Why Landscapes Should Be On Every Animal Photographer's Shot List
There are a lot of dichotomies in photography where most of us find our selves making an either-or decision: Canon or Nikon, people or animals, commercial or editorial.
The same tends to be true, I think, for wildlife or landscape.
I venture to guess that many if not most wildlife photographers think of landscapes as simply the place where they find their subject, but not something they really want for their portfolio. The landscape is a tool for context or composition, but the goal is always the animal.
This is especially true for those just getting started in wildlife photography, when the excitement of photographing an animal overshadows the enjoyment of the scenery. The landscape might be beautiful enough — we see so much outstanding scenery while we wait quietly for an animal to show up — but the landscape isn’t why a photographer trekked out there. We are there for the critters.
I used to think this way as well, but over time that opinion has evolved. I’ve realized that paying attention to landscapes plays a critical role in helping me become a better animal photographer and a better storyteller. Because of that, landscapes are now on my must-have shot list for any shoot.
I think it comes down to two things. Now, I’m going to dive into what those two things are and why landscapes are so important for animal photographers. You can read it and dish on a little philosophy of photography for awhile. Or, you can skip down to the part where I offer 7 tips for improving your landscape photography. Don’t worry, I won’t be insulted if you just skip to the tips. Back to those two things…
Are you truly seeing where you are?
Recently I was going through photos from a trip to Midway Atoll I took a few years ago. It was my first big trip after I started in nature photography. I spent a week on the atoll, knee deep in Laysan and black-footed albatross, frigatebirds and tropicbirds, sooty terns, blue-footed boobies and so many more species.
I was sorting through the images looking for shots that illustrate the atoll, that show both what it looks like and feels like to be there. Something that showed the weather and white sand and brilliant blue water, the stands of ironwood trees and the seeps set up for Laysan ducks. There was little to choose from my collection that expressed the personality of the landscape as much or more than the wildlife. I had been so focused on photographing the animals that I did not come away with shots that highlight the place that they call home.
This is a problem for a few reasons. First, it means an incomplete portfolio. When I want to pull images to talk about the critical threat of sea level rise to this atoll, or the impact of invasive plant species, or the work that has been done to restore the landscape, or even the military history of the atoll, I have little to choose from.
But perhaps more importantly, paying little attention to the landscape means I have an incomplete understanding of the animals that utilize the habitat and how shifts in the habitat affect the various species. I’m not really seeing how their world works.
I captured a few photos of albatross caught in and killed by the ironwood trees, and chicks in nest cups surrounded by the invasive verbesina plants. But I missed so much — like how the bonin petrels enter and exit their burrows and how many burrows pocket the sandy ground; or how naupaka provides shelter and shade to chicks along the beach; or how the white terns utilize the ironwood trees (and pretty much every other odd surface) for nesting.
Everyone knows that to get excellent images of a subject, you have to know that subject well. How can you expect to do that without understanding and appreciating the habitat where they live? The flora, the soil, the wind or waves, what the heat or cold does to the light… paying close attention to the environment in which your subject lives allows you a new level of information about what you’re seeking to photograph. It gives you an insight into their behavior, into their unique struggles, into their evolutionary path.
Making landscapes a priority also may provide you with a new appreciation for a place you perhaps feel indifferent about, or even dislike. For most of my life, the desert depressed me. It was a place to drive through as quickly as possible while traveling from one green, wet place to another. The arid desert with its brown rocks and brown plants, where you have to squint from sun up to sun down, where nothing interesting lives… I’d never understood the appeal. Then I became a photographer.
Suddenly, the desert was full of subtle and vibrant colors, fascinating textures, plants with otherworldly shapes. It became a place to cherish during sunrise and sunset, with spectacular colors coming out in full force at twilight, and at night a blanket of brilliant stars creates a canvas for the silhouettes of cacti. Importantly, I became aware of the breathtaking diversity of wildlife that calls the desert home, and the unique challenge of photographing animals with particular skill at hiding themselves. Without photography — without landscape photography — the desert would still be a place I readily pass up.
