A picture paints a thousand words, or so the saying goes, but how well the picture does this in wildlife photography may come down to the photographer’s skill. Wildlife photography storytelling can use visual elements to connect with the viewer. Their skill and the story develops over time with an understanding of visual communication tools.
Wildlife Photography and the Art of Storytelling
Text and Photos: Diana Andersen, Animalinfo Publications
With written language, wordsmiths use words to engage their audience. Many things affect the story an image tells, including scale, proportion, space, line, colour, contrast, repetition, tone, and texture in visual art. They become the alphabet and grammar that helps the artist communicate their story. Photography is an art form like any other, so understanding how to use these elements can elevate wildlife photographers’ work to the next level. A basic understanding of wildlife photography storytelling, at the very least, will help you avoid simple mistakes.
Visual Communication Tools
The rule of thirds is one of the first and sometimes only principles of composition taught to wildlife photographers. While it is true that using this principle in your photos makes an image pleasing to the eye and comfortable for the viewer, this may not be the story you want your image to tell. To implement the rule of thirds, divide your image into three sections, both vertical and horizontal, and place vital components of your image on these sections’ intersections.
That sounds easy, so why not apply the principle to all your images and be done with it. The answer lies in understanding some of the basic principles of visual communication and how they affect how the image is perceived. These principles can easily take an entire semester or longer to cover and explore fully, so this is just a brief introduction for wildlife photographers to introduce the possibilities.
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To implement the rule of thirds, divide your image into three sections, both vertical and horizontal and place vital components of your image on the intersections of these sections.
Shape, Scale and Proportion
The relationship between shape, scale and the surrounding space can communicate a different mood and response to your viewer. The following simple graphic demonstrates the principle. For most viewers, a simple circle within a large rectangle represents a sense of space, solitude and isolation. In contrast, the same size circle within a much smaller square, close to or touching the object, communicates a cramped and crowded feeling. Even when it is the same size, it also makes the shape appear larger, for the same reason we perceive the moon to be bigger when it is close to the horizon.
Applying the same principle to the image above of the pelicans adds a sense of serenity to the photo. Including the environment in wildlife photography storytelling says more about the habitat of the pelicans and communicates the mood of the scene. The cropped version tells us very little about the birds other than their appearance, and the subject is cramped. However, expanding your view can tell a much better story, but it also relates to the idea you are trying to communicate. The following image shows the scale of Flamingo numbers on Lake Nakuru, Kenya, by including the background.
iIn contrast, if you tell the story of wild animals in confinement, you may want to utilize close cropping to add to the feeling of being cramped and confined. The chimpanzee image was of an animal that had been traumatized by years of poor treatment in captivity. Cropping in close tells us much more about the emotional damage done to the chimp in the past.
Wildlife photography storytelling need to take into account about the story the image needs to tell. Therefore, it should be a consideration while you are shooting and how you approach your images in post-processing. Think about how the scene appears to you and the story you want your image to tell before making your shooting decisions. The choice of cropping ratio should relate to the story as much as it relates to the shapes and subjects.
Telling your wildlife story: Cropping in close tells us much more about the emotional damage done to the chimp in the past.
Negative Space and Balance
Effective use of negative space by wildlife photographers can balance an image and add to the mood and story your photos tell. Negative space adds visual weight to the area not occupied by the subject. It can be to the left or right, above, below, or diagonally opposed to the image’s hero.
When using negative space, one thing to bear in mind is that people perceive animals to have a front and back and a related direction. In the same way that cropping in close can add to a feeling of confinement, negative space behind a subject can make the viewer uncomfortable. With the animal facing the image edge, it is cramped, and the viewer’s eye wanders out of the image. There may be instances where the feeling of being cramped or the subject exiting the frame is exactly the story you wish to tell, but it should be a conscious decision.
The principle applies to both moving animals and static ones in wildlife photography images. With moving subjects, the negative space can often benefit from being greater, balancing the moving animal’s energy.
People perceive animals to have a front and a direction. Negative space behind a subject can make the viewer uncomfortable.
In stationary animals, having an animal close to and facing the image edge increases the feeling of being cramped, like someone face-first against a wall. The greater the negative space behind the subject, the more uncomfortable the image is to the viewer.
Remember, you can always crop an image but adding space if you have failed to capture any is much more complicated and not permitted in wildlife photography competitions.
Line and Direction
Understanding how line and direction affect wildlife photography storytelling is one of the most fundamental principles visual artists must master. Using leading lines is one of the main concepts taught to photographers learning about composition, particularly in landscape photography. However, there is a great deal more that line and direction can do for your images.
Leading lines draw the viewer into the image and deliver them to the subject. These can be straight and direct, curved or even spiral inwards. They should never direct the viewer’s attention out of the image. Directional lines are not leading lines, but they communicate different concepts depending on their direction and are extremely useful in helping your photographs tell their story.
Leading lines can be straight, curved or spiral inwards leading the eye of the viewer to the main subject.
VERTICAL – Height, Stability, Elegance
An emphasis on vertical lines in an image can accentuate your subject’s height and suggest the feeling of elegance. Thicker vertical lines can mean strength and stability and are generally associated with a lack of movement.
HORIZONTAL – Peace, Rest, Tranquility
Horizontal lines, particularly in landscape format photographs, suggest a feeling of peace, rest and tranquillity. They can add a sense of space to your images.
