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Joe Petersburger: getting closer to nature

Joe Petersburger: getting closer to nature

© Joe Petersburger/National Geographic

January 2013

National Geographic Stock photographer Joe Petersburger’s dogged determination to find a unique view of the natural world has earned him an impressive array of international photography awards. CPN writer Mark Alexander spoke to him to find out more about his close-up approach to wildlife and nature photography.

Joe Petersburger tries to avoid situations where his life could be in danger. He does this by meticulously researching the locations for his shoots and assessing the dangers they present. Knowing which local snakes are poisonous and which ones aren’t, for instance, can not only save his life but also helps avoid undue stress and worry.

His survival techniques have served him well, although even the best photographers make mistakes. Petersburger remembers a close call in Transylvania, Romania, when he made an uncharacteristic error while visiting a couple of brown bear cubs that had been rescued after their mother had died. Ignoring the advice of their handler, the Hungarian photographer continued with the shoot rather than offering up food to the cubs first.

“One bear hit me, well he actually hit my camera, and I fell to the ground. I was knocked out for a couple of minutes,” he recalls. “That was when I realised the power of wild animals. This bear wasn’t aggressive – it was just reminding me that I had to give him some food first.” It seems knowing the dangers associated with your subjects is a lesson wildlife photographers have to learn quickly.

Petersburger has been enthralled by wildlife photography ever since he attended a series of slide shows at his high school. In those days he spent much of his time painstakingly drawing animals and plants in minute detail. Seduced by the apparent immediacy of photography, he decided to swap his pencil for a shutter release cable and the rest, as they say, is history. “Drawing took a lot of time, and as a teenager I wasn’t very patient,” he reveals. “Photography seemed so easy. Just one click and it was done. Of course, I realised it wasn’t like that.”

Fast-forward to the 2011 National Wildlife Magazine’s annual photography awards in the USA, in which Joe Petersburger proudly collected the grand prize for his mesmerising shot of a bee-eater returning to its nest with a swallowtail butterfly in its beak. Captured with his EOS-1D Mark II N body and an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens, the image is a remarkable study of movement and colour which demanded skill, timing and a healthy dose of patience.

© Joe Petersburger/National Geographic

This award-winning shot shows a European bee-eater carrying a butterfly to its nest in Sáránd, Hungary. Bee-eaters feed mostly on more aggressive insects (such as bees, bumblebees and hornets), making this image particularly special. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark II N with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens at 125mm; the exposure was 1/250sec at f/18, ISO 100.

“The secret of this image is the blurry wings,” he says. “I really wanted this blur, but I also wanted detail so I used a flash, not on the camera but above it, which gave the sharp detail on the bird. To give an impression of movement, I shot it at 1/250sec so it was slow enough to get the blur of the wings. It was backlit by natural light and I only had three hours in the morning when the light fell on the bird but the bank behind was in shadow. On the fifth day, I got the shot.”

Inside his self-made hide, Petersburger found it hard not to scream with delight when he looked at his LCD screen on the back of the camera. Instead he called his wife and then his National Geographic editor in Washington to let them know he had captured something “very good”. His persistence had paid off.

As is the case for much of his work, Petersburger relied heavily on his knowledge of animal behaviour to capture the bee-eater in flight – he does, after all, have a PhD in taxonomy, ecology and conservation and is an honorary university professor (from the University of Pécs, Hungary) in the field. This scientific background, coupled with a keen eye for detail, meant by the third day of the shoot he had memorised the bird’s routine. “After a while, I grew to know when the bird was going to jump off the branch and fly into its nesting hole. It meant I only had to fire off two frames. There was no need for any more as the bird had already gone.”

Because of where he photographs, Petersburger keeps his kitbag as light as possible, selecting only the equipment he needs to get the job done. Working with a core of five lenses, these days his body of choice is the EOS-1D Mark IV which gives him 16.1 Megapixels, up to 10 frames per second shooting speed and, crucially, full HD video. “I switched to the Mark IV because of the video,” he explains. “I started to shoot motion too because agencies were asking photographers to produce HD videos. At the beginning of my career I tried to do photography and video together but it just didn’t work. Now it’s a completely different world – you just press a button and there it is.”

In early 2013 the EOS-1D Mark IV helped Joe Petersburger to secure second place in the Wildlife category of the 2012 Global Photo Awards with a shot of fighting zebras (see Showcase) that he took with an EF400mmm f/2.8L IS USM lens fitted with a 1.4x Extender.

Petersburger also keeps his bags light because he believes that quality, not quantity, is paramount. “My equipment may be limited but it really is enough,” he says bluntly. “The quantity of your equipment doesn’t solve your problems, but the quality of it might. Successful photography is more about brain work and having a unique view, rather than having an arsenal of lenses.”

After graduating from the University of Debrecen in Hungary with a Master of Science degree, Petersburger took a year-long scholarship to the USA, during which he visited 40 states and was introduced to senior team members at National Geographic and Canon. On his return to Hungary, he became one of the youngest photojournalists to be published in the iconic yellow-fringed magazine and the first Hungarian to secure a photo credit. Today, his work is seen all over the world.

To capture his often-intimate studies, the 35-year-old photographer uses a range of Canon lenses that get him up close and personal with the wildlife he shoots. One of his favourites is the EF400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens, which gives him the necessary length to connect the viewer to the subject through frame-filling, tack-sharp images that can be achieved on the hoof.

