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.