How did you get started in your photography career?
I actually didn’t start out seeking a career in photography. I started out as a scientist, and my primary interest was always to find ways to help protect nature. I have always had a deep love for the natural world and the knowledge of indigenous people, but my passion has always been accompanied by a tremendous concern for what’s happening to our planet, and especially to our oceans. From a very young age, I wanted to do something to help. I went to university and became a Marine Biologist and became part of the scientific community but I soon realized that my knowledge as a scientist was not the right tool for me to help protect the ocean. Photography was something I stumbled upon by accident. I borrowed a camera and soon discovered that I had some talent for it. I was drawn to the power of imagery as a way to show the world what is happening to our environment and I saw an important need, a gap in communication, that storytelling could address, and I decided to go back to school. I went to the Corcoran College for the Arts and have been using my camera as my passport to the world ever since.
How did you build a career out of conservation photography?
I began as a volunteer photographer with Conservation International but soon transitioned into the Communications Department, where I eventually became the Senior VP of Visual Communications. This is where I began exploring the power of imagery and where I first realized that our failure to protect the environment stems from a failure to communicate at scale. As a community we have not yet made the appropriate investments in communications at the same level as we have the science. My entire career has been focused on increasing the amount of communication around conservation issues through storytelling.
How did the International League of Conservation Photographers come about?
When I began my career as a professional photographer, I realized that many nature photographers were not interested in using their imageS to promote conservation. There was a handful, however, who did. In 2005 I convened a meeting of photographers at the 8th World Wilderness Congress in Alaska, and we decided to create an organization that would serve as a platform to empower conservation photographers, and that would allow us to raise money for conservation projects that focused on imagery and storytelling. I served as Executive Director and President of the ILCP until 2010.
What is Conservation Photography?
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the idea of being an “environmentalist” was very polarizing. I wanted to differentiate between those photographers who simply take pictures from those who are engaged in real conservation efforts. The work of the conservation photographer begins after the shutter has closed, that is when the real work of making sure our stories and images make an impact begins. You work in such challenging environments.
Do you get scared?
It is a very human thing to get scared. Of course, I get scared, but when I feel a little fear, that is when I know that I am in the right place. The important question is how do you channel that fear? I call all the little voices in my head, the “Peanut Gallery,” and they are constantly telling me to be cautious, to stay in my comfort zone, to take the safe route. I make a constant effort to silence those voices. They are the voices that tell us that women don’t deserve the same opportunities, or that the world is a dangerous place for a girl, or that we don’t deserve the achievements we conquer. Whether I am making a speech or diving with sharks, I change my inner-dialogue into a conversation about empowerment. If I’m not willing to take this next step, I might as well go sit down on my couch for the rest of my life. I take the responsibility of telling a story that is bigger than myself seriously.
What advice do you have for someone starting a career in photography?
That’s not an easy question to answer. There are lots of factors at play, all connected to individual circumstances – skills, networks, abilities, and opportunity. That said, I believe that education is key. Get a strong foundation of knowledge and theory on the subjects you are passionate about and then work incredibly hard and practice. Study the work of other photographers and look for opportunities to learn in the field. Become a photography assistant to a professional photographer so that you can learn field techniques; from writing proposals to organizing gear, to managing the logistics of a shoot. Being a photographer is not easy; most of us work as freelancers, which allows great freedom but comes with no guarantees of income or benefits. This is a profession that demands some hustling and some assertiveness, and it isn’t as glamorous as people think. The competition is steep as there are so many talented photographers out there, and it’s challenging to make a real living from it. So, if you are serious about making a profession as a photographer, set some goals for yourself. Become a good writer, learn business practices, be an effective communicator with potential clients, be serious about your work as a volunteer, and do everything you possibly can to get closer to those goals. Most importantly, know that it won’t happen overnight.
Do you see yourself as a photographer, an activist or a journalist?
For the longest time, I saw myself as a journalist, but I can no longer sit idly by. If being active means I am an activist, then I that is what I am. There is so much work to be done around issues of climate change, biodiversity and cultural loss and women’s empowerment! I get up every day knowing that my images have the power to make change and that motivates me to find avenues for solutions. I am always thinking about how to get my images in front of the people who make decisions.
What do you aim to achieve with your images?
I want my images to make people care. I want to move people away from apathy and into action. I want people to be so overwhelmed by emotion that they are inspired to, first of all, be aware of what impact their choices have on our environment, and then make some changes that are in alignment with sustainability and climate changes solutions. I want my images to communicate a story of hope by capturing a glimpse into the lives of my subjects, whether that be human, animal or environment, and I want my images to present a dignified portrait that emphasizes empathy and our common humanity. I want my images to show people a new way of seeing things and take them to places that they might never get to visit themselves with the aim of highlighting how everything on this planet is connected. If my work can inspire an army of people who care, then I have done my job.
