With ‘wild’ experiences becoming rarer as humanity continues its ferocious endeavour to progress, often at the natural world’s expense, how can we treasure those encounters however big or small? I personally think photography is the single most powerful medium when it comes to nature. Whether you are trying to show its tremendous beauty or to highlight a concern, photography offers a means of communication that transcend language barriers. Of course films and the rapid development of virtual reality are tremendous tools with so many possibilities, but photography offers the simplest and easiest spread of communication in my opinion.
When I first became obsessed with photography, it was all about the close ups, getting those intimate photos which show the ‘heart and soul’ of an animal. As I learnt more about my subjects and started to pause and take in situations, I realised that some of the most powerful photos from photographers I hold in high regard were usually placing subjects within their environments.
Chris Weston has written a great piece on “Creating a sense of place” primarily highlighting the panoramic functionality of cameras. Some of my most powerful, successful and memorable images are depicting ‘wild’ scenes, offering that sense of place, in particular this applies to my wildlife images.
Showing the Environment
For me there are many different types of photos which place an animal in its environment:
1. Small in the frame – The reality is, a lot of the time it isn’t possible to fill an animal in your frame, so instead of being frustrated by that, look at how you can use the animal within the scene. Instead of trying to zoom in to fill the space use the animal/subject as a small, but vital, feature within a picture to give an essence of a place.
2. Wide-angle – First and foremost always put the animal’s welfare first. Only approach an animal and situation if you have a good understanding of the behaviour of that animal. Field craft is incredibly important with wildlife photography. Where possible, you should approach an animal downwind to reduce the likelihood of detection by smell or sound. It’s important to understand how to use the land to help you get closer. But I believe that a good understanding of animal behaviour is even more important than field craft, for the animal’s welfare and for yours! Having documented pygmy elephants in rainforests, I had to get a really good understanding of their behaviour before attempting any of the photos I had in mind for my conservation story.
When situations lend themselves to wide-angle opportunities, the intimate photos can be incredibly powerful, whether the focus is an animal or feature of the environment.
3. Camera Traps – For technical reasons the X Series hasn’t been ideal for this type of photography up until now. Using the X-T1 I ran a series of short term camera traps and/or remote triggers in situations where I know my subject will visit so I can set up the photo how I want it. The FUJIFILM X-T2 can now be woken by a remote trigger meaning that it can be left for long periods of time without the fear of the batteries running out. On that note, the addition of the battery grip now means you have three batteries to run off and you can even add another power supply via the camera’s USB charging port, or via the D/C input on the battery grip – all great features for camera trapping. If you are in video mode then a remote trigger can start this rolling too! I haven’t played with this extensively but I am sure this will be useful too.
4. Standard focal length – This falls more into standard animal portraiture, but because of lack of telephoto perspective, it still takes in the scene. One such example occurred while on an assignment in northern Russia where I had the opportunity to stake out an arctic fox den for a day. I sat there with my FUJIFILM X-T2 and XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 and the medium format GFX 50S with the GF120mmF4 lens. Eight hours went by as I contently sat there taking in the scene, mosquitoes and all, when finally a little head popped up and started wondering around investigating food stores. The young arctic fox seemed completely comfortable with me being sat nearby, so I opted to focus more with the GFX than the X-T2 set up. Initially I tried for a wider image showing the fox atop the den surveying the vast openness of the arctic tundra. As the sun started to set he came even closer, allowing me to fill the frame, using a low angle to get its perspective. I like that it also highlights the many different plant species of this fascinating environment.
For me, a wildlife image which encompasses more of the environment generally tells more of a story than a portrait. Here an Iberian lynx amongst its natural habitat, highlighting its remarkable camouflage says a lot more about the animal and the area than the closer portrait.
Capturing a Moment
I find that you can usually tell when an animal is captive. The lack of fire in its eyes, or the unnatural lifestyle it lives often comes across. I have nothing against zoos which are promoting awareness or running important breeding programmes; it is just that you can usually see it in an animal. Those ‘wild’ moments, when you either have an encounter with an animal as you are both aware of each other’s presence (if so, please be sensible and always put safety of the animal and yourself first), or you witness natural behaviour, are truly spellbinding.
From opportunist moments like this…
…to planned moments.
Refining your camera for action
I’m using the FUJIFILM X-T2 as the example camera here, as it is the most advanced for this kind of photography. I always have the battery grip attached to mine; I find it makes the camera very well balanced when used with the XF16-55mm F2.8, the XF50-140mm F2.8 or the XF100-400mm F4.5-5.6 (which is my main lenses with this camera). This gives me the ‘boost’ functionality which increases the frames per second from 8 – 11 or even up to 14 in electronic shutter mode. This is really helpful when things are happening fast and you need to be able to fire off a series of frames to try and get that image which encapsulates the moment.
I’m pretty blasé with ISOs, I always say, “I’m more comfortable with grain than blur” so generally I will have my camera set to ISO800 as a standard and won’t hesitate to bump it to 3200 or 6400 ISO if it means I will get the shot. If I am tracking a moving subject then I will have the camera in continuous autofocus mode, usually using zone AF mode to give me a good spread of AF points but not too wide that something else in the frame could attract focus.
For those interested, I have set up my own AF-C Custom setting – I use tracking sensitivity at 3, speed tracking sensitivity at 2 and have it set to front zone area switching. Do play around with the different presets and see what works best for you. Dogs running around make for ideal test subjects!
I took the above photo shortly after coming up with this blog idea and I wanted to put what I preach into practise so I swapped the GF120mm F4 for the GF32-64mm F4 on the GFX. Having a camera fine tuned for action like the X-T2 is ideal, but at the same time if the situation allows, having a moment to take in a scene and then identify the strongest story angle often leads to better, more efficient results.
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