When I do portfolio reviews for aspiring wildlife photographers, the most often repeated compositional mistake that I find is photographers placing 100% of the emphasis on the animal. Ok, sure, this is wildlife photography. And wildlife is kind of the point of the photograph. However, just because the animal happens to be the subject doesn’t mean that the animal is necessarily the most important part of the equation or composition.
If you really want to see a good composition, check out your 4-year old’s artwork hanging on the fridge. Kids get it. They tend to see in whole pictures as opposed to singular objects. There is the house, with the driveway, and trees lined up on either side in perfect symmetry. The edges are as important as what sits in the middle of the picture. And the picture itself is not just a house. It’s the whole picture. The angle of the driveway is everything. The symmetry of those trees is critical. Where the house lines up with it all makes the difference between a crumpled piece of paper in the trashcan and presenting the drawing to mom and dad.
This is your brain before brainwashing.
It’s not until we are about 10 years old that we begin to only see the house.
It’s interesting that every child is an artist. When we are young, we all draw, paint, build, create. Creativity is one of those things that really makes us human. We are told at a young age how important creativity is. We are encouraged to create and let those artistic juices flow - until we hit middle school. Come middle school, creativity is no longer rewarded. Creativity becomes something of a handicap. The emphasis changes. We are now supposed to have a single-minded goal. A purpose. And conformity becomes the attribute that is rewarded.
It’s all kind of like how we tell our kids that they can do anything and be anything they want until it comes time to actually start making those kinds of decisions. Then we tell them to be realistic, practical, grow up, prioritize financial security over dreams and aspirations. In other words, focus on a singular objective and not on the bigger picture that is life in general.
But enough of the psychobabble. Let’s bring this back around to wildlife photography.
In wildlife photography, all too often the wildlife subject becomes that singular object. Sticks, twigs, grass, rocks, clumps of snow, blood, and guts be damned. I see coyote, I focus on coyote, I photograph coyote. Success! Right? Wrong.
Unless you are doing some sort of high key field studio shoot, in the Meet Your Neighbors fashion, then the animal should probably not be the singular objective of the photograph. Instead, everything that happens to be in your frame is just as important as the coyote himself.
If we can acknowledge that photography is visual art, then we can compare it to other forms of visual art – like painting. Let’s say that a painter stares at her blank canvas with the intention to create a red fox in the snow. Now, as she begins to create this, do you think she is going to randomly paint rocks and trees in any old place on the canvas in complete disregard to her fox? Will there be a stick covering the fox's face or eye? A tree growing out of his head? Will she pile up all the environmental elements on just one side of the canvas? Will she just simply close her eyes and begin to slather on the paint any place her brush touches down?
Every tree, every rock, everything is worked into the composition for specific reasons. Naturally, these other elements help to set the stage for the scene. They give the painting a sense of place in the world. But they do more than that. They create balance. Unity. Leading lines. Etc. Negative space is juxtaposed with positive space which all comes together to create shapes and patterns. And from this, a story is told.
In other words, everything that is on that canvas is there for a reason. And its place on that canvas is thought out and considered. From where the rocks fall to where the snow is left empty, all of it has purpose. This is whole picture thinking.
So, if photography is a form of visual art, much like painting, are all of those rocks and trees around our subjects less important? No. Of course not. They are just as important, if not more so.
In fact, I am of the opinion that all the other “stuff” in your frame is even more important than all the other stuff in a painting. Why? Because the painter starts with a blank canvas and has maximum control over where everything falls in her composition. The wildlife photographer, on the other hand, has to work in reverse. All the clutter of the natural world is there before you and decisions must be made as to what must be eliminated from the scene or composed within it – often with but precious few seconds to make such judgment calls.
In some instances, you have little to no control over what “elements” are spread across the landscape that you found your wildlife subject in. But then again, you do have control over whether or not to even trip the shutter button. What this means is that although you do not have the same luxury as a wildlife painter to pick and choose every single compositional element, you do have the ability to decide when to or when not to shoot. And making the decision not to take a photograph means the difference between being reactionary and proactive.
This will make or break your ability to be successful in the business of wildlife photography.
Reactionary photography is seeing only the singular object in front of your lens. It means that your sole focus is on the fox. You are only capturing photos of that subject and quite literally reacting to it as it moves across the landscape. You are not seeing the bigger picture. There is so much more to the environment than what is simply falling inside of your viewfinder. What lies ahead? Is the light different? Are there rocks? Snow? A log jam? Would that make for a better photograph? Do these things help tell a better story?
Proactive photography is realizing that the snowy scree-covered cliff up ahead is going to make for a much more compelling photograph than the fox walking along behind a few dead bushes on a hillside. Proactive photography is calming the mind enough to look around and size up the situation. It’s about anticipating the line of travel and what the fox’s behavior will be when she reaches that area. Proactive photography is about getting yourself in place and teasing out the elements of a compelling composition before the fox comes strolling across the cliff face. Proactive photography is understanding that you have no control whatsoever as to what the fox will do, but you can control the composition that you will photograph the fox in. Being a proactive photographer is recognizing that it’s the fox interacting with her environment that opens the possibility for imagination and storytelling.