Landscape photography makes you stop and consider the type of beauty a place holds – harsh and cruel, soft and rich, full of shapes and textures, unique species or light that you can’t seem to find anywhere else on earth. Landscape photography makes you look at how to portray what a habitat has to offer. As I discovered with the desert, you don’t see ugly; you see the personality and the potential ways to show it. You don’t speed through a place anymore because you’re always looking for a way in, an angle, a quality of light, a way to tell its story.
I can list of a good handful of great photographers known for their wildlife work who also produce stunning landscape shots. I believe this is because they have learned to appreciate the habitat in which an animal lives every bit as much as the animal itself.
That brings me to my second point.
Can you show others the whole story?
Animal photographers want to show viewers the species we love. But too often, that means a frame-filling portrait, or a pretty pose within a scenic setting. If we’re lucky, we might capture some interesting behavior, from grooming to interactions with offspring, mates or rivals. And if we’re really lucky, perhaps we will get a shot of hunting behavior or perhaps something never seen before. However, it is important for animal photographers to step back and look at the larger story of a species. And this is where landscapes come in.
How can we show the movement of an animal through a habitat? What does the stream look like where the animal comes to drink? What plants does your subject graze on, or what stands of trees does your subject like best for nesting or collecting seeds? How does your subject’s trail cut through the ferns in the understory, or what does the sky look like when your subject is getting ready to hunt in the evening? These are all pieces of the story we can tell about animals, and they can be told through landscape photographs.
When we start thinking about the landscape as a crucial supporting character in the story where animals play the lead, then we can become more creative in how we loop the landscape in, and be more thorough about the important details we provide for a viewer’s understanding of an animal.
When we go out to photograph wildlife, it’s wonderful to bring home a collection of portraits of the various species. But we do a great service for wildlife, for nature in general, and for viewers when we can show where species live and how they move about, take advantage of, struggle with, and survive in a habitat.
Once you are able to stop and really see a place, as well as really see how your favorite animals live within it, you can create a full, rich and visually satisfying story of the species you’re photographing.
Making the landscape part of your shot list fills out both your portfolio and your personal experience with a place. So how can you get better at it? Below, I’ve listed seven tips.
1. Use what lenses you have in easy reach
I was waiting around for a coyote to show up when I turned around and saw how the sun was coming up over the hilly landscape. This was taken with the lense I happened to be holding – a 70-200mm.
Never let anyone tell you you have to have a certain lens for landscape photography.
The tendency is to lean toward a 24mm lens when shooting landscapes, and for good reason. This is about the widest you can get before seeing distortion, and you can capture the biggest view of a scene. But you don’t have to have a 24mm to make landscapes.
Whatever lens you have on you works for landscapes, and yes, that includes telephoto lenses. With a telephoto, it might be harder to get a shot that expresses the vastness of an area the way you can with a wide-angle, but you have the opportunity to compress the distance between the foreground and the horizon. This can be a nice advantage; for example, it can make mountains in the distance appear bigger and closer, and thus have more of a presence in the image.
I am usually carrying a 50mm with me and so it turns out that I take the majority of my landscape photos with this lens. I love it, and it usually works just great when I put a little extra thought into planning out my shot.
The point is, though, don’t skip a potential landscape shot because you didn’t bring a wide-angle into the field with you. See if there’s still a way to work a scene with the lens you have and come away with portraits of the place as well as the wildlife within it.
2. Make time on your way in or out of a location to do landscapes
Often wildlife photography starts at sunrise, when there is enough light for a fast shutter speed, and ends at sunset. But landscapes can be taken with long shutter speeds in near darkness. That means you have opportunities going to and from locations to capture beautiful landscapes.
Sometimes the goal is to get to a location before first light, or to use the last rays of light to capture critters. When you’re an animal photographer you’re totally justified in spending all of the hours with the best light in photographing animals. But if you can spare some time during the trek to or from a location — or better yet, build an entire day into your shoot just for landscapes — you’ll thank yourself later. Dedicating even 20-30 minutes for long-exposure images in twilight or at night will add a lot of great material to your portfolio, and it won’t take away much time at all from your wildlife work.
3. Save room in your pack for filters and other landscape photography necessities even if you don’t think you’ll use them
There’s nothing like coming across the perfect spot for a landscape photo only to realize you didn’t bring a few simple tools that would help you capture the scene perfectly.
