Introduction

Wildlife photography is often associated with large telephoto lenses allowing us to capture intimate frame filling portraits of animals. Huge focal lengths, often 500mm or more, combine with wide apertures to create a shallow depth of field and the resulting blurry backgrounds place a strong emphasis on the (hopefully!) pin sharp subject.

Eurasian Hoopoe
Wildlife portrait, Eurasian Hoopoe. Fujifilm X-H1, 100-400mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter (f/8 at 560mm).

Before I continue, this article is not aimed at disparaging the art of the wildlife photography portrait. I will always enjoy and continue to photograph wildlife this way. But, like any photographer, I try to evolve, and I constantly think about context when I photograph various species.

Context?

In itself, that “context” word can be a bit of an enigma. When I first began to photograph wildlife, if somebody mentioned context, I would had have looked back at them rather cluelessly!

Here are some examples of what context in wildlife photography means to me (feel free to add some ideas in comments!):

  • Photographing a species and showing its habitat;
  • Man-made structures and wildlife habitats;
  • Relationships with other species, conflict, symbiotic relationships, for example;
  • How a species may impact upon its environment;
  • How environmental pressures can impact upon species;
  • Anything that strikes us as being unusual for a species.

These examples have an overall ecological theme, but context can also include aesthetic elements too, such as including a dramatic landscape or sky. The examples are not exhaustive, and, in many cases, context could be a combination of many elements put together.

Grey Seal & Longstone Lighthouse. Fujifilm X-H1, 100-400mm lens (f/6.4, 133mm)
Grey Seal & Longstone Lighthouse. Fujifilm X-H1, 100-400mm lens (f/6.4, 133mm)

The Longstone Lighthouse, situated on The Longstone, is one of the iconic sights of the Farne Islands on the Northumberland coastline. I’ve long wanted to photograph one of the resident Grey Seals and include this lighthouse in the background. However, this can only be photographed from a boat and tidal conditions can make it difficult to sail around this side of the island. I’d never get both the seal and the Lighthouse in the depth of field with a telephoto lens so I opted for a fairly wide aperture knowing the structure would still be recongnisable but the shallow depth of field would keep the emphasis on the subject. I also used a Formatt-Hitech Firecrest Ultra 3 stop grad to hold the exposure of the sky. Sometimes you need to think like a landscape photographer!

Depth of field can be personal taste but may also be restricted by focal length. Regardless, I maintain that is it possible to photograph wildlife with context and still have a shallow depth of field. Crucial elements may still be blurry in the background of foreground but can still be recognisable and contribute to the story without being a distraction.

Two is company, but three is a crowd! European Bee-eaters in conflict. Fujifilm X-H1, 100-400mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter (f/9 at 560mm).
Two is company, but three is a crowd! European Bee-eaters in conflict. Fujifilm X-H1, 100-400mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter (f/9 at 560mm).

 

Yellow-billed Oxpecker & Cape Buffalo. Fujifilm X-H1, 100-400mm lens (f/5.4 at 335mm).
Yellow-billed Oxpecker & Cape Buffalo. Fujifilm X-T2, 100-400mm lens (f/5.4 at 335mm).

 

Arctic Tern Fujifilm. X-H1, 100-400mm lens (f/5.6 at 177mm).
Arctic Tern. Fujifilm. X-H1, 100-400mm lens (f/5.6 at 177mm).


(Above) Yellow-billed Oxpeckers are often spotted clinging onto Cape Buffalos. It’s a mutualistic relationship between the two species, the Oxpecker feeds on ticks and other parasites on the Buffalo. I framed this shot to get the bird central within one of the male Buffalo’s key features, the ‘boss’ where the two horns meet. The main subject is the Oxpecker, not the host Buffalo. In situations like this, I’m not concerned that much of the Buffalo is excluded from the frame, but I do like to include elements which make it recognisable or identifiable.

(Right) Arctic Tern on the Lighthouse wall, Inner Farne, Farne Islands. I composed this photograph to include the storm clouds gathering in the sky above. We knew from marine weather forecasts that the weather was about to decimate some of the breeding seabirds’ new born chicks. Sadly, we were correct. I chose this photograph as the bird’s position was looking upwards towards the gathering clouds.

(Below) Sub-adult Martial Eagle. Here, the subject represents a very small part of the frame. We had taken some closer shots but it flew away and landed in one of the trees arising from a dry river bed on the Masai Mara Savannah.

I resisted the temptation to get closer, zoom further in or add a teleconverter. Instead, I zoomed out to use the surrounding habitat foliage as a frame on the bottom and right hand side. The focal length was still enough to compress the perspective and pull the background landscape of the Kileloni Hills (highest point in the Masai Mara) closer in. I took a few shots and used this one where the Eagle is looking back in the frame towards the negative space.

Popular to contrary belief, it is possible to photograph wildlife where the key subject occupies just a small part of the frame. It is about composition and bringing the contextual elements together.

Ask yourself, can you tell a story or add more interest by giving more consideration to surroundings by utilising different focal lengths?

Like any other form of photography, your focal length will depend on the subject distance, intended composition, the surroundings you wish to include or exclude and an often-overlooked characteristic, perspective. Wildlife in context is not intrinsically linked to wide angle or shorter focal length lenses.

Martial Eagle
Martial Eagle. Fujifilm. X-T2, 100-400mm lens (f/5.6 at 261mm)

Conclusion

Frame filling portraits are not the be-all and end-all of wildlife photography. Think about the subject and the surrounding landscape and activity and how you can use it as part of your photograph. You may be pleasantly surprised by how you can tell a wildlife story.

Alan Hewitt is a freelance wildlife photographer, writer and photography holiday tour guide. He can often be spotted on Northumberland’s Farne Islands but migrates to warmer climates to help people point their lenses at wildlife across Europe, Asia and Africa.

www.alanhewittphotography.co.uk