Taking it Personally

March 13, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Taking it Personally

"There is definitely improvement... there appears to be much more thought in your photos as you get to the more recent ones - you're learning your craft well." - This is a note I got from a friend who recently looked at my portfolio. An opionion I appreciate very much, as it comes from a person whom I admire for her determined engagement in species conservation and her clear, no nonsense way to look at wildlife photography and cinematograhpy.

There are probably as many different styles of wildlife and nature photography as there are determined people working with cameras in the field. Developing an individual style is as much about mastering equipment and techniques as it is about personal progress. In this Blog entry I write about my own attempt of establishing a personal photographic style.

When I first started taking a camera into nature, I simply tried to record what I saw. For personal keepsake, for holiday memories. Very often, being overly captivated by the excitement of an observation combined with lacking experience would cause me to miss special behaviour, or even just a clear view of a moving animal. I was far from understanding my camera and "personal style" was something I admired in exhibitions and books by leading masters of the art.

The more I studied the work of professional wildlife and nature photographers, the better I could understand what defined an individual style. I realised achieving this myself would require gaining a lot of experience and then learning about my own preferences. But what did I want to express and accomplish with the time I could devote to photography? How would my portfolio eventually stand out from others? -

Having discovered my personal preferences, I see the answer is much simpler than I first anticipated. But before going there I would like to touch on five different types of wildlife photos I like to distinguish:

1. Proof of presence photos, identification of a species or individuals
These photos are relevant to confirm the presence of a species in a particular area or region, or to identify individual animals in order to establish range size and density, as well as movements and patterns of activity. Most often such photos will be taken with small point and shoot cameras that are connected to and fired by passive infrared, laser or sound triggers. Of course there are also very highly sophisticated camera tarp systems for top grade SLR cameras and today, high level camera trap photography has become a field of expertise on its own.

Photo trap site for scientific research (© KORA www.kora.ch)

Scientific Trap Site

Confirming the presence of a species and / or identifying indivual animals (© KORA www.kora.ch)

Scientific Trap Site

2. Safety shots, or first approach
At the very beginning of some wildlife encounters in a special setting, before going for a particular idea I often try to get a safety shot and then I work my way up from there. Safety shots will hardly ever make it to fame, but now and then a great result comes from stopping a little bit further out and capturing a set stage.

A safety shot of a Lilac-breasted roller perched in afternoon light turns into a special capture as the bird takes off

3. Context images, "animalscape" images
Context images show wildlife in its natural habitat and typically, this catgory of photograph invites the observer to share a particular experience of the area in which it was captured. Animals being the actual objects are an important part of the whole story, but there is much more to these shots than "just" animals. Of course there are fabulous landscape shots of well-known areas and landmarks, but often it is the presence of an animal only that really creates the desired connection.

Animalscape: Zambezi flood plains below Mana Pools National Park


4. Behaviour
I sometimes hear people say there are few things more boring than watching a pride of lions sleep, and usually I would share the sentiment. Yet the London Natural History Museum 2014 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award went to Nick Nichols for a photograph showing exactly that: a pride of lions sleeping on a rock formation above an east African plain. But what I really mean are photographs and movie sequences that show typical or unusual behavoiur, such as feeding, courting, mating, a fight or a stalk, and, often considered to be particularly spectacular, the interaction between predator and prey species.

Lionesses feeding on a Kudu bull, Mana Pools NP, Zimbabwe

After spotting the first tawny shapes through the bush it took over half an hour of very careful inch-by-inch crawling to reach a clear view from ground level. Our reward was a truly unique experience and some of my personal best images of lion interaction.


5. Camera interaction (unprovoked)
My personal favourite type of photograph is this: the moment when I connect with individual animals and they look straight into my lens, or even start communicating with me during whatever they are busy with. Understanding and avoiding behaviour that comes across as potentially threatening, or in any way agressive, fearful or careless is a prerequisite to safely capture camera interaction shots. At the same time, I don't want to alter the behaviour of an animal through my action or presence.