DIAGONAL – Energy, Movement, Activity
Diagonal lines are dramatic and dynamic, adding movement and energy to your images. The more extreme the diagonals, the more activity the image will communicate.
There are many other tools like this, including combinations of line and direction. For instance, a vertical combined with a touching diagonal can add a sense of tension. Many of these concepts may not be apparent when you take your shot but understanding the principles will help you make composition choices in post-processing.
Colour and Contrast
Colour and contrast in wildlife photography are often out of the photographer’s control, but understanding a little about the principles will help you make decisions in post-processing and when shooting if the opportunity arises. Colour theory is a complex topic, far too involved to master in a short paragraph or even a whole article, so the following are only a couple of things that may help.
Contrasting colours are directly opposite each other on the colour wheel, such as blue and yellow, red and green, and orange and purple. Images that use contrasting colours to isolate the hero of the photograph work very well. They can make an image pop, so always be aware of the background you have behind your animal in your viewfinder. Can you benefit by moving your position to include a colour that enhances your subject, helping communicate the image’s hero?
Of course, if you are trying to illustrate an animal’s ability to blend into the environment, you need to choose a more harmonious background. It can come down to choosing your position when you arrive at a location. If wildlife is approaching, look at the scene and determine which area will give you the best results in terms of light, colour and background.
Colours can be cool or warm and can communicate a great deal about the photo’s mood and the story it tells. They can tell you the time of day, the season, and the temperature. They can push a subject forward or make it recede into the distance. Reds through to yellow indicate warmth, sunrise or sunset, spring or summer, and dry or desert conditions. Greens and blues are cool or cold and can suggest wetness, water, lush conditions, and winter. These are just suggestions, and they are also affected by the subject matter. Cool green water at the beach, for instance, can also suggest summer, so think about the colours in your image and how well they tell your story.
Tone in an Image
Variations in the tonal range can also help to communicate the hero of your image. Tones are the shades of light and dark of the colours in your photo. Dark tones of colour are heavy and receding, whereas light colours come forward, drawing our eyes to your photograph’s bright areas. Be aware that bright objects close to the edge of an image will draw the viewer’s attention out of the photo.
Achieving good tonal range in your photos is recommended, but there are instances where high or low key images will tell a better story. Learn to use your histogram on both your camera and in post-processing software. It will help you understand what the tonal range of your images is contributing to the story.
Low key images are high contrast images with most of the tones on the dark side of your histogram. Even though the image has an extreme tonal range, the highlighted areas should still be correctly exposed and not blown out. The dark tones should not be so dark as to render as a flat black with no detail referred to as clipping your blacks. Low key images are heavy, moody and dramatic.
Broad Tonal Range
In most circumstances, a wide tonal range in a photo is desirable. In this case, there is a range of tones and colours between white and black, light and dark, without clipped blacks and blown highlights on your histogram. This type of image’s mood or tone is more neutral and balanced than a high or low key image.
High key images are low contrast images with the majority of tones and colours on your histogram’s right. Typically, high key images are soft, delicate and elegant. In a studio, they involve lighting to reduce or blow out the shadows. In wildlife photography, they are often achieved by overexposing your shot but not to the extent that your subject’s vital highlights blow out.
Low key images are heavy, moody and dramatic.
It is worth mentioning a brief word about tone and black and white photography. When shooting in black and white or converting an image file in post-processing, many colours that appear vastly different to the eye have the same tone when converted to grey tones resulting in a muddy, lacklustre image. If you tell your story in black and white or monochrome, make sure that the colours and contrast of the subject convert well. A successful monochrome image should show the full tonal range of greys with good contrast.
The textures in a wildlife image are another visual tool that can help in wildlife photograph storytelling. Textures can convey rough, smooth, soft and hard and help describe your subject’s physical features and surroundings. In addition, they can also suggest dry and moist to give an insight into seasons and environmental conditions.
Getting your exposure right is essential to capturing texture in your image. Underexposing an image will lose the details in shadow, and overexposing will blow out the details in the highlights.
In post-processing, textures can be enhanced by adjusting the texture and clarity sliders in some software like Adobe Lightroom. The clarity slider in lightroom increases the contrast in the mid-tones giving an image a sharper, more defined appearance. The texture slider also increases the contrast of small details in textured areas of an image. Both sliders can reduce texture as well as they can be applied both positively and negatively.
The most important thing is to make sure that applying clarity or texture is appropriate for the subject. For instance, the feathers of birds are generally soft and often smooth. Adding clarity or using texture can make them look hard, detracting from the story you are trying to tell.
Pattern and Repetition
The natural world is full of patterns and repetition. Animal markings, feather patterns, environmental patterns, repetition created by flocking birds and herd behaviour in mammals are all examples that can add to your wildlife photography story. Including patterns and repetition can add rhythm and movement to your narrative, draw the eye into your image, add interest, and hold your audience’s attention.
Becoming a Wildlife Visual Storyteller
The difference between simple captures and wildlife images that grab the audience’s attention and imagination will come down to how well the photographer communicates that decisive moment.
The art of storytelling for wildlife photographers is a journey that develops as your skill grows. Learning how to use visual communication tools in conjunction with your shooting techniques will elevate your wildlife stories to the next level, producing images that hold the viewer’s attention and stand out from the sea of visual imagery that surrounds us.
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