital that we help when we can to bring the public to the story. That’s what protects the species.”

A male tiger crosses open grasslands in early morning. Bandhavgarh National Park, India.

A male tiger crosses open grasslands in early morning. Bandhavgarh National Park, India.(Photo by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

“In India, it’s difficult and I’m doing what I can there. Our book, Tigers Forever, shares the story with the public and our 10 years of efforts there. The book isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning.”

So, why not start your own journey now! Have a look at the ARKive tiger page with nearly 200 images and film clips as well as a full biological fact-file. Or, learn how the kids of India are doing their part to make a difference for tigers. Finally, you can pick up your own copy of Tigers Forever with 10% of the proceeds donated to Panthera, the world’s largest big cat conservation organization.

Liana Vitali, Education & Outreach Manager, Wildscreen USA

Jan 31

A typical work day for many of us includes 8 hours toiling away in front of a computer screen seated in a cushioned chair shuffling through emails, reports and meeting notes. However, a typical work day for wildlife and conservation photographer Stefano Unterthiner couldn’t be more different.

Wandering albatross pair being photographed by Stefano Unterthiner

ngm_jan_2014_cvr 2

Capturing images of spectacular wildlife across the globe in all weather conditions imaginable is a typical day-in-the-life for Stefano and most recently, Stefano was lugging his camera equipment across various Indonesian islands in 90⁰F steamy heat following the footsteps of the closest thing we have on Earth to real dragons … the Komodo dragon.  Photographing this strong, lethal but vulnerable species was the challenge for Stefano while on assignment for National Geographic capturing amazing photographs for Once Upon a Dragon, an article in this month’s issue of the magazine focusing on the history and future of these prehistoric-looking reptiles.

Komodo dragon image ©Stefano Unterthiner/National Geographic

Saliva dangling, a dragon shows off its wide strut on Rinca at low tide. The lizard’s spit is venomous, but prey usually die from being torn apart—or, if they are bitten but manage to escape, from infection of their wounds. ©Stefano Unterthiner/National Geographic

In a rare opportunity to get a behind-the-lens glimpse of life as a wildlife & conservation photographer, we worked with National Geographic to interview Stefano about his experience in the field for the article. Before the interview, we invited you, our amazing followers, to ask your questions about wildlife & conservation photography, the behind-the-scenes stories about Stefano’s work for the article, and his thoughts on the power of wildlife photography in raising awareness of threatened species. We think you’re going to love his answers!

“I was pretty happy when I got the shot.” 

Mike asked, “Can you tell us a story behind one or more of your images in the article?” 

Stefano shared that one of the pictures he particularly liked didn’t actually appear in the magazine but it’s an image of a Komodo dragon lying in the middle of vegetation just before dusk (it’s the twelfth picture on the page). It was very difficult to actually find the dragons, even with the help of the ranger, but also to figure out the right lighting and angles since it was so close to dusk. He said, “from a technical point of view, it was probably the most challenging photograph I ever took since I needed to find the dragon in the right position while it was nearly dark and then also position the light correctly. My wife was actually holding the light over the dragon for me. But after it was done, I was pretty happy when I got the shot”.

“I feel in danger all of the time.” 

Dave asked, “Was there ever a time when you felt like you were in danger?”

Stefano shared that actually,”I feel in danger all the time. You have to otherwise you take too much risk”. He went on to say that this assignment was probably one of the most difficult jobs in his life. “You can never forget that the animal is so deadly. In the very beginning, I started working with the animals just learning about them. I started taking photographs with the polecam (a camera attached to a long handle) but you can’t really control the composition, focus, light, etc., so I started working with the hand camera always with a ranger behind me.” He recalled one occasion when he was photographing a dragon from a tree to get a different perspective. The ranger told him when it was OK for him to jump down. “I didn’t realize that when I jumped down, the dragon could feel the vibration on the ground exactly where I jumped. Luckily, I moved a millimeter away from where I landed and the dragon just missed me with its mouth. It was my fault because I wasn’t as aware of the animal as I should have been .”

