Mine's Bigger, But Is That A Good Thing?

A wildlife photographer’s first instinct is usually to make the subject as large as possible in the frame. Let us see the whites of the critter’s eyes. And this is an understandable reaction when trying to compose images of subjects that often don’t want humans very close. However, it’s not your only option.

Let’s start at the beginning. Most animal photos do very little other than document the fact that the photographer saw an animal. This used to be enough to hold the viewer’s interest, but today’s viewers are a spoiled bunch. They’ve seen lots of animal pictures, and they’re a lot more sophisticated. If you want to get their attention you need to take your wildlife photos beyond mere documentation. And that’s what we’re trying to do by making our subject larger or smaller in the frame.

Wildlife images grab our attention with their beauty, cuteness, strangeness, the emotions they evoke, the behavior they show, the environmental relationships they portray and the details about the subject they allow us to see. In most photos, the wildlife subject is not tight enough to show us details about the subject or wide enough to show an environmental relationship. Unless it has something else going for it--maybe flowers or interesting behavior--it’s stuck in the no-man’s land of mere documentation.

Mountain goat in flowers
This size of this mountain goat within the frame would make it a documentary photo if it were not for the flowers and interesting boulders.

Mountain goat nanny & kidMountain goatsMountain goat nanny & kid
This first mountain goat image would only be documentary without the implied interaction between the nanny and kid. The second shot is tight enough to show some real detail, and at the same time it provides as much information about what’s going on as the first image did. The last photo is wide enough to show the environment these goats live in--it’s a world of rock and it’s way up above everything else.

Going beyond documentary by making the subject larger in the frame is easier to work with than making the subject smaller. It’s pretty easy to compose an image of an animal’s face. You can only move it around so much before you begin to chop off important parts. With this kind of image we’re trying to show the viewer details they may never have seen before--like what kind of flowers it’s eating or whether it’s a billy or a nanny (easiest way is to look at how wide the horns are at the base--the horns of billies are wider at the base).

Mountain goat
You can tell by its horns that this mountain goat is a nanny (the top photo shows a young billy), and it is eating spring beauties and dwarf clover. A wider shot would not have shown these details.

When you make your wildlife subject small in the frame--unless it’s small because you just couldn’t get any closer--you’re trying to show its relationship with its environment. This is a much harder image to compose, and the proper situation for creating a strong image with a small subject doesn’t arise all that often. First, most wildlife habitats are messy and cluttered, and it’s very easy to lose your subject if you make it small. Second, you often need to get close to your subject to create this kind of shot, and most animals don’t want you to get close. Places like the Galapagos or Falklands are great because many of their wild residents evolved without 2-legged predators. Mountain goats can also be a good possibility because they are often pretty tolerant of photographers and they live above timberline, so you don’t have a lot of vegetation hiding your subject. You want your subject to stand out even though its small, so you want to place light colored subjects against dark backgrounds and vice versa. Also, putting the subject at one of the power points (check the Rule of Thirds) usually helps make the image stronger.

Mountain goatMountain goat & mountains
Having a background that contrasts with the subject, and putting the subject at one of the power points can help draw attention to your subject.

Don’t automatically fill the frame with your subject. Think about what you’re trying to do when you’re deciding how large to make the subject within your frame. If the subject is in just the right spot (stranger things have happened), you may be able to shoot both tight and wide by simply zooming your lens.

These concepts are covered in more detail in our first book, Dynamic Wildlife Photography, which is still available at Amazon and the other usual outlets.

Think Wide

Wide-angle lenses have always been my favorites for landscape photography. I’m blaming it on David Muench. His trademark images featuring strong, point blank foregrounds with spectacular backgrounds were one of the big reasons I became interested in nature photography in the first place. I never got into large format equipment because I like the freedom of the 35mm format, and I’m too lazy and undisciplined for large format.

Grand Staircase Escalante NM
Taken at 10mm with small sensor camera. Wide-angle lenses are ideal for
getting close to foreground elements and still including the background.

