Steve Winter is a conservation photographer noted for his work with National Geographic and the use of camera traps to snap pictures in the wild.
The luminous photographs of big cats, rhinos, and bears taken by Steve Winter, the acclaimed wildlife photographer, won him numerous awards: BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year, BBC Wildlife Photojournalist of the Year, two-time winner of Picture of the Year International’s Global Vision Award, won the World Press Photo in 2008 and 2014 (‘nature’ category). In this wide-ranging interview, Winter talks to Janaki Lenin about what influenced him, how he turned camera trap photography into a fine art form and what drives him.
Who were your early influences in terms of photography? Whose images moved you?
When I was a kid, my dad was in a camera club. We got Life magazine and Life had a photo-series of books. Eugene Smith, [Robert] Capa, [Henri] Cartier-Bresson. I love Eugene Smith because I always wanted to be a storyteller. I grew up in the Civil Rights era and those pictures really moved me. I got my social documentary skills and desire by looking at Life magazine.
Photographer Charles Moore took pictures of a German shepherd ripping an African-American man’s pants. Charles Moore was with the Black Star Photo Agency. I ended up being with Black Star Photo Agency too. (laughs)
I knew photography could change the world because these pictures influenced people. Of course, we saw television, but I think these individual images that ran in Life magazine held great power. You didn’t see so much in National Geographic because they were apolitical. But I was taken to another world. By looking at the pages, I was fascinated by people and cultures.
When I was 8 years old, my goal was to be a photographer for National Geographic. First and foremost, I was a photojournalist.
What did you do after finishing school? Did you study photography in university?
I became afraid. I grew up knowing I could do anything. But I wasn’t told I could be a photographer. I think I was afraid to take this step. You really need to rely on your own inner strength which I was lacking at that time. I was accepted into University of Missouri – best photojournalism school then and still is now – Rochester Institute of Technology. But I decided not to go and followed my high school friends into Indiana University in Bloomington. I studied urban renewal. I hated cities, so why would I care whether they were renewed or not? So I quit school and went around the world.
What did you do after that?
I moved to the west coast and started working in industrial advertising. I hated it and quit. I found the Academy of Art University in San Francisco would take my credits from Indiana University. At 23, I went back to school, to a commercial arts school.
Did you have a mentor?
It wasn’t until I got out of school that I met Nick Nichols. I was his assistant for 5 years. He’s like my big brother, even though he hates me saying that. He worked for National Geographic as a staff photographer. He used to work for Charles Moore who did the Life photographs that I was talking about. He was his assistant, followed him from Alabama to San Francisco. So there’s a circle… a lot of unusual connections here.
Did working for Nick turn you on to wildlife photography?
Nick was doing wildlife photography, but he was also doing other things. He started doing caves. Then he did gorillas, and then he did some other natural history stories. But Nick didn’t start out that way. He moved into it slowly. I never went overseas with Nick. Geo didn’t have those kind of budgets at that time. He had such a great influence on me photographically. Then I got into Geographic with his help.
Were you interested in wildlife as a kid?
No. I liked to play in the woods but I’m from Indiana, so we mostly had only milk cows, pigs, squirrels. What was I going to get excited about? You guys have elephants, tigers, leopards, and primates. A kid growing up in Indiana, what has he got? My family had a friggin dachshund so I couldn’t even take my dog out into the woods. I had no background in wildlife at all. I read Peter Mathiesen’s book on snow leopards when I was in college.
How does a young aspiring photographer break into National Geographic?
Being an assistant, doing great work, and getting your name out there. In natural history, it’s so much more difficult because the equipment is expensive. All my assistants now work for the magazine. Working for me is one way.
Personally, in terms of skills, aesthetics, what were the challenges you had to overcome to get to the spot where you get hired by National Geographic?
For me personally, once you are in through the door, you are there unless you screw up.
I’m sure it was more than being Nick’s assistant, right?
If you are a young photographer, you have to get a body of work that tells the story. Number 1 – you need to go to Eddy Adams workshop, some place that’s going to make you tell a story. University of Missouri workshop. Get within the eye of one of the editors. So they can see that here’s somebody who has a unique vision.
