7 strategies for adding
to your wildlife outings
There are a lot of dichotomies in photography where we find ourselves making an either-or decision: Canon or Nikon, people or animals, commercial or editorial. The same tends to be true, I think, for wildlife or landscape.
Many wildlife photographers think of landscapes as simply the place where they find their subject, but not something they really want for their portfolio. The landscape is a tool for context or composition, but the goal is always the animal.
However, paying attention to landscapes plays a critical role in becoming a better animal photographer and a better storyteller in two distinct ways.
Truly see where you are
To get excellent images of a subject, you have to know that subject well. We can’t expect to know our subject without understanding and appreciating the habitat where they live.
The flora, the soil, the wind or waves, what the heat or cold does to the light… paying close attention to the environment in which your subject lives allows you a new level of information about what you’re seeking to photograph. It gives you an insight into their behavior, into their unique struggles, into their evolutionary path.
Landscape photography also makes you stop and consider the type of beauty a place holds – harsh and cruel, soft and rich, full of shapes and textures, unique species or light that you can’t seem to find anywhere else on earth.
Show others the whole story
Animal photographers want to show viewers the species we love. But too often, that means a frame-filling portrait, or a pretty pose within a scenic setting. If we’re lucky, we might capture some interesting behavior, from grooming to interactions with offspring, mates or rivals. And if we’re really lucky, perhaps we will get a shot of hunting behavior or perhaps something never seen before.
However, it is important for animal photographers to step back and look at the larger story of a species. How can we show the movement of an animal through a habitat? What does the stream look like where the animal comes to drink? What plants does your subject graze on, or what stands of trees does your subject like best for nesting or collecting seeds? How does your subject’s trail cut through the ferns in the understory, or what does the sky look like when your subject is getting ready to hunt in the evening?
These are all pieces of the story we can tell about animals, and they can be told through landscape photographs. The landscape is a crucial supporting character in a story where animals play the lead. We can improve a viewer’s understanding of an animal by creatively looping the landscape in to the larger portfolio.
For these two reasons, landscapes are a must-have item on the shot list for any outing. So, how does someone focused on wildlife build up their landscape skills?
1. USE WHAT LENSES YOU HAVE IN EASY REACH
When photographing landscapes, the tendency is to lean toward a wide angle lens, and for good reason. You can capture the biggest view of a scene. But you don’t have to have to stick with wide angles to make amazing landscapes.
Whatever lens you have on you works for landscapes, and yes, that includes telephoto lenses. With a telephoto, it might be harder to get a shot that expresses the vastness of an area the way you can with a wide-angle, but you have the opportunity to compress the distance between the foreground and the horizon. This can be a nice advantage; for example, it can make mountains in the distance appear bigger and closer, and thus have more of a presence in the image.
I am usually carrying a 50mm with me and so it turns out that I take the majority of my landscape photos with this lens. I love it, and it usually works just great when I put a little extra thought into planning out my shot.
Don’t skip a potential landscape shot because you didn’t bring a wide-angle into the field with you. See if there’s still a way to work a scene with the lens you have and come away with portraits of the place as well as the wildlife within it.
2. MAKE TIME ON YOUR WAY IN OR OUT OF A LOCATION TO DO LANDSCAPES
Often wildlife photography starts at sunrise, when there is enough light for a fast shutter speed, and ends at sunset. But landscapes can be taken with long shutter speeds in near darkness. That means you have opportunities going to and from locations to capture beautiful landscapes.
Sometimes the goal is to get to a location before first light, or to use the last rays of light to capture critters. When you’re an animal photographer you’re totally justified in spending all of the hours with the best light in photographing animals. But if you can spare some time during the trek to or from a location — or better yet, build an entire day into your shoot just for landscapes — you’ll thank yourself later.
Dedicating even 20-30 minutes for long-exposure images in twilight or at night will add a lot of great material to your portfolio, and it won’t take away much time at all from your wildlife work.
3. SAVE ROOM IN YOUR PACK FOR FILTERS AND OTHER LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY NECESSITIES EVEN IF YOU DON’T THINK YOU’LL USE THEM
All you really need are a couple graduated ND filters (or a matte black card to dodge the sky by hand), a polarizing filter, a remote shutter release, and maybe a flash (or headlamp) for some fill light. It doesn’t take up a ton of room or add much weight. So if at all possible, carry landscape gear with you even if you don’t think you’ll have the time or desire to take shots. That way, you won’t miss an opportunity when one unexpectedly presents itself.
4. MAKE A SHOT LIST OF POSSIBLE LANDSCAPE PHOTOS THAT ADD TO THE WILDLIFE STORY
Use the landscape to fill out the story of the species you’re excited to photograph. This could be everything from photographing berry bushes that a certain species feeds on, egg shells in an abandoned nest on a prairie, lichen or moss you know is collected by a certain species for nesting material or food, or even simply a gorgeous sunset over the lake or mountainscape where you’re watching out for a particular animal.
Think about how the landscape matters to the species you’re photographing, and how you might capture the beauty or hardship of life in the area, the abundance or scarcity of food, the amount of space or lack thereof, and other aspects of animal life in your landscape photos.
5. DON’T BE AFRAID TO KEEP IT SIMPLE
You don’t have to create epic sunset or sunrise photos to have landscape images that add to the story. You can use a landscape to convey mood, weather, solitude or crowding, silence or noise. Or you can use a landscape to simply show what the area looks like without making a grand statement.
While it’s great to have landscapes that are packed with color, texture, and objects that advance the story of a place, you can also create landscapes that simply give the viewer’s eyes and brain a scene upon which to rest.
6. DO LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY ANY TIME YOU CAN’T DO WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY
Use weather that restricts your ability to photograph wildlife as an advantage for unusual landscape images. Thick fog, a downpour of rain, a snow flurry, or harsh light in the middle of the day, all may yield surprising and dramatic photos. Get creative with how you can use weather and light that normally ruins your wildlife photography to your benefit for landscape photography.
If your wildlife subject has hunkered down for the night, it’s time to do long exposure landscapes and star trails. These are especially important to remember if you’re photographing nocturnal animals, since you want to fill out the story of the night life for these critters.
Take advantage of hikes with family or friends, road trips when you have only limited time to stop for photos, or even morning or evening walks on paths around your neighborhood.
When we’re photographing wildlife, it’s scary to try and experiment because we don’t want to mess up what might be our only opportunity to photograph an animal. But when working on landscapes, the scene isn’t going anywhere. The light and weather may shift, but that’s about it, and all that means is more diversity in your scene. So take landscapes as a grand opportunity to experiment with your photography and push your creativity.
Use weird settings you wouldn’t normally try. Shoot into the light to play with lens flare and haze. Try the same scene at different f-stops or different camera heights to see what you like best. Use film! I’ve taken a liking to experimenting with film for landscapes as I have to think a lot more about a scene to make sure I capture it as best I can (and since there’s money at stake with each frame, every shot is carefully considered!).
You never know what technique you might discover that can become a tool for when you’re shooting wildlife. Plus, experimenting is simply a lot of fun. The world is your oyster, and you should play with your food.
Find freedom in the notion that you’re a wildlife photographer so you don’t have to be great at landscapes if you don’t want to be. But if you experiment enough, you just might become great after all.