The first thing most instructors tell aspiring landscape photographers is narrow your focus. Analyze the scene to determine what it is that makes you want to photograph it, and compose around that. This almost always means shooting tighter than you originally planned. And this is a legitimate technique to teach. Let’s face it, nature is messy, and a wide-angle lens is going to include more picture elements that don’t support your center of interest. The more you can tighten your focus, the more distracting elements you can eliminate, the stronger your photo is going to be.

Toadstool & Flowers
Taken at 10mm with a small sensor camera. I like to see the big picture.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that I like to capture the big picture. I want to see the immensity of the scenery, and this is where a wide-angle lens shines. It’s also easier to handhold a wide-angle lens if you’re traveling light (or if you’re just lazy), and because of this it’s easier to use a wide-angle lens in weird positions, positions that you may not even be able to get a tripod into. A wide-angle lens automatically provides more depth of field because it tends to make the picture elements smaller. These lenses are great for making sunstars and minimizing flares simply because they make the sun smaller.

Balanced Rock Reflection
Taken at 10mm with a small sensor camera.
The pothole is only a few feet across, but there are no distracting elements.

Desolate environments, places without a lot of vegetation to clutter up your image are ideal for using wide-angle lenses. Some of my favorites are Death Valley, the alpine tundra of the western mountain ranges, and the high deserts of Arizona and Utah. One thing to keep in mind is that wide-angle lenses emphasize negative space. If there is a blank spot in a field of flowers, a wide-angle lens will make that empty spot larger and more distracting.

Glacier NP
Taken at 17mm, the lilies in the extreme foreground were used to cover a blank spot in the field.

I should probably mention that Cathy prefers to shoot tighter, picking out details in the scene, and even in the most desolate landscapes, she comes back with more keepers than I do with my wide-angle lenses.

Set Your Images Apart

The November gathering of bald eagles on Alaska’s Chilkat River attracts photographers from all around the world--Denmark, Japan, Canada, not to mention nearly every state in America were represented in the five days we were there. During one period when the eagles seemed to only be catching fish in one 10-foot stretch of river, I counted 35 photographers standing shoulder to shoulder, and I’m sure I missed some of them. Every time the birds twitched, a thousand frames were recorded on media cards. Cathy and I have been places where the number of photographers was higher, but it was a certainty that a great many of the images captured here were going to be pretty darn similar. How do you make your photos stand out in such a situation? And more importantly, should you even try?

Bald eagle fight

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, 500mm + 1.4 teleconverter, ISO 1600, 1/800, f6.3

Many big name photographers, some that I respect a great deal, believe you always need to try to set your work apart from other photographers. I’m not so sure that’s always the best plan. I’ve always been a big believer in photographing the subjects you enjoy shooting without regard for what others are shooting. If this means taking pictures of the same things everyone else is photographing, that’s just the way it goes. And besides, there are so many photographers these days that almost no matter what subject you want to shoot, and no matter what style you use, you’re going to have plenty of company. One of the things Cathy and I most enjoy capturing is behavior, and that’s one of the most popular subjects on the Chilkat at this time of year. Consequently, even though nearly everyone was trying to obtain sharp pictures of talon-to-talon action, it didn’t stop us from trying to do the same thing. Of course, we also tried a few other things that perhaps not as many photographers attempted.

Bald eagle & mountains

Canon EOS-1D Mark III, 100-400mm@150mm, ISO 1600, 1/1600, f16, -2/3

Wildlife photographers are often obsessed with making the subject as large as possible in the frame, so we’ll sometimes go in the other direction. We’ll try to make it small. In the photo above, we could have made the eagle much bigger in the frame, but then the mountains would not be visible. The eagle alone would not have been much of a photo, and the mountains alone would’ve just been OK. Combine the two though, and you’ve got a much stronger image. We are always looking for opportunities to make scenic images with wildlife, even if it means intentionally making the subject small in the frame. With a small subject you emphasize the immensity of the landscape and the subject’s relationship with that landscape. The most important thing is that even though the subject is small, it is still easily visible.

