This page represents an interview I had the honour to conduct with National Geographic wildlife photographer Steve Winter, see him speak, and share his photos. His passion for big cats and their survival shines through everything we discussed. The text below has remained virtually unchanged since the interview in 2015.
Some of us do get to live out our dream.
National Geographic Wildlife Photographer Steve Winter is one of those few. Aside from being an incredibly talented and patient photographer, Steve Winter is a nice guy.
Down to earth and friendly, he speaks with a passion and enthusiasm that beams through in the stories he tells; sometimes with words, more often with photos. I was lucky enough to get to interview him last week.
Steve was given his first camera at age seven and began learning about photography from his dad. Only a year later, at the young age of 8, he knew he wanted to be a National Geographic photojournalist, and since 1991 he has been living the dream of just about every photographer I know, myself included.
An interview with Steve Winer
Q. When I was young, I had photos of lions hanging on my walls. I wanted to be a National Geographic big cat photographer. I was young and it appeared glamorous and exciting, which after reading several of your articles, I know that it isn’t. What’s it really like?
I know there is no typical day, but how about the steps involved in doing one of your assignments for National Geographic?
I think one of the important things is the preparation that nobody knows about. Let’s talk about my current India one. I had to spend months to be able to work in a Tiger Reserve (in National Parks); I have to go through the National Tiger Conservation Authority and then go to the Ministry of Environment to get permits.
Even before that I have to talk to people to find out where I would find leopards, what would be interesting to the readers and what are the conflict issues with these animals since they do live close to humans. Next, I run all this by my editor and we try to figure out what to do and what not to do. I have to be sure that all those things are possible while I’m in country and then get those permits.
Finally I get a visa, which this time took 2 ½ months, much longer than normal and the whole shoot lost quite a bit of time. It was terrible. Instead of having 2 months in India and one month in Sri Lanka I had one month in India.”
Q. How big is your team?
I keep it small. I use a lot of local people because who knows better about the animals around where I want to work than the people that actually live there. So I have three (local) guys in Mumbi and I have two people that work for me
. Nowadays, the way technology is even with a TV show you can get away with not too many people. You don’t want too many people doing animals in my estimation. Some people would disagree.”
Q. So who keeps you safe?
I rely on the people that I work with, the local people, and I rely on my experience. I also rely on the fact that fear is a very important part of our nature. If you are not fearful, you are foolish and maybe dead.
I didn’t know any of this. I learned it by experience. People will asked me “How do you get so close to that animal?” and every once in a while in the beginning I thought, ‘what am I doing here?’ And then I turn to the person that I’m with, going, you know what you’re doing so I don’t have to worry. Other people ask, ‘Do you always have a gun with you?‘ How about 10% of the time or less.
You have to use the knowledge of the people that you’re working with to keep you safe and your experience. I’ve seen people do stupid things and (thought), not only are they going to get themselves killed, but they might get me killed. Guess what; that is not in the game plan. I have a family and I’ve made it 25 years doing this without being injured by anything other than microscopic animals, which are bad enough, so I’ve been lucky.”
Q. Are you still shooting with Canon and using Apple software?
Yep. There’s a couple of us that are not giving up on (Apple’s) Aperture yet and Canon is my brand, though our remote cameras now are Nikons, but it’s for a very specific reason. It’s a pain carrying Nikon lenses and cameras for your camera traps and all Canon gear for everything else. Canon UK and Canon USA are wonderful and they are supporting us.”
Q. How much set-up goes into each of those photos that you have on National Geographic Magazines?
It really depends. The last mountain lion story I did was obviously primarily camera traps. Like snow leopards, you are going to be lucky if you see one, and if you do you better have an incredibly long lens. So a lot of set up. Let’s pick Hollywood cougars as an example: I spent months working with the biologist that collars the cats north of LA in the Santa Monica National Recreation Area. He put a collar on a cat, but it didn’t work so I get a grant then we can find out where the cat goes.
Then I walk all of the trails in Griffith Park trying to figure out where this cat goes so I can get the Hollywood sign and LA (in the background). I move the camera five times. It took 15 months to get the picture altogether. It’s an incredible amount of work that people don’t realize. I need to find the spot where I would put that camera where I would take the picture myself; As if I were lying on the ground and the cat would actually walk by, which it wouldn’t because it would smell me. You can’t do it with a long lens because it’s illegal to be in the park after ten o’clock at night.”
(Referring to his recent trip to India)
Once you start meeting people, and people know you’re an honest guy, and trust you, that’s one of the biggest things you need to do; is to gain people’s trust. In India they said we trust you because your National Geographic but our local media
just wants to show all the bad stuff.”
Q. The world of photojournalism is changing. You studied fine arts and photography. What advice and cautions do you have for young people looking for a photojournalism career?
Well I would say that for me I don’t think it’s actually changed. I ended up going to IU with my high school buddies. However, I would tell everybody that I think University of Missouri is still the best (for photojournalism). We work with them closely at National Geographic. After IU I went around the world and ended up in Art School. What did I learn in Art School? How to have fun. I got my education as an assistant when I left school. Being an assistant is really vital because you learn on the job training.
And learning to be a visual story teller. You can take this from Bob Gilka who said it back in the 70s, show me a story that somebody did 15 miles from where they live and I like it, I’ll give them a job. Most people think they have to travel halfway around the world to see exotic cultures to be able to do a story. No, there’s a story probably right where you live, within the distance that you can see, family, someone down the street, some organization down the street, in your town, etc. I ended up doing this totally by accident. It didn’t cost much to do it except in time and gas. I worked at the same time.
I will tell you I have watched the director of photography at National Geographic look at portfolios and you don’t think she’s looking, but she spent 25 years as a National Geographic Photographer. She’s not looking for those single images, though she is, but she’s looking for that story, primarily because that’s what we do, we tell stories.
If every image is killer you’re really lucky but if they at least tell a visual story then you’ve done your job and the hardest part of doing this when you’re young and when you’re older is being a tough editor. I’m a crappy editor. I need someone to help me tell the story because I’m too personally involved in the images. You really have to be able to tell a story, whether its in words, or images or moving images and the best place to do it is close to home, I believe.”
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I opted not to repeat the traditional background questions that he has answered so many times before. If you want to read about how he got started check out one of these articles:
- Steve Winter, Wildlife Photojournalist, Speaker, Presenter (From SteveWinterPhoto.com)
- Behind the Lens with Steve Winter (Popular Photography)
- Steve Winter (The Photo Society)
Check out Steve Winter’s book
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If you can’t make one of his presentations, or even if you can check out Steve Winter’s book: Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat
What most fascinated you about Steve Winter?
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