Can I assist, intern or volunteer with you?
I get many requests for internship and assistant work, and I wish I could accommodate them all. The work I do as a photographer is typically on assignment for magazines like National Geographic or for conservation organizations, like SeaLegacy. This means I usually work with a small team of trained assistants. It is my policy only to hire people who have experience in international travel (in particular to remote locations), who speak at least one additional language, who are trained as divers and have rescue skills, and that have camera skills for BTS, social media and editing. We have a limited intern program through my non-profit organization, SeaLegacy, (www.sealegacy.org), with only one to two spots available each year. If you would like us to keep your resume on file, please forward it via email to info@CristinaMittermeier.com with an introduction.
Will you come and talk to our organization? How do we book you?
I spend most of my time on expedition and/or on tour with National Geographic Live. There are occasions, however, when I am available to present at conferences and other events. There is a fee associated with this, to cover expenses and to fund my non-profit, SeaLegacy. To book me as a speaker, please contact my agent Andrew.Pudvah@natgeo.com. If you are interested in more “grassroots” engagements, please get in touch with Kait Burgan at firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about other SeaLegacy speakers.
What is your approach to Social Media?
Social Media is an extremely important aspect of my work. It serves as a type of digital portal that I use to virtually bring people into the field with me and it also a business platform. I look at Social Media as a place to show the world what is happening to our environment and build a connection between cultures but also a place to showcase my work to potential sponsors, partners, and clients. I use it as both a place to share information and educate, but also to rally collective passion as a catalyst for real-world action. Social Media, for me, is an extension of my storytelling platform. I don’t shy away from “stirring the pot” and encourage healthy debate through comments and the sharing of ideas and experiences. Social Media has incredible power as a tool to motivate and connect with people in a global community.
How can I purchase your work?
My work is available exclusively as Fine Art Prints through Toronto Image Works and the Paul Nicklen Gallery. A large percentage of the profits of Fine Art sales goes directly to support SeaLegacy. Please contact Cristina@cristinamittermeier.com for more information.
What gear do you use?
Since 2008 I have been a Sony Artisan of Imagery, so my main camera kit consists of the latest and greatest Sony gear.
This is a list of the gear I use for “above water” photography:
- Sony A7S2 for Low light video
- Sony A7R3 for most of my scenic and “people work
- Sony A9 for my wildlife work
- Sony VG-C3EM Vertical Grip
- Really Right Stuff L-Plate Set for Sony Alpha a9
- Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM Lens
- Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM Lens
- Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens
- Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS Lens
- Sony HVL-F45RM Wireless Radio Flash
- Manfrotto tripod
- Mavic DJI drone
For my underwater photography I use:
- Sony A79 Nauticam NA-A7II housing
- Sony 12-24 f/4 G Lens
- Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM Lens
- Sony FE 28mm f/2 Lens
- 45º Enhancing Viewfinder
- Fiber optic cables for Inon or Ikelite
- Inon and Ikelite strobes
- Wide Lens (WWL-1)
- 12 inch Zen dome
How do you pack your gear?
I have tried every bag you can find and I’ve realized that there is not a perfect bag for every assignment. It takes flexibility. The main thing I have realized is that the way you travel with gear is different than the way you shoot. You typically want to be able to access your camera really fast and not have to lay a bag on the ground in order to get your camera out. All of my gear is packed into a variety of ThinkTank bags. My favorites bags are:
- Think Tank Airport Security™ roller bag
- Think Tank Logistics Manager® 30 roller bag
- Think Tank Video Rig 18 to carry my underwater housing
- Think Tank StreetWalker® Pro V2.0 backpack
- Think Tank Shape Shifter® 15 V2.0 backpack
- Think Tank Speed Racer™ V2.0 shoulder bag
What is the best camera if you are on a budget?
For price and value I can’t recommend a better camera than the Sony A6500. It is in a price range that most can afford and provides an incredibly fast frame rate in a small and powerful package. It is the best in its class for FPS, autofocus and sensor size. The lenses are great and constantly growing.
What is the biggest mistake you think rookie photographers make?
The assumption that making a few photos makes you a photographer. This is a complex, all-consuming career that demands boundless energy, thick skin for rejection, a lot of persistence, patience and the ability to withstand uncomfortable situations. It is an incredibly competitive profession, where you have to create your own opportunities and craft your own path. If you are able to work harder than everyone else, come up with a vision that is uniquely yours, and most importantly, if you are able to give your work a sense of purpose, this is, without a doubt, the most rewarding profession.
What tips do you have for someone wanting to learn to do underwater photography?
Water photography can take years to master and it demands that you first become a strong and accomplished swimmer and a competent diver.