The Purposeful Photographer

Every time Andy Biggs presses the shutter button, he’s thinking about creating an image that conveys these impressions: remote, timeless, hopeful, uplifting and regal. These adjectives form the core of his approach to photography.

Andy Biggs' magnificent work from Africa, like all of his photography, is driven by his five core adjectives. He finds the approach to be liberating, as he explains, "I don't think about gear any longer. If I want to illustrate, oh, wildlife in the Serengeti with these words, I can do that with a short lens if the moment works in my favor. It frees me from really thinking about gear all of the time." Above: A giraffe seeks shade, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

The language a photographer uses to talk about his or her work can be a useful tool to make better photographs. That's the premise put forth by photographer and workshop leader Andy Biggs, who has developed a system for refining his visual style based on the adjectives that best describe his most successful wildlife and landscape photographs. For Biggs, that language is more important than the places he's going or the tools he's using. It speaks to creativity and vision—the building blocks of successful photographs.

"When people get into photography," Biggs says, "they're led to believe a few things: that good gear will yield better photographs and that being at the right place at the right time will help create photographs that stir the soul. I think only part of it's true. What's missing is how creativity drives the craft. I often see people with all of the latest gear engage in discussions online and in person that display a deep knowledge on all of the functionality of gear: 'This button does this and this functionality does that' kind of talk. So what's happening is, the craft of photography is driving the creative: 'If this button does this, then let's use it.'"


Zebras in a row, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

It's not that craftsmanship isn't important, it's just that Biggs believes there's more to meaningful work than the sum of tools and technique. The camera matters, but it doesn't dictate the aesthetic. To that end, Biggs is currently selling all of his 35mm DSLR gear—including the long lenses that are the typical tools of the wildlife photographer—in order to complete his conversion to one of the highest-quality cameras available, the medium-format Phase One 645DF and IQ280 digital back. (He has plans to switch to the IQ250 for its CMOS sensor, which is more capable in low light than the CCD of the IQ280.) Seasoned photographers are surely wondering how a professional photographer manages to photograph wildlife with a system that tops out in focal length with a medium telephoto. It's simple: Wider compositions fit with Biggs' photographic goals, not the other way around.

"It comes down to visual storytelling," he says, "and photographers are visual storytellers. I always approach a photograph assuming that there's no narrative of words to go along with it, so you have to get it all in visually. And how are you going to do that? I remember one time standing there with Galen Rowell and Frans Lanting, and the two of them were saying you need to figure out whether you're going to tell your story with one photograph or a series of photographs because that's going to dictate what you shoot and how you shoot it. Now you have to make a decision. I'm kind of both, but I tend to prefer the single photograph."

Since Biggs is striving to tell more complete narratives in single images, he wants to provide context. Context sets the scene, fills in the blanks and helps make a story. Long lenses—the kind that isolate animals without context—generally aren't part of the narrative.

For Biggs, adjectives are integral to his creative process because they help him quantify what's working in his pictures. He can analyze that list of descriptors to determine if an image is telling a complex story or a simple one: the longer the list, the better the story. Ultimately, Biggs uses a refined list to help shape his overall visual aesthetic. The adjectives describe the images that excel, and so to make images that form a cohesive body of work, he simply shoots with those adjectives in mind.


A rare color image of the Skeleton Coast, Namibia.

"I thought about this for a while," he continues, "and realized that if I created a list of adjectives that I wanted all of my images to portray, this might be an easier way of reaching my goal of a cohesive body of work. So I jotted down a long list of words to describe where I wanted to go with my images. I then paired down the list to around 20 words, then 15, then 10. I eventually ended up with five: remote, timeless, hopeful, uplifting, regal. Those words sit in the back of my mind every time I go out into the field. It doesn't matter if I'm shooting with medium-format equipment, 35mm gear or an iPhone because I always have these adjectives in the back of my mind. How I process these images changes over time as trends and technology change, but it doesn't matter because I have a clear idea of what I'm looking for and where I'm going."

As a workshop leader, Biggs' own creative needs take a backseat to those of his clients who join him on safari. Although he developed his adjective analysis in order to refine his own vision, it's also how he helps students find their direction.

