5 Critical Elements of Wildlife Photography You Should Never Miss, Part 1

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"The world doesn't need another pretty picture. People only want to see what moves them."
 - David DuChemin "Within the Frame"

When I first started wildlife photography, I would check out the online galleries at nature photography sites such as naturescapes.net, bird photographers.net, naturephotographers.net, Fred Miranda forum, and Flickr.

"Dang. Those pics are so perfect," I said to myself.

I felt envious and depressed. 

I felt that I would never take pics as good as those.

And, even if I eventually was able to take a pic similar to those, it would just be like that-- that I took a similar pic. I would not have my own voice. People will just say "Oh, your pic looks just like so and so's."

Being a copycat is no fun. I want to have my own voice. I want to tell stories to move people.

But how can I have my own voice? How do I tell stories?

First I need to understand what story means.

Robert McKee in his book "Story" (a MUST read) said,

Mood + Emotion = Story 

Oh man, so it gets even more complicated. I have to know how to capture mood first, and then search for emotion.

Now how do one create mood and emotion in a photo? Ahhhhh....

I read through a lot of books searching for the answer.

And guess what, I finally found it.

Finally I found it.

It's a book recommended to me by my good friend Carl. It's a book about landscape photography. But with some modifications, the ideas can be applied to wildlife photography. The book is called "Landscape Beyond: A Journey into Photography" by David Ward.​ You are missing out if you haven't read it.

In the book, Ward mentioned three elements he felt that a landscape photo must include. Through a lot of soul searching, I added two more which are specific to wildlife photography to make it five elements. Here you go.

1. Simplicity​

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication

 - Leonardo da Vinci

The term "Photography" was originated from Greek, which means "to paint with light". But in reality, it is the complete opposite to painting, as described by Ward.

Think about it. When I want to paint something, I grab a blank paper and start to draw on it, one stroke at a time. So it starts with an empty canvas.

But when I am taking wildlife photos, I am presented with an animal or animals in a cluttered world of nature: Forest, sand, mud, twigs, shadows and highlights. My task is to use my camera and lens effectively to (first find the animal and then) declutter, to isolate most of those distractions to what's essential: the lines, the forms, the shapes, to express what I really want the audience to see. ​And here I don't mean using photoshop to get rid of those. I mean combining the photographer's vision and skills IN CAMERA.

A distracting background can ruin a photo. I just can't stand it.

If you want to tell a story, you have to simplify the scene to the essentials. Our task is to turn chaos into orders. Turning something immeasurable (Nature) to measurable (2D image). Isn't it cool to be a wildlife photographer!

So how do we declutter with the camera and lens?

"A good photograph is to know where to stand."
 - Ansel Adams​

Knowing where to stand is important because it changes both the relative natural light direction and the perspective of the scene. Indeed, I never stop moving around. I keep busy with my foot work, getting up and down, left and right to find the vintage point for the optimal simplification of the scene. 

Making use of the focal length (wide angle to emphasize the foreground, telephoto to blur the background), depth of field, bokeh, utilizing light and shadow, shutter speed to freeze or slow blur, panning with your camera, are some of the ideas to isolate.​

Backlighting and silhouette are powerful tools as well. 

When you master the properties of light, its quality and quantity, and its effect on the shadow and highlights of what's in front of you, you become the creator ​of your own natural world. You let the light and the scene simplify and harmonize in front of you.

It's time consuming and frustrating to eliminate clutters in a scene in camera, because you cannot actively remove them unless you are ONE with your camera and the light. 

"Look through the viewfinder--at the frame itself--with careful scrutiny and you'll begin to see distractions at the corner of the frame, or lines that are not as parallel as your mind led you to believe... Do what you have to in order to become aware of the frame and the way the elements within it interact." 
 - David DuChemin "Within the Frame"

Less is more. A simple photo can be so much more powerful. So remember, isolate, declutter, make it simple. Don't forget the KISS principle.

One great example of using extreme simplicity to create powerful image is a BBC photographer of the year award photo by photographer Miguel Lasa titled "Polar Sunrise". Just a few strokes of light, and you know that's a polar bear in sunrise.

Taking a photo full of clutters and distracting background is easy. But you are just documenting the scene if you do that. Simplifying a scene to the essentials is an art. It's oh so difficult as you need to simplify the scene in real time when an opportunity presents itself, and you usually only have one chance. But that's where the challenge and fun are for a wildlife photographer.

"​If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter."
 - Blaise Pascal

Two gentoo penguins at sunset. Falkland Islands. Canon 1DX, 100-400mm, f/7.1, 1/800s, ISO 800, handheld.

Mother polar bear and two cubs, Alaskan Arctic. 1d Mark IV, 70-200 f/2.8, f/2.8, 1/160s, ISO 800.

Rockhopper penguins in love, Falkland Islands, 1DX, 100-400mm, f/8, 1/800s, ISO 800, handheld.

Polar bear, Alaskan Arctic. 1DX, 600mm, 1.4x, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 800

Coastal brown bear spring cub siblings, Katmai, 1DX, 600mm f/4, 1.4x, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 800, monopod.

Polar bear and cub. Alaskan Arctic. 1DX, 600mm f/4, 1.4x, f/7.1, 1/1600s, ISO 1600, handheld on a boat.

Red fox. Canon 1D Mark IV, 500mm, 1.4x, f/5.6, 1/2000s, ISO 800.

Polar bear with cubs. Manitoba, Canada. 1DX, 600mm, 1.4x, f/9, 1/1600s, ISO 800, handheld.

Stay tuned for the next four elements that I will post in the next few days. Sign up for my email list so you will get updates.

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