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Reflections on Wildlife Photography

Apr 11, 2012 No Comments by
Know what you want!
Wildlife photography is a wide enough subject to escape the possibility of being covered in one article. Hundreds of books and articles have already been written, and little can be added without running the risk of being just a repetition.
One thing, though, seems like a fresh subject to me: how to approach wildlife photography from the point of view of the involved photographic language. More specifically: how to portrait wild subjects and with what goal in mind.
Many times, or too many times should we say, when presented with the opportunity of photographing wild animals, photographers tend to act automatically, popping out the longest lens they have, trying to move as close as possible and taking face shots or extreme portraits of the subject. While there is nothing wrong with this, it might be useful to remember that this is not the only possible approach, nor necessarily the one conducive to the best shots.
Trying to identify the type of photography we want to achieve in a particular situation can help us make the right decisions and can broaden our creative horizons.
In general terms, almost every wildlife picture falls in one of the following four categories: portrait, ambient portrait, behavior and panning.

Reflections on Photography-Photo A typical portrait shot (upper left: Laysan Albatross, Kaena Point, Oahu Hawaii); ambient portrait shot (upper right: lions at Lake Manze, Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania); behavior shot (lower left: Olive Baboon, Ruaha NP, Tanzania) and panning shot (lower right: walking Wildebeest, Mikumi NP, Tanzania).

Let us briefly analyze each of them and see when to favor one or another, depending on the scene before us.

Portrait is the hands-down winner of the bunch. When a bald eagle is spotted perched on a branch, or a lion is drove upon during a safari, gloves come off and the tendency is to fill up the frame with as much of the animal as possible. The vast majority of wildlife images are shot with this goal in mind. The quest for this type of photography requires long telephoto lenses and the ability to get in close range with the subject.
In my opinion, this type of images tends to be somewhat static to really grab the viewer's attention. Don't get me wrong; it is still possible to get beautiful shots and I shoot a lot of these images myself; but I do it fully aware that they will hardly be never-seen-before compositions.

Reflections on Photography-Photo Pygmy Marmoset in the Ecuadorian Rainforest. Canon 300mm f/2.8. This is a typical example of animal portrait. There is no background worth looking at. The subject and its expression are the only elements of the image.

Reflections on Photography-Photo Lion's cubs. Ruaha NP, Tanzania. Canon 600mm f/5.6 (300mm f/2.8 with 2x extender). These cubs were lying about 20 meters away from me. Unable to move any closer, I used all the “power” I could to isolate them from the surrounding environment.

Reflections on Photography-Photo Burrow Owl. Salton Sea, California. Canon 600mm f/5.6 (300mm f/2.8 with 2x extender). Another example of extreme portrait. The image is the subject, and the subject only! There is nothing else to look at, the background being completely blurred and nothing more than a splash of color.

If the situation allows for it, that is, the animal is calm and not moving, it is worth exploring different approaches and experimenting with different compositions, which leads our discussion to my favorite type of wildlife photography: ambient portrait.

Ambient Portrait
Simply put, ambient portrait is when the ambient surrounding the animal becomes an integral and important part of the image, with a visual weight to it and an eye-catching composition to match. We can think of it as landscape photography with an animal in the scene. Where, and how, the animal appears in the shot determines the very rational of the image itself.

Reflections on Photography-Photo Giraffe. Ruaha NP, Tanzania. Canon 17-40mm f/4. I took this image at midday, when I normally avoid shooting due to harsh and uninspiring light conditions. However, this composition was so powerful I could not pass it. I created a genuine landscape image using a polarizing filter to make the cloud stand out from the sky and employing converging lines to reinforce the composition. The giraffe and the Acacia tree are placed close to the right third of the image, where the cloud line also draws the viewer’s attention.

I have long admired the work of Thomas Mangelsen (www.mangelsen.com), in my opinion one of the masters of wildlife ambient portrait. Many of his images portrait grand natural scenes where the animal might even be difficult to spot at first, but once the eyes see it, it becomes the center of gravity of the image and the mind stays locked on it, revealing that the animal, despite its small size, is THE subject of the image.
These images are sort of two wow-factors images. The first wow-factor hits you when you enjoy the landscape the image highlights; the second one arrives when you spot the animal in it and you figure out the photographer's logic behind the scene.
This type of images looks very lively and foster, through the image itself, a dialogue between the photographer and the viewer. It is a more complex and articulated language being used to interact with the viewers.

