Life through the Lens: Steve Winter

“When I would see a story about animals, it never entered my mind that I would do that.“ In the first of a new series exploring the work of National Geographic photographers, a master of wildlife photojournalism shares his inspirations and motivations.

By Simon Ingram
photographs by Steve Winter
Published 4 Dec 2020, 09:31 GMT, Updated 16 Dec 2020, 10:50 GMT
“In every situation the important thing is to come out with pictures that people have never ...

“In every situation the important thing is to come out with pictures that people have never seen before, and make people ask ‘what?’ ‘why’ or ‘wow’.” A tiger at Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado. Steve Winter's photography – accompanying his partner Sharon Guynup's article in December 2019's National Geographic – helped expose the mistreatment of captive tigers in U.S. roadside zoos.

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

STEVE WINTER was born in Indiana. He began his career as a photojournalist with the Black Star agency, and later moved into natural history photography. His assignments for National Geographic have focused on subjects as diverse as quetzals and Kamchatka bears, but it is big cats that have held the gaze of his lens most steadily.

"We're always trying to create our own unique vision. That's about being a singular photographer." Steve Winter on assignment in Brazil's Pantanal.

Photograph by National Geographic Image Collection

His photography of tigers, snow leopards and jaguars amongst others have informed conservation interventions around the world, and won accolades in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year, the World Press Photo’s  Nature story 1stprize — twice – and the Photojournalist Story Award in the Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. He has been a photographer for National Geographic since 1991.

My dad gave me my first camera when I was seven years old. It was just one of those Kodak Instamatics. But I think everything changed for me when I was eight, and being in front of the fireplace, looking at National Geographic and Life magazines. I wanted to be there, walking down those dusty paths and roads, with the incredible cultures that I saw, and the interesting people. That's what I wanted to do. I kind of vowed that when I grew up, I wanted to be a NatGeo photographer. But when I would see a story about animals in Africa or somewhere, it just never entered my mind that I would do that.

I went to university for a year and a half, and then I quit. I went around the world with my camera. Being a creative person, you have to bring out that creativity from the inside. You need that self-confidence… And going around the world helped me get it.

After that I went back to school at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. I had an incredible time and met incredible people. As far as specific photo skills went, I don't figure I learned that much, because I already had a great teacher in my father and then other people as I was growing up. But I had so much fun. I ran a gallery right in the tourism area of San Francisco. Ran the colour labs, learned how to print, worked at Photographers Supply, and met all these really great Bay Area photographers – because that's where everybody came to buy their kit. And that's where I met the man that changed my life.

2016: Photographing cowboys in the Pantanal of Mato Grosso in Brazil. The cattle herd has bulls which the area's resident jaguars won't come near; this stops members of the herd being killed, and in turn stops reprisals against the cats.  

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

“If you can look at the world in a photojournalistic way, you’re going to be a better photographer no matter what. Get that moment – don’t just go out there and photograph faces of animals.   ”

Steve Winter

We're always trying to create our own unique vision. That's about being a singular photographer. My mentor was Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols. I met him at the store. His animal stuff was all flash fill movement, and showing wildlife and wild lands in a completely new way. I became his assistant. And being an assistant is where you actually learn the tools of the trade. And to learn the business of being a photographer. It's one thing to be a photographer, but you need to be in an agency, you need to work with photo editors, you need to be able to do budgets, and having a mentor and seeing how they react, on the phone to different magazines… that’s the scary part. All those things you need to do that they don't teach you in an art school.

Here’s a cool thing. Nick had moved to San Francisco from Alabama, where he been an assistant for Charles Moore – whose pictures of the Civil Rights issues, those German shepherds and the fire hoses, I saw in my Life magazine when I was eight years old. The pictures that influenced me, that made me realise that photography can change the world. My advice to us all is to appreciate the work of Michael Nichols. Get his book Wild. It will blow your mind and change your life and way of seeing.

You need to tell the whole story. In every situation the important thing is to come out with pictures that people have never seen before, and make people ask ‘what?’ ‘why’ or ‘wow’.

