Meet the Photographer: Joe Petersburger

Grand Prize Winner, Professional, 2011 "National Wildlife" Photo Contest

11-21-2011 // Anne Bolen
Joe Petersburger profile by Tamas Szentpeteri

Joe Petersburger, a native of Debrecen, Hungary, is a professional photographer and a biologist with a specialty in animal behavior, plant taxonomy and, most importantly to him, conservation. He first expressed his artistic side through his illustrations. Then he realized the impact that photography has on people and began to focus on what he calls the "pictorial documentation of nature," particularly of lesser-known and endangered species as well as natural habitats in Eastern Europe.

Petersburger has won numerous international photojournalism and wildlife photography competitions and his photographs illustrated three stories (one of which he wrote as well) published in National Geographic. Recently, he has become interested in filmmaking, conservation activities and teaching. He also lectures about photography tips, photojournalism and environmental issues worldwide and judges at international photography competitions.

View more of Petersburger's images and learn more about his work at

NWF: Why did you enter National Wildlife Federation's Photo Contest?

Joe Petersburger: Entering to a photo contest is always challenging for the photographer. However, National Wildlife Federation is special among the dozens of photo competitions. This organization pays the most attention to nature conservancy through showing photographs, giving ideas for creating backyard wildlife habitats and raises attention about serious environment threats. I can be part of this activity through my winning photograph.

NWF: Can you describe briefly the circumstances behind the making of your contest-winning photograph?

2011 National Wildife Photo Contest Winner

European bee-eater, Sáránd, Hungary

JP: I observed that both adult birds are using the same twig for perching before they would fly into the nest to give away freshly caught prey for their chicks. This twig was just in front of the entrance of the nesting hole, about 5 to 6 feet away. They used the same spot on the twig all the time and flew in straight, so I could calculate their pathway in the air and I positioned myself to be perpendicular on the expected pathway. Thus, I had a fixed focus. I just had to catch them in the best possible position in the frame. I also wanted to show the blur of moving wings, which required natural backlighting. This is why I had just about three to four hours to try each day. I also used flash from front and top to have sharp details as well.

Bee-eaters eat flying insects and they have to catch many of them each day to feed their hungry chicks. This meant that I had dozens of opportunities to try to take their photo each day. However, they brought swallowtails just one to three times a day. I realized that this prey could make the best picture from this activity, since their usual prey (bees) are way smaller in size and are not so attractive in a picture as a butterfly. So I had many lucky shots with other prey, but whenever they brought swallowtail, I started to worry so much that I always missed it.

After three days of continuous trying in small bird hide that was 100 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit inside and many missed moments of swallowtails, I realized which female was arriving with the most desired prey. I completely lost my self-confidence by that time. I lay back in the hide and pressed the shutter, being sure that I would miss it again. Then, what I found on the screen of my digital camera was truly fascinating! At first, I called my wife to let her knew that I had something really nice. Then that evening, I sent the frame to my editor to confirm that the story was going to be published and that I was going to be able to raise awareness of this locally threatened species.

NWF: Are there certain types of wildlife that you prefer to photograph or that you find particularly challenging? What was your most difficult shot?

Mayfly swarm by Joe Petersburger

Mayfly swarm at the Tisza River in Hungary

JP: I really like to shoot everything I find, but I particularly like animals in action. However, I am a story photographer primarily. If I pick the topic, I focus on that endangered species or habitat.

This winning image was one of the most difficult from all. All together the most difficult was the coverage on 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.

NWF: Do you have any tips for taking nature photos that you would like to share?

JP: 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. Rather, try to find your unique view, which makes your work special.

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.

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.

Kingfisher catching fish by Joe Petersburger

Kingfisher dives for a fish in Danube Delta, Romania

NWF: Do you think that photography can promote wildlife conservation? If so, how?

JP: Yes, indeed! It is impossible to make ordinary people feel responsible to 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.

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