When Steve Winter’s name was read out as the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2008 at a gala at London’s Natural History Museum in November 2008 it was the culmination of a dream that began when he was a boy in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “From the time I was eight years old,” Steve reveals, “all I ever wanted to be was a National Geographic photographer. I always saw the magazine and watched National Geographic television specials and became fascinated by the great world out there, by all the other cultures and people.” He adds, ironically: “But never in a million years did I ever think I would end up photographing animals.” CPN's John McDermott spoke to him about his career and his photographic pursuit of snow leopards.
There is an air of the rugged outdoorsman about Steve Winter, but one who still has a childlike enthusiasm for his work. Generations of children have been inspired reading National Geographic. Steve turned that inspiration into a career. He began shooting for the iconic magazine with the yellow bordered-cover in 1991 and has been a contributing photographer since 1995. And it was his stunning nocturnal photograph of an elusive snow leopard, shot in India on assignment for National Geographic, which brought him the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year prize.
After graduating with a degree in photography from the Academy of Art and University of San Francisco, Steve worked as a photo assistant for current Canon Ambassador and National Geographic editor-at-large Michael Nichols, then a freelancer based in San Francisco. That gig lasted almost five years. Steve is clear about the importance of assisting to his career: “School was great. But working as an assistant really changed my life. That was when I got my real education. It was like an old-fashioned apprenticeship. You learn a lot technically, but you also learn the business, about how to work with editors and art directors.”
Eventually Steve became a freelance photojournalist with the famed Black Star agency, that's based in New York, shooting feature stories for magazines and non-profit organisations as well as doing corporate assignments. He had started out wanting to photograph other people and their cultures. But a Black Star corporate assignment for Merck Pharmaceuticals was to change the direction of his career.
Steve explains: “They sent me to document the search for new drugs at the National Biodiversity Institute in Costa Rica. I went to a rainforest for the very first time and was absolutely blown away by what I saw and by the scientists I worked with for six weeks. I had never shot any natural history before. That assignment changed my life, and the focus of what I wanted to do. I realised I wanted to capture the passion and energy of these scientists and bring their stories to the reader.”
Breaking into the photographic rotation at National Geographic is a notoriously difficult thing to achieve. Steve’s entrée turned out to be through World, the National Geographic’s magazine for children. As a photographer, Steve had always been a storyteller with a particular interest in communicating with children. He introduced the idea of including children the same age as the magazine’s readers in the stories he shot about scientists working, for example, on how to save a particular endangered species.
This approach proved popular with young readers and Steve shot many stories for World over the next couple of years. The editors of National Geographic eventually took notice and gave him his big chance in 1991. He was sent to Guatemala to shoot a story on the country’s national bird, the quetzal. It would be just the first in a long series of natural history stories for Steve.
The snow leopard story that led to Steve’s recent award was the most technically and physically challenging assignment of his career. It involved working with a team of scientists and support staff to find and photograph the endangered cat in its frigid high-altitude habitat in northern India’s Hemis National Park. Steve has described the experience as: “a collaboration between myself, the team and the snow leopard.” Pulling off this difficult assignment also involved a significant collaboration with Canon.
Steve explains: “When I told my friend Bill Frakes, the Sports Illustrated photographer, about the snow leopard story he suggested that I check out a ‘unique’ Canon lens that he had used successfully - the EF1200mm f/5.6L USM. Very few of these were made and it is a spectacular lens. I contacted Canon Professional Services in Europe - people I had gotten to know at Photokina - and they located one and put it at our disposal.” The lens is the largest and heaviest that Canon makes, in fact the behemoth travelled the final leg of the journey to Steve’s 13,000 feet base camp on the back of its very own pack horse.
The effort to get the ‘monster’ lens in position paid off almost immediately. Steve’s cook doubled as a lookout, scanning the mountainsides with binoculars whenever he wasn’t busy preparing the team’s meals. On only the second day he spotted some movement and shouted, “Look at the top of that ridge!” Steve quickly mounted the 1200mm lens with a 1.4x extender on a big tripod and began scanning the mountain. “It was incredible,” he recalls. There was one snow leopard, then, soon after, another one. Steve recorded a sequence of the cats moving along the ridgeline of the mountain at dusk. He continues: “I was able to shoot in a way I never could before because I had never had a 1200mm lens. We were several thousand metres away from the cats and the lens performed magnificently.”
As impressive as these pictures were, the best was yet to come. But it would require a lot of patience, 13 months worth, and a lot of cameras - 14 in all. The relatively small size of the cats in the pictures taken with the 1200mm lens is testament to how difficult it is to get close to these animals. Steve knew that his best chance at getting an intimate portrait of the snow leopard would be with a remote camera, a technique that had never been one of his favourites.
Steve explains: “A remote camera essentially just gives you a record of an animal and that’s it. I need to control the composition and lighting as I would if I were holding the camera to my eye and if I can’t do that I feel I’ve failed. But I decided to try and see if I could make these ‘camera traps’ work better for me in this situation. The snow leopard is an animal that happens to be a perfect species for this approach. It tends to mark a very specific area as its territory. I equated those areas with movie sets. I set up cameras and lit the ‘set’. I knew the actor - the snow leopard - would eventually arrive.” And arrive it did.
