Behind The Scenes With Sloth Photographer Suzi Eszterhas!
To be a wildlife photographer you need to have a lot of patience: spending days on end out in the wilderness, going to extreme lengths to blend in with the surroundings, and a lot of waiting (usually in awkward positions) for the perfect shot. But being a sloth photographer requires a whole new level of patience.
To celebrate “World Photography Day”, we asked our favorite wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas to choose her all-time favorite sloth photos and to tell us the story behind how she captured each image!
Know your Sloth Photographer
First, let’s get to know Suzi a little bit better! Suzi is an award-winning wildlife photographer best known for her work documenting newborn and family life in the wild. Her portfolio is beyond impressive: you have probably already seen some of her images gracing the covers of magazines such as National Geographic, Time, Ranger Rick and Smithsonian.
Suzi has authored several children’s books and her name might sound familiar because her photos illustrate not only most of this website, but also our best-selling book ‘Sloths: Life in the Slow Lane‘, written by SloCo Founder and Director Dr. Rebecca Cliffe.
Suzi has not only ventured to some of the most remote places on Planet Earth in pursuit of the perfect photograph, but she is also the founder of the non-profit organization Girls Who Click which empowers teen girls to enter the male-dominated fields of nature photography and conservation.
Through their free photography workshops, Girls Who Click aims to inspire the next generation of female conservationists and nature photographers. If you are interested in these workshops or would like to collaborate with this initiative, check out their website for further information!
Lights, camera, and not much action!
You might think it’s an easy job to be a wildlife photographer. It’s just exciting adventures and pushing a button on a camera, right? Well, not exactly.
To begin, you need to locate your animal and make sure that you aren’t disturbing or stressing them out in any way. Then you need to get as close to eye-level as possible. This makes sloths particularly challenging as they like to live at the tops of the tallest rainforest trees. You would also like to see the animals face – and if they have a baby, the babies face too!
Then the lighting needs to be just right. Not too dark, not too bright, and definitely no ‘hot spots’ from direct sunlight! Once your animal is finally at eye level, looking in the right direction and with the perfect lighting, you need to consider the background. You don’t want any bright sky or ‘messy’ foliage cluttering the image. As you can imagine, getting all of this right in the middle of the jungle is incredibly difficult.
Here, Suzi showcases her favourite sloth images, species by species, and describes the trails and tribulations involved in capturing each shot!
“The maned sloths were undoubtedly the hardest sloth species to find and photograph. Rebecca and I traveled to the state of Bahia in Brazil to work with a team of scientists that have been studying maned sloths for many years.”
“We went out with them on their field expeditions, and most of our time was actually spent laying on the forest floor for 14 hours at a time, staring up at a patch of fur that you could just barely see, high up in the trees, totally camouflaged by leaves and thick branches. That’s all we saw for most of the expedition!”
“One day we were lucky enough to be with the research team when they captured a male maned sloth that had a radio tracking collar. They needed to remove his collar and download the data that they had been collecting on him. This is really important research because the maned sloths are actually a critically endangered species.”
“This was our only opportunity to see a maned sloth up close! It was quite funny because, true to their name, they absolutely have this gorgeous mane of black hair, but also this particular sloth was quite fierce. I haven’t met that many sloths that are really truly fierce but he absolutely was fierce and almost lion-like so to speak, and that was an extraordinary experience.”
“Swimming with a sloth is one of the highlights of my career as a wildlife photographer. Just being in the water with the sloth was an incredibly intimate and exciting experience. In order to photograph this sloth, I swam alongside it in tropical blue water.”
“It really was like a dream… until I swam into sea-grass that had a lot of jellyfish in it which I didn’t even notice because I was so caught up in this sloth. The jellyfish started stinging me all over. I was muttering obscenities in my head while at the same time taking in the beauty of this animal and trying to get the picture right.”