I got out of the daily photojournalism business after I covered a coup in Haiti for Time Magazine. Day after day I was being shot at, but never hit, with machine guns. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, that chaos, man. These great photojournalists like James Nachtwey, and so many other colleagues that work wars – I don’t know how they do it, when bullets are flying. Haiti did that for me. I was like, ‘I’d rather work with animals.’ And that’s kind of where my career was going.

When I started, I knew nothing about photographing animals. If you want to be in wildlife photography, know how to photograph people. It should be required – but a lot of wildlife photographers don’t know how to photograph people. But if you can look at the world in a photojournalistic way, you’re going to be a better photographer no matter what. Get that moment – don’t just go out there and photograph faces of animals.   

Playa Naranjo, Santa Rosa National Park, Costa Rica – and a Pacific Ridley turtle returns to the sea after laying her eggs. The image was Steve Winter's first professional wildlife photo.

Photograph by Steve Winter

When I took my first animal picture, the night before I was so nervous. It was on a shoot for Merck [Pharmaceuticals] in Costa Rica, who were trying to find new drugs in the rainforest, and my first shoot in the jungle. They said, “do you want to come see the arribada?” This is when all the sea turtles come up the beach at one time at night to lay their eggs. So I said, is there any way we could not do it in the dark, with maybe dawn breaking? They told me maybe an abuela, a grandmother who’s taken all night to dig her nest because she’s old. And that’s exactly what happened. So as I lay in camp that day I was thinking, ‘a turtle is an object, there’s going to be an object coming at me… what would I do with a person? They’re going to be in shadow, the sky will have light in it, so I’ll need flash fill…’ and so that was my first animal picture. That turtle coming back to the water after laying its eggs.

A scientist once told me he hated photographers. “They take up so much of your time and we get nothing out of it.” He was talking about needing pictures to raise money for his project, and I gave him some to use in his shows. It was a smart thing, because he then gave me the idea for my first National Geographic wildlife story, on the resplendent quetzel.


1998: In Guatemala, photographing the elusive resplendent quetzal – sacred bird of the Maya – and its cultural associations and threats from human encroachment, was Steve Winter's first feature for National Geographic

Photograph by Steve Winter

The rainforest in Guatemala was the location of Steve Winter's first encounter with a big cat: a black panther, scratching at the door of his shack. 

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

"The most scared I had ever been in my life." A jaguar's eyes catch the flash on Steve Winter's camera in Brazil's Pantanal. He retreated immediately after firing off the shots. 

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

The most scared I had ever been in my life was on my first jaguar story for National Geographic. They said, “you want to go see this big cat that we see at dusk - hunting?” I was with the son of Brazil's most famous jaguar hunter. We followed the cat at a safe distance, then after maybe 20 minutes I say, “Sergio, where’d he go?” He was in the grass looking at us 12 feet away. I actually walked towards him to get that picture of those eyes. And that was the most scared I’ve been up to that point in my career. It wasn’t till Sergio said “Steve, get back – can’t you see his ears?” I had a parabolic flash on top of the camera and it was only then that I realised I was overexposing everything – so I changed the exposure, instinctively shot a few more frames of those eyes, then backed off. My hands are shaking. I can’t breathe. 

2008: Captured on a painstakingly-set camera trap, the famously elusive snow leopard in Hemis National Park, Ladakh. 

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

2016: A rescued young jaguar lives in Cabildo Verde, a nature reserve in Sabana de Torres, Colombia.

Photograph by Steve Winter

2013: "I said, ‘you know, to really tell the story of urban wildlife, wouldn’t it be great to get a picture of a mountain lion with the Hollywood sign?’ And he looked at me like I was crazy." The iconic 'P-22' image of a tagged mountain lion in Griffith Park, Los Angeles. The photograph, from a camera trap, was a sensation, and has sparked an upswell of conservation efforts in the city.  

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

I always want to find a way to get something people hadn’t seen before. When National Geographic did their best pictures of the last decade, the Hollywood cougar was one of them.When I was doing this story I went to meet the scientist that would capture and collar these cougars north of Sunset Boulevard, in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Our largest urban park. He didn’t want anything to do with me at first. He’s saying, ‘everyone wants to try and get images of the cougars when you don’t see ‘em.’ I ask him a few more questions and his answers are all just ‘no, no, no.’ Then I said, ‘you know, to really tell the story of urban wildlife, wouldn’t it be great to get a picture of a mountain lion with the Hollywood sign?’ And he looked at me like I was crazy. Eight months later, he texts me: CALL ME NOW!!!! He had a bobcat survey trail cam picture of a mountain lion in Griffith Park, right across from the Hollywood bowl.

