Its Fall here in Jackson Hole Wyoming and with the cold temperatures of the night and the golden leaves of the Aspens also comes that thing that every wildlife photographer in the Northern Rockies waits with much anticipation for each year – the rut! Last week I was in the middle of my annual Autumn Wildlife of Jackson Hole and Grand Tetons workshop when we came across this lone bull elk working his way through the low scrubby sage brush.
I usually like to find my wildlife to photograph in places that are not roadside so as to not have to deal with the possibility of crowds and large groups of other photographers. With that said though, you don’t pass up a good opportunity to photograph. Everything about this situation was fantastic. He was mild mannered with our presence, the ambient light was still good ( a consideration in the afternoon when working right along the base of the nearly 14,000 foot Tetons), and there was some great color popping out behind him in the Aspens.
The first thing that I noticed was every photographer out there was standing up with their tripods fully extended. Shooting from this angle was missing out on a really powerful element that could be used to greatly enhance the composition. Not to mention the importance of perspective when photographing animals which, in my opinion, shooting down at a large bull elk is completely missing the boat. Saving the discussion on perspective for a later post, lets just look at issue of the background – that compositional element that I was speaking of.
In wildlife photography, and landscape as well for that matter, the background is just as important as light and the animal itself. Backgrounds can detract, enhance, or do nothing for the photograph. Given the situation, shooting this scene while standing up brought about a flat and uninspired background of sagebrush. Just beyond that stood a stand of mixed aspens and spruce / firs. Considering that its Autumn and the leaves of those aspens are brilliant gold, there is just no way I am going to pass up the opportunity for using that as my backdrop to this bull elk!
So how exactly do you do this? Get low! Personally I hate a tripod with a center column. These are nothing but a pain in the ass when it comes to photography. If you need a taller tripod, buy a taller tripod. With a center column, you can only use your tripod as low as the column will let you. I use Really Right Stuffs Versa Series 3 tripod. Without getting off track here, let me just say I have not found a better tripod on the market to date. This tripod of course does not have a center column and so I can spread the legs out and drop my camera down to within just inches from the ground – which is basically what this scene required given that we were on a slight rise from the elk. You don’t always have to get this low to bring in the background like this, but you should certainly consider experimenting with it just in case you are missing something. With this setup however, we certainly did.
Included with this post are two images. One taken from standing up like everyone else, the other lying down on my belly in order to take control over the background. This entire situation was a really great teaching moment about the importance of backgrounds on the workshop simply because of the dramatic difference seen here and the cooperation of the bull elk that we were working. Looking at the two images though, you can be the judge of which one works better. Art its completely subjective of course. . .
The image above is the one I created while lying on the ground. Though this may not be a gallery worthy image, this image shows the distinct difference in composition and overall feel when compared to the one at the bottom of this post which was created while standing up. In the second one, you see only sage brush. Now if the background was extremely cluttered, or there was something I wanted desperately to keep out, than this bottom image would have worked perfectly since standing up high eliminated the backdrop of trees entirely. Two different images, with two different positions of the tripod.