Tibor Litauszki is a Hungarian nature photographer who specializes in unique wildlife photography often taken at night. He recently won the prestigious Nature Conservancy photography competition with his image of an Alpine Newt eating tadpole eggs. Tibor was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview, reproduced below.
First of all, congratulations on your achievement, Tibor. Winning such a prestigious competition as The Nature Conservancy is definitely a big deal. At almost the same time, you also managed to get “highly commended” in the GDT European Nature Photographer of the Year, and to win the Magic Plants category in the Golden Turtle competition. What do these achievements mean to you? Is it just a confirmation that you are doing something well, or can they mean something more?
I have been participating in nature photography competitions since 2016. Not necessarily for the sake of winning. I am a humble young man whose love is nature photography. I enjoy being outdoors and strive to capture unique images. If one of my photos makes it to an exhibition, my happiness is immense.
What I appreciate most is that my winning images reach the general public. This can be at least indirectly influential to people in terms of conserving nature. Personally, more than 15 years ago, I looked with awe at the works of the great nature photographers of that time. Today, my work could be an example for others.
Let’s take a closer look at your winning photo. From my point of view, it has everything a winning photo should have. Besides the technical perfection that is now considered standard, it shows your great creativity and your play with light. It has a very unusual point of view, and most importantly, it has an interesting story. Let’s start with the story. Could you tell us what the photo is about?
The winning photo shows an Alpine Newt from a very interesting perspective, caught in the act of eating tadpoles. It’s hard to put into words how happy I am that the prestigious Nature Conservancy jury, made up of renowned nature photographers and environmental experts, chose my image as the Grand Prize Winner. I consider this a tremendous achievement.
I believe that in this photo, the cycle of biodiversity is evident, captured from a unique perspective. This may have won their favor. I am grateful for that! My joy is unimaginable that my photo became the grand prize winner.
This was certainly not a chance encounter. How did you learn about such an interesting natural phenomenon? I’m a biologist myself, and I have to admit that I had never heard of newts eating frog eggs or tadpoles.
Perhaps I should start by saying that the whole idea and origin of the photo is closely related to environmental protection. For the past three years, my son and I have visited a nearby forest in the spring to conduct a frog rescue mission.
What does that mean? In the fall, before the onset of cold weather, frogs leave their watery habitats and bury themselves in the leaves of nearby bushes or forests. This is how they survive the winter in hibernation. In late March and early April, as the temperature rises and dusk falls, the frog population wakes up overnight and slowly makes its way back to its watery habitat.
This wouldn’t be a problem if their path didn’t cross a relatively busy stretch of road. Without human intervention, barely a tenth of the frogs would make it to the pond. Instead, they would be flattened on the shining asphalt by inattentive drivers. During this time, we wear safety vests, carry buckets, and use headlamps to search for frogs. When we find a few, we take them to the pond system about 30 meters away. My little boy loves the program, and as a proud father, I am happy to instill in him an early appreciation for nature.
While actively participating in this rescue mission day after day, one evening I noticed something shining on the water’s surface. It turned out to be a freshly laid frog spawn. As I examined it with a lamp, I noticed small lizard-like creatures nibbling and eating the eggs. I had never seen anything like this before and was very surprised. Later, when I searched the Internet, I found out that I was lucky enough to encounter Alpine Newts. They prefer very clean streams and the surrounding biosphere, and they are widespread in Germany, where I took the photo.
How did you prepare to take such a picture? I mean technically. Did you have to use or even make any special equipment just for this photo?
As a nature photographer, my mind immediately started working on how to photograph them to get a good picture. For the first two years, I photographed them with different techniques. However, for the third year (this year), I came up with a very interesting and challenging idea. I bought an entry-level underwater housing for my camera. The plan was to place it under the spawn, and as soon as the newts appeared, I would take the shot.
Several problems arose that I had to address long before the actual shooting. When I sealed the housing, air remained inside, causing it to float on the water surface. I had to attach the whole construction to a metal weight to keep it submerged. The next problem was that the radio release and communication with the phone would be interrupted underwater. So I connected my camera to the trigger with a homemade waterproof cable. The third problem was something I discovered on the spot. When I placed the camera under the desired egg cluster, I disturbed the mud a bit. I had to wait for the mud to settle and carefully clean the front lens with a brush. I had to be quick with the photography because the Newts ate all the eggs in about 5-6 days.
Interestingly, they were more active after dusk and in the dark. I was out about an hour before sunset waiting for the mud to settle and the water to clear. The first night could have resulted in a good picture, but unfortunately I misjudged the focus. When the Newt appeared, and I felt it was eating from the right spot, I backlit it with an LED light and exposed the shot. Since I set the focus incorrectly, the first night’s pictures turned out blurry.
