OP recently put out a story called Seeing Science, written by Amy Gulick and featuring images by Frans Lanting. Needless to say, Frans is a seasoned photographer and has been covering natural history stories for National Geographic magazine for decades. In the piece, Amy highlights how Frans formulates images with narratives about science, and wrote that Frans doesn’t “rush outside and hope for something spectacular,” as many nature photographers do. Instead, he heavily researches and thinks about the story he’s trying to tell before ever picking up his camera, and then uses his photography to round out the overall editorial narrative. This piece grabbed my attention, and did so for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve personally been thinking and writing a lot lately about the importance of creating a concept before picking up a camera. And second, how Frans photographs scientific subjects in the field has, without question, helped inspire me on some of my past shoots.
Creating a concept before a composition is not a new topic. Ansel Adams and Minor White wrote about visualization and pre-visualization over 60 years ago. Ansel called visualization the most “important concept in photography,” and he relied heavily on his ability perceive a final print in order to know how to set his camera and develop his film. Of course, many photographers don’t work like this, and frankly can’t work through a highly technical approach like Ansel’s. On the other hand, I do think a photographer needs to have some connection with what they are shooting and why they are shooting it. While Frans heavily researches whole stories before picking up his camera, many nature photographers do not, as Amy Gulick points out. In fact, I’m often one of those photographers that heads into the field hoping for “something spectacular.” But that doesn’t mean, and shouldn’t mean, that I don’t have clarity of narrative with my compositions. I still think about and research my own thoughts before picking up my camera. I ask myself questions like: what is the subject or focus of the image? What is the light doing? What do I want my image to be about? What compositional elements do I need to incorporate or eliminate in support of the narrative? And what do I want my audience to feel about my subject. Just picking up my camera and clicking and hoping something comes out, doesn’t cut it.
These kinds of questions coupled with trying to emulate a Frans like narrative was very much on my mind as I planned the portrait of the famous Ichthyologist, Dr. Greg Cailliet from Moss Landing Marine Labs. A few posts ago here on OP Daily, I highlighted some images documenting some of the strange and weird deep-sea animals in a piece called Creature Feature. Greg was instrumental in providing me access to the needed specimens for the project, and I needed an image of him to help round off editorial pieces I had submitted to different publications about my project. In short, Greg collects fish—a lot of fish. And the room I photographed him that was filled with 100’s of jars of dead fish smelled thoroughly of alcohol and formaldehyde. So to tell the story of whom is Greg and what was he about, I decided to immerse him inside his own fish. I created an image where I backlit a bunch of large collection jars with strobes. In addition to the stills herein, below is also a time-lapse video documenting the shoot.
Depending on what kind of photographer you are, or project you are working on, you may have time to organize props in a studio to create a narrative. Or, you may need to think quickly as the behavior of the wildlife you are shooting spontaneously unfolds in front of you. Either way, taking the time to think about what you are doing and why, and what your subject is and what you want to say about it.