King Me In Nature’s Castle

Want to know how to become a better photographer? Think in chess terms to up your photo game.

Fear not—this isn’t an instructional on how to capture better photos of pawns, castles, bishops, rooks or queens. While talking with some photographer friends, someone mentioned how they nailed an iconic photograph and emphasized this fact using the word “Checkmate!” My response was, “Great.” He thanked me. Little did he know I was referring to the fact he gave me a great idea for this week’s tip. To this day, he thinks my response referred to his image, but if he’s reading this, the cat is now out of the bag—thanks, Frank!

So, what’s the connection between photography and chess? I love analogies, so hear me out. The tie in between wildlife photography and chess is actually quite logical. In chess, in order to be victorious, it’s necessary to strategize ahead. It’s best to be one up on your opponent so you can anticipate their next move. You need to have a plan and strategy to stay one step ahead of your subject. The tournament begins as you study the layout and symmetry of the environment. You may have to forfeit one of your lower-quality pawn shots along the way knowing you’ll benefit when you set yourself up for the winning move. To quote Frank, it ends with “checkmate.”

Plan A Strategy

Research your subject. A good chess player studies his opponent’s eyes and mannerisms. This is done to get the upper hand. The same holds true for photographers. Know what to expect when you encounter your subjects and you’ll capture better images. Study the light to see how it enhances the subject. Know where to be at sunrise, sunset, if it’s cloudy, etc. Try to visit and revisit each location the animals inhabit many times and take meticulous notes. It takes a lot of homework, study time, time in the field and perseverance to consistently produce great images. Plan a strategy—it’s very powerful.

Environmental Symmetry

 A chessboard is very symmetrical. Each piece is limited in how it can move according to the rules of the game and determined by the position of the other pieces. Wildlife subjects know no boundaries and have no rules as to where they go. But as any good chess player will tell you, based on the move their opponent makes, he or she knows where to go next to counter their opponent to optimize their potential.

A photographer must do the same. As the subject maneuvers through the environment, he or she must anticipate what the opponent will do to be one step ahead so everything falls into place.

 A crucial photo piece that must fall into place is the background. As I mentioned above, a chessboard is symmetrical, but the area the animal inhabits isn’t. It’s imperative the photographer tries to “symmetryize” the chaos as much as possible. Where can I stand so the background is clean? Where should I go so the branch isn’t across the face? If shadows fall across the eyes, that’s not good, so where should I reposition myself?

The start of a chess game is orderly and arranged. As the game goes on, the symmetry of the board remains, but the arrangement of pieces can get very complex. As a photographer, you need to think about how to maintain simplicity if the shoot becomes chaotic. How can you alter your position to get the best vantage point? How and where can you move to gain the upper hand? Take all the above questions under your wing to be a step ahead of your subject.

Sacrifice A Pawn

Don’t try to force a shot. If the light isn’t good, if you press the shutter 100 times, it’s not going to change and improve. The image will still fall short. If the bush is in front of the fox, multiple shutter clicks won’t make it disappear. If you’re smiling because you’ve done this, I empathize as I’ve been there. Hopefully, I’m saving a few from the same. Even if other aspects are great, if a key photographic component of the image doesn’t fall into place, sacrifice the pawn and reposition yourself where you may be able to take out a castle or bishop—that’s a good thing! Go for the money shot!

Start with your opening move to begin the tournament. Get out often. On some days you’ll return a master, and on others, it will be a stalemate. Take all of the above tactics under consideration, plan a great attack, include a good defense, possibly make a sacrifice or two along the way and as time goes on, each time you press the shutter you’ll be able to say “checkmate” and thank Frank!

To learn more about this subject, join me on one of my photo safaris to Tanzania. Please visit to get more information.

Photography is what motivates me to move through life in a positive way. Photography is ͞All About The Light͟ and it’s the first thing I seek out before I press the shutter. Optimally, I pursue great subjects in great light, but if there’s an ordinary subject in great light, I still press the shutter. I love to share the photographic knowledge I’ve accumulated and I hope my enthusiasm is contagious so I can motivate others to feel the same way I do about my photography.