All you really need are a couple graduated ND filters (or a matte black card to dodge the sky by hand), a polarizing filter, a remote shutter release, and maybe a flash (or headlamp) for some fill light. It doesn’t take up a ton of room or add much weight. So if at all possible, carry landscape gear with you even if you don’t think you’ll have the time or desire to take shots. That way, you won’t miss an opportunity when one unexpectedly presents itself.
4. Make a shot list of possible landscape photos that add to the wildlife story
When in Nome, Alaska, I wanted to make sure to get images that reflected the past history and current impact of mining on the area’s flora and fauna. So, I always kept an eye out for landscapes with dredges or other mining equipment.
Use the landscape to fill out the story of the species you’re excited to photograph. This could be everything from photographing berry bushes that a certain species feeds on, egg shells in an abandoned nest on a prairie, lichen or moss you know is collected by a certain species for nesting material or food, or even simply a gorgeous sunset over the lake or mountainscape where you’re watching out for a particular animal.
Think about how the landscape matters to the species you’re photographing, and how you might capture the beauty or hardship of life in the area, the abundance or scarcity of food, the amount of space or lack thereof, and other aspects of animal life in your landscape photos.
5. Don’t be afraid to keep it simple
While out with a researcher checking for coyotes on a frigid morning, I looked out across the lake we were walking along to see this frozen scene. It tells the viewer a bit about the weather that wildlife endures in a beautiful, minimalist way.
You don’t have to create epic sunset or sunrise photos to have landscape images that add to the story. You can use a landscape to convey mood, weather, solitude or crowding, silence or noise. Or you can use a landscape to simply show what the area looks like without making a grand statement.
While it’s great to have landscapes that are packed with color, texture, and objects that advance the story of a place, you can also create landscapes that simply give the viewer’s eyes and brain a scene upon which to rest.
6. Do landscape photography any time you can’t do wildlife photography
When I take my dog out for morning runs at the beach, I know there’s no way I’ll be able to photograph wildlife. But is presence doesn’t stop me from being able to shoot landscapes. As long as I can throw a ball with one hand while taking landscapes with the other, we’re both happy!.
Use weather that restricts your ability to photograph wildlife as an advantage for unusual landscape images. Thick fog, a downpour of rain, a snow flurry, or harsh light in the middle of the day, all may yield surprising and dramatic photos. Get creative with how you can use weather and light that normally ruins your wildlife photography to your benefit for landscape photography.
If your wildlife subject has hunkered down for the night, it’s time to do long exposure landscapes and star trails. These are especially important to remember if you’re photographing nocturnal animals, since you want to fill out the story of the night life for these critters.
I take my dog hiking in areas where I also photograph wildlife. When my dog is with me, there isn’t much chance to photograph critters, but there is plenty of opportunity for landscapes. Take advantage of hikes with family or friends, road trips when you have only limited time to stop for photos, or even morning or evening walks on paths around your neighborhood.
I love to play with light, try different compositions and shutter speeds, and I’ve even started getting back into film specifically to experiment with landscape photos.
When we’re photographing wildlife, it’s scary to try and experiment because we don’t want to mess up what might be our only opportunity to photograph and animal. But when working on landscapes, the scene isn’t going anywhere. The light and weather may shift, but that’s about it, and all that means is more diversity in your scene. So take landscapes as a grand opportunity to experiment with your photography and push your creativity.
Use weird settings you wouldn’t normally try. Shoot into the light to play with lens flare and haze. Try the same scene at different f-stops or different camera heights to see what you like best. Use film! I’ve taken a liking to experimenting with film for landscapes as I have to think a lot more about a scene to make sure I capture it as best I can (and since there’s money at stake with each frame, every shot is carefully considered!).
You never know what technique you might discover that can become a tool for when you’re shooting wildlife. Plus, experimenting is simply a lot of fun. The world is your oyster, and you should play with your food.
Find freedom in the notion that you’re a wildlife photographer so you don’t have to be great at landscapes if you don’t want to be. But if you experiment enough, you just might become great after all.