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Beyond the Trophy Shot
Red and Green Macaws, Pantanal, Brazil
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.