Small Animal, Big Landscape

Peacock (Pavo cristatus), Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Wildlife photographers treasure their big glass, the long telephoto lenses that allow them to get close-up, dramatic images of their animal subjects. Inevitably, though, there are times when whatever lens you have is simply not long enough, when you kick yourself for not bringing along the 600mm (or whatever). Such was the case on this day in the dry forests of southern Sri Lanka.

I wasn’t looking for peacocks that day: I didn’t have to – they were everywhere . I was actually looking for leopards, which were NOT. Yala National Park is one of the best locations in Asia to see wild leopards but not, as it turns out, when it’s raining, and the week we were there saw some of the heaviest rainfalls in years.  (You know you’re in trouble when locals look at the endless downpour and shrug “That’s funny, it almost NEVER rains here.”)

Hour after hour, day after day, we searched for leopards…which had clearly decided to stay in their caves.  Then one morning we stumbled onto this scene of a peacock roosting in a gnarled tree. My first inclination was, as always, to slap on a big lens and go for a close-up. I grabbed my 300mm, and added a teleconverter, still thinking I wasn’t close enough. But one look through the viewfinder convinced me that I was missing the REAL picture.  What had caught my eye in the beginning was the twisting shape of the tree, and the misty cliffs behind – the bird was just a bonus, a design element that enhanced the picture, but did not dominate it.

This is a lesson that bears re-learning:  not every picture should be a close-up, and big glass is not always the best glass. The world probably doesn’t need another close-up of a sitting peacock, but how many pictures have you seen of these magnificent birds in their native habitat?  In the end, I chose to go wide, using a short telephoto,  and playing with the composition to position the bird off-center. I was constrained by a drab gray sky, and the blurred shrubs at the bottom of the frame; in the end, this was the best I could do (without the benefit of a hydraulic crane nearby). Works for me.

And no, I never got a single shot of a leopard.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens