The Obsessed

Three part-time photographers, each with a single-minded, long-term, photographic pursuit. Maybe obsession is exactly what it takes to get pictures this good.

The-Obsessed

The-Obsessed

What do you love about photography? For many of us it's the creative opportunities we find no matter where we turn our lens: landscapes, people, architecture.

But there are others who focus their energy. For them, it's all about photography's power to explore one subject -- to show it brilliantly, in a way that makes people see it anew. It's this single-minded, long-term pursuit that gets them up, out, and behind the viewfinder year after year.

Obsessive? Perhaps. But maybe that's what it takes to get photographs like these.

Kim Steininger

It started with a walk. Kim Steininger was out near her new home in Chadds Ford, PA, when she noticed some birds she hadn't seen before. Not big into birds, Steininger was taken by their blue plumage. Later, a bird book told her they were, well, bluebirds.

One thing led to another, and soon Steininger was putting out mealworms to attract bluebirds to her back deck. Within months, she had a nest full of fledglings in her yard, and a camera in her hand to record them.

"I started shaking from excitement," she says. And it sparked her on what she calls "my obsession with photographing birds."

Today, eight years later, the 48-year-old Steininger has a portfolio of bird photos to rival any pro's. But she remains an amateur, with a day job running a law firm's computer network.

"Between that and processing images, I don't have a lot of spare time during the week, so I try to spend as much time outside photographing as possible on the weekends," she says. "Many weekends I'll leave home an hour or two before sunrise and not get back until an hour or two after sunset."

And her gear is as serious as her attitude, as her primary rig is a Canon EOS-1D Mark II and a 500mm f/4 Canon IS lens.

Of course, over the years her approach has evolved. She moved from capturing images of bluebirds on her deck, to putting up branches for the birds to perch on, to shooting in the wild. She's photographed from Canada to Florida. Her favorite place? Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna, DE, where she once spent her longest day of shooting.

"There was a thin layer of clouds providing some nice diffusion most of the day, and at times it even rained a little -- a perfect day for shooting. I sat on an upside-down bucket in the weeds, in a bug suit and blind on a hot summer day, for almost 12 hours. I was so engrossed that I didn't care how hot or hungry I was," she recalls.

Then there was the Ontario Great Gray Owl Irruption of 2004-05. The owl population of Ontario exploded, and twice that winter, Steininger and her significant other, Paul Leverington ("Definitely the person who has helped me the most!") ventured into the Canadian woods. The owls were feeding during daylight -- good news for photographers -- and a bird flew directly at Steininger, who fired off a few frames at almost point-blank range with her 500mm lens before ducking. One of those images took grand prize in the 2005 National Wildlife Federation photo contest.

"I hope that after seeing my photography, people will look more closely the next time they see a bird or any other gift of nature -- and, if they don't already, begin to appreciate and respect the beauty of this world we live in."

© Michael Collier
Meanders on the Green River, WY. Click photo for more images.

Michael Collier was making his way as a freelance photographer, a geology student, and a summer river guide in the mid-1970s when a magazine asked the impossible. The editor needed photos of the Colorado Plateau, a spectacular 130,000-square-mile region of the southwest United States that includes parts of four states. "He wanted pictures in a week, and I said no way," recalls Collier.

But then he realized a way -- by airplane. He convinced Chris Condit, a pilot for the U.S. Geological Survey and a fellow geology student, to take him. They spent three days flying and shooting over desert peaks, plateaus, and deep canyons, and it was a revelation. "This was a new way to see what we'd been studying," he says. Viewing geology from the air "adds a dimension, a perspective that's priceless."

The two continued working together. "We learned a different way of photography, or a different way of flying, because in flying for photographs, you go where the light leads you," says Collier.

"You have a sense of what you're trying to accomplish, and you're given this remarkable freedom to follow the light."

By 1979, he had his own pilot's license, and has been flying and shooting ever since -- through thousands of photos, a half-million air miles, and a dozen books on geology.

But Collier's 57 years haven't been a straight-line narrative. Beside his passions for flying, photography, and geology, he is a doctor, working alternate weeks as a family physician in tiny Williams, AZ. (Don't assume that the white coat alone buys fuel for his 1955 Cessna 180. For a number of years photography has subsidized his medical practice.)

