Wild and Exciting: Inside the Unconventional Lives of Wildlife Photographers
Published on May 24, 2013
May is National Photography Month, an event created to celebrate photography and photographers. In honor of the monthlong event, we decided to take a look at one of the most interesting areas in the field: wildlife photography. From Antarctica to Kenya, wildlife photographers travel the world taking pictures of animals that let us look into their lives in a way we otherwise would never see.
A Life in the Wild
California-based photographer Suzi Eszterhas specializes in family life and conservation, taking her love of baby animals and using it to tell a story with her pictures.
“Family life is a great backdrop for telling a story. There’s the drama of an animal growing up, learning to face down predators or find food,” Eszterhas says. “It started as a great stage for telling a story about different animals.”
She has traveled to all seven continents and says that while wildlife, in reality, is not as action-packed as many people see in documentaries, with some patience the experience can be exhilarating.
“You have to be patient and wait for the right moment, but when it happens it can be super exciting and makes up for the downtime,” she says.
Julie Larsen Maher, staff photographer for the Wildlife Conservation Society, says the life of a wildlife photographer is definitely not a 9-to-5 job. Maher has traveled to more than 60 countries, including Ecuador and Madagascar.
“No two days are ever the same, and that’s probably the best part of it!” Maher says.
Four 6-week-old black-backed jackal pups at sunset at the Masai Mara Triangle, Kenya.
A 7- to 8-week-old lion cub approaches an adult male at the Masai Mara Reserve, Kenya.
Adelie penguins jumping off an iceberg at Paulet Island, Antarctica.
African elephant in Uganda.
African lions in Uganda.
African lion in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, an area known for lions that climb trees.
Brooks Falls in Alaska's Katmai National Park and Preserve is a popular tourist spot. Bears pack the falls there, catching salmon as they swim upstream.
A mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) stretches to reach a mineral lick in the Walton area of Glacier National Park in Montana. Wonder how this one performed such a death-defying feat? Very carefully. Mountain goats make their living by taking each step very seriously. Using splayed, rubbery hooves that grip rock surfaces, this female started by placing all four feet on the tiny ledge where her back feet are shown in the photo. She then pushed out and wedged into the crevice using her front hooves to bridge the gap, licking any salt on the rocks around her. To get out, she reversed the procedure, again placing all four feet on the same little ledge, turning around slowly until she could exit, uphill and to the left.
A polar bear, fresh from feeding on whale remains, peeks in the window of a truck near Kaktovik, Alaska.
Dealing With Danger
Conditions out in the wild can be difficult, with some places lacking electricity and running water. Eszterhas spent three years living in a bush camp in Africa and calls the conditions “crazy.”
“There was no toilet, and for the first year and a half there was no electricity. I even drove around on my own,” Eszterhas says. “I did hire security since I was living as a woman alone. It took some guts to do and was an incredible experience.”
Eszterhas says that more than worrying about the animals out in the wild, it’s important to worry about the people. Wildlife photographers travel to many politically troubled areas where there is economic or cultural unrest. It’s important to be aware of these conditions and respectful to both the people and animals in the area. For these reasons, Maher works closely with local field staff and wildlife experts wherever she goes to respect the wildlife and cultures around her.
Still, these photographers have done a few things some people may consider crazy. Many people can’t imagine spending five months outside a jackal den, but Eszterhas has done it. Maher once worked with lion conservationists in a Uganda national park where she had only a spotlight to capture what the lions were doing during the night.
Joel Sartore has worked as a photographer with National Geographic for more than 20 years and has done some particularly interesting things to capture the right moment, including placing a remote trigger camera in a dead deer and throwing it to a pack of hungry wolves. He has also been in dangerous situations when trying to get photos, from close calls in aircraft to being stuck in a van in the high Arctic for more than half an hour as a polar bear tried to break inside.
“It’s not without risk, but you have to go out thinking you’ll be OK because you’ve done your homework,” Sartore says. “You have to minimize the danger. You can’t shoot pictures if you’re dead!”
Advice for Shooting Wildlife Photos
All different kinds of people are interested in wildlife and want to photograph it, whether as a hobby or career. Eszterhas leads wildlife photography tours, and many people who take part are doctors, lawyers and veterinarians who take photos as a hobby.
“They just love to do it and want to learn more, to have someone put them in the right place at the right time,” Eszterhas says.
For young people interested in pursuing this as a career, Eszterhas advises starting to shoot locally. Maher agrees that anyone interested in the field should shoot as often as possible.
“You have to practice, practice, practice. Whether it’s on your pet in your own backyard or at a zoo,” Maher says.
Sartore says being self-motivated is an important quality for all wildlife photographers to have. “Generally you won’t have a boss to tell you to get out of bed at 3:30 in the morning to get first light. You need to be nervous about getting great light, since it only happens twice a day,” Sartore says.
All three photographers agree patience is perhaps the biggest virtue needed in the field. While people might think Eszterhas must have been bored sitting outside a jackal den for five months, her patience resulted in a variety of interesting images.
“Every day is so different since wildlife is unpredictable,” Eszterhas says. “You can have a day where you don’t take a single photo and another where you shoot 3,000!”
Sartore says it's not enough to take the same types of shots that have been seen before. Aspiring photographers have to make their work stand out. To do this, he says, it’s important to shoot what’s going on around the animal and tell the whole story, even if that means including the bulldozer in the background that is completely altering the animals’ habitat.
“It’s important to realize your work can make the world a better place and effect positive change if you go about it in the right way,” Sartore says. “You need to tell the whole story and do it well. That’s when you’ll have a satisfying photo essay.”