Including the Environment - Context Matters

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Originally published at: https://www.naturephotographers.network/including-the-environment/

When I first took an interest in photographing wildlife, and specifically birds, the mental model of the shot I wanted to capture was modeled after the images I’d see in bird ID books. That meant great detail in the plumage, nice view of the important identification parts of the specific species, and of course, frame-filling. It just didn’t seem right if the image didn’t fill the frame in the viewfinder at the time of capture, or in post-production, cropping the image down so that the wildlife subject was prominent in the frame, if not the only thing in the frame. While that style of image can still hold some interest and appeal, especially if I’m fortunate enough to be close enough to a wildlife subject to fill the viewfinder, I’ve grown more fond of images that show the wildlife subject in their environment—the context surrounding the subject matters. With most forms of wildlife photography, the opportunity to be close enough to fill the frame, even with long lenses, is not common. In the world of avian photography, I’d assert that it is even less likely since most of our avian subjects are relatively small compared to mammals or other wildlife subjects. I’m fortunate to live close to a location where I can photograph warblers, tanagers, finches, chickadees, kinglets, and many other small birds at relatively close distances. Even shooting with my 600mm with a 1.4x teleconverter, I find the birds are still relatively small in the frame.  

Let me be clear that the intent of this article is not to say that frame-filling images of wildlife subjects are bad. The intent is to encourage photographers to think of their wildlife images in a different context intentionally. A context which helps the viewer understand, and maybe even feel the environment you were in when you released the shutter. That could mean not zooming in as much if you are using a lens that provides that option, or it could mean using a shorter focal length lens to capture the image, or even moving further away. It could also imply that in post-production, not cropping at all, or cropping a lot less than you might otherwise do. One of the most common things I hear today in the world of photography is that with large megapixel cameras, say 40+ megapixels; I can crop so much more than I used to be able to. While a true statement, I wonder if the images wouldn’t have had more impact with less cropping. To be sure, this is not the first article I’m guessing you’ve seen on this topic. I’m aware of many other attempts via the written word and sharing of images to push the concept of photographing wildlife in their environment and sharing the context as a fundamental part of the composition. It just seems that we need to hear it more than once to give it a try. Maybe I’m the only one!, but I doubt it.

Compare this image to the one directly above this one. Is it any better because I cropped it tighter? For me, it isn’t any better, and I think for this image, worse.

I want to share a couple of examples of images that help to demonstrate what I’m talking about. I have enjoyed the challenge of avian photography for a long time. Here’s one of my more typical avian images from years ago. It satisfied my desire to create an ID-like image, as I described earlier.

In contrast, here’s an image of an eagle from Alaska that I captured on the last day of a trip I took several years ago. The entire trip was dedicated to photographing bald eagles. This particular morning was foggy, misty, and wonderful. I saw this lone eagle on a tree, and it turned out to be one of my favorite images from the trip despite having captured hundreds and hundreds of images where you could count the feathers on the eagles.

Or, this image which provides a much richer story than any cropped version of it could:

Or.. this image where cropping was not a viable option, but the inclusion of thousands of geese in this magical light was a gift that I was privileged to see and capture.

versus … this majestic Bald Eagle that I photographed in Yellowstone. Sure, the image is a very nice view of the Bald Eagle, but it doesn’t tell you anything about where this was or the fact that there is a river 10 feet below the bird that it was surveying for its’ next meal.  

To be clear, I still struggle when I’m out trying to capture wildlife images and tend always to grab the longest lens I have with me as a first option. That is a hard habit to change. I’m not talking about switching from a 600mm lens to a 24mm lens as a general practice. I’m suggesting grabbing your trusty 70-200mm or a 100-400mm and see what compositions become evident when you begin including more of the environment and the context you’re trying to portray with your image. Telling a story that includes where you were, telling a story that helps the viewer understand the scene that you were witnessing and trying to capture all of that in a two-dimensional media is not an easy task to pull off successfully.

Some of these efforts will undoubtedly fail. The final product won’t work for you or your viewers. I see that as a learning opportunity, not a failure. Without pushing and experimenting with different compositions, techniques, and perspectives, we become complacent and re-create the same images we’ve created for years. I found myself in exactly that mode and couldn’t figure out why my imagery seemed stale. I’m sure there is not a recipe for success for any photographic situation. Still, I’m also equally sure that always trying to fill the frame with the longest lens you have, or cropping in so tight that the context is missing is not going to produce a portfolio that will grow your photography.  

Give it a try the next time you’re out. You may find it challenging to figure out what to include. No doubt, you’ll struggle when you begin to think about the context and how to share that with your viewers. Compositions will likely be more complex, and you’ll have to work harder to make sure you don’t add distractions—all opportunities for growth in your photographic journey. I believe your images will speak with a different voice, which I hope adds to your enjoyment and the enjoyment of your viewers.

4 Likes

Hi, Keith,

I was very pleased to get this link which I had not spotted. It really resonates and puts the finger on some of the dichotomies of nature photography. I very much enjoyed the examples you gave of birds in context such as the lone eagle in the
tree and the geese at sunset: superb and memorable images. The article itself also argues the case for context in a persuasive though not dogmatic way.