While I was doing the [National Geographic] Kids’ magazine, I was working for the front of the book, as we say, single images for the front of National Geographic. My editor and Nick’s editor, Kathy Moran, helped bring me through the ranks. Any young person who has the drive can make it. But you really have to want it bad. If you want to work for Geographic, you just have to be focused, put blinders on, that’s what you’re going to have to do.
At what point did you get into camera trapping?
I think that was meant to be. As a photojournalist, what did I know about camera traps? Nothing.
I did the first jaguar story for National Geographic, and that’s how I got into cats and camera trapping. I asked Nick about it, and he never gave any advice except, “Put it up in your backyard.” So I did. He said, “The one bit of advice I would tell you is you’ll think you have something but you won’t.” As in, it’s taking pictures, but when you get the film back, there won’t be anything on it.
When I started camera trapping I wanted to get a picture I would get if I was there. The only way I can do that is by placement. I did not like camera traps. I hated camera traps. If I’m going to do, it should look like I’m lying on the ground, eye to eye with my animal.
I figured out composition and lighting in my backyard, and I was confident I could do it. And that’s how I started camera traps. I did it on jaguars and got two photographs that were published. One of them had movement. And Nick said, “Oh, it’s the best camera trap picture I’ve ever seen. No one’s ever got movement.” I was just trying to balance the ambient light with what normally light was in the forest in this one particular spot. I didn’t get the picture I wanted, but it was one of the first images of a jaguar. It was a vertical and no one did verticals of camera traps. It’s good not to know what you are doing and then you become successful. [laughs]
What was it like to film jaguars?
While photographing quetzals in Costa Rica, I was visited by a black jaguar one night. Scared the ever living shit out of me.
I lived in a one-room shack on top of a mountain in the cloud forests of Guatemala. I was worried about people because the Nature Conservancy had purchased the area, and loggers thought the conservancy wanted the trees because the trees up there were amazing. There were 18 species of oak in the world and 14 were on this mountain. There was absolutely no way you could log it. We couldn’t even get up the mountain in an ATV, much less my rental truck to bring my equipment up.
These loggers shotgunned the father and son of the naturalist, Juan Carlos, I was working with. They didn’t die although the son died later because he had pellets embedded in him that caused seizures. He was swimming in their farm pond, had a seizure and drowned. Juan Carlos had to go back down the mountain because his brother had just died, and his father was still having surgery. So he asked me, “Can I go?” I said I can stay here by myself. Actually, I’ve never done it before.
So I was worried about the loggers. One night, I heard the stairs creek. Then I heard the floorboards creek on the porch and scratching under the door and sniffing. So I knew there was a friggin’ animal outside. I grabbed my machete and whacked it on the side of the bed and whistled. I heard it bounding down the stairs. I grabbed the walkie-talkie and called Juan. He said, “Steve, no problem. It’s a black jaguar.”
Did you see the animal? Did you open the door?
Oh god no. I had locked the shack because of the loggers. I would see these guys walking through the forest with guns. I was a smoker back then. I don’t know why they didn’t smell my cigarettes; I didn’t make a sound. I’d watch them from my blind which was made of forest plants so they couldn’t see me. A month later, the jaguar visited me in my blind. It climbed a tree and walked across the branches and then went down. Then this cat came up again, to investigate me. It had climbed a tree, and I heard bark falling. I saw a little bit of tail through the foliage and thought it was a howler monkey. The tail was too big, and I thought, “No way is this a howler monkey.” This one was by itself and howler monkeys are never alone. They are always in a troop. That’s why I say I didn’t choose big cats, big cats chose me.
When did camera traps become something you could use?
Snow leopards, 10 years later. I proposed snow leopards in 1999. My editor had sent out an email asking, “What’s your dream assignment?” I had read Schaller’s book when I was in college and Mathieson’s book on snow leopards. So I said snow leopards.
I kept putting it off. I hate blinds because there is such a disconnect between you and the animal. I’d rather have more of a disconnect. I spent so many years trying to figure out how to make a camera trap image actually be my photograph. My composition, my lighting, because you tend to put a trap in the shadow and light it to mimic sunlight.
The other thing that bothered me was I said I would do it. How was I going to? I was proposing a story of an animal that I could never see. My son asked if I was going to have a nervous breakdown. Camera traps were primarily a tool to get record shot of the animal. I needed to figure out in my mind how I would photograph a snow leopard. You don’t propose something unless you know you are going to be successful. Nobody in the world will give you five months to get a picture of a mountain lion. The weight of your career is on your shoulders.
