Beyond the Trophy Shot

Red and Green Macaws, Pantanal, Brazil
Some years ago, I was invited to a “slideshow” (remember those?) at the home of a good friend. He was a serious amateur wildlife photographer that had traveled all over the world, and I was delighted to have a chance to see some of his work. He then proceeded to go through 3 carousel trays , in which every shot, every animal, was right smack in the  middle of the frame.
I tried to think of an upbeat comment at the end, but I finally had to tell him that these were really just  “specimen shots”, not photographs; useful for textbooks and field guides, but not terribly interesting to look at, one after another after another.

The fact is, making a good wildlife photograph isn’t easy. Unlike video, which can easily tell a visual story, a still picture must try to freeze time, and in that frozen instant both tell a story, and capture it in flattering light and color, with the subject arranged in a pleasing visual design. What’s more, unlike in landscape photography, animals rarely hold still very long, and in most cases don’t allow you to wander around looking for the best angle. And most of the time, just getting close enough – with lenses or feet -  is the biggest challenge.

All of those variables make the task of getting a simple portrait – a specimen shot – hard enough. Hey, go ahead and take them. There is a genuine feeling of accomplishment for having nailed a flattering portrait. But for a picture to really “sing” it has to be more than a visual trophy.

One of the books that most impressed me when I was starting out was OKAVANGO by Frans Lanting. To my mind, if you want to be a wildlife photographer, study that book. Yes, the animals are exotic, and beyond the reach of most of us, but the fact is that every picture in there has something “extra”. There are no simple portraits here: every page has a special moment, a telling story, haunting light or an exceptional, evocative mood. Look at the pictures that win competitions like Nature’s Best, NANPA Showcase or the annual BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year.  No, you won’t always agree with the choices, but time and again, the pictures that are recognized have that extra “something,” a magical moment, or a stunning, unexpected composition.

Yes, there are fashions in photography – motion blur has been big for a while now – but the threshold for what makes a good picture has gotten steadily higher over the years. In a world awash in images, no one should be content with a “specimen” shot anymore. And if you want to see your work get published – or win competitions – you cannot simply copy pictures that are already out there. You have to put in the time, and take the creative chances, to capture something new.


    just started liking photography, this a great comment, but for as I look up now the trophy photography your talking about are all edited or create by photoshop or some sort of computer thing. with all this modern and advance camera and lenses we still depend on those editing equipment. photography should be leave as is ,when you take the pic. thanks and regards,

    Why do many photographers feel that what the camera captures is the ultimate truth? Yesterday’s equipment and even today’s camera/lenses restrict what we see and try to pass on to our viewers. The editing software and new techniques that are now available to us allow us to transcend these limitations. Yes, some photographers misuse these tools by adding elements and rendering colors that are far from real, but judge the individual and not the process. Every image I take ends up going through Lightroom and/or Photoshop. I’m not trying to misrepresent my subjects, just optimizing the capture and trying to get beyond the limitations of the equipment. There is nothing truthful about a RAW image.

    Thank you so much for your article! I have those centered shots, too. Photographically, I am now better able to see an image, that I may be thrilled with capturing, is what I call to myself, “my basic i.d” wildlife shot..technically correct but nonetheless…i.d. Next goal with photographing wildlife, after I get that first thrilling, but dull to others image, is to get the animal doing some thing; and, for me, getting that “tack sharp” image (or motion blur) of the animal doing something really begins to engage me in the challenge …and that is a challenge, indeed, to get it right photographically. I like the way you have expressed being able to “see more than we see” when we honor engaging our whole selves at times when go really means pause a bit and be uniquely who you are. Thank you again. Did I get what you were saying correct in your analysis of not in the center and not just “the animal”? Hope so!

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