A Black-tufted capuchin during early breakfast stops to look up at me

Northern PantanalNorthern Pantanal

Over the years I tried moving from holiday memories and documenting my experiences to creating technically sound photos. Teaching myself about light, colour, depth of field, focus / sharpness, exposure time and three-dimensional framing. I learnt from my mistakes, compared my results with photos of top professionals and kept reading up on what others did. At the same time I learnt a lot about taking into account the environment I was shooting in and about animal behaviour. This, however was very tricky at times and photographically I missed out on some of the greatest wildlife observations I ever had.

A major influence on the development of my own style came through time spent in the wild some years ago with my friend and professional photographer from Brazil, Octavia Campos Salles. On one side I extended my experience with special and challenging objects and on the other side it uncovered for me how I would look at some situations differently, and as a result, how my photos taken at a sighting would differ from the ones he would take. This, I suppose resulted in me becoming aware of a further step towards individuality. Towards understanding what I like and want to further about my photographic work.

From observation and documentation of presence to anticipating and capturing behaviour, I eventually found that it was unprovoked camera interaction I would enjoy most. Felids and many other mammals, primates, elephants and some birds, especially macaws and parrots, but also hornbills for example are very good at detecting interaction. Especially cats react quite well to careful, non-verbal communication and some of the very wildest individuals actually can be great flirts ;-)

Further field trips opened up possibilities to experiment, find situations I was looking for and capture images that I would enjoy and consider what I call my preferred style. While there are many different types of images in my portfolio, my favourite photographs combine the following qualities:

  • Technically sound composition and proportions, no or minimal cropping
  • Blue hour light, overcast days or night time (no direct sun if possible)
  • Camera interaction and typical behaviour

I will shortly create a gallery folder containing my personal all time favourites. In the meantime, I enclose in this blog a few examples of photographs I particularly like.

4 Seconds: this was all the time I had when this female jaguar appeared on the shores of a lagoon in Brazil's Pantanal, from getting the camera ready on a moving boat to capturing this photograph and seeing the cat move on. The very last light of the day.

Rio Tres IrmaosRio Tres Irmaos

The blink of an eye: I was in a stretch of riverine forest at Pousada Aguapé (Pantanal, Brazil) looking for ocelots with Malini Pittet and Fabiano Vargas. It was good night and when this cat started climbing up a tree next to me, I was ready to capture this moment.

Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis)Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis)

Up close: the story behind this photograph is described in my trip report on Botswana and Zimbabwe 2013. The short version is that I was in the field on foot with Humphrey Gumpo in Mana Pools, Zimbabwe and found a pride of lions feeding on a kudu bull they had taken down the previous day. This subadult male, together with three brothers was being pushed into dispersal, but for a last time the pride tolerated the young lions near this kill.

With the tripod set as low as possible, the photographic perspective on these scenes turned out to be fantastic. Personally, I don't mind the odd blade of grass in front of the lions as this adds depth to the image.

Surprise I: it was cold morning in Brazil's Atlantic Rainforest and I was photographing birds around the lodge in Parque do Zizo when I heard some woodpeckers announcing their arrival with loud, high-pitched calls. Seconds later this beautiful Yellow-fronted woodpecker perched next to me.

Atlantic Rainforest - Parque do ZizoAtlantic Rainforest - Parque do Zizo

Surprise II: again a very cold and wet day in the Atlantic Rainforest, south of Sao Paulo. This time it was a pair of very shy Saffron toucanets that cautiously started feeding on palm nuts. Again I enjoy the cool, rich colours and the almost three-dimensional appearance of this photograph.

Atlantic Rainforest - Parque do ZizoAtlantic Rainforest - Parque do Zizo

Clearly, only a hand full of the photos on mywilderness.net do reflect my preferred, personal style today. But I generally enjoy photography in all sorts of conditions and there are many special situations I personally consider worth capturing. Yet over time I expect to be able to present an increasing selection of photos that do raise my pulse whenever I look at them and remember the moment of an up close and personal encounter.

Sticking to the quote above: I see there are some good photographs, but not yet any great ones in my portfolio. Time will tell if I ever manage to capture a moment never before documented.

Patrick Meier, March 2015










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