Whether you photograph for fun or profit, if you are in pursuit of compelling travel & wildlife photos, you’ve probably noticed a few consistent challenges and questions that arise on each adventure. In 40+ years of traveling and photographing personally and professionally, I’ve had the same issues. I’ve also heard them consistently from students, tour participants and other photographers over many years.
How do the great photographers take iconic, publishable photos consistently? Combining a lot of research and my own experiences, I’ve distilled numerous tips and guidelines that I keep in mind every time now. In this post, they deal with the vitally important mental -emotional skills involved with planning, anticipating, visualizing, communicating and translating a scene to a memorable photograph. I hope they can help you enjoy and take deeper, more meaningful photos as well.
Even before digital and virtual images gave us instant viewing ability to see what we’ve shot, millions of photographers have pursued the elusive iconic image at gorgeous vacation destinations and dramatic wildlife settings. But whether using film or digital cameras, the ability to see the potential in a scene, and wait for it to unfold into a dramatic image, is still a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. The ability to be patient with an animal, or the light, or a person, still makes the difference between average and iconic, spectacular or timeless. And the good news is that these skills can be applied to other categories of photography as well.
The Main Idea
The basic philosophy boils down to this: Ask yourself why you like a particular travel, wildlife or other scene before you. Think of all the factors, and potential factors, that in a perfect world, you would like to see. Then visualize ways you might be able to make some or all of them materialize into memorable, compelling photos.
Many times in traveling locally or across the world, great shots have unfolded in front of me with very little planning – simply by visiting ordinary markets, parks, rivers, etc. and letting scenes unfold. The famous photo advice “f8 and be there” has a lot of truth to it. Stop dreaming and just get outside – take the plunge to a nearby beach or park or state or country, and observe things. Cultivate a mindset of “trusting the wind” to show you combinations of light, color, people, animals, activity, etc. that can happen anywhere, anytime.
I’m not saying that pre-planning is a waste of time. You generally don’t want to go to rainforest and equatorial areas during the monsoon seasons, though there may be some benefits to thinking outside the box. Before I visited Africa for the first time in the ’80s, I visited a famous photographer-friend who ran tours in Kenya. He told me that many people avoid spring and fall because of the “long” and “short” rainy periods, as they are known there. But he said that these periods can be a fantastic time to shoot. When the rain lets up, the sky can be saturated with moisture that filters the colors into richer tones. Sunsets can be unusually dramatic backdrops for wildlife or expansive land shots. Water droplets and reflections on animals’ bodies and eyes can take on subtle hues or more dramatic color juxtapositions.
He taught me to recognize assumptions, not just do what other photographers do, and be prepared with right equipment and clothing. The old adage applies – ”there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear”. You do want to know if there are going to be special gatherings of people, events or animals that you can witness, and perhaps who to contact to get more information. That will also help you decide what clothes and supplies to bring (see my other posts for more on this).
It might also be appropriate to quote Dolly Parton here, who sang “Everybody wants happiness. Nobody wants pain. You can’t have a rainbow without a little pain”. Bringing appropriate gear and being flexible to go “off-script” when opportunities arise is often well worth the effort.
Denali mountain looms quietly as moose and people share a sunset
Young orangutan, Sepilok Reserve, Borneo
With that in mind, here are 10 questions that elaborate on the Main Idea above. Go over these questions before you go on your trip and while you’re on location every time till they are burned into your consciousness.
1) What’s special about this place or animal, or, more importantly, what touches you most about the scene? Do some research ahead of time, online or talking with someone who has been to where you want to go. Look at similar photos of the area or animals you want to shoot. Which ones really hit you in the gut – that first impression that shocked you into stopping on the page or screen and taking it all in. What’s different about the image – color, light, capturing the moment, closeup of a face? Try to backtrack in your mind what the photographer might have had to do to capture that shot. See if you can read any notes by the photographer or writer about how the scene happened.
Plan your day, week or trip around this special area, animal or main event. Can you arrive earlier and scout the area, talk to people, prepare your access ahead of time or perhaps help at the event? This will increase your odds substantially from turning a cliché location or shot into a truly unique, memorable image.
2) Is there an event or daily/nightly get-together that might happen here? One on trip to Namibia, we were slowly and dramatically surprised one morning at a watering hole as the sun was still low. When we first approached, there were a few springbok and gazelles around the water. A few zebras began wandering in from over the hill until by the end of an hour, there were hundreds of them quietly sipping water from the edge of the pond. It reminded me of a morning coffee-group that has met for years at their favorite cafe, to discuss the last day’s events, or quietly just enjoy their company and the unfolding of the day. The light was sublime and scene was so peaceful that it was one of the most memorable experiences of my travels.
3) Is there a “sign of the times” here – an icon or example of our connection or disconnection from nature or others? Something that would only be in this location or with these people or animals that may be unique or perhaps ubiquitous. Or something that instantly conveys a perspective on a local or global or human issue? How can you photograph this differently, or to emphasize whatever is unique here? Different angles, time of day, with a local resident (human or animal)?
4) What are the people proud of? Can you show them next to it? Is there a famous person or event here? This can not only lead to unique expressions but can also show a sense of place without the obvious geographical elements.
5) Is there anything particularly funny here? It could be something that everyone has taken for granted, but you might see it in a different context, or it might hold a different meaning that was intended when it was built. You may be able to arrange a shot that translates this humor in the way you integrate the objects, angles, people or animals. Or you may be able to think of a context later with text or as part of a series of shots illustrating a funny or thought-provoking idea (i.e. think editorially).
