A young giraffe stands tall beside his family. 2022 Showcase Top 100, Mammals, (c) Sophia Balunek
By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator
For Sophia Balunek, conservation photography “uses the power of an art form to communicate really urgent messages.” That influences and is a hallmark of her photography. The way she translates that attitude into a photograph is one of the reasons she was one of only two nature photographers under 25 years of age whose images placed in the Top 100 of NANPA’s 2022 Showcase photo competition. So, how did Balunek get interested in nature and conservation photography and how did she hone her talents?
Balunek says she wants to “move beyond the standard portraits of animals. There’s so much more you can do. It starts with forming an ethical relationship with the animal, so it knows so it knows you’re there but isn’t bothered by your presence.” She enjoys “working with light and other techniques to make image more evocative” and tell a story that resonates with a viewer. You can see that in her winning image of a young giraffe standing tall beside his family members.
She was at a conservancy in Africa one morning and noticed a lovely, soft light on a herd of giraffes. “It’s always very cool to see young animals,” she said. “You could still see the umbilical cord on one, meaning it was less than a week old. The adults were crowding around the baby and you could see giraffes of many different ages.” She saw the height difference and decided “to cut off the tops of the larger giraffes in order to show how small the baby was. That placed the focus on little one, but also showed how it will grow and what it could become. I think we’ve all had the experience of being young and little and stretching up to be like the others.”
Getting into photography
Sophia Balunek comes from a family of photographers, each with their own unique styles. Her dad, Peter, is a professional wildlife photographer, safari tour leader, conservationist and wildlife ambassador. Her older sister, Emma, is a conservation photographer and had a winning photo in the 2020 NANPA Showcase photo competition.
An Ohio native, Sophia started her photography journey around 2015 by experimenting with wildlife and street photography. During the COVID pandemic, she expanded her interests to include bird photography. She was drawn to photography, in part, because it matched her desire to be active. “You have to go somewhere to get the photo. I get to be outside, to travel. I never go anywhere without my camera,” she said.
She learned a lot from a few mentoring sessions with professional photographers and spent three weeks at a fine arts camp in New York City. In the summer of 2021, she was a volunteer intern with Ride Maasi Mara horseback riding safaris in Kenya. She helped train and exercise the horses to get them used to the area. Along with riding, she went on regular vehicle safaris where she could take photos. Photographing animals in Africa is an experience she will never forget.
Balunek is currently a student at the University of Vermont, where she’s studying geography with a wildlife biology minor. She has experience in other photography disciplines, like portraits, and plans to keep using her camera to tell stories, mostly as a part-time endeavor to supplement her work, possibly in conservation. She’s working on the university newspaper, where she’ll be the Photo Editor next school year, and thinking about photojournalism as a career option. She wants to use her photography to help promote the conservation of wildlife and birds as well as the habitats on which they depend.
In our social media age, “everybody’s trying to be a photographer because everyone has a phone,” she said. “The standards are changing and it’s getting harder and harder to cut through the clutter.” But an excellent photo can still grab one’s attention, evoke an emotional reaction, and tell a story. “That’s what makes a good image so powerful.”
Right now, Balunek’s classes are keeping her very busy, and she’s working on slowing down and “being present,” she said. “It hasn’t been in the forefront of going out before, but now I don’t go out as much as I used to, so being present is more important. I stop and listen to everything. I watch and observe, stop and sit instead of walking all the time when birding,” she said. “You can see and experience so much more when you’re 100% present.”
“The community of photographers is really amazing,” she said. She follows a good community of nature photographers on Instagram that inspire and teach her about photography techniques and wildlife.
She was familiar with NANPA and the Showcase photo competition from her family, since her dad and sister were members. “The connections and networking are important, but Showcase was a big draw, too.” She wanted to enter and was delighted when her photo was selected by the judges for the Top 100. “It is an honor to be among all these great photographers.”
Getting into the Showcase Top 100 is a tribute to Balunek’s skill, artistry, and vision. We’ll be excited to see what’s next.