The Nature Of Wildlife

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

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.

"Actually," he says, "my background as a zoologist is very important for my work as a wildlife photographer. For my projects, I try to learn as much as possible about the species that I'm working with by reading scientific papers and contacting researchers, and then I keep learning in the field. My photography is improved if I'm able to know my subject well."

So it's no surprise that Unterthiner considers a carefully developed rapport with his animals paramount to his work. "When I become a 'friend' with my subject," he explains, "I'm able to work more relaxed, get close and start doing my photography. For this, I need time! For a story, I can spend several weeks, but sometimes I work for months on a single story. For example, working on my story on Whooper swans for National Geographic, I traveled to Japan to show the wintering of the swans, then moved to Sweden, documenting the migration of the species in Europe. Finally, I spent six weeks in Finland to photograph the nesting period. For this story, I worked overall for more than six months, but I think I've been able to produce a good portrait about this fascinating bird."

In 2009, a dream came true for Unterthiner when he became a member of the National Geographic contributing photographers. "Working for National Geographic magazine is not an easy job," he admits, "but I love it! You have to give the best of your best in the field, you are maybe a bit stressed, but your work will be displayed in the world's most renowned magazine! And this is so important to me as the Italian 'ambassador' for wildlife."

For his first assignment, he spent a total of five months in the subantarctic archipelago of Crozet shooting a remarkable series on the local penguins, and it was one of Unterthiner's most personally rewarding expeditions.

"I'll never forget this remote land and pristine nature," he says.

He's on another assignment for the venerable magazine at the time of this writing, with no emails and limited contact with the outside world for nearly two months.

Unterthiner has published a number of books centered on his photography in Italy and elsewhere (unfortunately there are no English versions yet). He's also a member of the iLCP (www.ilcp.com) and The Photo Society (www.thephotosociety.org), a select group of National Geographic's contributing photographers. It's clear that he has dedicated his life to animal advocacy. Unterthiner donated his playful series on crested black macaques to ARKive (www.arkive.org), an online multimedia resource for endangered and extinct animals, for example.

"Throughout my work, I hope to be able to become a kind of 'ambassador' for wildlife," he explains. "I try to produce strong images, to show the beauty and fragility of a particular species and their environment. I always try to produce a good story to show the public my wild 'friends.' I hope to give a voice to the wildlife. Throughout ARKive, I'm able to let my images be used for conservation and educational purposes. It's much better than keeping my images on the hard drive just for my clients and myself. Share with others, and then let's talk about the power of nature photography!"

Unterthiner admits that after he has completed a project, he decides his upcoming subjects largely on his own fondness for an animal or a subject. He says that it's not really "work" when you're following your dreams, and it certainly helps to keep him motivated while he's back in his office spending so much time doing homework on an upcoming project while raising much needed funds for such long expeditions. He notes that it's here in these months of preplanning that he also begins to previsualize the kind of behavioral images that he will be on the lookout for in the field (although he laughs that he doesn't always end up with the images that he had originally imagined).

After 10 years of working professionally and a lifetime of experiencing nature firsthand, Unterthiner has no problem with the extensive time spent in the field, noting that he actually prefers to be in nature. He prefers to pack light, "but my backpack is always too heavy anyways," he says. "Usually, I have only one big tele lens—a 600mm if I have to work from a blind or more frequently the 200-400mm zoom—then a 70-200mm and a couple of wide-angle zooms. I usually travel only with two bodies, but sometimes I have three cameras with me when I'm working in a particularly remote area. Finally, one tripod, a couple of flashes and all my accessories, which includes a few ND filters, spare batteries and a few other things."

Such personable wildlife images like these are very difficult to capture, one of the reasons why Unterthiner spends so much time in the field. But he bristles at the suggestion that he's "patient," instead insisting that he's merely happiest when he's shooting.

"This is what I love most," Unterthiner explains simply, "and I do not need to be patient. I feel good when I'm in the wild. To me, photography is just a reason to be outside."

To see more of Stefano Unterthiner's work, go to www.stefanounterthiner.com.

15 Comments

    I have taken many shots of this scene- I believe the Lake is called Lago Pehoe, and of course, this has been photographed from nearby the spectacular Explora Lodge. This is one of the most visually compelling scenes in the world and a pleasure to photograph at any time of the day. This image captures the grandeur of the massif in a moving way. Bravo!

    Thanks so much for sharing your photos in Outdoor Photographer this month. The Black Macaque looked as though they were talking to us. great work.

    Wonder idea…

    In your
    sunshine I
    can see an
    intention full
    of happiness
    and there, in
    the light of
    this candle,
    a delicate
    thought calling
    the future.

    Francesco Sinibaldi

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