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Interview with Joe Petersburger on awards and success


February 7, 2013

Corbis contributor, Joe Petersburger, just took home the 2nd place award for Wildlife Photography from the Global Photo Awards: a leading independent photography competition honoring excellence in the art of photography.

With a number of achievements under his belt, we were excited to have the opportunity to ask Joe some questions about his ongoing success and photography secrets.

CORBIS: You have discovered an orchid species, danced in more than 40 states across the US for a folk art group, have three featured stories for the National Geographic, teach plant anatomy and wildlife photography, and you have your Ph.D. in taxonomy, ecology and conservation.  What do you do in your “down” time?

JOE: I am changing diapers for my baby twin daughters :-) Seriously, I think everything depends on time management. My other secret is probably that I have not had a TV for over 12 years, and I try to spend as short time as possible in the virtual world, even by limiting internet. I just like real experiences. Moreover, I quickly start to feel bad, if I am not doing anything productive. It does not matter what the current activity is, I just have to do something.

CORBIS: Your background is an interesting combination of skills in both the arts and sciences; how is that reflected in your photography?

JOE: I think it is really helpful in many ways. My activities might look distant from each other, but I always realize that routine in one helps to be better in another. Like my background in graphics helped a lot in finding the right composition and color balance in the pictures I take. I do not have to think about it anymore, even if I am in the middle of hardcore wildlife action. My science background helps me to make very diverse coverages, because I understand and recognize the behavior I actually see, so I can concentrate on the true essence of that certain situation.

CORBIS: When you’re shooting in nature, what moment are you most always trying to capture?

JOE: Primarily, I try to shoot the extraordinary. This is what is interesting in whole life, even if it is positive or negative. On top of it, I try to shoot the situation in a unique way, so the picture stands out from others. Ordinary situations can be exciting too, but in such a case it is essential to find some special way to photograph to make the picture exciting.

CORBIS: What makes the difference between the photo you keep and the one you don’t?

JOE: Right composition and color balance is a basic criteria. I am very critical with my own images, and always look for the aspects, which could be done better. I used to have preconceptions about the picture I take, what it should look like. Of course, it almost never happens but I pick the ones which are the closest: the images, which tell the most at first glance about the moment – even for a non professional eye — and which has strong aesthetic value as well.

CORBIS: When did you start photography?

JOE: I started photography in high school, at age 15, in 1992.

CORBIS: What kind of equipment did you have at the beginning?

JOE: I purchased an Asahi Pentax SP manual film camera with a 50mm lens. Later I bought a set of extension tubes and a 200mm lens. This was all of my equipment for years, without motordrive, flash or any other technical gear.

CORBIS: Why did you start photography?

JOE: Two things motivated me from the beginning. On one hand, drawing was one my earliest passions, this is how I started pictorial documentation. I always picked topics from nature, what I tried to draw as precise as possible, which took a lot of time. Indeed, at that time, I did not have the patience for it for long term. Photography seemed to be a way more easy and swift documentation method. I did not terminate graphics forever: time by time I grabed pencil or pen, but such events are really occasional by now.

On the other hand, I was really fascinated by the role of photography in biological sciences. It is necessary on every field of biology from classic field studies to DNA analysis. I expected to be a more “versatile”, multi-branched biologist by knowing, practicing photography.

CORBIS: What do you like in photography?

JOE: I like photography for itself. Whatever I take pictures of, I am delighted by the magic of the moment, fascinated by the lights, play with composition opportunities and join the challenge of the certain moment.

CORBIS: What do you like to photograph?

JOE: Predominantly I take pictures of nature, but I enjoy taking pictures of any other theme: historical cities, objects, folklore, dancers, or newborn babies.

Every theme is different, so it is hard to pick just one. Every theme is unique in a certain way. Whatever I take pictures of so far, each has its specialty and can provide a unique experience.

CORBIS: You are predominantly a wildlife photographer. Are there any certain types of wildlife that you prefer to photograph or that you find particularly challenging?

JOE: I really like to shoot everything I find from macro to landscape, but I particularly like animals in action. However, I am a story photographer primarily. If I can pick the topic by myself, I focus on endangered species or habitats in Central and Eastern Europe.

CORBIS: What was your most difficult shot?

JOE: As a single image the overall winning image at National Wildlife’s 2011 contest showing a bee-eater bird with a butterfly in her bill was one of the most difficult of all. All together the most difficult was the coverage of the long-tailed mayflies. That species swarms just for two to three hours in a day, and just a couple days in a year at a suitable river section. So at the time I caught a swarm, I had to try to cover everything, as I needed to have variety of the images as well. It was really stressful.

CORBIS: What is your favorite place?

JOE: I cannot identify any place as a favorite where I have been so far. Every place is different, and unique from a certain view. I find everywhere that something has a new feature, which remains in my memory. Still, if I could go back to a place of those I have been, without a doubt, would choose Iceland. This is the place that is the most special of them all, and does not remind me of anything else.

CORBIS: What was the most fascinating theme you ever covered?

