Words to Shoot By:
"Animal pictures are generally more interesting when taken
at the subject's eye level," says photographer
"Three feet for a tiger,
Shooting Like a Pro
How close to zoom in on that bird? What kind of lens to use? Five top nature photographers share their secrets.
By Les Line
For several summers in the 1980s, I taught a nature-photography class at the Maine Photographic Workshops, telling the students to leave their tripods behind on our field trips. They didn't believe me. After all, they'd memorized those luxurious coffee-table books about threatened landscapes, from the Grand Canyon to Alaska's North Slope. The stunning pictures, typically made with large-format cameras on tripods, were painstakingly composed and in sharp focus from foreground to infinity.
Yes, I own a good tripod, though it's mostly used to anchor a spotting scope for birdwatching. And I cherish those stunning Sierra Club books by Eliot Porter and others. But I wanted my class to see nature from a more intimate perspective--from their collective knees and bellies and bottoms--and to discover that small details are as interesting as the big picture. I wanted them to remember that a dam on the Colorado River or an oil well on the Arctic Plain destroys more than the view.
Sure, I shot scenics, but for the most part they were so-so. I didn't have Dr. Porter's eye or the patience to wait hours for the perfect moment. So I spent most of my field time propped on my elbows, looking at the world through a vintage unmetered Nikon F and a manual-focus macro lens. I wanted to capture the essence of things as small as the windflowers you find in rich woodlands in June. I usually used natural light and very shallow depth of field, merely suggesting the subject's surroundings.
So if I were asked what common mistakes neophyte nature photographers make, at the top of my list would be taking far too many pictures from the height of a tripod instead of the viewpoint of an inquisitive four-year-old.
Roy Toft, a much-published wildlife photographer and naturalist, agrees. "Dirty knees make better pictures," he says. "For me, a productive day of shooting means coming home looking like I've been planting bulbs. You've got to get low, get close, move around your subject. Each new position gives you a new photo option.
"Animal pictures are generally more interesting when taken at the subject's eye level--three feet for a tiger, one inch for a tarantula. I'm usually on my knees, anchored to a tripod-mounted Nikkor 500mm f/4 lens, when shooting mammals or ground birds. Close-up photography of reptiles, amphibians, and insects usually means lying on your belly." He adds that "small-critter photography" is not only difficult and frustrating, it can also be dangerous. "I made the mistake of lying on a nest of intolerant ants to photograph a poison dart frog in a Costa Rican rainforest. I got the shot, but I also got about 100 bites."
Toft recommends switching to a wide-angle lens like a 20mm or 24mm when shooting wild animals that are unafraid of people--for example, the albatrosses that nest on subantarctic islands. "Something magical happens when you create an intimate image of an animal along with a sense of its place in the environment," he explains.
For Len Jenshel, a wide-angle lens is the only kind to use. "I've never used a telephoto lens in my life. I'd be helpless with one," he tells me. Jenshel carries a medium-format (6 x 7 cm) camera; when he and his wife, Diane Cook, collaborated on Hot Spots, a book about America's volcanic landscapes, he shot the scenes in color while she worked in black and white.
Human artifacts are often prominent in Jenshel's images: a cattle guard in Nevada's Great Basin National Park, a parking lot at Mount St. Helens, orange traffic cones in Utah's Monument Valley. "I tell my students to find a way to put their own imprint on photographs instead of just remaking the pictures they've seen in magazines and calendars," he says. "For example, a telephone pole, which everyone tries to hide or crop out, has meaning, and it can be a thing of absolute beauty."
Words to Shoot By: Len Jenshel, who shot this scene in Monument Valley, points out, "An element that everyone tries to hide or crop out has meaning, and it can be a thing of absolute beauty."
And Jenshel doesn't spare the film. "If I see something I like, I stop and take the picture immediately, before the light changes or the adrenaline disappears. I don't want to lose that rush by walking back and forth trying to find the perfect location. There might be a better picture three feet away, and I'll get to it eventually. But I like to shoot spontaneously and work out ideas with many variations, then edit the work later."
