A veteran photogrpaher tells us how to go beyond the cute and cuddly to capture the often gritty drama of raising a newborn beast to adulthood
After giving birth, a lioness shelters her newborns in a den, raising them completely alone; the rest of the pride—including their father—doesn’t see them. Wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas had stumbled across such a mother and her two-week-old litter while shooting at the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya, and knew instinctively that these young lions offered a golden opportunity.
She also knew she’d have to wait. For weeks, Eszterhas stayed at the den site, often not shooting a single image. Finally, when the cubs were between five and seven weeks old, and too rowdy for Mom to handle alone, the lioness trotted out her young to meet the rest of the pride—and their father, for the first time. The photo of that first encounter has become one of her best sellers, and she considers it one of her finest moments as a photographer.
Much of the photography of baby animals hinges on patience, whether waiting for just the right moment to shoot, working to gain the trust of an animal, or even waiting by the phone for a scout on another continent to ring with news.
“If you spend enough time around these animals, if you wait through the slow periods, you get these incredible action-packed moments,” says Eszterhas. “You get to witness stuff that’s very special and very rare.”
Student of Behavior
Eszterhas grew up watching birds in her backyard and taking notes on their behavior. Not only did it hone her eye (and patience), but it also instilled a belief that great wildlife photography comes only with a great understanding of animal behavior. Prior research is crucial, and Eszterhas will spend months, even years, talking to researchers and reading numerous studies on whatever animal she plans to photograph next.
That study then translates into intense observation in the field. “It helps to predict where you’re going to find them and where you might take a good photo,” Eszterhas says.
While working with orphaned three-toed sloths at the Aviarios Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica, Eszterhas followed a wild mother and her newborn into the forest. Small, well-camouflaged creatures that hang high in the trees, the sloths were a challenge, but knowing they typically feed on the same tree for three to five days, she learned the mother’s patterns, and could soon predict how long she would stay in a tree, and where she’d go next.
Understanding animal behavior can also keep you safe. Eszterhas notes, for example, that a lion will yawn when it’s happy and full, but a grizzly bear’s yawn means it’s stressed and could charge.
Observing and understanding behavior is also crucial to gaining the animal’s trust. Eszterhas stresses the importance of building a relationship with the animals, to prove you won’t harm them or their young: “Once you get their trust, if you ever violate it, it’s hard to get it back.”
This is a particular challenge with mothers who have just given birth. “Once they get a newborn, even the most habituated, most calm, most workable mother can turn very sensitive, somewhat schizophrenic, so you don’t know how to predict her behavior,” she says. “There’s a lot of maternal hormones that are pumping through them where it’s all about protecting and hiding their young.”
As the saying goes, you never want to get between a mama bear and her cubs, but Eszterhas has found ways—even when photographing brown bears (grizzlies). The time it takes to gain an animal’s trust, again, varies: While some gorillas will let you approach them just two days after giving birth, she spent weeks without shooting a single image while habituating a bat-eared fox couple.