Connecting to the Animal Kingdom with a Camera
by Nicole Rivard
Photography by Roie Galitz
When the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the Connecticut town I currently call home, it was comforting to flee to a nearby nature preserve adjacent to a river that creates a lagoon where ducks and other shore birds—blue herons, black-crowned night herons, egrets, plovers, etc.—can be observed from the trails.
I spent a lot of time there during quarantine. It happened to coincide with Canada goose couples—who mate for life—nesting and raising their young, something I had never paid much attention to.
While mothers are teaching their young how to find food or swim, the father is on the lookout, protecting the family. He might not be right alongside the children, instead he may be some distance off from the rest of the family. After doing a little research on them, I learned this behavior is to distract any predators from the little ones.
The scenes unfolding at the preserve provided incredible photo opportunities. So, I made a pandemic purchase—a 600mm zoom lens I had always wanted for the type of wildlife portraits you see in magazines. (As a former newspaper editor/photographer in a city of more than 85,000 residents, there were not many occasions to photograph wildlife.)
Looking through it I felt like I was seeing the geese and other species I had come across all my life for the first time— an intimacy with nature was created that I never experienced before. I could only imagine what it might be like to be a wildlife photographer for National Geographic, traveling in extreme conditions to the remotest places on earth, capturing images of rarely viewed animals in their natural habitats.
I needed to find out.
ANSWERING THE CALL OF THE WILD
Roie Galitz has been exploring and documenting our planet’s wildlife and nature, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, for the last decade following an unfulfilling career in finance.
He started off doing sports and nature photography but a trip to Africa fueled his desire to focus on wildlife. His award-winning photography, featured by National Geographic, BBC and numerous photography magazines, has brought him so close to the animal kingdom, literally and figuratively, that he has also decided to use it to inspire change to ensure the survival of the animals he’s gotten to know through observing their behaviors and emotions.
“I’m taking the power of photography and using that as a means of communication alongside storytelling in articles, on TV and public speaking to express nature’s distress to people all over the world, including decision makers, because they have the power to make a bigger difference,” explained Galitz, founder of the Galitz School of Photography in Israel.
Galitz has recently spoken at the United Nations’ World Wildlife Day, Climate Week NYC and environmental conventions worldwide.
The “aha” moment that led him to become a wildlife advocate occurred in 2014 while on an excursion to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, where he first saw and fell in love with polar bears in 2012.
“When I came back there in 2014, I was shocked how different everything was. The glaciers had receded and there were fewer polar bears,” Galitz explained.
“Everything was melting and disappearing in front of my very eyes. I knew about climate change and global warming. But there is a difference between knowing and seeing and understanding. You can’t see what is going on and do nothing.”
In addition to Svalbard, Galitz says the wild places that keep calling him back are the Kamchatka peninsula in eastern Russia, home to brown bears, orcas and sea lions; and Tanzania, where he’s been enamored by cheetahs, lions, leopards, elephants, giraffes and hippos.
Through the travel company he founded, Explorer’s Elite (explorerselite.com), he takes nature lovers on excursions. Interestingly, he says that about 50 percent of the travelers he guides are not photographers.
“They just want to see National Geographic with their own eyes. They want to see the action but not through the viewfinder,” Galitz explained.
Galitz finds that some people on wildlife expeditions seem to have a “shopping list” mentality and are not really seeing the animals.
“They’re saying, ‘Ok I have seen it, now let us go. They are putting a checkmark near the lion, the leopard, the cheetah,” he explained. “They are not intimate with nature.”
It is the exact opposite for him because his goal is to understand and capture the animal’s character and soul.
“Photography is way more intimate with nature. It forces you—it literally bends your arm—to see beyond,” Galitz said.
“So, you are observing an animal’s behavior and you are noticing their subtleties—how one female is gentle and another aggressive; how some cubs are curious, and others are skittish. When you are capturing a behavior, you are getting to know the animals better.”
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
A good wildlife photographer must be patient.
“The more you sit and wait, the more intimate it gets,” Galitz said. He once waited three days to get an elusive shot of a polar bear catching a seal because capturing a unique behavior is the “holy grail of wildlife photography.”
Being a successful wildlife photographer is not about the equipment, it is about the ability to portray the feeling you had when you were there connecting with wildlife, Galitz says.
“There’s a famous saying by Ansel Adams: ‘In every photo there are two people. The photographer and the viewer.’ I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to see what I saw,” Galitz said.
Want to connect with nature & wildlife through photography? Anyone can do it. Galitz offers advice on creating compelling images like his featured in this article:
LIGHT: Photography is all about light. ‘Light is our clay, that is what we work with,’ Galitz says. His favorite technique is backlighting, which involves positioning the main light source for a photograph behind the primary subject to bring a greater sense of depth and an emotional aesthetic to photographs. It is when the real magic happens, he says, like in the photo of a male polar bear walking across the frozen fjord in the midnight sun. Galitz also captured the photo of whooper swans as the sun was setting over Lake Kussharo in Hokkaido, Japan. This lake is kept partially unfrozen even in the harshest winters thanks to geothermal currents.
FRAMING: Framing is a technique that deliberately places the primary subject in a position where accompanying elements such as trees or branches surround it, highlight it or call attention to it. Galitz uses the tree trunks to showcase Ma’ah, the oldest spirit bear in the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia. She is 18 years old and a white morph Kermode bear, the rarest bear in the world. Her teeth are already worn, and she eats mostly berries, but she is healthy and alive, and she is the spirit of the forest.
EMOTION: “Animals are very emotional and of course so are humans, so when we look at them, we can relate,” says Galitz. He notes that a great wildlife portrait is not just a photo of a face—it shows the personality of the subject by capturing emotion. He looks for moments and facial expressions that show caring, fright, worry, curiosity, vulnerability as well as silliness and humor, as depicted in the photo of joyful elephant seals on South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic on page 16. With their heads tilted back and mouths wide open, Galitz says they appear to be impersonating the legendary operatic trio of the Three Tenors.
BEHAVIOR: Behavior such as courting, cuddling, mother/cub relationships makes photography more exciting because it creates a story in the viewer’s mind, and when you have a good story, you engage with the viewers, Galitz says. He particularly enjoys photographing mother/cub relationships. “Cheetah cubs are born with a plumage on their backs, and scientists believe its purpose is to resemble a honey badger to avoid predators. The little baby (depicted on page 19) was licking his mother on her forehead, truly a sign of love.”