Komodo Dragon photo

A female dragon tastes the air on Rinca Island, part of Komodo National Park. Each tine of the forked tongue picks up molecules from prey or carrion to carry to a sensory organ in the mouth. A high concentration guides the way. ©Stefano Unterthiner/National Geographic

“The local people aren’t actually a threat to the species. They have respect for the dragons.”

Mattia asked, “How do you think your recent work could help to change the perception of Komodo dragons through local people and policy makers? Do you believe your images could be a useful tool against harmful behavior to this species (invasive tourism, poaching, etc.)?”

Stefano answered that, “for the Komodo dragon, the local people aren’t actually a threat to the species. They have a respect for the dragons.” In the Once Upon a Dragon article, it was shared that islanders historically would leave some of the spoils from their successful deer hunts out for their reptilian neighbors. Stefano stressed that, “the opportunity to help the species is with the policymakers who can make decisions like creating new habitat space for the dragons on other islands, especially where there are larger deer populations [the dragon's preferred prey]. I hope policymakers will see my images and encourage more support for the dragons.”

“I just follow what I love.”

Lisa asked, “What first inspired you on the wildlife & conservation photographer path?”

Stefano answered this question simply and poetically by stating it wasn’t a single event or even a particular person that inspired him on the wildlife & conservation photographer path. He said, “Nature is my inspiration.” The natural world gives him all the motivation to follow his path and what seems to keep him on the path is his desire to help conserve it. He simply stated, “I just follow what I love”, fantastic advice for just about any situation in life!

Stefano follows his love for nature to all corners of the world including Sulawesi where he captured this award-winning portrait of a crested-black macaque

“There is no magic solution; it’s a lot of hard work.”

Ceres asked, “What do you think is one of the greatest difficulties for someone trying to get into the field of wildlife and conservation photography?”

Stefano shared that in his opinion, the best thing a person with aspirations to become a wildlife & conservation photographer can do is to, “be yourself, take photos from your own perspective, and pick species that are interesting to you. There is no magic solution; it’s a lot of hard work. There are lots of photographers out there and the key is to do something new to help you stand out from the pack.”

“The hardest shots are the ones I never got.”

Kristin asked, “What’s the hardest shot you ever took? What made it so hard to get?”

Stefano shared, “Honestly, the hardest shots are the ones I never got.” He went on to describe that there are often times images in his head and he tries in vain to capture them in nature but sometimes, it just never works out. “But one picture I am thinking of in my head is when I was on my first assignment for National Geographic to photograph king penguins. It was the last day of shooting and I wanted to capture an image of the penguins and orca in the same shot together. I had hiked 4 miles to the coast and while there, it started pouring down rain. The whales were swimming in the surf and then the king penguins entered the ocean.  It was lot of time and work to get to the place where I took the shot but for a few minutes when I finally got [the shot], it was perfect.” You can see the penguin and orca image on his website; it’s the 15th image on the page.

“If you want to really make a change, you need partners. ARKive and National Geographic are those partners.”

I asked Stefano if he had any parting thoughts on his komodo dragon assignment or wildlife & conservation photography in general.

“My idea of conservation photography is that everybody wants to think they are going to help change the world but there’s more to it. I’m lucky to work with organizations like ARKive and National Geographic because, if  I’m doing my job as a conservation photographer, I need to partner with others to spread the word further. Conservation photography isn’t just about the photograph. It is being able to work with people and organizations with the same aim as yourself. I believe this is very important especially for the young people starting out in wildlife & conservation photography. If you want to really make a change, you need partners. ARKive and National Geographic are those partners.”

What an incredible note to end the interview! Now that you’ve heard his stories, take a moment to read the wonderful article, Once Upon a Dragon, in National Geographic magazine on news stands now.

Stefano Unterthiner is an avid supporter and contributor to ARKive and we’re very fortunate to be able to share his stunning imagery with students, teachers, conservationists and more around the world. Have a look at our Stefano Unterthiner MyARKive Scrapbook to browse all of his stunning images on ARKive.

Liana Vitali, ARKive Education & Outreach Manager, Wildscreen USA

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