I spent 15 months waiting for the Hollywood cougar. When the picture of ‘P-22’ [the name of the tagged cat] came out people went nuts. “I go running in Griffith Park every day!” “I take my kids to Griffith Park every day!” “I walk my dogs in Griffith Park!” There’s 24 million visitors a year to Griffith Park. Then the scientist is on the TV, telling people what to do, and basically saying, “you will never see this mountain lion.” But there was this great upswell of public support. The LA school district started talking about wildlife. The mayor made October 22 ‘P-22 day’. And now they’re building the largest wildlife overpass in the world so animals can cross the 101 freeway. You talk about having a vision for an image, and the power of photography.

People are actually becoming more visually literate. I remember when Instagram first came out, people said ‘I’m afraid this is demeaning photography – everyone is a photographer now, they’re going to take your job away.’ And I saw that on Facebook and Instagram and whatever that people were posting pictures of what they ate, or their family, or themselves with a selfie stick. They’re becoming better photographers as they do that. The reason why NatGeo has 140 million-plus followers on Instagram is people are appreciating good photography more, because they themselves want to become better photographers.

2016: Ancient jaguar wall art on a rockface in Chiribiquete National Park, Colombia.

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

2019: 'Doc' Antle (far right) and his family and staff at Myrtle Beach Safari, where the public can pet tiger cubs and have close contact with cats bred and trained on site. Antle, who was featured in the Netflix series Tiger King, was recently charged with wildlife trafficking offences. The facility featured in Steve Winter and Sharon Guynup's story in the December 2019 edition of National Geographic.  

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

2017: "There’s no species on the planet that hasn’t been affected by humans. And usually in a negative way. We need to tell their story." Jaguar skins for sale at a market in Iquitos, Peru. 

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

To me, a camera is like a hammer or a drill. They have different brands on them, but they do the same thing: take photos and make my life easier. I shoot on four brands, Canon, Nikon, Sony and RED. And I would use others. For me it’s whatever gives me the opportunity to do a better job – that’s what excites me. To get the images you see in your mind's eye, the opportunity to get something people haven’t seen before. And you have to find the right gear to make that happen. Low light capabilities are really important to me. New technology that allows a camera pointing at a jaguar to film up to 4 million ISO and see in the dark. The problem is, with shooting later and later you end up not getting time to sleep!

When people ask me if I miss shooting on film, I answer, ‘what’s film?’ Can you imagine going back to being limited, to having that moment broken, when you hit the 36 frame?

I did this story in Kamchatka and I was charged by this bear. I ran away, and when the bear didn’t kill me and went off, I saw a gun next to my head, with a Russian guy who said: ‘one second, dead.’ I didn’t know if he meant me or the bear. And at my feet a big pile of Velvia [transparency film]. And that will never leave my mind; in a situation like that, all that time lost changing film. You might miss a great frame.

I don’t crop my pictures. The Hollywood cougar is exactly the way it came – if you look at the [original] RAW file, you wouldn’t believe how similar it is. And you better hope your RAW file is right, or you’re not going to win any World Wildlife Photographer of the Year prizes: it’s important, as you want your pictures to have life.

I won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year prize because my partner Sharon [Guynup, National Geographic Explorer and journalist] entered the contest for me. Because to me, I’d already won – I’d wanted to be a National Geographic photographer since I was eight years old. I was living my dream. But then I understood how that show travels all over the world, how so many more people have an opportunity to see those images, and read the story, and hopefully save that species. To me, it's more important that these images help the animals that they're about.

There’s no species on the planet that hasn’t been affected by humans. And usually in a negative way. We need to tell their story, and we need to find a way to have empathy for them. And then it can go back to people: if we have empathy for animals, maybe we might have empathy for each other.

On Friday 4th December 2020 – World Cheetah Day – Steve Winter hosted a live Q&A on National Geographic UK's Facebook page. You can watch again here.

Find out more about the National Geographic Society's work with big cats by exploring the Big Cat Initiative


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