Power of perspective - better wildlife photography (Part one)
Perspective can make a huge difference when it comes to photographing wildlife, with your choice of lens, framing, position, and use of light all having the potential to change how a viewer interprets your work. Here’s a crash course in capturing more powerful perspectives.
As photographers, the tools we use and the decisions we make can drastically change the look of the subjects we capture. By changing perspective, whether it be by moving, or choosing different camera settings or focal lengths, subjects can appear much smaller or larger than normal, lines can converge differently, and much more. In this article I’ll share a few tips for pushing your perspectives in interesting new directions. Let’s get started.
Traditionally, most wildlife images are taken with a fixed focal length telephoto lens such as a 300mm, 400mm, 500mm or 600mm, or by using one of the numerous zoom lenses available on the market like a 100-400mm, 200-400mm, 200-500mm, etc. This is because in wildlife photography our subjects are rarely close. But if you only use longer focal lengths all the time, you’re selling yourself short, and with the right subjects, just about any focal length can be used for wildlife photography.
Before we get started, it’s worth noting that telephoto prime lenses like the 300mm, 400mm, 500mm and 600mm are usually very sharp and have a wider minimum aperture. This means you can let in more light into your camera, which in turn means a higher shutter speed without needing to crank up the ISO too high (the higher the ISO, the more noise you will end up with). The downside is that these lenses are quite expensive, heavy, and if you can’t move from the spot you are photographing (such as sitting in a safari vehicle in Africa, with a lion in front of you) you can’t change your focal length.
With a zoom lens, you have more options to compose an image on the spot, they are generally cheaper in price and typically are a bit easier to handhold. The downside is they may not be as sharp as a telephoto lens and the minimum aperture will often be smaller in size.
For example, the Sigma and Tamron 150-600mm lenses are very versatile, but in low light scenarios such as rainforests, the widest aperture you can achieve at 600mm is f6.3. This will greatly affect the camera’s shutter speed, so in turn you will likely have to raise your camera’s ISO to get sharp shots.
Ultimately, the lens you end up using and the focal length you choose will affect how your resulting image looks. Lenses with a wider maximum aperture can create more pleasing out of focus areas, while zooms are more versatile. It's up to you as the photographer to make creative decisions in-camera before you edit your images.
Animals in the environment
Many of the renowned wildlife photography competitions around the world include a category for animals in their environment, where the animal(s) are a small part of a landscape. This gives the viewer a chance to see how the animal fits into its habitat.
Images where you first see an amazing landscape, then realise there is an animal(s), can be quite pleasing on the eye. You can think of it as value-adding - by adding an animal (or animals) to an already beautiful landscape, you are adding additional points of interest in your image. Your aim here is to draw the viewer to the animal(s), then look at the scene they are in. Just use a deft hand, as you don’t want to distract from your subject too much.
For the image of the four reindeer and a polar bear in Svalbard, the Arctic above, I was in a zodiac with my photography tour participants, when I noticed the gorgeous light bringing out the blue in the icy landscape. However, it wasn’t until we began to approach that I noticed the animals. By capturing the landscape as well as the wildlife it creates a sense of scale which is often not evident when photographing just the landscape on its own.
Creating a three-dimensional look
Using a wide-angle lens such as a 14-24mm on a full frame camera can help create interesting and unusual images with a totally different perspective to many typical wildlife images shot on longer focal lengths. Getting down at eye level and close to a subject (if it allows you to get close) has created many pleasing images for me over the years.
This is because wide-angle lenses when used up-close exaggerate the three-dimensionality of a scene. To me, this close-up wide image creates more of an impact than a nice portrait shot taken with a longer focal length. It also lets you emphasise different parts of your subject, say the eyes or beak of a bird, which can be quite photogenic.
I am often asked “how do you get close to wildlife subjects?” when using a wide-angle lens. One answer I give is “lots of patience”! With the shot of the pair of Tasman Boobies sitting on a cliff top at Norfolk Island above, I spent a couple of hours each morning, over many days, sitting with them, talking calmly and basically letting them see I wasn’t a threat. I would always approach very slowly and quietly, sit, and then edge a little closer over time.
Wild birds will often let you reasonably close, as long as you don’t make sudden, jerky movement and make lots of noise. With the Tasman Boobies, I was eventually at a stage where the pair sat calmly on the hill, while I was quite close with my wide-angle lens.
I was fortunate to have the clouds part slightly and the crepuscular rays shine through. All I needed to do now was sit still and press the shutter. The resulting image captured the birds up close, as well as the moody, brooding stormy weather in the environment these birds inhabit. If I captured this image from a distance with a long lens, you would get very little sense of their environment.
Look out for part two next week.
About the author: Michael Snedic has been photographing Australia’s wildlife and natural beauty for nearly a quarter of a century! He is widely published, is a Nikon School tutor and is an in-demand speaker at Camera Clubs and Photography Conventions across Australia.
Michael is the founder of WildNature Photo Expeditions, specialising in nature-based photography workshops to destinations such as Lord Howe Island, Tasmania (Cradle Mountain, Freycinet, the Bay of Fires and the Tarkine region), Girraween and Lamington National Parks, Carnarvon Gorge, Kakadu National Park and the Wildflowers of WA, as well as overseas destinations. To see more of his work, visit www.michaelsnedic.com.