So, are you a reactionary photographer, or a proactive one? Are you slowing down enough to look around you and consider all of the possibilities? Are you anticipating where your subject will go and what it will do so that you can create the most compelling compositions and photographs possible? In other words, are you seeing the big picture?
If you want to sell wildlife photographs, this question matters – especially on the editorial market. Magazines exist to tell stories. As in love with your photograph as you may be, if it doesn’t tell a story itself, or help to tell the story an editor needs it to, then you are not selling that photograph. Hard stop.
Case in point. . .
I remember when I first moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and to the doorstep of Grand Teton National Park. Wolves were really beginning to make a significant presence within the valley. The ecology of fear was at work on the herds of elk. And an entire ecosystem was beginning to heal after so much time without the rightful heir to the throne of the valley.
Like most wildlife photographers in the region, I had my heart set on one specific photograph of a wolf. I wanted desperately to find myself in an opportunity where I could create a stunning head and shoulder portrait of one of these wild Canids. I could picture the image in my mind. I dreamed about it. Fantasized about it. Drooled over the possibility. And then one day it happened.
A chance encounter while hiking up Blacktail Bute on a rare foggy morning resulted in a head and shoulder portrait – with no cropping, mind you.
This was so many years ago. And to this day I have still never sold this photograph. Not as a print. Not to a magazine. Not as a stock image to any of the many thousands of different businesses worldwide that buy photography through major stock agencies. There it sits on a RAID drive, collecting digital dust.
And yet, a photograph of a black wolf peering through sagebrush at me with golden eyes, that takes up about 1% of the frame, sells over and over for me. The photo was created on a now old Nikon D300 with the ISO “pushed” as high as that camera could go. I was hand holding. I managed to pull off three quick frames before the wolf trotted off. By the standards of what most folks running around with big lenses today are looking for with their photographs, this was little more than a snapshot. Yet, the photo routinely pays bills for me.
As a working photographer, I have to ask myself, “why is this?”
It’s important to analyze these types of things. Why does one photograph sell while another languishes away in obscurity?
For starters, the head and shoulder portrait of the wolf is a dime a dozen. Thanks to game farms where you can walk up, pay your money, and have charismatic predators posed for you in great light, the market is completely saturated with these technically perfect, but cliché and uninspiring photographs.
The photograph of the black wolf, however, is completely different. Everything about this photo cries predator. Everything about this photograph suggests a chance encounter in the wild with a wolf at hunt. The photograph conjures up any number of adjectives one might use to describe a wolf or any other type of predator for that matter. And it’s these adjectives, and the story they tell, that allows this photograph to sell over and over again.
Another example of this concept would be the brown bears of Alaska. I make an annual pilgrimage to photograph these bears while they are fishing for salmon every year. As the person behind the lens, it’s the heart-stopping experience of having a bear charge through the water straight toward me (chasing after a salmon, of course), that makes the whole thing addicting and keeps bringing me back.
When I analyze my stock photography sales, my number 1 selling photograph, above all my other images with stock agencies, is of a brown bear from one of these trips to Alaska. However, it is not one of the frame-filling images of a bear charging through the water. Those images make very little money. Instead, it’s one of the most mundane photos of a brown bear I have put up for sale.
In this photograph, you see an old sow walking across a very shallow part of the river with mountains in the background. The light isn’t even all that great. And yet, I sell this photograph an average of 20 times every month. Discovery has purchased it. The BBC has purchased it. Forbes has purchased it. The Atlantic Monthly has purchased it.
The photograph communicates something that a wide variety of editors and art buyers are looking for. In so many ways, this photograph is quintessential Alaska.
Mountains. Water. Big Bears. Bigger wilderness. Alaska.
As a visual artist, to me, the photo isn’t sexy. It’s not one I am going to hang on my wall. It’s not one that I would ever attempt to sell as a fine art piece. But it is editorial paydirt.
Another one of my top-selling photographs is of a coatimundi (related to raccoons), that I photographed in Panama back in 2019. The photo is of a coati (the name is often shortened this way) running across a fallen log. I photographed this little guy with a 70-200mm lens. And in doing so, the photograph shows a larger picture with the cloud forest in the background and the subject taking up only 10% or less of the composition. And like the photo of the bear in Alaska and the wolf in the sagebrush, this photograph sells again and again.
What do all three of these photographs have in common with each other? Each of them are what we might call environmental portraits. Each of them required big-picture thinking.
Environmental photographs like these incorporate all that other stuff in the composition. Sort of like the 4-year-old’s drawing of a house and trees and a driveway, these photos show the habitat. They show the animal interacting with, and existing within, their world. And these types of photographs outsell my portraits 100 to 1.
100 to 1!
When it comes to the business of wildlife photography, understanding what types of photographs sell and which types do not is important. This is market analysis. What do the buyers of photographs want? What type of compositions oversaturate the market? Which ones are in high demand?
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t pursue the photographs that inspire you. Staying inspired is one of the biggest hurdles that all of us face once we have been in the game for any amount of time. But it’s also important to begin thinking about and seeing the bigger picture. Because when it comes to selling wildlife photography in the second decade of the 21st century, the big pictures pay mortgages.