When Scott Portelli isn’t photographing animals doing what comes naturally in remote or underwater places, he’s usually helping someone else to do it.

It’s hard keeping up with Sydney-based wildlife and underwater photographer Scott Portelli even on the phone. ‘Right now I’m in Rapid Bay in South Australia, scuba diving among leafy seadragons,’ he says. ‘I’ve also been to the Australian giant cuttlefish breeding aggregation and diving with great white sharks, and I’ll be going to sinkholes over Mt Gambier way where you can dive.’

Portelli was on a two-week trip to witness seasonal wildlife events and ‘reccy’ places in Australia he hadn’t been to before in preparation for extending his range of on-location workshops and guided tours.

He also takes groups of photographers and filmmakers to remote destinations in many other parts of the world. From July this year until April next year he won’t be in Sydney for more than an occasional week at a time. 

‘I’ll be in Tonga for three months and the Azores [in the North Atlantic] for a month. Then I head to Las Vegas for a big trade show, to talk to various sponsors and clients. Then I’m off to the Falkland Islands, Antarctica, Papua New Guinea, gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda. Then… I don’t know. I’m looking at a trip to Norway to swim with orcas.’

Portelli says a wide variety of people have ‘bucket lists’ that include photographing or filming in places with unique environments and animal activity. But even if they are professionals, they need a guide and consultant with the expert local, technical and logistical knowledge to get results and get home safely. 

Sometimes he takes celebrity or expert brand ambassadors on his trips so the brands can get material to use across their advertising content. Sometimes, in keeping with his support for many environmental causes, he takes a marine biologist or two along, free of charge, because ‘they don’t tend to get a lot of funding’.

‘Most of my clients find me through my website [www.scottportelli.com], Instagram, social media and word of mouth,’ he says. ‘I also get a lot of exposure through various international photography awards and documentary films I have produced.’

His awards list is a long and distinguished one, including a cuttlefish shot that won the Australian National Award at the 2016 Sony World Photography Awards, and a humpback whale captured mid-dive in Tonga took out Best Single Image in a Portfolio at Travel Photographer of the Year in 2015.

All images taken under a special permit granted by the Regiao Autonoma Dos Acores, Secretaria Regional Do Ambiente E Do Mar, Dreccao Regional do Ambiente.

Portelli also does work in the tourism industry and for company clients, such as a recent underwater and aerial drone project for Lord Howe Island Tourism and underwater shots for Pro Dive. 

‘Sometimes clients want a bit of everything photography, video, aerial drone footage and I pretty much do everything. I’m licensed to pilot quadcopters and other multirotor drones weighing up to 20 kilos. Having the ability to be in any environment really adds production value to any shoot.

‘You have to adapt to new technology because there’s constantly new things coming in. For example, tourism organisations are now looking for 360-degree video skills. Put Google Glass on and get the virtual reality experience.

‘I’ve always been interested in the technical side of things, but I don’t get too bogged down in it. I need to be familiar with how things work, what they can do and how to use them, and I can impart the appropriate knowledge about them, but I don’t have to know the intricate tech specs of every lens and that sort of thing.’

He also has the conceptual, strategic side of advertising covered. Before and while working in advertising and deciding to go all-out freelance as a photographer in 2007, he did a degree in communications and media production, and a masters in digital media, at Western Sydney University.

While underwater work now features strongly in Portelli’s portfolio, just about anything requiring adventurous or extreme outdoor activity is within his realm. He first took to photography in his 20s as an intrepid traveller with a Minolta SLR, whose interests included ice and rock climbing, skiing and skydiving. 

Now aged 44, he says he’s not as extreme as he used to be, but he still climbs and abseils sometimes, and his line and constancy of work has ensured his fitness. ‘Like, I might need to swim a kilometre, after a whale.’ 

As well as learning to scuba dive, he trained in freediving techniques to the point where he could hold his breath underwater for almost four minutes. ‘For me, freediving was never really about getting deeper or staying longer,’ he says. ‘It was about enhancing my photography by being able to approach wildlife without the noise and bubbles that accompany scuba. You can get closer, more natural interactions with animals. For example, I might come across a singing whale, typically hanging with its head down and tail up, and I’ll freedive down.’

That natural interaction or rather, minimal interaction is central to Portelli’s approach to wildlife photography. 

‘I believe in taking the soft approach. If you try to manipulate behaviour or a situation, you’ll never capture what’s happening naturally in the moment. I don’t force any sort of image based on what clients might want or what people want to see. It could still be a ‘wow factor’ image you wouldn’t normally see, but it would have happened whether I was there or not. 

‘You also need to understand your subject matter’s behaviour and be relaxed in the environment. Animals are very perceptive and you need to be patient and follow their rules so they get used to you and don’t consider you a threat. For example, walking head down, on my knees, with a group of gorillas to show submission.’

Safety-wise, has he had any close calls? ‘I’ve never found myself in serious trouble. It’s always a calculated risk and if you can narrow down the potential issues, you can probably account for them in various ways.’ 

Obviously, wild animals can be unpredictable, he says, but they often show preventative behaviour that means ‘stay away’ or ‘you’re getting too close’. Or ‘I’m mating at the moment. I’d really prefer it if you weren’t here.’

It could be easy to liken what Portelli does to being on a constant holiday, albeit a very active one.

‘But I can’t consider any of this a holiday, even though it’s in beautiful, exotic places,’ he says. ‘If I get an idea, I’m very focused and I’ll get on a plane and make it happen.

‘With the guided tours, I do all the travel arrangements. I do pretty much everything myself, except that I have a social media community manager and a few people who do marketing material.

‘In places like Tonga, I’m looking after groups their flights coming in, making sure everything’s good where they are staying, making sure they get on the boat on time, making sure they understand their camera gear. I’m constantly working. I’ll be up at 6am and go to bed at midnight, and on the next trip to Tonga I’ll do that for three months solid.’

There’s also his own gear to worry about. He typically travels with three or four bags, each weighing 25-30kg. 

‘I’m mainly a Canon person at this point in time and I’m working on a number of projects to build this relationship. Most of the time I take two Canon EOS 5D Mark IIIs in my kit because I also use them with an underwater housing. I’ll have multiple lenses, from zooms to wide angles and fisheyes. My underwater cameras vary from mirrorless to SLRs, to Go-Pros on occasion, to whatever’s going to work for the purpose of the shoot at the time.

‘And usually my smaller DJI drone will come with me because I never know what kind of opportunities are going to occur.’

To see more of Scott’s work visit www.scottportelli.com

Article by Steve Packer

Excerpt from  Photo Review Issue 69  

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