Meanwhile, Arthur Morris, author of The Art of Bird Photography, warns would-be wildlife photographers not to become slaves to technology--specifically, auto-focus cameras. Morris, who has had more than 9,000 of his pictures published, relates that he learned a key lesson at a course offered by the New York City Audubon Society more than 15 years ago: "Keep the bird out of the center of the frame."
Says Morris, "While people may rave about full-frame images, my birds rarely occupy more than three-quarters of the picture. If the subject is small in a horizontal frame, it's often best to place it well off-center. If a bird, bug, bullfrog, or buffalo fills a good portion of the frame, leave more space in front of the subject than behind it so the animal can be seen in its own world."
Making pleasing wildlife photographs was easier with older, manual-focus equipment, Morris adds. "You'd focus on the animal's eye using the center of the viewfinder, where the image is brightest and sharpest, and then shift the lens to compose the picture." With today's cameras, he continues, too many photographers simply put the auto-focus sensor on the animal and click the shutter. His advice: Study the manual and learn to select the auto-focus mode that allows you to lock in the focus and then place your subject in the scene.
Words to Shoot By: "Keep the bird out of the center of the frame," advises Arthur Morris, who photographed this cattle egret in Florida.
And it's not necessary to have the most expensive telephoto lens to take great wildlife pictures, affirms Tom Mangelsen, who ranks among the world's premier nature photographers. "Some of the most memorable pictures in history have been taken with the cheapest and most basic equipment," he says. "Remember, it's the person behind the camera that makes the image."
For the budget-minded, Mangelsen recommends less expensive lenses, which can then be used with cameras from the major manufacturers. The quality of the images they produce, he claims, is usually indistinguishable from those made with name-brand glass. As for the biggest, fastest, priciest telephoto lenses, "their bulk and weight can be a drawback in the field. If I were taking only one lens, it would be an 80-200mm."
What makes Mangelsen's photographs special is that the animals are wild, not raised on game farms to perform for the camera. His best-known picture, "Catch of the Day," caught a salmon leaping into the open jaws of a brown bear. "I camped for a week in Alaska's Katmai National Park, waiting for the bears to arrive, the salmon to leap the falls, and the rain to stop," he recalls. "It all came together in a split second--serendipity, luck, patience, skill, experience, and vision. But I've had to defend that image as real for years, because so many phony ones are being published."
Tim Fitzharris, author of The National Audubon Society Guide to Nature Photography, brought up the subject of light quality. "Beginning nature photographers are too oriented on the subject and overlook other elements that can help make an arresting image," he says. "One of the most important components of a picture is the way light affects the subject and the background. One of my favorite times to shoot is when the setting sun is halfway obscured by the horizon and a pinkish glow spreads over the scene. All the great landscape photographers work well after sundown.
"Bright overcast is an ideal time to photograph subjects that have strong color, since you need soft light to get good detail in both the highlights and the shadow areas. The light is also soft early or late in the day, and if it's sunny, I stop shooting around an hour after sunrise." The direction from which the light comes is also important, he adds: "If the subject has a lot of texture or shape, the best way to project those qualities is with side light. Backlighting can lend an ethereal feeling to a picture."
The experts have spoken, but Mangelsen gets the last word: "Look carefully, make great pictures, and treasure the wild places that bring us so much joy."
Les Line was editor of Audubon from 1966 to 1991. His photographs have appeared in a number of coffee-table books.
Four of the five photographers quoted in this article teach courses of one sort or another. The fifth, Tim Fitzharris, is a columnist for Popular Photography magazine. Following is a sampling of the courses these experts teach, with a few upcoming dates. We also mention several places where they have taught in the past. The fees listed cover tuition only; meals, lodging, and transportation are extra. Call or check web sites for details.
Great American Photography Workshops
The Maine Photographic Workshops