Random Thoughts

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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Thai Chili Hopper by Todd Henson

Grasshopper resting on a Thai chili pepper

I wonder if this grasshopper has acquired a taste for Thai chili peppers? My brother mentioned several of the peppers he’s picked have had their tips eaten by something. Then I found this grasshopper conveniently perched atop a ripening pepper. Could this be the culprit? Do we have a Thai Chili Hopper in the garden?

I was worried the grasshopper would spring if I spent too much time around it so I opted to handhold my camera, letting me move in and out with less effort. This does mean the photos are likely not as sharp as they could have been if I’d spent more time on them. To get in close enough I attached extension tubes to the 70-300mm lens. This made creating sharp photos even more difficult, but I was just out having fun with these images, so I'm pleased with the results.

Some like it hot!

Top down view on our Thai Chili Hopper

Is this the guilty party that's been nibbling on the chili peppers?

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Gear Mentioned in this Post

Don't Forget to Look UP When Photographing Birds by Todd Henson

Great Blue Heron flying away from the scene of the crime.

WARNING: This topic, though light-hearted, may not appeal to all viewers. But it does teach an important lesson if you photograph birds in the wild.

I love photographing birds, especially when I’m able to document birds in flight. But there is at least one potential downside to this activity, something that could ruin your day if you’re not careful to avoid it.

A Great Blue Heron. Such a beautiful bird. And yet... see the photo further below.

What am I talking about? Why is the title of this post, “Don’t Forget to Look UP When Photographing Birds?” Well, birds often defecate while in flight, or just before taking flight. And it’s not fun to be on the receiving end of this.

I feel sorry for any poor paddler in the river below this Great Blue Heron! Click on the image for a larger view. Go ahead, I dare you!

Thankfully, I’ve never been on the receiving end of a Great Blue Heron or Bald Eagle. As you can see in these photographs they can make quite a mess. But I have been hit by a Canada Goose flying overhead. It was so low I almost felt the air from its wings. Geese mostly eat plant matter so what I was hit with was fairly solid and didn’t make much of a mess. But birds that eat fish, animals or insects aren’t as easy to clean up from. I have been hit by a smaller song bird. Not fun.

So what’s my advice?

Don't stand too close when looking up at Bald Eagles! Not sure what you're seeing? Click on the image to see a larger version.

  • Always be aware of your surroundings. Try to determine the birds typical flight path, or places they commonly perch. You can’t plan everything, there’s always a chance one will fly over you, but being aware of where they may fly or perch at least gives you a chance of avoiding any bad encounters. If you see one heading your way just be aware of what might happen and be ready to move. The odds should be fairly low, but it does happen.
  • Learn the behavior of the birds you’re observing. Many birds, such as Bald Eagles and Osprey, will often defecate before taking flight. So be careful if you are observing a perched bird from down below, especially if it begins to left its tail feathers. They have more range than you might think!
  • Always wear a hat! Your clothes may still be a mess but at least it will help protect your head. When the goose let loose it hit my hat and backpack and mostly bounced off. No real harm done. When I was hit by the song bird I wasn’t wearing a hat. I had to clean off my hair, the side of my face, and my sunglasses. And all this in the middle of a busy city. Not my best day, but hey, “it” happens!
  • Always carry a towel or cloth of some kind with you, just in case you might need it. It’s not fun cleaning up this kind of mess without a cloth, trust me!
  • Bring some of that portable hand wash with you. Wiping it off is one thing, but getting yourself clean is nice, too.

Well, that’s it for today. I apologize for the somewhat unappealing topic, but it does happen and it’s best to plan ahead in case it ever happens to you. And worst case, if it does happen, you’ll have quite the story you never want to tell your friends about! 😀

Have fun out there. Enjoy photographing nature. And always remember: Look UP when photographing birds!!!

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