The wild life of a nature photographer seems less of an unconventional career path or pipe dream by the day. As climate change upends human and natural life as we know it, capturing moments of the environment unseen is as crucial for science and research as it is documentaries or periodicals. And, with the invention of Instagram and the like, social media has transformed how we digest nature in action. How else would Ariana Grande have seen that viral video of a plastic straw being removed from a sea turtle’s nose if it weren’t for marine biologist Christine Figgener posting it on YouTube?
It’s why, this Earth Day, we spoke to several wildlife photographers on the stories behind popular shots of their own. Because what really goes into capturing nature’s mind-blowing moments requires more than just a touch of being at the right place at the right time. What we can learn from photographers like Cristina Mittermeier, Ami Vitale, and others should influence our own connection to the world around us—from sand and surf to grass and tree. Here’s how some of our favorite nature photographers got the shot.
“I spent a magical afternoon free diving with Titouan Bernicot, founder of the Coral Gardeners, on his beautiful home island of Mo’orea. He proved to be a much more proficient (and younger) free diver than myself and I had to stop to marvel at how easily he moved underwater as he shared a moment with a very friendly pink whiptail ray. Born on a pearl farm in the middle of the Pacific, Titouan is perfectly at home in the ocean and shares a deep connection with the ecosystems he strives to protect. Watching the playful pair reminded me why I became a photographer and conservationist in the first place: to fulfill a vision in which all of us can work with nature to support our communities the way Titouan does.”—Cristina Mittermeier
“Shaba greets Mary Lengees at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in northern Kenya. Shaba arrived at Reteti traumatized as a one-year-old after poachers killed her mother. She was distrustful and wanted nothing to do with the team. The dedicated keepers didn’t give up and spent day and night trying to persuade her to accept a bottle. Then, one day, after one of the keepers stood with her for an hour in a stack of tires, she finally took a bottle and a strong bond was formed. Shaba has now been successfully reintroduced to the wild—a testament to the hard work and dedication of her keepers.
“Lengees is one of the dedicated keepers caring for orphaned elephants at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, the first Indigenous-owned and run elephant sanctuary in northern Kenya. She is one of the first Indigenous Samburu women elephant keepers in all of Africa.
“Reteti is opening a door to a world of possibilities where women are equally entitled to working on their own land and protecting their wildlife. Reteti is changing the way these communities relate to wildlife, and this brings a sense of pride and responsibility to the women working at the sanctuary. They know that by caring for the elephants, their efforts are reducing poaching and human-wildlife conflict.”—Ami Vitale
“In the last six years, I’ve passed by this beautiful stream of Baraballe a million times. Every time I was there, I’ve dreamt of seeing the black panther walking down this stunning habitat. This remained as a delusion for all those times until last week.
“On our private guiding tour, we were in search of the panther and the search brought us back to this stream. As usual, my urge to pick up binoculars kicked in and this time in my binoculars I saw the panther for real, walking down in all his glory at the far end of the stream. An absolute surreal moment; what I imagined for a long time was happening in reality. The delusion had finally come true and it was worth the wait!”—Yashas Narayan
“Ptarmigans are amazing northern birds with big personalities. One of them became a regular visitor around my camp at Teshekpuk Lake, in the Alaskan arctic. One night, I woke up to a herd of caribou migrating right between our tents. I was prepared, and started taking photographs with a well-concealed camera setup from within my tent.
“One thing I didn’t notice at first is that my ptarmigan friend was around, as well, running about under the feet of the caribou. When I got the photographs back to the computer and looked, I realized that the ptarmigan had been seemingly everywhere—photobombing so many of the photos of the caribou! It revealed a secret I had not known: that ptarmigan have been known to maintain a close relationship with caribou at times, taking advantage of the safety of the herd.”—Kiliii Yuyan