Snow leopards could be anywhere. So I tried to figure out how I could get the animal to break the beam [snaps finger] in my composition. I would use an assistant to stand-in for the snow leopard.
I went to Hemis [National Park], I walked up the Chadar, a frozen river, from Leh. I knew it could be done, but not at that time because there were too many people working there. There was a BBC film team, the scientists were also using small film camera traps. They had identified locations where the animals marked their territory. The only way to see a snow leopard is to understand its behaviour. I met the most important people for a story, the local people who live with the animal. Without their assistance, I would not have got pictures.
It took me two-and-half years to start the [snow leopard] story. I didn’t want to come to the cold, I hate the cold. So between jaguars and snow leopards was 10 years. I worked in Burma, did the Irrawaddy river, I did the Hukwang valley, I did the natural history of Cuba, I did a bunch of other stories in between.
How did you make camera trap images your own?
It was out of total desperation that I figured it out. Even on the first day I was so nervous, I said, “Show me these locations immediately.” I put my first trap up the first day I was in camp. I could barely walk because of the altitude. We came back to camp, had tea, and had the spotting scope set up. The cook scanned the mountains and started screaming, “Snow leopard.” It was sitting on a rock on a ridgeline. This is the first day. This story was blessed. We had Buddhist prayer flags all over the camp. I didn’t get a picture then but I got a picture the next day.
Were you using fill lights?
I always did from the beginning. On jaguars, I used fill flash. One of the things I learned from my dad. In these camera clubs, they’d learn how to light. When I was a kid, I had to stand against a backdrop in my basement and get my picture taken that would appear in a trade magazine in the Saturday night paper. And it was called the Rotel or something. So I learned lighting just by being a kid and having to stand in front of the lights. And then working for Nick; he used lights, flash, long exposure, stuff like that.
How do you find stories? What are you looking for?
Mostly it is by talking to scientists that say, “Hey, this is a great idea, you should do this.” And something clicks. I was working for Time on a coup in Haiti, and I met one of the Mellons, a famous family from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. The Mellon Bank, the Mellon Hospital. They are old money family. He was a doctor down there, and he started talking to me about Cuba. We were stuck in the coup and couldn’t leave for a week. And then I met somebody else at some event that told me about Cuba. And I started learning about the natural history of Cuba. So I went there.
I think one of the biggest problems that we have is wildlife photographers never tell the story. They are afraid of people. I think this people being alone by themselves in nature is very egotistical. This whole bit about being one with nature with your expensive cameras is a bunch of bullshit. When you are out there, you should be a journalist, and you have to set the same journalistic standards, which means you don’t fake things. If it’s not real, it doesn’t exist.
I just call myself a photojournalist now. No one told me I had to tell a story but that’s all I knew to do. How could you do the quetzal without covering the Mayan villagers that still wear huipiles [hand-embroidered blouses]. When you are married, they have to have a quetzal on it. So if you want to do a story, you want to reach a certain segment of the readership that may not be animal or bird lovers. The jaguar story had two jaguar pictures in it. A cow boy was bringing his cows in at the end of the day. I put a jaguar that he had killed and made into a rug over the fence post to illustrate the issues between cowboys and jaguars.
But in the past few years, there are wildlife or conservation photographers who are turning their lens on local communities. This needs to be commended as it took so long to happen and now has changed the face of wildlife photography in a much needed way – it is fantastic.
How do you protect your camera traps in elephant country?
I don’t. They just get ruined. I’ve never made steel boxes except for humans. For my picture of the mountain lion under the Hollywood sign, I had to make steel boxes to prevent people from stealing them. They stole them anyway. When I did Urban Jungle for television, I made bigger steel boxes and no one touched them. They brought an acetylene torch up that could have cut them. But no one ever did. For rhinos or elephants, I never did anything. So they [cameras] were just trashed. To get images no one has seen before we lose some items; it is part of the job. I think I lost three cameras, as well as cords and flashes. I had to stop working as I didn’t have more equipment.
On a job how many camera traps would you use?
I had 14 on snow leopards. I lost most of the cameras in Kaziranga. I learned so much on snow leopards and really perfected things on Kaziranga.
