Environmental Wildlife Portraits

Good environmental wildlife portraits are a blend of two subjects - the animal and the landscape
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My first encounter with the definition of a portrait came from personal experiences via school photos: a portrait is a chest to head shot of a person smiling at the camera. A ten cent comb is used to rake the hair so the subject looks his or her best. Light is blasted from all directions and artificial backgrounds are added that either don't harmonize with what clothing is worn or it's made to have you think you are somewhere on a Caribbean island - very fake looking. It wasn't until I started to pursue photography that I realized there are many facets of portraiture.

The magnitude of portrait styles makes it practical to concentrate on just one for this article - environmental wildlife portraiture. This style differs from others as the purpose is to create a photo of an animal showing both the environment in which it exists for that moment along with the subject. In essence, there is a blending of two subjects - the animal and the landscape. This makes the task at hand all the more difficult as both the subject and environment have to be prime, lit well, and strategically composed.

In an environmental portrait there should be a connection between the subject and where it's photographed. When photographing animals, this is not a problem in that where it's photographed is where it lives. It can be an issue if you're into photographing bugs and you unknowingly place an insect on a plant that is poisonous to the species or other fault known to experts. Key into creating a story that completes the reason why the subject is photographed in a given area.

Environmental portraiture is a huge money saver in that the standard 500mm or 600mm wildlife lens is not needed. In that these cost upwards of $8,000.00, a huge savings is provided. Most environmental portraits can be made with lenses shorter than 200mm. As a matter of fact, if the animal is tame, approachable and your safety is assured, getting close with a wide angle lens nets images with unique perspectives. The animal is rendered large in the frame while the background recedes into the distance.

In the images that accompany this Tip Of The Week, each has a sense of place and reason for being. The shot of the mountain goats was made on a rare windless day near the top of Mount Evans in Colorado. I used a 70-200mm lens set to 155mm. In that this particular pond provides a drinking source for the goats, I wanted to include it in the image. I have other photos taken on different days where I included just a sliver of the water in that the wind always rippled it. Given the rare opportunity I was presented, I shot much wider than I normally do to get both the reflections and mountains in the distance. The moment of the two goats in the depicted positions lasted but a few seconds. In the shot of the moose surrounded by fall color, I used the surrounding elements to create a composition that framed the animal. It was made at a focal length of 102 mm.

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    Very interesting concept and one that does not break the budget for lens purchases. Thanks for that “How To” piece.
    Was the image of the moose also photographed in Colorado? It looks like it could have been taken in the western part of Rocky Mountain National Park.


    Jim – the moose photo was made in Grand Teton National Park during my fall tour to the Tetons and Yellowstone. Thanks for the kind words. It’s always nice when a shared thought triggers another’s photographic potential.

    Since selling my 500mm lens with the intent to get away from the ‘count every feather’ type of wildlife photography, I have had trouble defining just what I was after. Your article hit it square and helps me put it in focus.

    Joseph – glad that you are now able to place a description on what you enjoy photographing – happy to help! Now that you’ve found a direction, pursue it to the max, but always think about options along the way. Russ

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