The Importance Of The Environment In Wildlife Photography

Displaying The Environment In Your Photography

There are many important elements to creating exciting wildlife photography. In this post, I will discuss my use of the environment in wildlife photography to emphasize the ‘story’ aspect of a particular species.

Capturing this stunning visual exploration of a polar bear while on assignment in Svalbard, Norway. The use of the environment has created a beautiful art piece, while also telling a compelling nature story about the life of a polar bear: polar bears live in icy isolation.

Polar bear standing in front of a glacier in Svalbard

Polar bears spend most of their time on or near the ice. By placing the gigantic glacial ice pack behind the polar bear, and also minimizing the polar bear within the frame, with this I accomplish several important photographic tasks that you will learn below.

When confronted with the majestic beauty of a polar bear in the wild, it can be tempting to do the following…

Red block shows polar bear in the arctic environment, behind a huge glacier

The red box indicates a close up capture of the polar bear. This would eliminate the environment! Which would be absolutely not wrong. Why not? But don’t we want to show the viewers as well the environment?

You mount your longest telephoto, and eliminate the environment in an effort to grab a close-up photograph of this magnificent bear. While capturing a photograph like this is not wrong, consider this. Perhaps your telephoto lens produces a photograph similar to what is in the red box above. This photograph could be taken anywhere. It could be in a zoo. Sure, go ahead and take that photo. However work fast, and then explore the surrounding environment as well. The environmental photographs are often the money photographs!

Polar bear standing on pack ice in the arctic. behind sunset and the ocean

Polar bear standing on pack ice in the Arctic.

Including environmental background areas can give clues to your viewers about the photograph. For example, what time of day was the photograph created? It is critical to take in the environment, and then decide how best to portray it within your photograph. Don’t take this step lightly. A key consideration would be… Is the best capture a vertical or a horizontal orientation for the photograph? How can I implement the environment in wildlife photography?

These are just a handful of the many training considerations that I share with my clients in my workshops and private tours.

Black rhino grassing in wide grassland, displaying the environment in wildlife photography

This black rhino, located in Etosha National Park, in Namibia, Africa, I have created this picture from a moderate distance away.

Cheetah walking pan a slat pan, black and white photograph showing the environment of the salt pan

A cheetah lumbers across the saltpan within Etosha National Park: in Namibia, Africa.

When using the environment creatively, you can take a more literal approach- such as my photograph of the black rhino, or you may take a more creative approach- such as my semi-abstract portrait of the cheetah on the saltpan. This is the fun of wildlife photography! Learn by experimenting and discovering what works best.

Giraffe walking across the rough environment of the skeleton coast in Namibia. Environment in wildlife photography

A lone giraffe treks across the red rock field along the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, Africa. This is a great example showing the environment in wildlife photography.

At times, your use of the environment may be enforced by necessity. This giraffe was very far from my location.

Sometimes the environment becomes the photograph, such as this capture of the giraffe on the Skeleton Coast. My longest telephoto lens could just pull in the giraffe close enough to be a part of the photograph. However, it was really the layers of texture and color of the surrounding landscape that caught my attention. The giraffe was bonus in the composition that brought it all together. Neither piece of the total photographcould work as well alone: the landscape without the giraffe, or the giraffe without the layering, colors, and textures of the surrounding landscape environment. Together, they make a lovely compelling photograph that well represents Africa: distance, isolation, color, and camouflage!

Oryx walking across the muddy salt pan of Etosha National Park in Namibia

An oryx crossing the muddy salt pan in Etosha National Park.

An experienced wildlife photographer takes in the entire frame within their camera. New wildlife photographers tend to become excited, and focus their eyes only on the animal. In some instances, this will work. A close-up is always a welcomed photograph.

However, an environmentally rich photograph will often produce the best photograph whether for publication or for a fine art print.

Red crowned cranes standing on islands in a river bed during at sunrise. Displaying environment in wildlife photography

Red crowned cranes hover together on small islands to protect themselves from their harshest predator the fox. Hokkaido Island, Japan.

Final thoughts

Take a careful look at the photograph of the red crowned cranes. Imagine yourself as the photo editor of a wildlife, birding, or travel magazine. Can you picture how important it is for you, as the editor, to be able to let your viewers place the location within their minds? It is in fact critical. Yes, close-ups are great and necessary. However, just as necessary as environment in wildlife photography. In any situation where I’m photographing wildlife, I look for the wide photo, the medium photo, the semi-telephoto photo, and ultimately the extreme close-up photograph.

You won’t get all of these photographs every time.

However, it should be your goal!”