I’d like to ask your permission to mention this article on my website - photonomy.co.uk and provide a link to the article on NPN; my context would be as a photographer learning more and more about the subject who found the article illuminating

Best wishes,

Philip

Thanks for sharing this @Keith_Bauer. I have gone back and forth with this and I am thinking having the environment help tell the story. So I am finding myself always going back and forth from a full frame view of a bird to a wider FOV. I have the Canon 100-400 and with the 1.4 extender it is best at F/8. However, since it is a zoom I can decide quickly how to set up the composition. Lately I have been dropping the extender because the lens is faster and it works with when I do want to expand the environment. So I will experiment more when out in the field again, thanks for the post.

Hi Phillip: You most certainly can share a link to the article. I don’t know if non-NPN members will be able to access the link since it is part of the members section of NPN however.

I’m also not exactly sure how this second copy of the article appeared. The original article is the same content, but with a different cover image… Hmmm.

Keith, thank you for your perception and journey with a transition in your photography. I’ve actually gone a similar route. I formerly lived in the southeast US where birds were the primary wildlife I encountered and photographed for about six years. Many were habituated and unafraid of human presence and with a good closeup lens able to get some good close up images. Then I moved home to the western US and the wide open spaces, wilder wildlife, I’ve had to transition my photography to include more of the surrounding environment, it is definitely a challenge. My photography is focused on images that convey a conservation and protection for wildlife message, I believe that including more of the environment around the subject will increase the impact of the message. Your images and this article were inspirational and affirming. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts, much appreciated.

Nice article, Keith

Bob

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Thanks so much for sharing this. I just made some tight images of a Barred Owl yesterday and now I wish I would have backed off a bit to show the cluster of branches surrounding it. I can see how it might have made a better image. Definitely going to try this approach on my next outing.

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Steve: I’m happy to hear you’ll give it a try. I think you’ll enjoy the challenge and the changes in your images.

Steve, I think that’s a fine image of an owl because the colors it’s plumage work so well with the branch and the background. Hard to say if a more distant view would be better without seeing what’s included.

Nice work on this, Keith. It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about recently, as the topic came up in a presentation I gave last month. I’m glad you touched on the fact that wider isn’t always better, as I heard another photographer insist that the environmental shot always tells a better story… which is obviously not the case. It all depends on the context an story you’re trying to convey.

Love the moody eagle shots, by the way.

Max

Thanks for this article, Keith. I really like the examples you included…really drives home the point that close-ups aren’t always the best thing. I enjoy the challenge of bird photography and tend to crop a lot. More recently I’ve been trying to avoid cropping for image quality reasons. Now I’ll be thinking of the wider scene when I go out there. I hope to post some for critique soon. And I love your image of the geese in the orange light. The fog and light and dark geese really give a sense of depth and mystery.

Thanks, Keith for the terrific article. I fully agree about including the environment with wildlife and will strive to do so.

I thoroughly enjoyed your article, Keith! You’re speaking my language, as you may have noticed I tend to do “animalscapes” quite often, haha. Great read!

@Max_Waugh : Thanks for your reply. It’s a topic that I feel strongly about and hence the article. As you noted, wider isn’t always the answer. The problem I see is wider is often excluded as an alternative. It’s seems to be a tough habit to break. I’m hoping this article will spark folks to at least give it a try the next time the right opportunity presents itself .

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Dear Keith,
Thank you for addressing a subject dear to my heart. Yes, the close up for identification is nice; but, I think a photograph including the subject and the environment tells so much more about the animal or bird.

By including some of the native habitat it helps the viewer establish relative size, where you might find the bird (water, marsh, scrub, tall trees, open fields), and do you see them in a flock or individually?

I have coined a phrase “wildscape”. A wildscape is an image that includes both the fauna subject and landscape background to help tell a complete story of my subject.

Bonnie T. Halsell

Hi Mr. Bauer,

First let me say I enjoyed very much the example images you shared, closeups and wide view. I also enjoyed reading your views on avian close up versus wide angle captures.

Being a really old school photographer it was hammered into my psyche to always strive to fill the frame, not just for birds but darn near everything. Not being fortunate enough back then to afford the kind of glass that allowed for frame filling images left me very, very discouraged. As a result I almost gave up trying to capture birds and other wildlife in the wild and certainly gave up sharing what I did capture not just on sites like NPN but just about all sites that allowed image display. Including my own Flickr page, and my own website while I still had it, because I couldn’t “fill the frame” and that shortcoming always led to negative critiques. It seemed back then no one appreciated the environmental wildlife image.

Ok, I apologize for the sob story but I shared all that to provide context for why I really enjoyed and appreciated your article and images.

Sincerely,
GEGJr

Hi @GEGJr. I’m glad that you enjoyed the article and examples to help convey my message.

I’m sorry to hear that you, or anyone else would stop sharing images because they didn’t meet the pre-conceptions of others. Sure, it’s always nice to receive positive feedback on an image, but in the end, for me it is the process of capturing images, working to improve my imagery and enjoying the entire craft of photography. It makes me happy. If others don’t agree, that’s fine, but it is never going to stop me from working on my style of photography and sharing. I hope you’ll do the same.

HI Keith, Great article. After reading your article I reviewed my avian posts since the beginning of 2019 and came to the conclusion that I preferred the ones that showed the bird in some sort of environment, rather than a BOAS or a close-up of the bird in water. I think the former tell a story and engages the viewer more, though the later are often technically better shots in terms of detail. I definitely prefer a bird in flight shot against a background other than a blue sky. P.S. Your shot of the geese in the morning light is stunning.

I enjoyed the piece Keith, great job… (Howard Cheek)

Personally, I like both close-ups and wider views that show the animal’s habitat/contest and usually try for both if the opportunity is available.