“Taking an over and under shot, which basically means half above water and half underwater, is incredibly complicated and so it took quite a few attempts to get the one that I really liked. Luckily for me the sloth wasn’t swimming very fast! They are actually surprisingly fast in the water, more so than you would think, but it was a long swim and so I had some time to compose the shot and it is definitely an experience I treasure.”
“To find pygmy sloths we had to travel to a remote uninhabited island off the coast of Panama where we spent 5 days searching for them. On the last day after a very successful shoot, we were all excited to go home, but unfortunately a tropical storm rolled in and we got stranded on the island. We had to ration water for two days and sleep curled up on the floor of a speedboat while the storm raged all around us. The only good news? We were able to pay some fishermen to catch us some lobster and cook it on a fire on the beach! And we got the shots, so that’s all that matters.”
“To photograph pale-throated sloths we traveled to an idyllic island called “sloth island” in Guyana. It was an absolute paradise for sloth lovers: it’s a place where sloths have been protected for many years and are regularly viewed by tourists.”
“Rebecca and I spent a fabulous week there looking for sloths. There were days when we found 11 different sloths in one day, and it really was a paradise. The pale-throated sloth is one of my favorite sloths just because of their gorgeous faces and coloring. Rebecca likes to call them “moon faces”, and this feature makes them incredibly photogenic subjects.”
“We spent a lot of time watching one mom and baby pair that would just sleep all day, as sloths do! I fell asleep several times waiting for them to wake up!”
“Rebecca is very good at staying awake while sloths are doing absolutely nothing, and I have a tendency to nod off which she was she likes to make fun of me for! Sloth island was an absolute paradise for us.”
“The first sloth I ever photographed was a brown-throated sloth. I had come to Costa Rica to photograph some orphan sloths in a sanctuary but I couldn’t believe my luck, but a wild female sloth showed up in the forest surrounding the sanctuary with her newborn baby that was less than a week old.”
“I quickly shifted gears and started following her around the forest, and spent a few weeks doing that with Rebecca. We became best friends and bonded over our love of sloths, and then we hatched a plan to spend the next several years trying to photograph all of the different species of sloths. We’ve done five of the six, but we’ve still got one more to go. Throughout this time I have absolutely fallen in love with sloths!”
“I become so involved with The Sloth Conservation Foundation I am very proud to be a trustee of the organization. The brown-throated sloths to me are the quintessential sloth, so from a wildlife photographer’s point of view they are incredibly photogenic. It’s the sloth that I dreamed of photographing ever since I was a kid.”
Hoffmann’s Two-Fingered Sloth
“Photographing this mother and baby pairing, Ali and Jessica, was probably the most intimate experience I’ve had with sloths. They were in a soft release area at a sanctuary as they had been rescued from a busy road and were in the process of being released back to the wild.”
“I climbed up into this almond tree that they were in and just sat in the tree with them at their eye level. It was a really beautiful, quiet experience being in the tree with them as they rested. The baby even spent some moments playing! It’s the first time I’ve seen anything that looks like play coming from a sloth so it was really a wonderful thing to witness.”
“It turned not so wonderful as I started coming down the tree and accidentally sat in a termite nest! The thing about this job is that it’s not as glamorous as people think. It’s dirty, sweaty, there’s lots of insects. Sometimes you feel like the habitat is out to get you. But it was worth it for this photo, and to have those moments with those two before they were released back to the wild where they should be.”
Bonus Jungle Story
“Quite possibly my favorite jungle experience of my life also occurred during the maned sloth expedition. Some of you may not know, but Rebecca is surprisingly an extreme arachnophobe. As we were doing a very professional selfie video about what the maned sloth researchers were up to, and how the jungle was suddenly getting dark, Rebecca had a close encounter with one of her eight-legged friends!”
Did you enjoy these stories?
A new book from Suzi is coming soon! In ‘My Wild Life’ Suzi shares more anecdotes and stories, all illustrated with her amazing photos. This is also a story of the challenges most women have to face in male-dominated fields, and how to overcome these issues.
The book is now available for pre-order now. Here at SloCo we can’t wait to read it!
Field Operations Manager