Q&A: Wildlife Photographer Scott Portelli

Scott Portelli is an international award-winning wildlife, nature, aerial and underwater photographer. He has spent thousands of hours in remote locations across the globe filming and photographing nature, wildlife, and the underwater environment. His work is currently featuring work in the spectacular Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

© Tim Levy
© Tim Levy

Prior to becoming Scott Portelli, multi award-winning photographer, who were you? 
I worked in advertising as a project manager for more than 15 years, but I maintained my passion for photography throughout those years, escaping to far off places whenever I got the chance. I think most of my working life I was always on 'negative annual leave', to the aversion of the companies I worked for. I pushed those limits which eventually helped me transition into full-time photography. 

What sort of underwater rig do you use? I take it they can be quite expensive. 

I use a number of rigs underwater, but I have been lucky enough to partner with amazing companies like OM Digital, who support my vision and work. For this award-winning shot in Wildlife Photographer of the Year, I used the Olympus OMD EM1 MKII, an 8mm lens and the Olympus Underwater housing and strobes. My two big awards in the last year were won with this setup and I couldn't ask for a better system with great results.

Camera housings, dome port, strobe lighting can become expensive, but like most equipment you need to invest in it to get professional results, even if it costs more than your car.

Olympus Pt-EP14 underwater case with UFL-3 underwater flash

Do you have a preferred lens? 
I do shoot underwater with several lenses but I keep coming back to the 15-35mm lens at the moment, as it is ideal for both photography and video and gives sharp, precise images without distortion. These help me switch between the two disciplines, while maintaining the same quality whether stills or video.

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© Scott Portelli

More people die from ladders than sharks every year – but we don’t fear ladders the way we fear sharks. You’ve had many encounters with sharks – but you seem to have no fear of them. Why is that? 
I have a deep respect for sharks, which comes from many hours in the water observing their behaviour. This understanding of their behaviours enables me to photograph them naturally.  All sharks are different with very different behavioural traits, and at the best of times it’s not that easy to get close to a shark as they are very cautious. 

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© Scott Portelli

One of your toughest underwater moments was being stung by Portuguese man o’ war while shooting. Do you prioritise good photos over pain?
I think it's more about taking opportunities when you can, and sometimes you are in difficult, uncomfortable situations. I was photographing a sunfish in the Azores and these can be rare fleeting moments, so I jumped in the water to take photos. There were many Portuguese Man o war jellyfish around because this was what the Sunfish was feeding on. So every few minutes I would feel a sting, and then another and so on, but I decided to stay in the water and endure. 

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© Scott Portelli

What was one of your scariest or funniest moments in the field?
I was photographing baby elephant seals in the Falkland Islands. As I was floating in the water one baby curiously came up and bumped me, and literally floated on top of me. Despite their curious nature they are still babies and will often try and check me out by biting my dry suit. Good thing for me as they have no teeth yet - just gums. These 2 baby elephant seals were tag teaming me and both grabbed different legs. I was floating upside down with 2 baby elephant seals latched onto my legs and not letting go. Despite them not having teeth, the pressure on my limbs was being felt, so I had to firmly push them away. It was one of those humorous situations that could have gone bad.

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© Scott Portelli

It must be hard prioritising shooting stills over video sometimes - especially when these amazing moments are so fleeting. Why are you not taking my advice by supergluing 2 cameras in waterproof housings on top of each other so you can do both at once? 
[laughs] I think I need a more practical solution than two cameras glued together. But yes sometimes I do need to make a decision whether to be a photographer and capture a still moment in time, or to tell the story through the power of video. I sometimes shoot a beautiful video sequence of a behaviour that has rarely been seen, but it means I need to sacrifice an equally beautiful still shot. But I think as a storyteller I need to switch between the two mediums to be able to show all aspects of my subject matter.

You also dive in the Antarctic and Antarctica. What sort of outfit do you wear to keep warm? Surely speedos are not enough.
In Antarctica the water freezes at minus -1.8 degrees Celsius and generally it is about minus one to zero degrees when we go diving, so it doesn't take long for you to feel the cold, even with all the gear. I use a Waterproof [brand] Drysuit, with warm thermals and thick Polartec undergarments.

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What are a couple of your favourite animals to photograph?
I am a little obsessed with sea dragons, so I do like to dive and photograph these elusive creatures every chance I get. Although I do have an affinity with the ocean, I also enjoy photographing land mammals. One of my favourites to photograph is the endangered Mountain Gorillas. It’s a privilege just to be in their presence, but having the opportunity to interact and engage with such an intelligent primate has allowed me to capture their character and tell their story.

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I’ve heard that some wildlife photographers have gone to extreme lengths to get a close up shot. I would include covering yourself in dung to be fairly extreme. What extremes do you go to get close to your subjects?
I once spent two weeks laying in the mud at low tide in Broome photographing mudskippers. These amphibious fish are very acrobatic when the mudflats are exposed and perform various mating rituals to attract a mate. So being covered in mud, laying down in crocodile territory with the sun blazing more than 35 degrees for two weeks – it felt pretty extreme.

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© Scott Portelli

You offer tours and expeditions to many incredible destinations. If it was me taking a group out, we’d probably see nothing and catch a cold. How do you know that you will encounter specific animals? 
I do a lot of research about the locations I want to bring people. This often means visiting the area multiple times over two to three years at different times of the year to understand how everything works. I also need to know the ethics of local operators and what are the rules of that location. Only then do I have the local knowledge and personal experience to offer something that is reliable and will meet expectations. You can never control wildlife, nature, weather or external forces, but you can have the best possible knowledge to facilitate something amazing, and that’s what I aim to do with all my tours and workshops.

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© Scott Portelli

When photographers ‘shoot’ an animal - it enables that creature to ‘live’ forever. Sadly, because of humans, many animals are on the precipice of extinction. In what ways can the readers help continue the conservation message?
I think education and awareness goes a long way, and if you can be involved in something then you can help make a difference. 
As a photographer I use my work to support conservation - whether through science or environmental initiatives, the visual medium can be a powerful tool. I visit many areas like Rwanda to photograph the mountain gorillas, then use the images to spread the message about their plight as an endangered species. And this is common across all my wildlife tours. If I can get people in those environments, I can create a connection with an animal, or the ocean, or something close to home, then maybe they will be ambassadors for our natural world.

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© Scott Portelli

To find out more about Scott's expeditions, workshops, book and images: www.scottportelli.com

instagram: @scott.portelli