I only found out when I took the camera out of the water. The second night, I adjusted the focus, and the Newts came again. When I felt they might be in the right frame, I took the shot. This went on until about 11:00 PM. When I got home, I inserted the memory card into the computer and scrolled through the pictures. Suddenly I noticed that one of the photos was sharp and the Newt was in the right position. I was ecstatic that the dream photo I had been planning for three years had finally come true.
When I looked at your portfolio on Instagram, I realized that you have a really wide range. Amphibians got you a win in The Nature Conservancy contest, you placed in GDT European Nature Photographer with birds, and finally you scored in Golden Turtle with mushrooms and insects. Is there a subject or theme you prefer over others? And what brought you to nature photography in the first place?
I bought my first camera more than 15 years ago. The love for nature came from my childhood, when I enjoyed vacationing with my grandparents. They lived in the countryside and had a farm. We often went on horse-drawn carriage rides with my dad. We walked along the border, and my dad always told me about the characteristics of each animal, whether it migrates or hibernates.
As a child, I absorbed this knowledge. Later on, I bought my first camera because I wanted to capture some of my childhood experiences. I started to learn photography by teaching myself. At first I photographed birds and was almost obsessed with them (actually I still am).
However, a significant change occurred in my life in 2018 when my son was born. From that point on, my life became hectic. I worked during the day, and as soon as I got home from work, I was engaged in childcare, bathing, and playing.
I didn’t want to push my other love, photography, into the background, so I went to the woods when the little one was already asleep. Typically, I leave when other photographers go home because of the lack of light. I bought a flash, an LED light, and searched for new, then unfamiliar night themes in nature. Initially, I photographed spiders, wasps at dusk, and various insects. Various mushrooms, plants and later mice. Slowly but surely I got to know the nocturnal wildlife of forests and meadows.
For that reason, my photos from recent years have a darker atmosphere. On weekends, during the day, my family and I often go hiking, and if I see something interesting, I think about how to photograph it in the dark. But if I have time, I also like to visit interesting places during the day.
I have to admit that my photographic heart beats mainly for birds. So I looked at your goose photo for a long time in awe, and I still don’t know what it captures. I see geese, that’s obvious, but what else? What are they flying over? It looks like an oil spill to me, mud bubbles illuminated by a giant lamp… I’m pretty much clueless. Could you tell me how this picture was taken?
The picture of the Greater White-fronted Geese was taken in Hungary in January 2022. There were a few frosty days when the nearby salt lakes were frozen. One evening a thin layer of snow fell on them, which started to melt the next day due to the rising temperature. This resulted in fantastic shapes. That was my plan, to go out with a drone and try to capture exciting abstract images from above.
As I flew and took pictures, I noticed on my screen that a flock of birds flew under the drone. I shot immediately and managed to take only four pictures; everything happened so fast. I reviewed them immediately, and one picture turned out well. The composition, the shape, and the Geese were in the right position.
This photo was largely a product of chance and the moment. The exact opposite of my photo of the Newts, which I had been thinking about for several years.
How much do you plan your photographs and how much are they the result of chance? Do you have any dream pictures in your head?
I am often outside; the more time you spend outdoors, the sooner you come across the next subject. Of course, not every photo can be planned. Luck often plays a huge role.
Personally, these unplanned photos are my favorites. A few years ago, I photographed Winter Moths on a cold, dark December night. My camera had a wide-angle lens set to manual focus, and a flash. I wore a headlamp on my head and LED spotlights from the side. I set the flash to second-curtain sync.
As these moths flew, I tried to follow and keep the focus on their wings. The flight dynamics, thanks to the LED lighting and a long exposure time (0.5sec), become visible. Sometimes I managed to capture a sharp image of the moth. On one occasion, as I reviewed the photos, I noticed that the wing flapping of the Winter Moth formed a ghostly shape beside it. I was very pleased with this accidental discovery.
My other photo that made it into this year’s Nature Conservancy photo contest exhibition was taken this way. An Antlion is flying in the sultry summer night on the Hungarian steppe.
If you had to name three qualities that a nature photographer should have, what would they be?
It’s simple. The most important thing is to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Ideas come when there is inspiration.
Number two, be prepared. If there’s a theme you’re interested in, it’s worth getting the right equipment, lenses, lighting, and other equipment.
And finally, perseverance, which I consider essential. Good photos may not come immediately, but if you invest enough time, you will likely achieve the result you desire.
I wish you lots of great ideas and good light, Tibor, and thank you very much for the interview.