6) Think in terms of concept rather than subject – look past events or scenery to emphasize the feeling of the place, person, or animal. Emotions are more important than details. Whether shooting scenery, people or animals, we have an emotional reason for taking the photo. We want to communicate that emotion to the viewer, and/or remind ourselves why we took the photo in the first place. Do the subject(s) have unique or exaggerated expressions you can concentrate on? These can transcend geography, race and culture to show universal humanity. The photographer Paul Strand was noted for saying (paraphrased) that it’s easy to make a portrait, but difficult to make the viewer care about a stranger. Improve your communication skills and awareness of the subject’s comfort zones to elicit or allow the most uninhibited expressions of emotion as possible.
7) If you had one week for one shot, what would you shoot? Make it an inner challenge to use what you’re competent at and bring out the best of this idea. It could be an animal or part of an animal you are particularly fascinated with. It could simply be a gesture that you can find repeated in different ways on different people/animals (it’s been said that life happens in the space between gestures. Explore that space, taking, again, an editorial or cinematic approach to a single or series of photos. Related to the idea of concept vs subject, Is there a story here that you can develop into a series of images?
A hiker takes time to enjoy the fireweed, Kenai Peninsula, Alaska
8) Context can be everything, or it can be irrelevant or unimportant. Explore both sides. Often, context is vital to images that depend on the reality of a scene or event. Especially now with post-processing and photoshop manipulation, many of us give more credit and significance to photos that un-mistakenly show that the photographer was really there. Most news or travel shots have some sort of context in them, either as part of the subject’s situation or to show geographical or temporal (time) relevance. Broader context can be balanced with shots that are close-ups which, as the previous paragraph mentioned, have a universal feeling to them, apart from place. Can you hint at larger context by shooting a small part of it, or does the entire scene show more than the sum of its parts? Again, this will steer you away from producing cliché shots.
9) Remember about the arc of anticipation. This was mentioned in the previous post (Level 1: Wildlife & Travel Photos) but is worth repeating here. Watch for the flow of the scene to unfold, or the flow of a subject’s conversation and comfort level. Often discussed more in the context of sports, news and wildlife, the arc of an activity will usually have a peak moment, but that moment may not be the best shot. A predator actually biting another animal might be the peak of impact, but the second before the bite might be the peak of energy and expression. It almost seems as if there is still a slight chance that the animal or person has a chance to “get away” or avoid the incident. That tension “hangs” in the air beyond our initial viewing and sinks in a little deeper to our consciousness. That’s what’s meant by timeless.
10) I’ve saved the best for last, but maybe it should be at #1: Focus your idea before you focus your camera. What is it that really juices you about what’s in front of you? Is it the vastness of a tropical or mountainous vista? Is it the animal’s expression or posture? Is it an interactive scene between predator and prey, or the setting that they are in? The answers to these questions will help determine what lenses, angles, shutter speeds, time of day and a host of other factors you can adjust to maximize that gut impact.
Ansel Adams said “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”. De-clutter your mind from techniques and tips, and focus on the most emotionally relevant elements. Hone your skills and shots to exclude unnecessary distractions or details. Don’t give up on a shot just because of “bad” light. As Joel Sartore said: “it’s not the light but where you are in it”. So rather than shoot a bunch of mediocre shots in mediocre light, find or wait for light that adds that iconic spark. Move around if you can, or find a source of light or reflection that might help.
Animals give you constant feedback and insights based on reactions to your distance and the way you move (see other posts on the website*). Consider whether you are facing or walking straight towards someone vs an angle, whether you are making direct eye contact vs glancing, and your tone of voice. There are other signals of course, depending on whether you are dealing with mammals, birds or other animals, and their corresponding sensory priorities of sight vs smell vs hearing. But being aware of subtle body language cues – yours and theirs– provides you with an often forgotten insight into how you can get deeper, more meaningful images.
The synchronicity of all the elements in a memorable photograph – light, time, gesture, color, etc. – often has a life of its own, but you can tip those odds considerably. Be aware of how people and animals change as you interact with them. Whether you are just standing there without actually engaging conversation (as with wildlife at a distance) or actively communicating, be aware of how the interaction unfolds, relaxes and changes. Patience for the right time to shoot, or to ask the subject to pose, or if they don’t mind you photographing them – can make all the difference.
Springbok walking through grasslands in southern Namibia. Springbok and gazelles “stot” or “pronk” when they are startled to avoid ambush or attack. I have no idea what this one saw that the others didn’t.
Lastly, don’t forget about ethics. The way you treat subjects and the physical-biological area you are in will not only yield you deeper insights and photographs, but will become a renewable resource for you and others to enjoy after you leave. Having a broader outlook on your actions will increase the quality and quantity of time you spend with others. It will reduce your impact on the land and its animals.
Most of all, it will lead to a greater lifetime return on your photography investments and experiences. I still have letters hanging on my wall of special people who took the time to write me about how they enjoyed our time together, either as subjects, guides or fellow travelers. These were relatively fleeting moments in life but timeless reminders that our deepest images reside in the heart.
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Ron Levy has photographed for commercial and editorial clients worldwide for over 35 years. Images have been exhibited in museums, galleries, murals, billboards and elsewhere throughout the US, Europe and Asia. He has been a photography instructor at the University of Alaska, and does pro bono support for agencies and NGOs specializing in health and conservation issues worldwide. Ron has guided hundreds of travelers on nature and photo tours, walks and talks in Alaska, California, Arizona and Ecuador over the last 35 years.