Reflections on Photography-Photo Walking Elephant. Mikumi NP, Tanzania. Canon 17-40mm f/4. On safari inside Mikumi NP, I saw a large group of elephants crossing the plains en-route to a water hole. I isolated this young elephant and composed the image in order to highlight the dramatic sky and placing the elephant on the right third to give more weight to its direction of movement. The result is a dynamic, yet well-balanced image.

There are simply no rules to follow, but a few advices can be worth remembering.
    Analyze your scene first. Is the landscape behind and around the animal interesting per se? Would it make for a good landscape shot, even if the animal was not there? If you answer yes to these questions, then the shot is a good candidate for ambient portrait. Treat the landscape photography aspect of the image with the utmost importance and shoot for the landscape, not the animal! Try to avoid positioning the animal in the center of the image. The animal can be “discovered” later, so disguise it in a position where it is not immediately evident. If your position is not ideal for the landscape you want to portrait, move, and, using Edward Weston’s words, find “The strongest way of seeing”, that is, the strongest composition you can visualize. Don’t be concerned with the animal being too small, that’s the goal of the image, and in the end the animal will always be recognized as the main subject of the image, regardless of its size. Try to get everything in focus, closing your aperture to increase the depth of field, if needed. A blurred landscape very rarely makes sense in a landscape shot.
With these simple guidelines in mind, it is possible to start thinking about wildlife photography in a different, fresher, and more creative way.

Reflections on Photography-Photo Wildebeest. Mikumi NP, Tanzania. Canon 17-40mm f/4. The strength of this image lies in the sky and its dramatic visual impact. Even without the wildebeest, the image would remain a powerful one.

One huge advantage of ambient portrait is that it does not require long telephoto lenses. So, if you don’t own one, don’t panic before a lion and remember to tinker with this concept. You might be able to take better pictures than the guy next to you sporting a 800mm f/5.6!

Reflections on Photography-Photo Laysan Albatross, Kaena Point, Oahu Hawaii. Pentax645N, 33-55mm. This image was taken with a medium format wide angle lens, getting very close to the chick and employing a non-central composition.

Reflections on Photography-Photo Cheetah. Ruaha NP, Tanzania. Canon 300mm f/2.8. This is a typical image of cheetahs. We have seen plenty of these already. The sea of dry grass conceals the cheetah and the composition is carefully crafted removing the main subject from the center.

Reflections on Photography-Photo Wildebeest. Northern Serengeti NP, Tanzania. Canon 17-40mm f/4. This is another example of a composition built around a visually overwhelming sky. The horizon line is placed even below the third of the image, to give all the power to the sky itself. The clouds create a naturally converging line drawing the attention to the lower right third of the image.

Behavior shots
Behavior shots are images that portrait some key aspect of the animal’s life cycle, or behavior. It could be anything among courtship, predation, mating, care giving to newborns, fleeing, fighting… etc. These are not easy images to create, as animals quite often go about their daily chores afar from human presence. For instance, everyone who has spent some time in Africa will tell you that lions are not particularly difficult to see. What’s difficult is to see them doing something!
When presented with the opportunity of taking behavior shots, the advice is to focus on the action, trying to get sharp, well-composed images (panning will be discussed later). Don’t be shy with the shutter release: shoot, shoot and shoot some more, keeping in mind that the appeal of these shots is the behavior displayed and not necessarily the technical qualities of the shot itself. Actually, some behavior shots have been regarded as great and unique even if they lacked technical perfection in some department.

Reflections on Photography-Photo Snow Geese. Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Pentax 645N, 33-55mm. Thousands of snow geese in flight, calling each other and circling above your head, is something you need to experience live to fully appreciate it! This image is an attempt at rendering the power of this lavish natural display. I placed the camera on a tripod and I filled the frame with the birds against the dark, blue skies of New Mexico, allowing some motion blur to retain the sense of movement.

Reflections on Photography-Photo Yawning Coyote. Yosemite NP, California. A full description of how this image was taken, can be found here: http://www.manfrottoschoolofxcellence.com/2010/07/12/giorgio-trucco-how-did-you-shoot-that-winter-boredom/

Reflections on Photography-Photo Elephant. Ruaha NP, Tanzania. Canon 70-200mm f/2.8. This image depicts the efforts of a male elephant fully stretching his body to reach the young, green and soft leaves of an Acacia tree.

Panning is the art of creating motion-blurs!
Motion blurs stem from following the movements of the animal in its environment. By using a slow shutter speed, the background will result blurred, as a consequence of the camera moving during the shot.
It is useful to force yourself to try this type of image whenever you have a chance. Panning is not easy and it takes a lot of practice to master it, and a certain level of luck to bring home stunning images, but it can be very rewarding.