"That's definitely the front and center way that I teach photography," he says. "It's a bit unconventional, but it's liberating. It's just a different way of thinking about how you take your photographs and how you're shooting. On an African safari, we spend a lot of time in Land Rovers, and it's a lot of time to have nice, casual, thought-provoking discussions. We talk about that, but we also talk about shapes, we talk about color, we talk about clean versus complicated foregrounds and backgrounds—all the kind of things that support the adjectives. That's just the way that I like to challenge people into thinking about their photography a little bit differently. The adjective-driven approach isn't just to keep you on track for a trip. It can be used to keep you on track for a whole body of work that you've been shooting for a decade."


Lioness in a tree, South Africa.

The nuts and bolts of the process are simple. After a trip, Biggs organizes his take in Lightroom and rates his favorites. He then describes each of them with as many adjective keywords as he can.

"The more that I describe in words," he says, "the higher correlation that I'm going to put in my portfolio, that I'm going to show people. If the list is kind of boring, it's one-dimensional, right? I don't show those words to anybody, ever. It's more an example of how to articulate and learn from myself and my mistakes. And, usually, when I have a longer list, those are usually the photographs that sell more. It's a good exercise in learning who you are as a visual person."

To translate a handful of key adjectives into a tangible blueprint, Biggs simply correlates his ideal keywords into real-world elements to target.


Three giraffes in the Grumeti Game Reserve, Serengeti Migration Area, Tanzania. Biggs' use of black-and-white frees his creativity.

"To me," he says, "remote means lack of human habitation. It's about telling a story that has a feeling of remoteness. Generally, the best places to photograph wildlife and landscapes are typically not near where people live, right? They're remote. Okay, so that's helpful. Timeless is something that makes you think that a photograph could have been taken today, 50 years ago or 200 years ago. Uplifting might be animals that are showing grace. There's another word I like. Grace is a beautiful word because it's something you don't see often, or isn't praised often enough. Regal and grace are almost the same thing. Maybe it's the gesture of how they're standing or how they're relating to their peers or to their offspring. You know, an animal that has a head sticking up with an erect neck or a male lion with wind in his face—that's a pretty common association. That kind of takes me into hopeful. It might be a mother, like a lion licking her little newborn cub. That shows tenderness, and it's hopeful."

Armed with his ideal adjectives, Biggs is sure to be working in a proven direction so he's free to take compositional chances even if they're not by the book.

Biggs uses black-and-white because it helps to reinforce certain adjectives—particularly, timeless and regal—and because it, too, is creatively freeing.

"Color photography is a box," he says. "You have to live inside that box because that's what people expect. And that's really limiting to me. I find it really frustrating. People can look at your photograph and say, 'That sky is the wrong color. That's not believable.' So now you're living in someone else's vision of what believability is. I don't like that. I cannot stand, in a creative world, being dictated what is normal and what is not. That's really dangerous and limiting. Black-and-white is more interpretative, meaning you can do things and alter things in a way that gets you to the end goal without people calling bullshit and saying, 'Oh, no, that's not believable.' Well, you know what, when I take the color away, I've now changed the rules of the game. It's my rules, not yours.

"Here's the problem, though," he adds. "When you remove color information from a photograph, you're removing visual eye candy. So you have to now rely on other things to make the photograph work. Because there's no color, the shapes have to work, they have to play together a lot better. Otherwise, it's just pure chaos. Nature is inherently very messy. You've got trees, grass, color—all these kind of things everywhere—and as a photographer, you have to figure out a way to make order out of it. I don't say you have to clean it up; you just have to make order out of it. And how do you do that? It's hard; it's really difficult to create order out of chaos, especially in a black-and-white world. Color cannot help you."

Visit www.andybiggs.com to see more of Andy Biggs' work and to learn about his safaris and workshops.

2 Comments

    I like the idea of assigning adjectives. You read a lot lately about photographic style and how to develop it. If you look at your favorite photographs that you’ve taken and assign adjectives to them, the adjectives that repeat frequently probably define your style.

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