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.

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