Animals In The Environment

Being a nature photographer, I often get asked if I prefer to photograph wildlife or landscapes. My standard response is it depends on which is in better light. For example, a great animal in terrible light will net the photographer a bland shot, but an ordinary scenic in amazing light nets a winner. This got me thinking—what if the landscape is interesting, the light is good and an animal is in the scene? The answer is simple—include the animal in the landscape!

A Big Advantage: An animal in the environment opens the door of wildlife photography to many more photographers. Not every person who wants to photograph wildlife owns a long prime lens. They are heavy and lugging one around isn't easy. They require a sturdy tripod—this adds to the weight and expense. A tripod that safely supports a big lens isn’t cheap. A long prime requires a gimbal head (these provide balance and easy maneuverability), but a good gimbal head is pricey. Then comes the long lens itself—simply stated, they’re very expensive. BUT, if you’re not out to get frame-filling images of your subjects, you can use a much shorter lens. No need to lug around heavy equipment, no big expense of a dedicated tripod and gimbal head and no need to refinance your home to purchase big glass. This opens the door to wildlife photography for many photographers who own lenses in the 300mm and shorter range.

Get Started: a local pond, sanctuary or park is a great place to begin your pursuit of wildlife in its environment. Waterfowl at a local park is usually tame and allows close contact. This provides the opportunity to use a wide angle lens. Get close to your subject, but include a lot of the environment in the background. If it’s clean and shows a sense of place, you’re on the road to capturing an animal in its habitat.

Depth of Field: If you want the subject, foreground and background to be sharp, stop the lens down to achieve near and far focus. Be cognizant of your shutter speed to freeze any motion of the animal. Also be cognizant of your shutter speed to prevent camera shake. It’s important you pay close attention to the working aperture to take charge of the depth of field. A photo where everything is sharp tells the viewer that every element is important. If the focus is selective and just the animal is sharp, it tells the viewer that the scene is secondary. Each situation dictates which effect is stronger. Exhaust all possibilities and photograph all scenes both ways. Decide which one you prefer when you edit.

Leave Room For “Movement”: Compose the photo so the main subject is in the rule of thirds. Place it in the top left, top right, bottom left or bottom right. Its placement should be dictated by the supporting elements in the composition. Depending on the environment, a supporting part of the composition could be a mountain peak, a primary tree, or even negative space. Regardless of how you incorporate it into the composition, leave room relative to the direction in which the animal is looking, walking, flying, etc. If its gaze or movement leave it close to the edge of the frame, tension is created.

Use Light To Your Advantage:
The animal and the scenic in which it's found should both be strong. If either is weak, the image falls short. In that most landscapes turn out better when photographed in sunrise and sunset light, get out early and stay out late. Serendipity may occur in that wildlife is more active during these two times of the day. Warm light imparts a pleasing color to both the animal and scenic and gives the image greater impact.

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    There are some great tips here. However, I disagree with the statement that you must have a large and expensive tripod to use a big lens. Also, using a long big lens does NOT mean you must have a gimbal head. With vibration reduction or image stabilization,along with higher ISO capabilities, one can achieve beautiful and sharp results with a simple monopod. Just takes a bit of practice.

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