I know a lot of photographers who are constantly on the hunt for "trophy shots." They search high and low for an amazing scene, and then sit on it—sometimes for days or even weeks on end—waiting for amazing light to put the icing on the cake. While I sometimes do the same, I often prefer an approach that tells a story about my nature subjects, providing viewers context and a sense of place that I find lacking in many trophy shots.
Whereas the "trophy shot" approach might wait for a ridiculously beautiful sunset (rejecting many less-than-spectacular but nonetheless memorable moments in the process), the "story telling" approach might rely on something else to move viewers. Story telling shots use subtle indicators and cues to inform viewers about the subject, perhaps even showing the subject in a new light. Composition, light, mood, and moment can all be used to facilitate the story telling process, but the story telling approach doesn't rely on overwhelming a viewer's visual senses.
What kinds of stories might your photos tell? They can tell a story of the seasons: a single red leaf on a rock beneath a cascade, for example, can tell a story of autumn. Or they can tell a story of tenderness and motherly devotion: a doe touching noses with her fawn. Perhaps they can tell a storyof temperature or weather: mist clinging to the surface of a lake at dawn. The possibilities are endless, and the stories are out there, waiting for you to tell them to your viewers.
Consider the images I include with this post as examples of the two approaches. The first, above, is a black & white photo of Mount Fitz Roy in Patagonia. A beautiful halo of ice crystals formed over the massive peak one evening, with high winds blowing the crystals above me in a radiating pattern. Definitely a trophy shot! The photo below, on the other hand, tells more of a story: early morning light on marsh grass, steam rising from a blackbird's beak on a cold winter day, an angry flash of red epaulets demonstrating territorial dominance. The two images engage a viewer's interest in two very different ways.
Now don't get me wrong: if I witness a beautiful sunset sky over an incredible landscape with rainbows and lightning bolts and tap-dancing moose beneath, I'll happily take the trophy shot. I just don't believe that every shot has to be a trophy to be good. There are ways to move people without beating them over the head with epic beauty. Images that tell a story can be very effective at inspiring viewers and arousing their curiosity.
So ask yourself when you take your next photograph—whether it is a trophy shot or not—what story are you telling?
P.S. Expanding on my Top 5 Photo Tips for Autumn post here on the OP blog, I've been writing a series of fall photo tips on my personal daily photoblog, taking each of the five tips and exploring them a bit deeper. I try to be as informative as possible on my daily photoblog, providing plenty of insights, tips and techniques, and amusing stories about my adventures. Feel free to check it out from time to time or to subscribe to my blog feed.