The Story Within

“What makes a good photograph?” is a common question with a seemingly elusive answer. Sometimes it’s hard to articulate just what does it. You could employ the  “rule of thirds” and  shoot during evening light, but maybe it still isn’t right. Maybe you have a great foreground and background but still – something escapes the image. So what is it that gives soul to an otherwise lifeless body of work?

For me the answer is simple: story. Nature and conservation photography are perhaps some of the hardest subjects to convey a strong storyline. It isn’t like breaking news where the protagonist and antagonist are so obvious.  If you are working for a newspaper and there is a house fire, you take a picture of the house on fire or a fire crew rushing inside to make a save. If you are embedded overseas with squadron of soldiers the story may be more clear but with nature photography – what is the thread in the story?

The answer is in the science. So many great nature photographers are also degree-holding (or advanced amateurs) in biology. What they understand is that there are layers to any natural happening and those layers are best revealed in a single photograph. For some, such as Ian Plants image (on an earlier post) of the slot canyon in Zion it’s not just that he has amazing colors but also that water slips through the channels, the very creator of the canyon and a player in the story that sparks the imagination into thinking “how did this place form?”

For the photo above taken in a marine sanctuary in the Channel Islands, the story is more subtle but still evident. The foreground elements are bright purple urchins. It’s not a stunning photo but it has some interesting colors and further, in the background, we see sea grass and kelp. The story here is that urchins are out of control. With otters hunted to near extinction and grouper on too many menus, the urchin have grown abundant, claiming territories such as this rock where a kelp forest may have grown. To me, the image is ominous. I imagine an army of urchins working their way unchecked across the ocean floor eating the incredibly rare and important kelp forest habitat in the distance. The story here? One of conservation. One of a battle under the sea between a species now approaching the apex of the herbivore kingdom due to an unbalanced ecosystem and the threat that they imply.