Wildlife Photography as Education or Wildlife Photography as Art? by Todd Henson

I’ve mentioned before how I have multiple purposes when out photographing wildlife. I have always been interested in wildlife and love learning about all the different species out there in the world. I also have an artistic side that loves creating beautiful photographs of interesting subjects.

Wildlife Photography as Education

I love wildlife. I would go hiking in search of wildlife even if I weren’t a photographer. I collect field guides and books about nature and wildlife of all kinds. So from this perspective photography is a means to an end, allowing me to better appreciate and study wildlife.

My first priority when photographing from this perspective is capturing images that are clear enough to identify the species. To do this I make a conscious effort to photograph as many different views of the species as I can. Sometimes two bird species will look almost exactly the same save for one small area on their body. If you don’t photograph that part of their body you may not be able to tell which species you just photographed.

Artistic? No, but together these photos allowed me to identify this as a Striped Skunk.

Photographing different parts of an animal can help with identification, as it did with this Striped Skunk.

There is nothing artistic about this photo of a Pileated Woodpecker, but it is good enough to identify the species.

When photographing for education I often create what would be considered bad photographs from an artistic perspective. They are cluttered or blurry, the subject is too far away, or turned in an unflattering direction. You can see some of these in my Field Notes sections. But I consider them good photographs if they identify a species or show an interesting behavior. There is value in this, at least to me.

Wildlife Photography as Art

I also love photography as an art form. I enjoy trying to create pleasing, artistic photographs, images that show emotion or have a message, even if it might be interpreted completely differently by different viewers.

Photographing wildlife from this perspective entails a slight shift in priorities. I no longer worry quite so much about photographing the animal from all the different perspectives. I’m now far more aware of the environment, of the background. A good background can make a shot, a bad background can kill it.

A portrait of an Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

Most of my photography in this category might be considered animal portraiture. I zoom in on the animal, trying to keep the background to a minimum. I most often choose lenses and settings that allow me to blur the background, drawing attention to the subject. This often requires long telephoto lenses and larger apertures, as well as finding locations where the subject is at a great enough distance from the background to allow a pleasant blur, perhaps completely obscuring the background.

A Yellow-rumped Warbler preparing to fly. I deliberately positioned myself to take advantage of the out of focus green background.

A cloud sheltered this Eastern Bluebird from the sun, yet its light illuminated the autumn colors in the background.

But it’s also possible to create environmental portraits, or even landscapes with wildlife, photographs that show the animal in its environment. The animal is still a subject of the photograph, but no longer the only subject. The environment, itself, becomes a subject, showing where the animal lives, hunts, eats, nests. These can often be wide, sweeping landscape images that showcase a species as part of the landscape. I don’t often shoot these but I do have a great desire to try more of them.

So Which Is It?

I enjoy photographing wildlife as part of furthering my or others education. I enjoy photographing wildlife in an artistic manner. These perspectives sometimes require different tactics. So which do I choose when going out shooting? Which takes priority?

Honestly, I don’t put a lot of thought into it while in the field. I think both are worthwhile perspectives, shooting wildlife photography as a means of education or as a form of art. And thankfully I don’t have to choose one or the other. I can pursue both.

If I find a species that is new to me I will naturally try to create as many photographs of it as possible. I want to be able to successfully identify it, and I’m naturally interested in animal behavior, so I try to capture that. I also am always looking for pleasing backgrounds, interesting compositions. But in the case of a new species I do tend more towards the photography as education perspective.

If I’m photographing a species I’ve photographed many times before I know I don’t need extra images to help identify it, so my focus is on creating the most pleasing image I can. I might skip some potential images in pursuit of something more interesting, something where the light hits the animal just so, or the animal’s position lines up perfectly with some element of the scene. Without putting much conscious thought into it I jump right into the artistic perspective.

These perspectives remind me of a recent conversation with a friend, talking about birding and photography. Some birders develop an interest in photography through their existing interest in birding. And some photographers develop an interest in birding through their photography. There is enough overlap between the two to draw some people to both.

What about you? Do you prefer one or the other, or do you also enjoy both perspectives? Or do you, perhaps, have another goal separate from these two?