While he does much of his photographing in the American west, where the air is clear and the geology exposed, he and his Cessna have gone shooting as far as Maine, Honduras, and Alaska. He's now on the second of a five-book series from Mikaya Press, and hopes to do a book on climate change in Alaska.

And the flying is still exciting. "Chasing the light," particularly at the end of the day, means that when Collier takes off, he's often not sure where he'll land -- a runway isn't mandatory. His Cessna is a tripod fully movable in three dimensions, and those flying with him report white-knuckle moments as he seeks the perfect angle before the perfect light fades for his medium-format Pentax 645 and Fujichrome Velvia film.

But what excites Collier most is coming back with an image that's both beautiful and tells a story.

He cites a shot of Wyoming's Sheep Mountain: "I like it because it's engaging; it's got nice lines to it. But what I'm really trying to do with the picture is say, 'Rock bends.' Even if you come away with just one idea -- 'rock bends' -- then you've got what I was trying to say."

© Olivier Staiger
Lightning, Sept. 10, 2006, Swiss Alps. Click photo for more images.

Most photographers seek the light. Olivier Staiger is drawn to the days when the sky turns to night, or when a towering storm darkens the world.

Staiger's romance with solar eclipses -- he's seen 23 -- goes back to 1994. That's when he traveled to Texas on a lark to see a mere "annular" eclipse, where the moon turns the sun into a bright ring but doesn't totally blot it out. "It was interesting, but not impressive," recalls the 48-year-old resident of Geneva, Switzerland.

When another observer mentioned that in a few months there'd be a total eclipse visible from the Iguazu Falls in Brazil, Staiger headed south. It changed his life.

"A total eclipse is 10,000 times more impressive than a partial or annular eclipse. You see the sky getting dark in the middle of the day. You see the stars. It gets cold," he says excitedly. Maybe best of all is "seeing the corona, which is the atmosphere of the sun. Normally, you can never see it -- only during those few seconds or minutes of totality."

Since then, Staiger, who also goes by the nickname of "Klipsi," has traveled the world chasing eclipses. Antarctica, Baffin Island, Easter Island, Mongolia.

Recently, his quest for eclipses has been joined by an obsession for photographing tornados and other violent weather. "Storm chasing is more of a challenge, and it's more adrenaline," he says.

So as he sits eating papaya salad at a Thai restaurant in Geneva, he's dreaming of... Kansas. And Oklahoma. And the other states of the Great Plains. "In May, I want to be in Oklahoma chasing tornados for two months," says Staiger, who shoots with a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT and a variety of Canon and Sigma primes. A favorite? His 400mm f/5.6 Sigma APO macro, which he uses handheld. "I don't like tripods under a thunderstorm. They feel like lightning rods to me," he says.

"I call myself a sky paparazzo. I like flashy things, things that are observable to the naked eye: total eclipses, lunar eclipses, bright comets, shooting stars, meteors, lightning, thunderstorms."

Paying for it all isn't easy. When he isn't traveling, Staiger works as a limo driver, taking clients around Geneva. He lives in a two-bedroom apartment; he isn't married and doesn't have a family.

In addition to his two-month American trip, his plans for 2008 include a $20,000 excursion on a Russian nuclear icebreaker to catch an eclipse. So tomorrow, he'll be behind the wheel of a Mercedes S350L. Still, it could be a good day: Thunderstorms are forecast. "Some could be severe," he says. "I look forward to it."

The-Obsessed

The-Obsessed

The Obsessed© Kim Steininger
The-Obsessed

The-Obsessed

The Obsessed© Kim Steininger
The-Obsessed

The-Obsessed

The Obsessed© Kim Steininger
The-Obsessed

The-Obsessed

The Obsessed© Michael Collier
The-Obsessed

The-Obsessed

The Obsessed© Michael Collier
The-Obsessed

The-Obsessed

The Obsessed© Michael Collier
The-Obsessed

The-Obsessed

The Obsessed© Olivier Staiger
The-Obsessed

The-Obsessed

The Obsessed© Olivier Staiger
The-Obsessed

The-Obsessed

The Obsessed© Olivier Staiger
The-Obsessed

The-Obsessed

The Obsessed© Olivier Staiger
ADVERTISEMENT