Every chance you have with a wild animal in front of your lens is an opportunity not just to capture split-second moments of action or behavior, but to also learn more about its life story. The things this creature does daily to survive and thrive in an often harsh world. As photographers, we are storytellers. By telling an animal’s tale through your photography, you reveal one of countless stories being played out as part of a greater whole within the place this animal calls home. Not just the story of an animal, but also a family, a species, an ecosystem, and a planet.

In this article, I’ll share tips on creating wildlife photography through capturing life cycles and histories, all those intimate moments that help define the lives of wild animals. 

Life Cycles

Although every animal and plant species has its own specific life cycle, all life cycles follow the same pattern. A new organism is born, it grows, matures, and eventually reproduces to create a new life cycle of animals. After successfully reproducing, it may die, or it may continue to produce generations of offspring throughout its lifespan. Some life cycles are measured in days, while other animals may live for a century or more. Regardless of the length of the cycle, this basic recipe is followed by nearly every animal species. How a specific species passes through each successive stage, though, is as varied as the species themselves.

Endless Photo Possibilities

With this concept in mind, think about the wildlife you have had the opportunity to photograph. At the time, you may have captured the moment, but this instant was only a small part of the greater story of a species, and its place within its ecosystem. By thinking about life cycles, we open up a nearly endless array of photo possibilities.

Sometimes, when we have a cooperative wildlife subject, we expend all our creative energy in a burst, running out of ideas for images. Taking this approach, what more can you add to that story? What portions of its life cycle have you captured? What other details, events, or characteristics can you feature in your images?

Thinking beyond the moment playing out in front of you to the animal’s full life and place within its ecosystem, gives structure to your shooting. As I may have mentioned once or twice in my other articles, I am a big believer in previsualization, seeing the shots before you take them. If your goal is to capture a species’ complete life, then you have already started creating your shot list. With this “shopping list o’ shots” always in mind, you have poised yourself to capture all the decisive moments, turning points, and interactions that make up a creature’s life.

Becoming A Better Naturalist

I know I can rarely make it through an article or workshop without saying this, but nowhere is this more practiced and proven than in documenting the complete life history of a wild animal species.

“To become a better nature photographer,

become a better naturalist!”

Wildlife photography from a life cycles approach requires you to understand what is happening and when. That there are timelines every creature follows through their life, and each event on this timeline is a possible photo opportunity.

The “Five Ws” (and one H), or “It’s All in The Details”

I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.

 – Rudyard Kipling, 1902 “The Elephant’s Child” from his “Just So Stories”

Along with being a better naturalist, a key trait for any nature photographer is having an endless sense of curiosity. A desire to learn more about every aspect of not just photography, but what we photograph. Here are some questions to consider as you capture the life story of a species:

  • How are they born? What are their stages of development?
  • What physical changes do they go through as they grow up? In response to seasons? For mating/courtship?
  • What do they eat? What eats them?
  • When are they most active, on a daily, monthly, and/or yearly basis?
  • Where do they nest/forage/hunt/feed/rest?
  • What is their range? Do they migrate? From where to where, and when?
  • How do they reproduce? Do they have any mating behaviors or displays? Do they mate for life, are they monogamous, or do they “spread it around”, so to speak?
  • What times of year do they mate, nest, den, rear their young, hibernate, etc.?
  • Are they involved in raising or protecting their young, or are the kids on their own?
  • What do they look like? What are their physical details?
  • What is unique about them?
  • How did they get their name?
  • What is their taxonomy?
  • What is some weird trivia, unique to this species? (Trust me, you will be a legend at trivia night.)

Then, look at your images of that species. Do you have photos that answer these questions? How about videos? If not, add them to your shot list!


Like this article? Follow this link to read more of my photo tips and techniques. Jason’s Articles at Photofocus

Be sure to read the next part of this article, “The Life Cycles Approach to Wildlife Photography – Part 2: Capturing the Complete Picture”, coming out soon!