Reflections on Photography-Photo Running Caribou. Denali NP, Alaska. Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8. This is an example of a close-to-perfect execution of the panning technique. The focusing and the panning are very accurate resulting in a very sharp image with a smooth blurred background.

Let us dig into some details about panning.
The ideal situation for a panning shot is an animal moving in clear view against a uniform background and with a motion path that is not directly towards to, or away from, us, but rather at 90 degrees, so that its distance will remain about the same.
In a panning shot the list of photo elements that move -faster to slower- goes like this: background, animal legs/wings, head, body.
Keep in mind that completely blurred images defeat the very concept of panning, and even if they can retain some appeal, they are not well executed and make little sense to me. An acceptable motion blur must contain areas of the pictures that are sharp and still, ideally the animal head/face. So what should we try to focus on?

Reflections on Photography-Photo Running Zebra. Mikumi NP, Tanzania. Canon 300mm f/2.8. This is an example of a not-so-perfect execution of the panning technique. The focusing is ok, but the panning lacks precision, resulting in an image where virtually nothing is very steady. It still renders the idea and some people might like it. Me? I don't dislike it, but I use it as an example of a panning shot that needs improvement.

The body is arguably the best target. The head, on the other hand, might be in line with the body movements (with an elephant for example), or swing back and forth, or up and down, compared to it (in a giraffe for instance). Therefore, whether the head will be as still as the body or not, is largely a matter of conditions and the animal being involved in the shot, and it is difficult to predict.

Reflections on Photography-Photo Walking Elephant. Ruaha NP, Tanzania. Canon 70-200mm f/2.8. I like this image a lot. Both the focusing and the panning are accurate and the subject is not in the center! Elephants walk slowly, so this gentle giant allowed me to focus and recompose while panning, resulting in the uncropped image that you see here.

Here is my list of advices:
    Panning is best rendered with a shutter speed in the range of 1/4- 1/30th of a second. Set your camera to Aperture Priority and choose an ISO-aperture pair that gives you the desired shutter speed (this is what I do). Or set the camera to Time Priority and choose your desired shutter speed. Keep in mind that it’s better to use higher ISO and small apertures than the other way around, because small apertures will help you with focus by increasing the depth of field. Set the lens focus mode to Continuous (Nikon) or AI Servo (Canon). Once the subject is in focus, you want the camera to lock and track that focus! Set the Image Stabilizer mode to Normal (Nikon) or Mode 2 (Canon). These modes will only compensate for vertical shacking and will not try to override your horizontal movements. Select the centre focus point and keep it on the animal body as steadily and smoothly as possible. Don’t shoot right away. Gauge the animal speed by checking the alignment of the centre point with the animal body and adjust your panning speed until you can keep them aligned. Then start shooting. Don’t shoot just one or two images. Shoot an entire sequence in continuous-high mode and take as many images as you can in one batch.
One problem with panning shots is that the subject will always be in the center of the frame. Focus and recompose is close to impossible while panning (it can be done though…), so one solution is resorting to compositions that don’t fill the frame with the subject and retain some headroom for post-production cropping.

Reflections on Photography-Photo Running Baboons at golden hour. Ruaha NP, Tanzania. Canon 300mm f/2.8.

Panning should be attempted with the right tools to maximize your chances of getting good images. Hand panning is only viable with up to mid length lenses. With telephoto lenses, pun intended, a panning mount is paramount!
My favorite panning mount is the Manfrotto 393 Gimbal head. It works very smoothly and is very inexpensive compared to other options. I find it very quick to balance and super smooth in use. If you are serious about panning, and you shoot with anything above 100mm, chances are you need a panning head!

Reflections on Photography-Photo Leaping Dolphin, southern California. Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8. This is to date one of my favorite images. I took this shot from the bow of a boat that was following a group of dolphins. It was sunset in southern California, and the low sun colored in pink and yellow the water splashes. This image is a variation on the panning theme, because the background is blurred as a consequence of the movement of both the subject and the photographer, who move at about the same speed. I released the shutter at the exact time the dolphin dove his head into the water, resulting in the wonderful splashes that look a lot like sparkles from a grinder.

We have seen that wildlife photography is such a broad topic that it can be useful to draw some lines and decide what type of image we want to create, every time we spot wild animals we want to take pictures of.
Deciding this at production time can help us increase our awareness of the photographic process and it can guide us in making the right technical decisions.
Making a mental habit of thinking out of the box and beyond the usual “animal portrait” can foster a more creative approach to photography, which, in turn, will help us develop a personal style, which is the ultimate goal of our learning.

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