JOE: Every topic seems to be exciting for some different reason for me, so it is very difficult to choose again. Yet, more than any other, the swarming of the long tailed mayflies captured me the most. The inconceivable drama of this natural phenomenon is unique even internationally: the only 2-3 hours of life as an imago after a 3-year larva stage, and all that is happening in that couple hours in front of our eyes; it provides an unforgettable experience for all nature-loving people.

CORBIS: What is your goal with photography?

JOE: I would like to inspire people to love, spare, protect and actively take care of their natural environment.

CORBIS: Do you believe that photography can help nature conservancy?

JOE: Yes, indeed! It is impossible to make ordinary people feel responsible about conservation without making them fall in love with nature. Photography is one of the best ways to do it beside motion films. A responsible conservation photographer must not only shoot the beauty of nature but also the way humanity is destroying it.

CORBIS: What kind of topics/themes you choose and why?

JOE: Primarily I pick topics which have some conservation aspect, and visual documentation can help to raise the attention of the given problem.

CORBIS: Do you plan your photographs in advance or you better shoot spontaneously?

JOE: Bigger projects and technically challenging images are always require significant preparation. In general, such images require at least as much time for preparation than the actual shooting on the field.

Of course, many pictures are taken spontaneously, with no preparation at all. Several times I just go for trekking with minimal equipment.  Pictures taken at such events are giving a different experience and provide source for new ideas many times.

CORBIS: Do you takes pictures alone or in group? Do you work with an assistant?

JOE: Usually I photograph alone. In the case of wildlife photography, I enjoy not just photography but being alone and becoming one a little bit with nature. I rarely ask for assistance, but it happens, if really needed.

CORBIS: Do you  teach photography?

JOE: Recently, I’ve been  teaching photography and holding workshops by request both in Hungary and other countries in Europe.

CORBIS: What are your tips for beginner photographers?

JOE: Any picture that you see published means that this has been done, so do not try to succeed by repeating award-winning or published images. If you are a beginner, it is a reasonable way to learn and practice, but do not be surprised if such images are not accepted for publication. Editors of well-known publication platforms, judges of international contests are highly experienced people, who see amazing images day by day. So do not bother them with repetitions. Rather, try to find your unique view, which makes your work special. This can be a rarely photographed species; a unique, unusual perspective; behavior or photographic technique. The more unique, special the material is, the more you can expect recognition.

Lots of stock photo agencies existing nowadays and their archive is reachable on the Internet. Before you would start into a theme, better to study such archives to avoid unpleasant surprises later. It can easily happen that the topic you believed novel has been processed many times decades ago.

Photography is mainly a matter of brainwork, creativity, and vision.  Better pictures are not in order because your equipment is better than average. Currently available technology is fantastic and makes photographers extremely effective, but no one will be more creative because of it. Today, a mid-level digital SLR camera body provides such opportunities that we did not dare even to dream about 15 years ago. The technique is, however, not everything: cleverly and creatively used simple technique can also result in terrific shots.

We cannot hope for better pictures simply because we travel far. Exotic trips are very expensive, and if there is no relevant, prior knowledge of the area, or a good relationship with an experienced local person, failure is almost guaranteed. What’s more, the pop scene, such as the lion, elephant, tiger, etc.. are all really bad choices. These are photographed for decades by thousands of wildlife photographers, so showing something new from them is very difficult. But if you shoot a rare animal or plant, it does not necessarily mean this is an award-winning shot. Even the most common animal can be photographed in a unique way, which raises the interest of the editors.

Cost effective production is getting to be more and more important because of raising travel expenses and declining photographer commissions. An environment close to home is perfectly suited for practicing different photographic techniques, proper application of compositions, or to create your own style. Most people are very close to a fascinating place, a wetland, a forest patch, or even a park. They all have potential for many opportunities, you just have to search for them, and take pictures correctly. In addition, it is not a serious financial challenge to return to the site in various stages of the year.

When you are done with an image, or a coverage, ask for criticism from people with accurate references. Self-criticism is also very important, which helps keep your progressing, but the amount of work, and many other personal experiences might influence your ability to objectively judge your own work.

These days are packed with various photographic competitions. It is worth it to study the award-winning pictures to determine what your level is. If you feel you have it, you should enter. An award is never guaranteed, but a recognition can bring lot of publicity, which can greatly help your future work.

Finally, wake up early, stay out after sunset and shoot in extreme weather conditions such as rain or other storms. Such situations might have terrible light, but many times, they can also show the best spirit of a place.

CORBIS: Digital or film?

JOE: I started exclusively with film, what I find a very good school for photography. Whenever you shoot on film, you need way more active knowledge in your head, you need to think ahead more, and because of the expenses, less, but way more … pictures are taken. However, nowadays there are just very few fields of photography remained, where you can be competitive with film against digital. I started digital photography in 2002, and from 2010 I use almost exclusively digital cameras.

CORBIS: Have you ever experienced a significant effect of your photographic work?

JOE: It is very difficult to judge. Even though, it is always a remarkable and inspiring when international attention focuses on a theme after a certain publication. I experienced such attention after publishing my story on Long-tailed mayflies in National Geographic Magazine, and the display of the film series sequence completed with Sir David Attenborough.



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