Steve set up each of the 14 cameras with three flashguns and placed everything inside waterproof, plexiglass housings. His choice of camera was somewhat surprising. While image quality is the overriding concern, cost is also always a consideration, even at National Geographic. It was decided that Steve would use 14 inexpensive Canon EOS 350D bodies, each equipped with an EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM zoom lens. The camera would fire whenever an animal broke the beam of an infrared trigger wired to the shutter release. Steve and his team set up the camera traps and then went away, returning every few months to check for results and to reposition cameras as necessary.
In the end, Steve was thrilled to have captured what he calls: “the picture I had dreamed of - a wild snow leopard in its true element.” The irony of winning the highest honour a wildlife photographer can attain using the least expensive digital SLR body that Canon makes, a camera primarily aimed at serious amateurs, is not lost on Steve. “It just shows the quality of the Canon gear. It was minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit at night and the cameras worked flawlessly! There were no compromises. We were able to publish double page spreads in the magazine with images from the smaller sensor in the 350D.”
Steve has always been a Canon shooter and his loyalty to the brand is total, and based on a career’s worth of performance. He elaborates: “I started out buying 'Nick' Nichols’ used Canon gear when I was student and have used Canon ever since. It’s tough out there in the field and I’ve had such success with the reliability of Canon from the beginning." Steve reveals: "What we put our lenses and cameras through on assignment for National Geographic is incredible. Working in tough environments for months at a time - in a tropical rainforest or in the freezing Himalayas - and I’ve never had a problem.”
Steve adds: “Canon doesn’t break down. And when Canon introduces a new product it always seems as if a photographer has been part of the design process. I’m not a techie. For me a camera is just a tool. But you might as well have the best. Maybe it’s my mid-western roots, but I’m very loyal to products when they work this well for me.”
Steve makes use of the complete range of EF lenses, but has two personal favorites: the EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM, which he likes to use coupled to a 1.4x teleconverter, and the EF400mm f/4 DO IS USM. And like other photographers who do a lot of hand-held work with telephoto lenses Steve is grateful for Image Stabilization (IS). He elaborates: “It makes a big difference in how you shoot. I look at it as giving me the opportunity to work in very dark environments in a way I couldn’t before IS. And I love using it with flash. It gives a great effect.”
Steve’s commitment to the cause of conservation isn’t limited to his work for National Geographic. Along with other acclaimed wildlife shooters such as 'Nick' Nichols, Art Wolfe, Frans Lanting, Daniel Beltra and Norbert Rosing, Steve is an active member of the International League of Conservation Photographers. The organisation’s mission is to translate conservation science into compelling visual messages that convey the beauty and wonder of the natural world and the challenges facing it.
In 2009 he will expand his professional footprint through an association with Panthera, an organisation that was founded in 2006 with the sole mission of conserving the world's 36 species of wild cats. His role with Panthera will complement his photography for National Geographic. Steve will work alongside Panthera’s scientists and conservationists, many of who have been his collaborators on past stories for the magazine, in their efforts to ensure a long-term future for cats. He says: “I’m so excited about this. I get a lot of gratification knowing that somehow, with what we do, we’re helping to educate people about the work of these people who are trying to save these animals and ecosystems.”
With upcoming assignments for the National Geographic magazine, and his new role with Panthera, Steve Winter will soon be busier than ever. Not discounting all the hard work he’s put into his career, Steve knows he’s a lucky man. He states: “Photography was the only thing I thought I could make money doing that would also make me happy. So I feel very fortunate to have realised my dream. I have the best job in the world.”
Steve Winter’s equipment:
3x EOS 5D
2x EOS-1D Mark III
EF28mm f/1.8 USM
EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM
EF300mm f/4L IS USM
EF400mm f/4.0 DO IS USM
EF600mm f/4L IS USM
EF1200mm f/5.6L USM
Extender 1.4x II
2x Gitzo tripods
2x Minolta light meters
3x Apple laptop computers, all equipped with APERTURE
5x 1TB La Cie External Hard Drives
4x La Cie 250gb External Hard Drives
2x Yamaha 1000 Generators
Thuraya Sat Phones
Iridium Sat Phone
BGAN Explorer 100 Sat Internet
30x 2gb SanDisk Extreme III cards
4x 16gb SanDisk Extreme IV cards
6x 8gb SanDisk Extreme IV cards
10x 4gb SanDisk Extreme III cards
Remote camera set-up, each includes:
Pelican Waterproof Case 1550 Grey
1x Camera trigger, TrailMaster PS Receiver
1x Camera trigger, TrailMaster Transmitter
1x EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM
1x Canon Rebel XT
Biography: Steve Winter
After graduating with a degree in photography Steve Winter worked as an assistant to current Canon Ambassador Michael Nichols for five years and then worked freelance for the Black Star agency. He worked for National Geographic’s magazine for younger readers, World, before getting his first National Geographic assignment in 1991. He became a National Geographic contributing photographer in 1995 and in November 2008 won the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2008 award.