Can animals sense the camera traps before even the first frame is triggered?
Someone has to figure out if they can smell it or sense infrared. The guy who’s doing mountain lions now, Mark Elbroch, a great scientist, he has infrared you cannot see. That infrared light is undetectable even by the animals’ eye. I would just wonder. The first Sumatran tiger I got, how in the hell did the cat know the camera trap was in there, when it was 1.30 in the morning?
What did it do?
It was looking at the camera. How did he see it? The trail curves to the right so it looks like he’s looking at the camera. So I’ve always wondered if he’s looking at the camera.
Is it because it’s an odd object?
I know animals can see infrared light. I’ve had ocelots go up to the cameras when I was shooting jaguars. They are going to the transmitter. I put a video camera next to it and the video camera picked up the IR light and you could see the light on the ocelot’s head. It was looking at the light. It was a Trailmaster beam. Maybe they [Trailmasters] are better now than they were back then.
Have you ever used Obsession [a Calvin Klein perfume for men] to attract cats?
I don’t put anything on anything. I’ve just never done it. Everybody tells me, “You have to stake down your jaguar kills or they are just going to carry it off.” I said, “I’m not staking down shit. You want to stake it down? Fine. But I’m not touching it.” I don’t bait, I don’t stake, I don’t anything. I come from the world of photojournalism where you don’t set up pictures. So I didn’t know any better when I came into wildlife.
We used Obsession once because Jeff Sikich, a scientist who works for the National Park Service, wanted mountain lions. He put Obsession down close to the video camera when I was filming for a TV show, so he could see the behavior of P-22. But the only thing it attracted was coyotes. The Hollywood cougar picture and the National Geographic story were already finished and published by then.
In a story, what percentage is wildlife?
It’s not done in any conscious way. I write out what I’m gonna do. I haven’t on the last couple of stories, just because my editor pushes the story through when I’m still in the field. She pushed leopards while I was doing mountain lions. I gave a skeleton of what I’m gonna do. I didn’t do a shot list which I think every story proposal has to have – I’m going to get X, Y, and Z. It’s good for you, and it’s good for the magazine to know what you’re going to get. I didn’t do it which was unfortunate.
Of a 40-picture story, about 40% or 45% is animal pictures. I got a picture of a little girl holding up a picture of the tiger that was poached out of the cage in the Jambi Zoo in Sumatra. The tiger cub lost its arm because it was caught in a snare for four days. Those kind of things were super-important to me. Then you are telling the story. You’re doing a disservice to the animal, to your readers, or to the people that are viewing your television show, [when] you are not telling them the story. No one needs to see another portrait of an animal. You can go to the zoo and do that.
Camera traps only account for 10 to 15 percent of photographs I do for a story. It’s vitally important to get an image of an animal you wouldn’t normally see eye to eye within its behavioural patterns. My goal is to get people interested in the natural world. We have to start a conversation about why we need to save the snow leopard, why we should save the tiger.
If you came into wildlife when you were 34, how did you know what to do? How did you know what a safe distance was? How close you can approach? How did you learn?
From people I work with. I couldn’t do it if I didn’t trust them. If the people I’m with are at this distance, then I put my camera up and get a picture. If they are running away, then I’m not getting a picture. Though I learned I might as well run with my finger on the shutter and thumb on the focus button, then you might get a picture. But I trust them and when they run, I run.
When I was doing jaguars, I walked up to a jaguar in Brazil ’til the guy was telling me, “He’s getting ready to jump you. Get back.” We were following the jaguar that ended up cutting off the trail and was stalking us. I said, “Sergio, where did he go?” I turned around, and there he is in the grass. But I couldn’t see his eyes so I had to walk up till I could see his eyes through the grass. That was the opener of the jaguar story. So I did back up when he said that.
You were talking about pre-visualization. Do you already know how the shot should look? Like the cougar below the Hollywood sign?
I visualized that. I knew there had been a cat there. That was a very specific circumstance. I told a scientist in Montana at the mountain lion meeting, “Wouldn’t it be great to get a picture of a mountain lion with the Hollywood sign?” I don’t remember what he said except there was no lion in Griffith Park. I kept thinking about it. He called me eight months later and said, “I thought you were crazy. There’s a mountain lion in Griffith Park.”And I had already thought about this picture a lot. It’s probably the first time I did it at all. It took so long walking there and putting camera traps, pounding stop signposts into the ground, and finding the cat didn’t walk there.
