Keeping context in wildlife photography

Keeping context in wildlife photography is often hugely important, writes Andrew James. This thought came to me as I spent half a day wandering around the Tate Modern to be intrigued, delighted and confused in equal measure. Most of the time I was reading the explanation text relating to the artwork I was looking at to try and understand it. Even then, I often didn’t! But it started me thinking about my own photography and how, unlike a lot of the artwork on show, I was often trying to give the viewer as many visual reference points as possible to tell the story within a single frame.

When I am photographing wildlife, whether that’s in a squirrel hide or somewhere in the wilderness, I always try to capture a range of images at different focal lengths or at least with the main subject larger or smaller within the frame, even if I am still at the longest end of my telephoto range.

In the excitement of a wildlife encounter, it’s easy to forget to experiment and it’s not until afterwards when reviewing your images that you realise you shot everything using a tight composition. There may be times when this is the right approach, such as a captive animal in an enclosure, but if you’ve taken the trouble to find a subject in the wild, then also show its relationship to it. While a close-up of the animal will show details of fur, feather or scales, a composition that includes its surrounding can be the more effective photo or, if it doesn’t have the same immediate impact of the tighter shot, it offers another chapter in your personal ‘book’ about the subject in question.

I’ve seen this desire to continually shoot tight compositions on lots of occasions when working with people out in the field. It’s quite natural for a photographer who has invested several thousands of pounds in a long lens to do this. After all, isn’t that the point of the expensive telephoto in the first place? Well, yes and no. I’d say, it just gives you the option to shoot tighter but the more options you have and use, the more visually interesting your portfolio of wildlife photos will become.

I recall one situation where I was photographing an animal and I looked round to a group who had all put their cameras down. ‘Why aren’t you shooting?” I asked. ‘Because we can’t fill the frame as it’s too far away‘, was the reply.  Shooting tight can be good. But it is not the be all and end all. Putting an animal smaller in the frame within an interesting environment is an option you should grab with both hands.

For example, I like this first tight headshot. It’s a wild tiger and the light was great so I spent some time doing all sorts of close portraits with my 300mm with the tiger sitting just feet away. This one is actually a slightly cropped version of a full head shot for added impact. But, it could have been taken in captivity. There are no visual references to tell us more about the tiger’s story. It is, simply about the detail and intensity of that eye.

Tightly cropped portrait of a wild tiger.

This next photo is the same tiger. After it was bored with posing for me it wandered off, enjoyed a spot of scent marking and this gave me the chance to get a completely different type of image. One with total context – behaviour mixed with environment. It lacks the immediacy of the first tight portrait but it reveals more about this particular animal. It is no longer just about punching you in the head with a closed-cropped composition; it is trying to show you more about the life of the animal and the place it inhabits. The first portrait was shot on a 300mm lens with a 1.4x extender added. This second shot was taken on a 70-200mmm lens when the tiger was further away. In other words, I’ve decreased focal length even when the subject is further away.

Environmental shot of a tiger scent marking.

Here’s another example. Polar bears are simply stunning animals and this youngster was our first Greenland encounter. To get so close to a polar bear in Greenland was a result  because unfortunately they are still hunted there and naturally much more wary of humans. I did the ‘natural’ thing, zoomed straight out to the long end of my 100-400mm telephoto and took some shots of him striding along the snow-line at the foot of some cliffs. No sooner had I done so than I thought to myself, I am really missing the point of this animal? It’s where he is that is the narrative for the shot, otherwise it’s just another polar bear image.

Shot at 400mm to get the bear maximum size within the frame.

I quickly changed tactics and pulled the zoom back to 150mm so that I could show the bear in the context of the towering basalt cliffs. Out of the two images I am always drawn the second. The cliffs and their mix of hues become an important factor in the composition. Of course it helps too that the polar bear stands out so beautifully against the darker rock at the base and there is a hint of ‘yellow’ both in the bear’s fur and the colour of the basalt. Afterwards, I wish I had actually shot some of these even wider but as we were working from a zodiac it wasn’t possible in the time and conditions of the moment. However, with polar bear encounters later on that trip, I decided that the environment should be the cornerstone of each image. In truth, this was partially dictated by the bears themselves. We saw many others but none quite as close as the first. But for each encounter I encouraged everyone to capture the bear in its environment no matter how far away it was, rather just stare at their 400mm lenses wishing they were 1000mm instead.

At 150mm the dynamic of the image changes considerably. Now the bear looks small against the basalt cliff-face.

This final polar bear image was taken on the 100-400mm with a 1.4x extender attached. From the ship, it was actually a little tricky to pick out the bear with the naked eye. Yet the resulting image is one of my favourites from the trip. Yes, the bear is tiny in the frame but I have carefully considered its position within the landscape. The space for it to move into, the towering blue mountains behind and the glacier between them add the scale and majesty of the epic scenery. Is it as immediate as a tightly-framed portrait of a polar bear? No, I am happy to accept it isn’t – but I would take one of these over four of those.

The bear is tiny in the frame but you get a better sense of just how vast its environment is. Sure, it lacks the immediacy of a tight shot but really provides true context with the mountains, sea ice and glacier.

Next time you are out with the camera shooting wildlife – whether you are in a hide, a woodland or on an inflatable at one of the Poles – think about how your subject relates to its surroundings and whether you really need to use the extreme end of your telephoto lens all the time. Or, if the animal is beyond what you’d normally consider ‘shooting range’, consider whether there is a still an interesting composition to be had with the animal much smaller in the frame. You never know, what you might get!

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