Spotlight on Nature: Animal Scenics

Shooting wildlife doesn't have to be close-ups, sometimes your subject is all about its landscape.

Bison, Grand Teton national Park, WY. Plant waited for late light to peek out from the clouds. Canon EOS 5D Mark II with 24–105mm f/4L Canon EF IS lens at 95mm on tripod; 1/125 sec at f/11, IS) 400. Read the full story.Ian Plant

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.

Exploit the Light

** **Approach this kind of wildlife scene much the same way you would regular landscapes. The so-called magic hours near sunrise and sunset often create ideal light for animal scenics. Although many wildlife shooters avoid directional light—sidelight and backlight— it’s preferable for animal landscapes. Directional light adds shadows to images, revealing the texture of the landscape and the animal, and providing separation between elements in the scene. See how this works with the both the elk and Snow Geese images in the gallery.

Wildlife landscape photos often work best if the creature’s face is in the light, with at least one eye showing a catchlight from the sun. Flash at low power can be used to fill in shadows and provide a catchlight in the eyes if your subject is in the shade. Avoid full-power flash, unless you’re far away, as it can look artificial—typically, all you need is a hint of fill to help the animal subtly stand out from its surroundings.

With a wide angle of view, you also have to pay attention to what’s happening in the sky. Clouds that have distinct and interesting shapes can add excitement to animal landscapes, especially those taken at sunrise or sunset. As with traditional landscapes, you might need to use a split neutral- density filter to balance the light in the sky with the light in the foreground, especially if the clouds are sunlit and the landscape is in shadow.

The Question of Lenses

** **Just about any lens can be used to create an animal landscape. For animals at middle distance, telezoom lenses, such as a 70–200mm, 75–300mm, or 100–400mm will work well for full-frame DSLRs; equivalents for APS-C-sensor cameras would be 55–200mm or 55–250mm. These allow you to quickly zoom out to a focal length that includes some of the surrounding landscape.

Wide-to-normal zoom lenses work best if you want to include plenty of the surrounding landscape, but don’t expect the animal to be prominent in the scene unless it is very large or very close

Most often you should avoid getting near to wildlife. Some animals are dangerous, and most don’t like it when people get really close and stick a lens in their faces.

Nonetheless, sometimes close encounters do happen, creating opportunities for interesting per- spectives. Once, while exploring the Utah desert, I stopped for a moment, only to find a jackrabbit sitting still right next to me, less than a foot away. I couldn’t resist the temptation of taking a few quick wide-angle shots before slowly backing away to give the rabbit some space. It eventually hopped away, leaving me with the unique image of a typically shy desert animal.

Camera Settings

With standard wildlife photography, large apertures are often preferred because they allow the fast shutter speeds you need to stop action, and they render distracting background elements as pleasing out-of-focus blurs. But with animal landscapes, which incorporate more of the subject’s surroundings, often you’ll have to stop down to gain extra depth of field. Small apertures such as f/11, f/16, or even smaller may be called for. Accordingly, you’ll find a tripod essential.

Don’t expect to catch any blazing fast action if you’re using small apertures. Animal landscapes are often relatively static images, and too much subject movement can ruin the shot— unless you’re going for a more abstract look (we’ll get to that possibility in a moment). Wait for an animal to strike a pose that complements the rest of the scene.

Above all, make sure that you at least get the animal in focus. Although typically not ideal for wildlife photography, live view can greatly assist you here, especially if you have a wide view and the animal is a relatively small part of the overall scene (see “Bring Nature into Live View,” November 2009).

Get Creative

Incorporating more of the landscape can sometimes let you portray wildlife in a more abstract or metaphorical way than in traditional wildlife portraiture. For example, you might add a sense of mystery by including an animal’s reflection in water. Or, instead of photographing the animal itself, depict something that only implies its presence, such as a trail of footprints in the sand leading from the foreground into the distance.

You can also experiment with long exposures to capture movement over time. If the animal is static and something else in the scene—such as water or wind-blown foliage—is moving, try a shutter speed that allows the motion to blur, such as 1/15 to 1/2 sec. You’ll need to be patient to get an image with your wildlife subject still enough to be rendered sharp, especially if it is moving around.

The image of horseshoe crabs shows the opposite technique: Render the broader landscape scene as sharp but allow for some motion blur with the wildlife, imparting a sense of energy and movement.

Ian Plant's most recent book is a downloadable PDF eBook, Chas- ing the Light: Essential Tips for Taking Great Landscape Photos. Check it out at

Spawning Horseshoe Crabs, Delaware Bay, NJ. The deep progression of crabs looks dramatic thanks to the vertical crop. Ian used a tripod-mounted Canon EOS 5D Mark II with adapted 14–24mm f/2.8 Nikkor zoom; 0.8 sec at f/16, ISO 200. Read the full story.Ian Plant
Bull Elk, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO. To put the elk in context, Plant opted for a shorter lens than he might normally use. Canon EOS 5D Mark II with 300mm f/4L Canon EF lens and 1.4X Teleconverter on tripod; 1/100 sec at f/5.6, ISO 800. Read the Full Story.Ian Plant
Snow Geese, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, De. Canon EOS 5D with 500mm f/4L Canon EF lens and 1.4X Teleconverter on a tripod; 1/640 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400. Read the full story.Ian Plant
Jackrabbit, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, UT. Handheld Canon EOS 5D Mark II with 24–105mm f/4L Canon EF IS lens at 24mm; 1/160 sec at f/18, IS0 200. Read the full story.Ian Plant
Cormorant Chicks, Chesapeake Bay, Va. Ian Plant lay in the sand for the low angle he needed. Canon EOS 5D with 500mm f/4L Canon EF lens; 1/250 sec at f/8, ISO 200. Read the full story.Ian Plant
Bison, Grand Teton national Park, WY. Plant waited for late light to peek out from the clouds. Canon EOS 5D Mark II with 24–105mm f/4L Canon EF IS lens at 95mm on tripod; 1/125 sec at f/11, IS) 400. Read the full story.Ian Plant