The multi-layer Diffractive Optical (DO) technology combines the properties of fluorite and aspherical elements meaning the lens is smaller, lighter and more manoeuvrable than its non-DO cousins. “With a straight 400mm you need a tripod, or at least a monopod, because without some kind of support it is nearly impossible to take sharp images,” says Petersburger. “For my dragonfly images, I really needed a long lens that could be hand-held. Dragonflies fly so fast that to take pictures of them at a standard suitable for National Geographic, I had to get close. But they are also quite shy, so it would be impossible to follow them with a tripod. Being so much lighter, I was able to shoot hand-held with the 400mm DO [lens] and take quality images.”

© Joe Petersburger/National Geographic

Snapped in mid-air, this image of a dragonfly in flight shows how Joe Petersburger uses the versatility of the EF400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens to great effect. Taken on a Canon EOS 20D with an EF400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens; the exposure was 1/60sec at f/11, ISO 100.

To get even closer, Joe Petersburger uses one of two dedicated macro lenses. The first is the EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, which is Canon’s first macro lens to feature an Image Stabilizer with both angle and shift detection. “For me, it’s a revolutionary lens,” he states. “There are situations when I have to follow a subject, like a praying mantis, which I could never do if the lens was on a tripod. With this lens, once again, you can get sharp images, hand-held.”

When he wants to get really close, he pulls out his MP-E65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens that is designed to achieve a greater-than-life magnification size without the need for accessories. “It’s like a microscope – it’s amazing,” he says. “It takes you into a completely different universe.”

Petersburger’s fascination with minutiae is born out of a life-long obsession with detail and his quest to find a different point of view. This fixation has resulted in the award-winning photographer going to extreme lengths to find new ways of getting as close as possible. One of his more unusual solutions is fixing extension tubes to his trusty EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens. “It often surprises photographers when I use the extension tubes on the EF70-200mm but it works perfectly, especially when I am using flash which means I can use it hand-held. It can slow the lens down but you do get a lot closer.”

The real advantage of this setup is the ability to compose and then recompose without repositioning the camera, which is handy if you are chasing spiders around a field. Of course, this isn’t always possible in the middle of the jungle or in a secluded river, as Joe Petersburger’s wonderful image of a kingfisher pouncing on its prey illustrates. What makes this picture extraordinary is that it was taken from beneath the surface of the water, rather from above.

© Joe Petersburger/National Geographic

Shot from beneath the surface of the water, this image shows a kingfisher catching a fish. It also shows how the bird closes its third eyelid, which protects the eye from damage when hunting but is still sufficiently transparent for the bird to follow its prey underwater. The photograph won first prize in the Nature Singles of the 2009 World Press Photo awards. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark III with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens at 24mm; the exposure was 1/100sec at f/14, ISO 250.

The shot came during a 40-day shoot in which Petersburger immersed himself and his camera in the world of the kingfisher. Encasing his EOS-1D Mark III and EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens in an underwater housing, he positioned the camera under a sheet of clear glass, firing it remotely after baiting the surface of the glass with feed to attract the fish. Remarkably it only took a day for the kingfisher to familiarise itself with the set-up and on the second day Petersburger nailed the shot. For his troubles, he won first prize in the Nature Singles category of the 2009 World Press Photo awards.

“I was surprised,” he admits modestly when discussing this success. “The World Press Photo awards are more about journalism rather than wildlife, but after a while I understood why the image won. It is so unique compared to other wildlife photography. It was something very different.”

Just like his work, Joe Petersburger is one of a kind. Dedicated, skilled and supremely knowledgeable about the natural world and all things in it, he seeks out unique images with quiet determination, awareness and a seemingly endless supply of that most precious of resources - patience.


Joe Petersburger’s equipment


EOS-1D Mark IV


EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM
MP-E65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM
EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
EF400mm f/4 DO IS USM
EF1.4x II Extender
EF2x II Extender
Life-Size Converter EF


3x Speedlite 580EX II flashguns
Speedlite 430EX II flashgun
Speedlite 430EX flashgun
Set of extension tubes
Canon Angle Finder C
Transistor packs for portable power supply
Battery packs

Biography: Joe Petersburger

Joe Petersburger

Joe Petersburger is passionate about endangered and threatened species. His zeal for ecology began at Toth Arpad High School in Debrecen, Hungary, where he won two nationwide biology competitions. He followed this up with a Master of Science degree from the University of Debrecen and a scholarship to Duquesne University in the USA. Petersburger became the first Hungarian to have his work published in National Geographic – a piece on endangered long-tailed mayflies – and has a PhD in conservation. He travels the world visiting rainforests, deserts and wetlands. His awards include first prize in the Nature Singles category of the 2009 World Press Photo awards.


Dew on the eye of a dragonfly. Besides the independently moveable wings, the most powerful weapon of dragonflies is their compound eye, which is the largest in the animal kingdom compared to the body size. The compound eyes can be built from up to 20,000 units, which makes dragonflies extremely effective predators. Taken on a Canon EOS-1V film SLR with an MP-E65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens and a full set of extension tubes; the exposure was 1/250sec at f/16, ISO 100.