The park service wanted a good collar, so I got a grant and bought the collar for the park service to put on the cat so they could monitor its movements. The City of Los Angeles and the National Park Service really wanted to know where the cat was. I needed to know where the cat was too because we were beating our head up against the wall trying to figure out where it was. The location of the last Hollywood sign was the fourth location I had for the picture. Once I found it, I knew that was the place. The cat has a black ridgeline behind it. It’s a 4-second exposure because the Hollywood sign is not lit. You are relying on the lights of LA bouncing off the clouds or the water droplets in the air. And you only know that from standing there and doing test shots till you get something that works.
That was an exceptional case. What happens in a normal shoot?
You have to have an idea. It’s all based on a lot of background research and walking trails. The amount of time that is spent understanding the movements of the animal is extraordinary. A lot more than you would assume. I’m really picky about where I put one of these traps up because I don’t have that many. It has to be an extraordinary location that I know I can get something.
I cannot tell you how important the location of the trails that I choose are. You can’t camera trap a wide trail or a road. It has to be very narrow trails. Once I find a location, I just stand around to look at it. In many instances, I may not even put the trap up right away.
Take Kaziranga. Choke points go down to the bheels. At this choke point, all the elephants come down, so I put a camera trap there. I was interested in anything – rhinos, elephants and tigers that came to the waterhole. There’s another thing about choke points – they are very narrow. You got to get it in the composition you want because it is going to walk right through here. It’s vitally important that you find choke points everywhere. That trail with the snow leopard? Choke point. How do I know this? I don’t. I heard some scientists talk and they told me.
One thing I’ve always tried to do in my camera trap is I dream. I dream of photographing a landscape with an animal in it. What’s the hardest thing for a wildlife photographer? The hardest thing to photograph is to photograph the forest. How many pictures move you of a forest? You can take photographs of a forest from now till you are walking with a cane, and you may never get a photograph of a forest.
Composition is vitally important. It’s one of the three rules in photography: composition, composition, and composition. I focus and compose, I focus and compose.
I set the focus and put a piece of gaffer tape on it. Because I don’t monitor my cameras. I set them up and no one can change my settings. So why do I want a narrow trail? Because of focus. Focus is so important in the basics of photography. You cannot fix it with Photoshop, it looks like crap. So get it right the first time. The trail on Hollywood was perfect. That cat had nowhere to walk but right there. So the size of the trail is of maximum importance.
There’s a lot of time spent on understanding animal movement and it’s not done by me. I ask. I’ll meet the director of the park and then I want to go to the guys on the ground. And take my laptop and show them pictures that I’ve done in the past and ask their opinion. It turns out nobody does that. So they are very happy to be consulted. If you ask some dude in a suit or who’s standing at the gate taking money, they don’t know jack. There’s nothing more important than talking to the guys on the ground. In Bandhavgarh, I wouldn’t have got any of what I got without working with the mahouts and the ground staff. And you get to know people. You try to help them out – buy them jackets, shoes, whatever they need, and just be helpful to them and they’ll be helpful to you.
Pre-visualization is vitally important.
What was the most exciting photograph you’ve taken – in terms of what you had to invest in it creatively?
I look at images solely on how they will affect the public. Ultimately that’s your goal. You want the readers to look at the images. The first snow leopard image that made me cry was the blue one that Apple ended up using. People use that as screen savers. I walked into the SoHo Apple store and every computer in the whole place had my picture on it. And I didn’t even take a picture of that. The smiling tiger from Kaziranga I knew right away was going to be a very accessible image and that’s what you want.
Will that get kids to look at tigers again? They project the fact that the tiger’s smiling at them instead of him breathing because it’s so damn hot. It was photographed at 1.30 pm. He heard the camera trap shutter, didn’t know where the sound was coming from, and backed off. I don’t want to think my camera traps can do that to an animal, I don’t want to do anything to an animal that stops its normal behavioural pattern. He was young male tiger. I was psychically depressed that I stopped a tiger from passing but I saw him take down a rhino calf later.
