Photo masterclass part 8: Animals in their environment

Pulling back from your subject and revealing the world in which it lives enables you to imbue the image with tension and drama. But to make this work, here are a few simple but important lessons.


Photo masterclass part 8: animals in their environment

Pulling back from your subject and revealing the world in which it lives enables you to imbue the image with tension and drama. In a sense, you become a story-teller. But to make this work, you need to learn a few simple but important lessons.

Many photographers forget to take pictures of animals in their environment. They are too focused on frame-filling portraits that reveal every hair or feather to think about including more of the habitat than the subject itself.
But some of the most memorable and powerful wildlife images ever taken include large tracts of long grass, rocks, sky, reflections, waves or whatever else surrounded the animal at the time. They provide a true sense of wilderness and reveal more about the subject than is possible with any extreme close-up.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not an easy option for wildlife photographers. Just getting everything into the picture is nowhere near enough, and there are many traps for the uninitiated.
The biggest mistake is to fall into a poorly composed ‘no-man’s land’, in which the subject isn’t quite large enough in the frame and yet isn’t small enough either. It looks merely as if you should have used a longer telephoto lens.
Instead, when the animal occupies a very small part of the frame, the trick is to use a clever combination of light and composition to draw your attention like a beacon.
So this month we’ll be pulling back from the ‘get in close and fill the frame’ mantra of many wildlife photographers and taking a much wider view. The aim is to add a whole new dimension to your picture-taking by transforming ‘no-man’s land’ snapshots of animals lost in their environment into stylish and striking images of animals at one with their surroundings.
MEET THE EXPERT: Thomas D Mangelsen, USA
Internationally acclaimed nature photographer and conservationist Tom Mangelsen has won many awards, including Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Nikon’s Legend Behind the Lens.
Tom Mangelsen is passionate about photographing animals in their environment. “My background in film-making has made me aware of how difficult it can be to tell a story in a single image,” he says, “so shooting animals in their natural habitat helps me paint a bigger picture.”
Tom spends up to nine months a year in the field. When he finds a suitable subject, he tends to shoot a few insurance pictures first, “just to get something in the bag”, but then he stops to think about how to make the best of the situation. “When you find the right animal in a beautiful setting and in gorgeous light, there may be 50 or 100 possible compositions,” he explains.
When the animal is small in the frame, Tom stresses that it’s particularly important to have a very strong composition. “But don’t be afraid to break photographic rules,” he says. “Experiment with the animals walking out of the frame, for example, because you might create extra tension and drama.”
As events unfold, Tom loves dreaming of the ‘what if’ moments – “what if the moose was to walk over that ridge or the bald eagle was to perch on that tree?” he says. “Wishing for these moments is a lot of fun, and the better you get to know a place or an animal, the better you are able to predict when something’s about to happen.”
It takes perseverance, though. “I’ve been photographing polar bears for 20 years,” says Tom, “but it was at least five before I started getting the shots I really wanted.”
Tom’s top animals-in-their-environment photography tips
  • Move around
    The most useful tool a photographer has is a pair of feet – use them to move around to find the best position. Don’t just shoot from where you happened to park the car or where everyone else is standing. Keep moving until there are no distracting elements and everything in the frame works towards the final image.
  • Think about the light
    Good light is everything in photography. Even if you have an interesting animal in a beautiful environment, the image will be boring if the light is boring. Go back and try again if you can, and persevere in bad weather. 
YOUR STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE: Mark Carwardine shows you how to apply the theory to get the perfect picture.

Think about composition

  • Compose the picture with your subject walking, flying or looking into the frame rather than out of it – and then try breaking this photographic rule to see the difference.
  • Try composing through an empty 35mm slide mount (or with your forefingers and thumbs) before taking the picture.
  • Experiment by placing the animal at various points in the frame. Try a third of the way in from any two sides rather than dead centre.
  • Watch the horizon – don’t place it bang in the middle of the frame and don’t let it cut through your main subject.


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