Bald eagle blur

Canon EOD-1D Mark III, 100-400mm@400mm, ISO 200, 1/30, f8, -1/3

With moving subjects you have two main choices to make your images stand out--shoot faster than everyone else or slower than everyone else. Ultra fast shutter speeds are great for birds splashing in the water, and with these shutter speeds we can see details in the water drops that were previously invisible. Since we had low light conditions for pretty much the entire week we were in Alaska, it was easier to go the other route--use a low ISO and shoot with a slower shutter speed than everyone else. With a slow shutter speed the photographer is trying to give the impression of speed, and you never know what you’re going to get. On this trip I only designated an hour or so towards the end of the tour to experiment with slow shutter speeds, and the eagles happened to be rather lazy that morning so I didn’t get as many chances as I would’ve liked. The photographers around me probably took a hundred images with fast shutter speeds that stopped the action in the photo above. Are they better than this shot taken at a 1/30 second? That depends on what you’re trying to show. All I know is that I’m looking forward to trying this technique with eagles again.

There is nothing wrong with shooting the same subjects and using the same techniques as everyone else. The most important things are that you get to spend time in the natural world reveling in the grandeur around us, that you have a good time trying to capture that grandeur with your camera, and that you are happy with your images. If some artistic drive has you wanting to set your photos apart from the those of the masses, there are techniques you can try, and we’ve touched on a couple of them in this blog. Have fun experimenting.

Photographing The Aurora

Photographing the aurora is actually quite easy once you get over the fact that you’re working in the dark. The only specialized equipment you need is a camera with adjustable settings and a decent tripod. A cable release can also be helpful. Since you’re often shooting a wide expanse of sky, a wide angle lens is usually preferred, and the faster the lens, the faster the shutter speed you can get away with.

Aurora borealis, northern lights
20mm, f1.8, 6 seconds, ISO 1600

To begin with:

Set your camera on manual mode.

Start with an ISO of at least 400, and go higher if you need to. Obviously, a camera that can handle high ISOs without much noise is a huge advantage. We often shoot with an ISO of 1600 or even higher.

Open the lens to its widest aperture, or close to it--4.5 or under should work fine. Faster lenses give you much more leeway. Our favorite lenses have maximum apertures of 1.8 and 2.8.

Set the shutter speed for around 15 seconds to start with. Make it longer if the aurora is not noticeable, or shorter if the aurora is over exposed. With an ISO of 1600 and a lens at f1.8 we can often use shutter speeds in the 4 to 6 second range. Sometimes the aurora moves a great deal, and a fast shutter speed helps capture the patterns. With a fairly wide lens, the stars will begin to streak if the shutter is open for longer than 25 seconds. And the longer your focal length, the less time before the stars begin to streak.

Pre-focus the lens to almost infinity--don’t go all the way to the infinity mark. After pre-focusing, switch the lens to manual focus so you don’t accidentally re-focus after you have your shot composed.

Use a cable release or self-timer to trip the shutter.

Aurora borealis, northern lights
17-35 @ 19mm, f2.8, 6 seconds, ISO 1600

Things to keep in mind:

In most instances, a wide angle lens will give you the best results. If the aurora is wide enough, a fisheye can be fun to try, although it does make the stars even smaller.

Usually you can see well enough by the light of the aurora to compose your images.

Bring a small flashlight, and be sure not to point it at, or in front of your lens (or anyone else’s) while your shutter is open (unless you are painting some of the foreground elements).

If you use mirror lock-up, hesitate a second or two between raising the mirror and tripping the shutter or the camera movement will blur the photo.

The foreground is often what makes or breaks a night photo, although with the aurora, the patterns of light can overwhelm the rest of the composition. Still, if you include elements that are closer than 10 feet, they may be out of focus, and if you focus on them, the stars may be objectionably blurry. You just don’t have much depth of field to work with. Luckily, wide angle lenses offer more depth of field automatically, and the entire scene is usually in focus from 10 or 12 feet to infinity.

The more you know about operating your camera without having to look at all the buttons and dials, the easier it will be to work in the dark. Be sure you know where the button is that lights up the LCD panel, at least.

You probably won’t know exactly what you’ve gotten until you can look at the images more closely on your computer.

Aurora borealis, northern lights
17-35 @ 19mm, f2.8, 13 seconds, ISO 1600, taillights used to paint trees in foreground.