Joe Petersburger is a professional nature photographer and biologist who has been featured in National Geographic Magazine. Joe takes a photojournalistic approach to his work, capturing insects and small creatures other photographers would likely pass by. We’d like to welcome Joe to the team of Outdoor Photography Guide contributors – you can learn more about him here.
Outdoor Photography Guide: How did you get started in photography? Specifically how did you make the leap into doing it for a living?
Joe Petersburger: I started with graphics, what I truly enjoyed. In high school I was enthralled by wildlife photography ever since I attended a series of slide shows. In those days I spent much of my free time drawing animals and plants in minute detail. Amazed by the apparent immediacy of photography, I decided to switch from pencil to camera. Drawing took a lot of time, and as a teenager I wasn’t very patient. Photography seemed so easy. Just one click and it was done. Of course, I soon realized it wasn’t exactly like that…
Professional photography? Might sound strange, but my first story ever was published in National Geographic Magazine. A year before my editor explained to me how to build stories for the magazine. I succeeded and realized how much I liked it.
OPG: Do you have any formal training in photography?
JP: Not at all, but I have been teaching photography for over 10 years. I am self-trained and quite confident that self-criticism is the most important in further development. However, I had a genuine drawing teacher in school. We learned things about graphics that others learn only in universities. Even still though, we all felt like we were just playing in the class. Such art training helped a lot in photography. I wish to pay back that inspiration through my work to other people.
OPG: You’ve traveled to some amazing places – do you have a favorite location?
JP: Not at all. I concentrate the specialty at each location. I am absolutely confident that even the most common place is special from some aspect. Of course, I was amazed at each location I have been. I cannot really describe the feeling, when I could experience flora and fauna in an actual rainforest. I grew up in communist Hungary, and in my childhood we had difficult times just to get to “friendly” countries. Luxury travel was to visit the Carpathian Mountains in Slovakia or Romania. Twelve years later having a contract with National Geographic? Like a fairytale…
OPG: What subjects do you enjoy shooting most?
JP: What others do not even think about. I like small and difficult things: dragonflies, hoverflies in flight, kingfishers emerging from water, the behavior of wasps. I love to show others what kinds of creatures live around them – what they do not even recognize. I am a biologist, so I know what to look for and where. I am also an ethologist so I understand behaviors, or what happens and why. Moreover, I still have 1.9 visual acuity (90% above standard healthy eye), which is beneficial for fieldwork.
OPG: What’s in your camera bag?
JP: I have a small one which I take everywhere, even if I go to teach in suit and tie as a professor. It contains: EOS-1D Mark IV body, EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, EF1.4x II Extender, EF2x II Extender, set of EF extension tubes, Speedlite 600EX-RT flash, Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT. If I’m on assignment or have another specific purpose, my bag can grow huge both in weight and pieces…
OPG: What’s your favorite lens and why?
JP: There is no favorite. Whatever fits the best to the topic. For birds I love 2.8/400mm. For macro I use a huge variety of lenses, which might sound silly for others. For example 2.8/70-200mm with extension tubes. This combination might sound crazy from quality point of view, but if I put flash on, I have amazing results on flying insects. The picture is the only thing that matters; technology is just a tool to realize it.
OPG: How important is post-processing to your photography?
JP: HAHA! I still do not even know how to put my name for copyright on the picture as a layer… Seriously, NGM accepts only RAW images. There is no reason for me to use any manipulation tools on my computer. If necessary, I use color balance for color accuracy, and minor contrast, or crop, if it is needed. Of course, I remove dust digitally… but really that is all. I am a documentarist. I never considered myself an artist as a photographer. In my opinion the only artist in this business is NATURE. My job is to show it on a captivating way to others.
OPG: What is it about photography that drew you to it as a creative medium?
JP: Photography is the only universal language beside music. No matter where you live, what language you speak, you understand pictures. It is amazing. Just like the potential, that with only one picture you can change other’s opinion about something, or inspire them to do something different.
OPG: What is the goal of your work? What do you aim to convey with your images?
JP: Inspiring people to take care about their planet. Teaching them to recognize values around them, instead of traveling to exotic destinations and take part in global warming. I give lot of lectures and workshops to spread this message.
OPG: If you could describe your photographic style in one sentence, what would that be?
JP: Small creatures in action – what others would not even think about as an attractive topic.
OPG: What motivates you to teach others about photography?
JP: A fantastic teacher, some inspiring talks, and unselfish mentors helped me to be what I am as a photographer and conservationist. It seems I can give back to others through teaching and public events. I love to discover the world through my lenses. I can feel a similar glory if someone else succeeds. Photography is a powerful tool, and we need huge power to stop the destruction of our planet.
OPG: What advice would you give to someone just starting out in photography, or just starting to develop their eye?
JP: Be satisfied with a semi-pro camera and two or three lenses! Whatever these tools offer is something we could not even dream about 15 years ago. A good picture is a matter of mind and creativity behind the camera. I have never seen a photographer dramatically developing just because of owning money to buy fancy gear or travel to exotic locations. Start with basic things: learn to compose on trees, leaves, spider webs, etc. Visit common locations in different weather and seasons. You will realize that only a little pond or forest can be dramatically different at different times. If you work on life cycle or behavior, study the species in books and in the wild. Understand the species first, and start to take pictures later.
Let me highlight two facts:
- 80% of the pictures published in my three NGM stories were taken in Hungary, within 80 miles of my actual residency.
- 90% of my internationally awarded photographs were taken in Hungary, within 80 miles of my actual residency.
OPG: Where are you planning to go next?
JP: The south façade of our barn. There is a warm front here and wolf spiders will wake up from their hibernation there. So I will not even leave our garden…
To see more of Joe’s work, visit his website at joepetersburger.com.
To stay up to date on all of Joe’s adventures, follow him on social media:
Facebook: Joe Petersburger
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