Evocative imagery is all about creating a story in a single frame. Close-up portraits of wildlife are fantastic to show the beauty of certain subjects but showing them within their habitat can have a far more profound effect on the viewer. The placement of a subject in its environment can often hold a viewer's attention for far longer than a simple portrait; it offers a chance to step into nature's domain.
With a reduced need for lengthy (and expensive) telephoto lenses, producing images of wildlife in its environment is far more accessible to a larger audience. Indeed, most photographers already have the equipment they need to produce stunning compositions of wildlife in situ.
As with most wildlife photography research is key. Identifying your subject, how to approach it and where it can be found are vital before you even step out the door. Reading through guide books and looking online you can quickly gain a decent understanding of the habitat your intended subjects favour and what type of images you may be able to produce.
Deciding on a subject can often be difficult but in terms of producing stunning images of wildlife in the landscape you need to consider two main points: how close you can get to your chosen species and how attractive is the surrounding landscape. By pairing an attractive species with a powerful landscape you're already halfway to producing a memorable image!
If you can't think of a project, a good group of animals to get you started are seabirds. They are confiding, especially during the breeding season, and are found in spectacular locations. Around the UK there are a number of locations where you can easily get close to seabirds such puffins, guillemots and gannets, such as the Farne Islands, Bass Rock or the Isle of Skomer - all of which are readily accessible.
If you can’t venture as far afield, local parks can offer perfect opportunities to photograph wildlife in the environment. Urban areas in particular can produce interesting clashes between nature and urban development, presenting a whole new type of landscape to explore.
When I'm starting out on a project, visualising my end result before I head out on a shoot can be a fantastic way to focus my photographic vision. Looking at images of the environment and deciding the kind of interaction you want to portray will result in far more dynamic images than going in without a plan.
Before you release the shutter consider the composition of the frame, as well as the presence of your subject within the image and the foreground and background interest. Remember that the aim is to merge the ideas of landscape and wildlife photography together to form a meaningful portrait of a subject in its environment. Cast an eye around a final time to make sure you haven't included any paths, fences or man-made objects, unless these are part of the environment you are trying to portray your subject within.
To produce an effective environmental image, composition is vital. Every element of your frame is important and, due to the use of wideangle lens, your main subject will appear smaller in the frame than if you were using a telephoto optic. The balance between subject and environment is key in the production of a strong environmental image. If the subject is too small it will appear lost in the frame, having little impact or presence. If it is to large however, it will detract from the surrounding environment and will result in a less powerful image.
To make sure your subject has presence in the frame it needs to be visibly noticeable from the background. This could be due to composition on a prominent outcrop or by using contrasting tones between subject and environment. A subject that is light can be positioned against a darker background (and vice-versa) to give impact within the frame.
It's always important to keep moving, too. Changing your position can have a drastic effect on the image you produce, and more pleasing compositions can be had by simply changing to a higher or lower viewpoint. In sub-optimum conditions producing images where the subject is very small can make them look isolated and lost, so try positioning them right in the corner of the frame, looking into the scene, for added impact. Composition in environmental images is of utter importance to show the connection between the subject and the environment, so take your time and try and produce a visual image that evokes a story about the subject and context.
The great thing about producing environmental images is that, for the most part, they don’t require expensive super telephoto lenses. A high-quality, mid-range zoom such as a 70-200mm or 80-400mm and a wideangle lens should provide plentiful scope for a number of compositions. You can exaggerate perspective with a wideangle lens, while a telephoto objective can be used to isolate smaller sections of the surrounding landscape. You will want to be able to rapidly change positions in order to alter compositions so being mobile is a great asset. Working with a tripod can slow you down, so try a beanbag instead, or practice good handholding technique.
As you'll be out in the field for long periods of time you should remember to dress appropriately; there's nothing worse than being in a great location but having to return home because you are not prepared for the weather! Ensure you take into account the nature of the environment you are entering, and if you're not a competent mountaineer or hiker do not venture off into the hills without a guide. Personal safety should always be top of your list - it's never worth putting yourself in danger for an image.
What are you waiting for?
Photographing wildlife in the landscape can result in stunning images, with the interaction between subject and context creating meaningful compositions that inspire a connection between ourselves and nature. Next time you head out after wildlife why not give it a go? Pull back to include the habitat rather than focusing on those close-up portraits!
About the Author
Tom Mason is an up-and-coming wildlife and nature photographer based in Hertfordshire where he frequently visits a number of local nature reserves including Rye Meads and Amwell. You can see more of his work on his blog.