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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Nature Of Wildlife

Stefano Unterthiner gets incredibly close to the action to create his unique wildlife photographs

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Stefano Unterthiner has a PhD in zoology, but it's his triumphant camera work documenting the joyful and dramatic lives of his animal subjects that has gained him such renown. Unterthiner is a contributor to National Geographic, and the devoted photographer often does research for many months before spending many more weeks working in the field to develop a personal familiarity with his subjects in their natural environments. Titled "Photo Stories," his collections celebrate the life cycles of a variety of given animals, with a few of his more popular entries featuring the Whooper swan, the King penguin, the crested black macaque and "Fred," the red fox, who you can see in the image in the opening spread.

Stefano Unterthiner's wildlife photography is about as up close and personal as you can get to timid wildlife and rare animals. Most would expect many of his shots, many taken at extremely close range with a wide-angle lens, to be the result of a remote-controlled camera mount. But in truth, it's Unterthiner who frequently finds himself within a working distance of less than a meter to his subject. His wildlife models are often caught in surprisingly candid moments: hamming it up, for instance, in the case of his lighthearted sequence on Hanuman langurs, or more introspective, as is the case with his dance-like exploration of form and grace that you find in his set on the Whooper swan, which was featured by National Geographic.

Though he's not always afforded the luxury of time, Unterthiner spends months doing preliminary research before each project, and he often finds himself spending many more months out in the field. Unified by location and wildlife subject, he titles his collections of image sets as "Photo Stories," with more than a dozen of his best sets currently featured on his website. He says that he prefers not to concentrate on single sellable images, but rather to build a narrative through multiple photos that documents the behavior and the ecosystem of his subjects. So he carefully curates his sequences to showcase the animals at their most fragile—and their most endearing.

A signature wide-angle approach to wildlife photography is what he's most known for, but his technical abilities don't stop there. Often in wildlife photography, it's the animal that matters the most in an image, and composition can suffer, but Unterthiner spends enough time working in the field to incorporate finely tuned compositions into his shots of the wildlife. It establishes place while adding to the visual appeal. His portfolio also features a variety of spectacularly successful motion-blur images, which add a fine-art dynamism to subjects as common as a ground squirrel. He explains that it's a simple technique, noting that all you really need is some luck, a good hand and a great tripod for tracking and panning. "But you are never sure about the final result," he says. "This is probably what I like about motion blurs—the unpredictable result that you may be able to get."

The photographer began as a zoologist, going so far as to earn a PhD, but his history for loving nature began far before that as a boy who grew up in the remote Aosta Valley area in northwestern Italy. After getting his degree, he says that his camera work, which he had begun as a hobby in his teens, quickly took over until it became a passion. "I'm interested in nature and wildlife, particularly in animal behavior," he explains about his history. "Photography is not just a business, but a way to share my love for nature."

After completing his PhD in 2000, Unterthiner went back to Italy to begin his career as a zoologist, but his camera was always at his side, and it wasn't long before he went pro as a nature photographer instead.


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