Here is a statement you might not be ready for. When I’m photographing wildlife, I’m not usually paying attention to the wildlife.
Here is the thing, your wildlife subject is going to do what it is going to do, regardless of you. You cannot control this. You cannot change this. You are a bystander on the sidelines simply watching as their life unfolds.
As artists though, we cannot simply take what we are given. We must demand more. By the very nature of who we are, we question what is before us. We consider the alternatives. We change and tweak and tinker with everything. We create.
So what can you actually affect? What can you actually control in your photographs?
There are two things that I concern myself with in my wildlife photography. Light and the environment. That is really it.
Like I said, the animal is going to do what the animal is going to do. I set my exposure, I use solid techniques to make sure my subject is sharp of course, but it’s the light and the environment that are the two elements that make or break wildlife photography. Therefore, its these two elements that I am thinking about 99% of the time.
So when I approach a subject, before I ever even set my tripod down, the questions that I ask myself are these . . . What is the light doing? Where is it coming from? What does the environment look like? How about the background? And how is the light and the environment working together?
I will then spend the rest of my time concerning myself over these questions as I allow my subject to move throughout it’s world.
Here is how I would suggest approaching your wildlife photography. . . Light set’s the mood and dictates what is and is not possible. It basically set’s the parameters and rules for the shoot. The environment then set’s the stage and tells the story of your subjects life. When it comes to literature, aren’t these the key elements? So too in the visual arts.
So let’s do a break down of the accompanying photographs.
1. In this first shot, I employed a chiaroscuro lighting scenario for this photograph. Chiaroscuro just means light and dark in Italian. With the direction and low angle of the light, deep shadows were being cast all across the landscape of boulders that this cat was crossing. Light and how it was interacting with the environment is what ultimately made this shot. I could not control the cat. I could not put him where he is. What I could do is realize the potential for a composition like this, put myself in place, get my exposure set, and then wait and hope he would enter this little area – which he did. Light and the environment.
2. Here is something totally different. A close up of a bobcat hanging out on its daybed under the trees. This seems simple enough right? In this photograph, once again, light and the environment were everything. Because of where this cat was, I could only photograph this with frontal lighting. Why? Because if there had been any angle whatsoever, then the shadows from the tree would have been cast across the face and body of the cat. The resulting zebra striping would have ruined the photograph. So here too, light and environment are my key considerations.
3. Here is one of my classic shots of a bobcat coming down a fallen log covered in snow. The light almost non-existent. So I was basically shooting in full shade / shadow. This means I do not need to consider contrast in this scene what so ever. So now, I can photograph the cat in any part of the composition that I chose to create without worry of my exposure changing, or shadows falling where they should not be. The overcast like lighting simplified the equation for me. So if light is removed from being a major concern here, that means the only thing I am left with is the environment and how our cat here is interacting with it. I did not put the cat on this branch. But I was very much ready and waiting to capture this cat come across this fallen tree. The tree is everything in this photograph. Remove the tree and what do I have? Just another bobcat shot out of the thousands I have already. But, because of the tree, because of the falling snow from the foot steps, and how our cat is interacting with this environment, the photograph was a huge success. Once again, light and environment.
4. Ok. One more. Here we have a bobcat walking along the banks of a braided channel along the Madison River. This was taken in 7 mile meadow in Yellowstone, and it was after the sun had dropped below the horizon.
First the light. As stated, the sun had set. Water reflects the colors and light in the sky. To capture these colors, it was important for the sun to not be in the sky. If it had, it would have been too bright and I would have lost the gold of the sky reflected here. So this was about timing. Second, snow reflects insane amounts of blue light from the environment. So because the sun had already set, and because I had a cooler white balance, I ended up with loads of blue throughout my snow and shadows. Now in terms of the environment, if it were not for the water to reflect the light, if it were not for the wind swept nature of the snow reflecting blue light, what would we have? Nothing. Another image in the virtual trash can. But because of the light and the environment, and how that they worked together in this photograph, we have something extraordinary. The cat is just a little piece of this puzzle. Its doing nothing more than walking across the scene. The photograph is the light and the environment. The little cat only anchors the photographs. Without the cat, its a weak shot. Without the environment, its a week shot. Without the light, its a week shot. I needed all three of these to make this happen. But the most important parts of the equation are once again, light and the environment.