Earth is an ever-increasing element in my wildlife photography. Of course, I’m not talking about the totality of the planet itself, but more in the sense of including the landscape and environment within my images.
Once upon a time it was a very common practice for wildlife photography to be all about filling the frame with the subject, getting it as large in the photo as possible, bringing the viewer an up-close look at the subject that they might not ever see for themselves.
Here’s the thing though. Whilst frame-filling wildlife photos can give a sense of character to their subjects, they hide something equally important; the environment in which they live. Their habitat. The earth they walk on or are surrounded by. This is a crucial element that can set the scene and tone for the image, not to mention the bigger picture of the environment and how globally we are quickly destroying the places where many of the world’s wildlife live in. Habitat loss is very real.
But to keep this article on a more upbeat note, let’s look at how including the very environment these animals live in can add something to the picture that is greatly missed in an up-close portrait.
Leopards are one of my favorite animals to photograph. They spend much of their time hiding under the cover of thick bushes or in tree canopies. We photographed this female just after the sun had set. The last light of the day was reflecting through the clouds, casting a wonderful soft, warm glow upon the scene. The leopard had just come down from a termite mound and was walking through long grasses before having to cross an open section as she made her way towards thicker brush. Whilst the leopard itself is wonderful as a subject, a tight portrait would lose the sky and grass. We’d lose connection to the atmosphere of the image and the feeling of a leopard emerging from the cover of that wonderfully long grass.
Including the landscape can also help give a real sense of scale to the scene before you. Dalmatian pelicans have a stronghold in Lake Kerkini, Greece, with the lake set against the backdrop of beautiful snow-capped mountains. By going small in the frame and using those very mountains as a main focal point in the image, we are drawn more into the vastness of the scene. The pelican’s environment is given scale and there is also an indication of the winter temperatures, thanks to the snow on the mountains.
A similar feeling of scale has been given to this image of gannets in Hermaness, Scotland. The colony is set against this impressively large cliff face, with the sea crashing on the rocks below. The sheer number of birds flying through the sky is impressive on its own but would be completely lost with only a single bird caught in flight. To really appreciate the colony we need to step, or zoom, back and enjoy the grandness of the scene in its entirety.
More subtle than showing an impressive landscape, even just the hint of the environment can work well, such as with this image of a sea eagle off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan. It is subtle but if you can look past the basic idea that it’s just a bird perched on ice, that ice is a key element to the image and conveys the cold conditions these birds thrive in. Again, this would simply be lost on a tight portrait.
The hard part of photographing wildlife in this way comes from the fact the entire scene needs to be photogenic. With a portrait, the animal needs to look good, and that’s pretty much it. When including the environment though, it too needs to look good, be compositionally accounted for, lit pleasingly, and add to the image in more than just a supporting role. It needs to compliment the entire frame. The more elements in the frame that need to come together, the harder the image can be to pull off. But if you are able to do so, your image will thank you for it. There will always be a place for portraits in wildlife photography – they offer a sense of character and personality. If you really want variety and a different type of impact to your images, to complement the subjects and help the viewer appreciate where and how these animals live, plus the conditions you had to put yourself in to capture them, think about the bigger picture. Think about the earth.