I loved the blue snow leopard image, I love the smiling tiger. I love the rhino with blood running down his horn. There are so many images from camera traps that I love. How could you not love the Hollywood shot? Because it works. I spent so long trying to get it. Fifteen months. I thought snow leopards were bad because I got one image in six months. Some of those traps, it was literally one friggin’ image. Of the blue snow leopard I got two pictures. That was the first time I ever cried. Second time was the cover of my book where I spent 24 days on top of an elephant or in the jeep trying to get this mom and cub. They poisoned one female when I was in Ranthambore on my way to Bandhavgarh. And the other female that had cubs was hit by a park vehicle at night and killed. In 10 days both females were killed in Bandavgarh. So that picture was absolutely perfect. But I didn’t know if I got the friggin’ picture; I didn’t look at it for three hours. I didn’t look at the back of the camera, I was so afraid.
You have such an emotional investment in this career. I had just been diagnosed with cancer, and I came to India because I had to wait five weeks before I could to be operated on because of the biopsy. There was a shitload going on in my life then. Then I get to the airport and the director called Toby Sinclair who’s sitting next to me, saying that “Tell Steve that one of his tigers just killed two people. Tell him to hurry up and get here to get a great conflict picture.” By the time we got to Bandhavgarh that night, the crowd was in a frenzy and he said, “You can’t go because they’ll probably kill you.” So I didn’t get my conflict picture either.
Are you clear [of cancer] now?
As far as we know. And so is my wife who’s more important than me. She’s had cancer twice.
Was the transition from film to digital in any way difficult?
It’s a piece of cake. It was super easy. My wife and I were doing the Irrawaddy river story. It was just so hot and we didn’t know what to do. She said, “Why don’t you pull out that camera Canon 10D and get your flash and do what you used to do – flash-filled low light movement stuff.” We walked around this village where they made the biggest pots in the world. Giant pottery. I had been doing flash-fill the whole way. I had a flash in my hand with a radio on it, a little Vivitar flash. I don’t use a fancy flash – a $75 flash with $400 radio on it. First day of using my digital camera, first two hours, I got the opener of the story.
It was liberating. I couldn’t have done snow leopards without digital because you needed to know what you were getting. You needed to be able to adjust your composition by learning what you were getting.
What advice would you give to young photographers here?
I think if you are trying to get something in the natural world, it exists with its own natural rules that we aren’t allowed to break. We cannot set up images as journalists. We can’t set up images as wildlife photographers. The world which we want to portray has rules within it – natural laws of nature. When we break them we throw the whole thing out of balance. What we are trying to do is bring that balance back. When we enter that natural world and put up these artificial barriers by trying to bait something or call something in or do something that actually harms an animal, to try to get a photograph, we are a negative influence on that. So we just have to pick journalistic rules and use those in photography. You set ‘em and you follow ‘em.
If we follow certain rules, I believe psychically, you’re going to win because you have a certain purity that is going to win out. A purity that will mirror the natural world that you are trying to document. It may take more time but it will also make the wheels in your head turn. “How am I going to do something different?” Challenge yourself. You are going to have no choice but to challenge yourself. But you are not going to be in that line of jeeps shooting the same exact thing.
I’d rather compete against myself and do better than I did last time on something completely new and find a different way to do it. But that is the challenge. If we all challenge, maybe there’ll be a whole lot of people trying to tell a story, we are going to have a lot of great photographers, great natural history journalists. Draw a line in the sand. Pick up a journalism book, find out what you can or can’t do.
Let me find a human example. As a newspaper photographer, you go to cover a murder. Would you move the body of the dead person around? It would be ethically wrong to do that. And we are not getting into the whole meat of telling the story.
I assume the same principles apply to touching up images?
I do not crop my photographs. Ever. I crop my photographs within the frame I see through the viewfinder of the camera. That’s how I was taught. Old school.
What’s your next big challenge? You had a dream of becoming a National Geographic photographer and you achieved it quite young. Where do you see yourself going now?
I haven’t thought about it much because I don’t know what it’s going to be. I want to work with my wife more and spend more time with my family and try to work more in education. We need to get the word out in a way that… we are failing miserably at talking about conservation. We are saying the same old things. We broaden the picture to let people know that if you save tigers, you save yourself.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Janaki Lenin is the author of My Husband and Other Animals. She lives in a forest with snake-man Rom Whitaker and tweets at @janakilenin.