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Photographing animals in their environment

A flock of flamingos in flight over wetlands, a bontebok resting in the savanna, a crocodile waiting in ambush at the water ’ s edge… by drawing attention to the beauty that surrounds them, animals are ambassadors of their environment. It is easy to obscure this environment by using a long lens and a blurred background. While wide apertures can create flawless backdrops, they also take animals out of context, leaving the viewer with little sense of the creatures’ surroundings. Drifting away from the classic animal portrait can be fun. I aspire to create images that stand out from the rest—but to succeed, I have to find an extra element to make my images unique. Photographing animals in their natural habitats is one way to add that extra dimension. It is all about going beyond the obvious image, breaking the cliché, and telling a story.

Knowing your subject

Pictures that tell a story about an animal’s life have an added educational value. It’s helpful to read up about the animals you wish to photograph or to spend extra time observing them. Being in tune with your subjects’ habits and behaviors will help you capture fleeting moments, anticipate specific poses, and even record some of their personality. For instance, some species of terns fly into the wind and plunge dive into the water after a swift bank. Watching for hints in their movement can give you time to prepare for the action.

Seeing the environment

To find a subject is one thing, but to notice its environment and include it in your composition takes some practice. At the moment when subject and environment come together, you must realize the potential and be ready to capture the scene. Nature is filled with a vivid array of colors. There is a different landscape around every corner, each with its own visual mood that changes with the seasons. Surrounding trees can splash earthy shades of green, yellow, and orange around your subject. Dark, stormy skies rolling into the frame add drama and tension. Take lighting into account when looking for vibrant colors. For example, shooting into the sun a few minutes after sunrise or before sunset can produce striking backlit images bathed in warm tones. Challenge yourself to find simplicity in chaos. I take a minimalist approach so that I do not include elements that compete for attention. Natural features that may complement your subject include mountains, rolling hills, meandering rivers, or even a lonely tree on the horizon. Surrounding vegetation can sometimes make for a very cluttered background, but with the right composition it can balance a subject perfectly

Maintaining a fine balance

The art of making a picture lies in its composition. I always fire off a few “insurance” shots when I first come across a subject—it gives me peace of mind to know that I have something “in the bag.” Once that initial panic is over, I settle down and look at the animal’s surroundings. Then, I begin to experiment with different compositions. Composition largely depends on personal taste. When I shoot animals in their environment, I tend to leave space around the animal. It is better to have too much space than too little; you can always crop an image later, but you cannot add more to the image. As a general guideline, I frame my main subject off-center, often placing it in one of the corners, so that the animal is looking into its environment. When composing images of animals in nature, you should also look for visual lines leading to the main subject or into the landscape. Whether the lines come from a tree branch or curving mountaintops, they tend to produce images that are more dynamic.

Telling stories in nature

I enjoy seeing the reactions of people looking at my images for the very first time. One such reaction stands out from the rest: A waiter in Kruger National Park almost fell off his chair when he noticed a crocodile in the foreground of what he thought was a classic riverside landscape. Later on, I found out that he and his buddies enjoy the occasional fishing trip under the bridge close to camp, hence his rather petrified response. I don’t know if he has gone fishing there since then! Illustrating the relationship between an animal and its surroundings is a good way to trigger viewers’ thoughts and personal connections with a place. Show your audience what you find so fascinating about your subject. Whether you’re trying to portray the patience of a crocodile, the colors of a flamingo, the size of an elephant, or the lifestyle of a leopard, it’s up to you how you will capture your viewers’ attention and make your image memorable. When you are editing your images back home, try to look at each one through someone else’s eyes. Does it evoke emotion? Does it teach you anything or leave you asking questions? These initial reactions will tell you whether it is a photograph that will be remembered. Photographing animals in their environment is a good way to test your creativity and look at a landscape with fresh eyes. Next time you are in the field, try zooming out and see what you can find.

– Kirsten Frost

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