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Watching Over Prospect Harbor by Todd Henson

Watching Over Prospect Harbor

During a vacation in Maine my father and I viewed and photographed a number of lighthouses, one of which was Prospect Harbor Point Light. It’s located on a point that juts into Prospect Harbor, watching over the many fishing boats that work those waters.

We had first viewed Prospect Harbor Point Light from Main Street, Gouldsboro. This was across Inner Harbor from the lighthouse and provided a nice view with fishing boats in the harbor and the lighthouse across the water in the background. I created a number of images from different perspectives in this area.

Later we drove around Inner Harbor to see whether it was possible to get a different perspective entirely. We discovered the grounds of the lighthouse are fenced in and not open to the public, but it can be seen from outside the fenced in area. That’s where I created the image above. I really like the view of lighthouses looking out on the waters they watch over, so I was pleased to find this perspective.

If you ever happen to visit this area and are looking for a bite to eat I’d recommend heading over to Birch Harbor where you’ll find The Pickled Wrinkle. This was an unexpected find and one we really enjoyed. It’s open year-round, so you can stop by even during the off season. And in case you’re curious, as I was, how the restaurant got its name, it’s from a type of carnivorous sea snail, also called a whelk. They are caught locally, pickled, and served as Pickled Wrinkles. Apparently they are a bit of an old Downeast Maine delicacy. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any when we were there, but perhaps they will when you visit.

Watching Over Prospect Harbor is available for purchase as wall art or on a variety of products.

Favorite Wildlife Experience - Young Fox Kit by Todd Henson

Red Fox Kit - Watching You

One of my favorite wildlife experiences was observing a small family of red foxes at their den site. It was located just off the trail of a wildlife refuge I frequent, making it very easy to watch these beautiful animals. The young pups were frolicking around just as young puppies would, often turning to look at us, curious but not at all afraid.

In the evenings the young kit were just emerging from their den, full of energy and playful, ready to start their day. Unfortunately the sun was setting just behind them, which created very difficult and harsh lighting when trying to photograph them. But in the morning before the sun cleared the trees they could be bathed in a very soft, pleasing light. The photos here were all created on the same morning.

Red Fox Kit - Sleeping #1

Early morning for the fox kit was like late evening for us. They were more lethargic, ready to curl up and sleep. I’ve always enjoyed being present when an animal chose to fall asleep right in front of me, even while knowing I was there. It meant the animal was comfortable with my presence, it didn’t see me as a threat. Granted, young pups like this don’t see much of anything as a threat, but it was still a great experience watching them rest.

Red Fox Kit - Sleeping #2

The morning I photographed this particular pup was the last morning people were able to observe them at the den site. When they first emerged there were few of us who knew about them, so only a couple visited at a time. And most of the early visitors were regular visitors of the park, so they knew a little about wildlife and knew how to behave around it, keeping quiet, keeping your distance, not spending too much time there during any visit. But eventually word got out and people who never ventured to the park were showing up in droves to see the young fox.

Red Fox Kit - Resting

On this morning a large group of people had showed up, many who were unfamiliar with fox, some who thought it might be ok to approach and try to pet the young fox (they had to be dissuaded from trying). Others were only concerned with snapping pictures. They were making noise and moving around too fast trying to get the attention of the fox, but in the end they frightened some of the pups back into the den.

My brother and I stayed away from the crowd. There happened to be a single pup curled up at a distance from the den. No one was paying attention to it. We spent a very short time photographing this young fox, trying to stay quiet and still, not drawing the attention of others, and also not disturbing the fox. As you can see the young kit curled up and closed its eyes a number of times, telling me we were doing it right.

Red Fox Kit - Watchful #2

As the crowd grew we packed up and left, not wanting to contribute to the growing problem. By the next day the park service had blocked access to the road, and kept it blocked until the fox had left the area. I was disappointed because I very much wanted to spend more time with these wonderful animals. But the den was just too close to the trail and word of it had spread too far. The park service was right to close off access.

Red Fox Kit - Watchful #1

These are the only young fox I have ever had the good fortune to observe and photograph. I hope one day I will have a similar opportunity, and maybe in a location that doesn’t attract so many people. Have you had a similar experience? What was your favorite wildlife moment?

All of these photographs are available in the Shop as wall art or on a variety of products. Search for titles beginning with Red Fox Kit.