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
The Right Gear
When it is time to shoot, Eszterhas uses a Canon EOS-1D X (having recently upgraded from an EOS-1D Mark III) and loves that it’s almost impossible to fill its buffer, considering that she sometimes snaps thousands of images a day, often in long bursts. Advances in sensor technology and processing have also allowed her to photograph monkeys in a thick jungle at ISO 6400 with relatively low image noise.
The lenses Eszterhas uses often vary from species to species. For big cats and bears, she almost always uses a 500mm tele, while for apes she uses primarily a 70–200mm zoom, sometimes a 300mm, and keeps a 1.4X teleconverter in her back pocket.
But on-the-fly adjustments are necessary depending on the size of the animal and proximity, to say nothing of working exclusively with daylight. Eszterhas admits there’s plenty of trial, error, and luck involved, whether her subject is the lioness choosing to introduce the cubs to the pride during the day instead of night, or the bat-eared fox family having their pups in a rather shallow den.
Locating animals with newborns is another challenge in itself. For about a year and a half, Eszterhas was on call for four female tigers to give birth. Finally, “I get a call from my contact in India, a real garbled, clearly overseas voicemail saying, ‘Rajberah’s nipples look good,’” she laughs. Observing a mother’s swollen or ringed nipples in the wild is one indication of a new litter, and the specific mating patterns of animals like ring-tailed lemurs also make work easy.
But Eszterhas is often at the whim of nature, even with the help of researchers and conservation groups advising her where animal families might be found. And some of the biggest obstacles in wildlife photography are due to human agency, whether from poachers, deforestation, or the social or political issues of a specific country. “You have to work with some local obstacles, but in the same respect you gain—you have to gain—an incredible appreciation of the cultures you’re working in,” she says. “If you don’t, you won’t be accepted, you won’t be respected, they’ll boot you out.”
Not All Warm & Fuzzy
What Eszterhas seems to love most about her photography is all the drama that comes with babies. Tracking cheetahs, she’s photographed riveting gazelle hunts and a mother instructing her cubs how to hunt; she’s also witnessed the tragedy of a cheetah losing all five of her cubs. “It’s really not just about the warm and fuzzy soft portraits, it’s about the whole stories, all these challenges that these animals face as they grow up.” she says. “And some of them aren’t warm and fuzzy at all.”
Most of the photos here appear in Eszterhas’ newly completed Eye on the Wild, a children’s book series whose six volumes each cover a species from birth to adulthood: Cheetah, Gorilla, Lion, Brown Bear, Sea Otter, and Orangutan. The photographer was adamant that they be aimed at children, believing that commitment to wildlife conservation and passion for photography must begin at a very young age.
Eszterhas does limit her photos for kids’ publications to the warm and fuzzy, so her more stark images, such as the hunting cheetahs on page 96, do not appear. “That would be way too much for the kids to handle,” she says.
Aspiring wildlife photographers note: Great images can often be found close to home. After traveling from Antarctica to the Arctic and everywhere in between, Eszterhas returned to her home in San Francisco to shoot an animal she grew up photographing: sea otters.
“Here’s this project that just kinda came around full circle, brought me right back to where I started,” says Eszterhas. “And I loved it, I loved every minute of it, working close to home. One of the things I think about traveling that’s ironic is, especially when you live in a place like Northern California, you realize actually how beautiful it is, and how amazing it is here, and how much wildlife we have on our doorstep.”
Suzi Eszterhas’ Eye on the Wild, published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, is available on amazon.com. See more of her work, and info on her tours and workshops, at suzieszterhas.com.