Photographer Steve Winter recently won the 2008 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award organized by Natural History of London and BBC Wildlife Magazine. See his amazing "Snowstorm Leopard" shot which appeared in the June 2008 issue of National Geographic. Here is more from National Geographic on snow leopards and here is more on Steve Winter. I have the opportunity to interview him recently. Here is our conversation.
Bill - What was the most exciting thing that happen to you on the snow leopard trip as an outdoors person and as a photographer?
Steve - I was most excited that I survived! The location was like being on the moon – as a jungle guy it was a real switch to sleep at -40 degrees! Adding to the drama was that Canon could not tell me if the batteries would work in such extreme weather, but thankfully they worked flawlessly, adding to our overall excitement! We also saw two snow leopards in the first 24 hours, and then only one more for the next 7 months! But with remote cameras, I do not care if I see the cat as long as my cameras do.
Bill - What was the biggest surprise that happen to you on the snow leopard trip as an outdoors person and as a photographer?
Steve - The biggest surprise bar none was getting photos on the cameras within the first 3 days. The story was truly blessed (the camp we were at actually had Buddhist prayer flags flying around it!). My local assistants wanted to be sure I knew how lucky we were. Within 12 days we got what turned out to be a double page in National Geographic magazine. After that, I had one camera that got one frame of a snow leopard in 6 months, and another got one frame in 3 months, which turned into another double page. This is further evidence that patience is very important.
Bill - How did you frame or compose your photo traps since you where not there to chose the point of exposure?
I have hated camera traps in the past; the technique makes it very difficult to get an image that has my vision as a photographer in it. But every problem has a solution, and this is no different. The snow leopard marks its territory in the same places repeatedly, so there was an area where the cat “could” actually break the beam in “my composition.” In the end, the snow leopard and I made some great images. Through these photos we can reach folks that may not have known of this cat in the past, help the organizations that are working to save the species and give people a reason to care with images that make them go “WOW!”
Bill - I have read Peter Matthiessen's Snow Leopard. In it he writes, "In one day's walk we are a century away, crossing a landscape suffused with transparent silver light…” and they continued to go back in time. Do these conditions still exist over 30 years later? If you have read the book, how does your experience compare with Peter's?
Steve - I have read the book twice. This experience is the same now as then. I walked for a week and went further and further back in time. The people were most amazing. I was in the Zanskar valley checking out the problems with snow leopards predating local livestock. The people were so inviting and have a very unique culture. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
Also read “Stones of Silence” by Dr. George Schaller who Peter Matthieseen was following. Incredible book by the world’s most famous zoologist.
Bill - How has the switch to digital affected your outdoor photography?
Steve - It has changed my life for the better. Yes, I travel with 2 generators, many hard drives, back up Apple computers loaded with Aperture (which has also made my life so much easier). But I COULD NOT have produced snow leopards without digital cameras. I needed to see what we were getting as the images were made. Part of it was psychological – this had never been done before and I needed to know we were being successful and I needed to reframe the cameras after seeing the initial frames. I had 14 remote cameras and placed them in 45 different locations. There is no discussion about digital and film in editorial as far as I am concerned – digital cameras or film are tools to bring our vision to the world.