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
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.
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 .”
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