As a connoisseur of wildlife photography I’ve been disappointed lately by much of what I see online – both in my own images and in others. It doesn’t take a genius to build up a friend’s list on either Facebook or Instagram that brings some of the finest wildlife images to your computer monitor – instantly – changing every few seconds with more images, more beauty, and sadly, more craziness. Some photographers post to show off a great encounter, some post to show any encounter, some to build their brand for greater financial gain and fame, some post in order to make political statements and exhort others to action – putting wildlife right in the middle of the most recent, ongoing, and bitter battles of right vs left and hunter vs non-hunter, among so many other diametrically opposing views.
Most of the wildlife photographers I know, amateur and professional alike, see something in a great wild image, or encounter, that transcends any simple definition – and portrays some unique wild moment. There is no “we” love wildlife, while “you” hate wildlife – because in that moment that is always too brief – we all stand in awe of the scene before us. Our hearts race and our hands begin to sweat, it seems our nerves immediately fray, time flies and creeps at the same time. We all try and use our camera equipment in the most efficient, productive, and skilled way possible – but we get what we get. Some more talented folks get better images, some just get good images – but that moment is etched in our consciousness in it’s purest, most unspoiled form. We all have that image forever. We share that with those standing next to us, and we share it with our image viewers. The moment is the same for all of us.
Wildlife photography fails when we, the image viewers, fail to appreciate or understand the process of experience that went into that image. No one just starting out will take a magazine cover quality shot first time out of the gate. It can’t be done because so many of the variables involved in producing that image only come from experience and luck – the right kind of experience, and those experiences cascade you forward in your photography skills. Your “luck” increases as your experiences lead you forward.
I recently stood with others photographing a famous grizzly sow in Yellowstone, near the Lake Butte Overlook. I’m sure some of you were there, or had been there over the past years she called this area home. She and her newly kicked loose adult cub stayed within a half mile of each other – though their familial relationship was over, and grizzlies are notoriously unsocial animals – you just never know, events might bring them back together sometime in the future. They are both beautiful bears, but capturing images that portray behavior is extremely difficult. I had shot these bears over the past 3 years, each encounter was an opportunity to record the life of a grizzly in some small way.
Wildlife photography fails when we only examine the photo aesthetics and fail to understand the complexities of the subject. It’s a great image of a bear in a meadow versus a great image of a grizzly sow eating clover roots during a period of hyperphagia when it’s life depends on how much weight it can put on before winter. One of the hardest things for wildlife photographers to do is to say to ourselves “what do I see.” The inexperienced see only that moment. They see how close you are, or how sharp the image is, but not how much behavior you captured in any particular image. Behavior and interaction are the only two characteristics that separate good images from great images. Other factors like action, color, contrast, background, etc can add to an image – but it’s behavior and interaction that push it to be a great image.
Wildlife photography fails us when it doesn’t portray respect for the subject. While it’s pretty safe to say everyone respects grizzly bears, it’s another aspect of great photography to show that respect in images. Well, the closest images (an end goal born into every wildlife photographer apparently, me included) portray the least respect for our subjects. I hate saying that, but it is true. Head shots are portraits of wildlife, just like headshots for business executives that go on the company website or a business card. While sometimes dramatic, they are one dimensional and shallow – while wedding, anniversary, family, b-day parties, social event images, etc show life, character, and interactions.
One of my many pet peeves are parents that take images of their kids while standing up, high above them, shooting down (putting the subject in an inferior position) – instead of getting on their stomachs or kneeling – and shooting at eye level. You can change the perception (by the viewer) of the subject (dominant verses submissive) by simply shooting up or down. You can change the perception of the subject (advancing verses retreating) by being in front or behind a subject. You can change the perception of the subject (aggressive verses passive) through implied movement and eye contact. So in the field you look for moments that will exemplify those traits – you move, and move again, trying to position yourself for that moment, to capture that image.
Here are some chronic wildlife photography fails I see everyday in my photography and on social media online:
– animals doing nothing but sitting, standing, or walking. We need to photograph animals doing animal stuff, i.e. living their lives in the wild, eating, fighting, raising young, interactions with other species, etc. While it isn’t always possible, that’s the goal.
– shooting from a terrible position. While not always fixable, a bad position is your problem to solve – move your feet, move your car, wait for a better moment!
– less than sharp images. Use a tripod whenever possible. A camera that can shoot at higher iso settings with good quality (normally an FX sensored camera body) will get you that little bit extra shutter-speed. Delete the damned blurry ones and be done with it. Move on, try harder, do better. Never publish your bad images online just because that’s all you got from the encounter. Chalk it up to experience and get rid of them.
– don’t think being “cute” will save the image. By cute I mean adding a vignette to a wildlife image (as if we didn’t already know where the subject is), over-sharpening (I hate high radius sharpening that leaves halos), over-saturation, or some bizarre negative space crop that will only confuse the average viewer. Excessive darkening, blurring, and all obvious Photoshop fixes need to be avoided. If you can’t make it subtle, don’t do it.
– I don’t see the world in black-and-white, or in sepia tone. If you want to impress me with an image I want to see it in it’s natural color state. Our photography viewer minds are such that I will look at an image, and immediately compare it to every similar image I have ever shot of the same subject in my mind, instantly – and none of those are in black-and-white or sepia either. BW is more of a landscape process than a wildlife process. Some images can naturally appear to be monochromatic due to shooting conditions.
– Don’t be afraid to critique (different from criticizing) images, or to accept a critique. No one gets better without a little push here or there. I have a system for acknowledging images on social media – here it is: Good Image – a simple like. Very Good Image – a brief reply and congratulations. Great Image – longer reply. Excellent Image – some kind of joke or teasing text to indicate I’m amazed by the image. Like …. “did you take that?”
Back to our grizzly sow. We initially parked on the Overlook Road. The sow was below us working through the old burned timber, pulling up roots here and there but consistently moving away. At a point when I thought it was useless to shoot anymore from that position I saw that a small crease between little hills would eventually lead her down to the road. Bears will usually follow the course of least resistance, just like people, so we drove down onto the main highway and parked at the mouth of that crease, across the street, and got set up. After a bit other vehicles began arriving – so apparently the bear was moving in our direction. She suddenly appeared up the little draw and continued to grub for roots, moving down the draw towards us. Perfect. We couldn’t have been in better position to capture images of her feeding, moving towards us, climbing through the fallen timber, looking towards us, etc. The ranger appeared and opened a section of road for the bear to cross, but that didn’t effect us much because we were by my truck which was one corner of the opening for the bear.
Up and over she went through the logs – and then I saw two logs laying near each other, one higher than the other. I thought “please go between them and not over them” and she did just that. Thank you. It isn’t a perfect picture, it has some weed obstructions, but it’s a great behavioral image of a grizzly feeding through her environment. As the encounters pile up our shooting experiences get better, our images gain a certain amount of gravitas that others will notice. You will begin to notice your own style and those types of images will come easier and more often. Avoid photographer fails, avoid the common, push for better. BRP