Wildlife photography takes patience, dedication—and ridiculously expensive and heavy, fast telephoto lenses, right? Not if you take a wider view that captures animals in their full environment. While tight portraits are the usual stock in trade of wild-life shooters, if your lenses aren’t long enough or you can’t get close enough, don’t just shoot and crop later. Instead, work with the scene as is, and combine wildlife photography with landscape techniques.
Tell the Animal’s Story
One important key to successful wildlife landscapes is to include enough of its surroundings to tell viewers something about how and where the animal lives, the season, or other information.
Wildlife scenics vary in how much of the landscape they include and how prominent the wildlife element becomes compared with the whole scene. You can make the animal a small element of the picture or choose to make it relatively prominent—although less so than in a tight, frame-filling portrait. Your photo can add just a tantalizing hint of the broader environment in which the animal lives, or it can be a sweeping wide-angle affair. How much of the landscape you should include in the frame, or how little, depends on the character of the broader scene and how it relates to the wildlife featured in your photo.
Mind Your Composition
The second important key to animal landscape photography is composition. Wildlife photographers often think of the animal as the subject, but I prefer an approach that views the animal as a distinct compositional element that must relate in a pleasing way to other elements of the scene.
Always be on the lookout for nearby shapes that complement the shape an animal takes when it strikes a pose. A gracefully curving tree branch, a cloud, or a stream’s winding course are all shapes that can be juxtaposed with wildlife subjects to form pleasing compositions.
As with all landscapes, it’s important to resist the temptation to place the major element of the photo—in the case of wildlife landscapes, usually the animal itself—smack dab in the middle. Try placing the animal off-center, using the Rule of Thirds as a guide.
Be careful as well with your placement of important inanimate objects. Depending on the scene, your wildlife subject might work best in the foreground, middle ground, or even in the background. For example, a bull elk might make a nice foreground element when juxtaposed against majestic mountain peaks in the background, as in the photo at top left. Or, a winding stream might make a nice foreground, leading to the same elk in the background.
Make sure to include only those elements of the scene that relate thematically and compositionally to the wildlife subject. For example, a pattern of woodland ferns might complement a white-tailed deer fawn—and, being the place where the fawn rests during the day, tell viewers something about the animal’s environment. A distracting tree branch poking out of the ferns, however, will only confuse the composition.
You can use the sun as a powerful compositional element. Incorporate it when it is low to the horizon, which not only makes it easier to include in a wildlife photograph, but also reduces its intensity, making exposure less tricky. I used this technique for the cormorant silhouette photo. The moon also makes a compelling addition to any wildlife photograph (see “Shoot for the Moon,” July 2010).
Animal landscapes often work best when the wildlife subject is looking into the image frame, rather than out. As with any rule, there are exceptions, though: Other compositional elements in the scene might work best if balanced with an animal that is looking out instead of in. Of course, it’s even better when your subject looks at the camera, establishing a visual connection with viewers.