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The Life Cycles Approach to Wildlife Photography – Part 2: Capturing the Complete Picture

Wildlife photography from a life cycle approach not only gives structure and purpose to your photography but also adds to the broader knowledge about these creatures that is necessary to understand and protect them. Every time you create a wildlife photo, you can help educate others about the general awesomeness that is nature, and to the specific awesomeness that is this particular animal. Pretty cool when you think about it that way! (Have I mentioned I truly love what I do and this is one of the big reasons why?)

In the first part of this article “Learning and Telling the Story” I shared how to find and tell the story of an animal. In this part, you will learn tips for capturing the complete life cycle in your photos and videos. There are also some of the pitfalls to avoid.

Decisive Moments…

One of the turning points in the way I think about and pursue photos came not from the world of nature photography, but from a museum exhibit of the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson. If you are not familiar with his work, stop reading this now, go here and learn about the man who pioneered the genre we call street photography. Bresson was a father of modern photojournalism, and whose name is synonymous with the concept in photography known as “the decisive moment”. Bresson believed that as photographers our goal was to use our knowledge and intuition to capture the fleeting moments where all the compositional elements come together so that the resulting image represents the true essence of that moment.

Yeah, that changed everything for me. Suddenly it wasn’t just about pressing the button, but about capturing the moment. “Decisive moment” is a very subjective and often misunderstood term, thrown around in the same way as “bokeh” (nice out of focus parts) and “giclee” (fancy word for inkjet print). It is a core concept for any photographer to grasp and include in their compositions.

Quotes from Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “The Decisive Moment” and Other Works

  • “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
  • “It is a way of shooting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one’s own originality. It is a way of life.”
  • “Thinking should be done before and after, not during photographing. Success depends on the extent of one’s general culture, one’s set of values, one’s clarity of mind, one’s vivacity.”
  • “People think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing.”
  • “Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing a meditation.”
  • “I’m not responsible for my photographs. Photography is not documentary, but intuition, a poetic experience. It’s drowning yourself, dissolving yourself, and then sniff, sniff, sniff – being sensitive to coincidence. You can’t go looking for it; you can’t want it, or you won’t get it. First, you must lose yourself. Then it happens.”

The important part of his quotes, that led me to my simplified definition, is that you use both your knowledge and your intuition, quickly. Your knowledge provides you with an understanding of all the possibilities of what you might capture in wildlife photos, and the likely conditions under which these possibilities may occur. With your knowledge as a foundation, you are in place and able to rely on your intuition that something awesome is about to happen. In other words, the more you know about an animal the more likely you will react and capture the good stuff when it happens!  

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Whatever animal you are choosing to document, odds are there’s someone who has dedicated a substantial part of their life to studying, protecting, or saving that species. They are likely doing this out of a deep passion for their work, and will also be eager to have someone else share the story of these creatures. Reach out to people, whether they are in your own zip code or on the other side of the globe. Those dedicating their lives to wildlife research and conservation form a close community of like-minded people, and it can give you great opportunities to learn, network, and share your discoveries and photography with them.

Reach out also to other photographers who have photographed these animals, live in the animal’s home range, or have worked with similar species. In my experience, most people within the wildlife photography community have a similar passion and enthusiasm for this pursuit. Most are willing to share their lessons learned from hard-won experience, potential locations to view and photograph the animals, and other contacts who can help you. While you may meet a few cold shoulders, you will find that generally there is a lot of help out there available just by asking, from some extremely talented and knowledgeable people.

This Thoas Swallowtail is a resident of Mexico. It had never been documented in the county in Texas where I photographed it. It took two months and 6 different experts to get a solid ID of it. Identifying it actually became a fun challenge and a friendly rivalry among the experts to see who could ID it first.

It Takes Commitment

It may take years to capture every facet of an animal’s lifecycle. At times, you may feel you have become so committed that you might need to be committed! The length of time you spend photographing a lifecycle could be anything from days to decades. There is also a chance you may not capture every moment, behavior, or composition you have on your wish list.

Remember Respect, Always!

I wish I didn’t have to say it. It’s up to each of us as photographers to always keep the animal’s welfare, as well as the health of their ecosystem, as our foremost concern. If an image is hard to capture, it’s up to us to come up with an innovative way to do so without crossing the line. Some images just may not seem possible, but the more experience and knowledge you gain about that creature, the more likely you are to capture those seemingly impossible images. I know the majority of people reading this are never going to do something unethical. But, I also know there will at some point be that temptation to cross the ethical line in pursuit of that one spectacularly elusive image. Just because we haven’t yet captured a photo of a specific event or behavior doesn’t give us permission to cross that line to get it, no matter how much of an expert we have become on the animal in question.

Not all Stories have a Happy Ending…

One of the most difficult things about capturing a full life cycle is that every life has an end. The truth of the matter is not all babies will become adults. That animal you have watched for months will become prey to something else, even if it’s just the ravages of time. Nature isn’t “nice”, everything eats something else, and for every animal to survive, other lives must perish within that ecosystem.

While it’s easy to think about that in a detached way from the confines of your computer, it’s much more difficult watching it occur through your viewfinder, up close and personal. When this happens, it is vital that you are an observer, and don’t try to interfere. This is nature and we are there to document. Predation will occur whether we are there or not. Interfering in that moment will not result in any positive outcome for the prey or predator. The likely outcome is you disturb the balance, and possibly put yourself in a position to get hurt.

This is of course not to say that I won’t help an injured animal, or prevent unnatural causes of harm from occurring. My family has played crossing guard to sandhill crane’s on busy roads, saved countless turtles from those same roads, and helped rescue scores of injured or orphaned animals we have found in our travels. No one is asking you to become emotionless, rather the opposite. I think you have to deeply care for the creatures you photograph. But, when the natural cycle of life and death occurs, it’s important that we maintain boundaries, and let nature take its course. You also certainly don’t have to document something if it makes you uncomfortable. Just be aware it happens, you will become attached to these animals, and it will hurt when they are gone.

… But, So Many Do!

A challenge for any creative person is staying inspired and motivated. When photographing from a lifecycle approach, there’s always something to look forward to, and more stories to be revealed. Most recently, I watched a family of red-shouldered hawks raise a pair of chicks from eggs up to screechy teenagers. One morning while visiting the nest I saw the moment of “fledging” when a young bird takes flight for the first time. However, the photo conditions were atrocious, resulting in no usable images of the moment. But, I had never witnessed this first hand before. The sight of the hawk jumping into flight taking its first tentative swoops, and then wheeling off into the distance will be forever etched in my memory as a truly beautiful moment, even without any photos of it. Those kinds of experiences are what this is all about!

Gear

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

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