I look at a lot of wildlife images. Through social media, via print, press, magazines, and of course short listed entries in competitions. The exposure we have to quality wildlife images is endless!
However there is something I've noticed, and I want to give you food for thought to start creating images that standout!
So many wildlife images that I see are perfectly "clean". What do I mean? They show the subject in an open and uncluttered environment, free from any form of landscape intrusion. Here's one of my own as an example:
"Clean" - a lone wildebeest in an open environment in Amboseli gives a nice clean and simple composition.
However, I would argue that the majority of wildlife sightings you will experience in the field are more likely to have some kind of landscape foliage present that will restrict your view and composition.
The first thing you should consider when you find an animal that is secluded and potentially surrounded by lots of foreground distraction is that; this is how the animal wants to be. This is it's habitat, not ours. The animal makes the rules on where it locates itself not us.
This male lion did not want to be found. Despite the field guide putting the vehicle in position, I had to slowly raise my position to get this shot. I took me 8 attempts, balancing gently in the back of the vehicle. I didn't want to stress this male from his secluded position to get the shot (Madikwe, South Africa).
Once you've understood that fundamental point...
The second thing you should consider is embracing the environment around the animal, do not try and fight it. If you are in a vehicle or a fixed position, then yes by all means try and see if you can manoeuvre into a better position, but never at the expense of stressing the animal.
This young skittish male leopard in Ngala didn't want to be found. I had almost no time to fire this shot off. He was in the process of getting up to walk away from us. I deliberately used natural framing to tell the story of his environment and portray the elusive nature of the leopard. You will see a lot of foreground foliage that is out of focus. This brings context without distracting from the subject (Sabi Sands, South Africa).
Once you have an optimal (note optimal not perfect!) line of sight, you can then consider the third thing in the process which is; composition. And here is where I encourage you to embrace the nature around the animal! Don't be afraid that one blade of grass might ruin your image or line of sight to your subject! Don't let the foreground foliage or clutter in front of your subject put you off from creating an image! Embrace it and don't fight it!! Use those foreground elements within the composition to create a natural frame. If you do you will tell a much better story than if you exclude it. So many images I see out there exclude this natural framing. I am not sure if this is because photographers don't want to share these images, preferring cleaner compositions, or if they just avoid taking images like this. But I say "Go for it!". I think we need to see more naturally framed images out there!
This bustard was moving around long grass. Waiting for it to move into a small clearing and focusing beyond the grass on to the subject gives a strong composition and shows it's natural environment. (Tsuavo West, Kenya).
Once you have the composition you are happy with it is start to think technically and how you will use your settings to capture the image.
As you have foreground clutter and distractions you need to take care. First you need to take care about the focus of your intended subject. Second you want to take care with depth of field. With a high f-stop (8 or above) you will keep more of the foreground interest and potentially block out detail on your subject. Shooting with a shallow depth of field will help you exclude some of the foreground interest as long as you set your focal point on your subject accurately. You might be able to do this with autofocus, but if your lens keeps hunting and focusing on that leaf, twig or blade of grass, don't be afraid to switch to manual and punch in the focus yourself. Use the focus magnification feature in live view and this will help you maintain accurate focus.
Low hanging bats in daylight! One of the most challenging images I've taken. There was significant foliage in the foreground, I needed to combine composition and shallow depth of field to create a workable image that emphasises the environment and shows the detail of the subject. I think the end result is effective because of, rather than despite of, the foreground foliage out of focus.
If this technique is new to you, don't be afraid to keep trying. It is a skill to develop. My first few attempts were tricky to get the balance between subject focus and depth of field. But i think the results are really worth the effort and will make you a better photographer for it.
Sometimes natural framing isn't always about foreground clutter and foliage. It can be foliage that surrounds the subject and potentially can hide a large part of your subject. These images are often easier to take, because there is a significant amount of the animal or subject in view which you can focus on, hence using auto focus makes things a lot easier. In these instances the attention should be on composition.
This giraffe was very far away and I couldn't see its entire body as he grazed. I used the natural foliage around the neck and head (my main subject focus) to create a natural frame and build a context of the giraffe's environment. Not only are the colours stunning and complimentary to the giraffe, there's a small ox-pecker on the right as we view the image which is an added bonus (Tsuavo West, Kenya).
By being able to get sharp focal points on your subjects this allows additional creative options in certain situations. The final photo I'm sharing with you is when I brought 3 techniques together: a certain degree of depth of field, natural framing and a slow shutter speed:
A crocodile sits down stream and filters water in it's mouth. By focusing on the eye, I had my focal point locked, used a suitable depth of field to develop the composition with the foreground and then slowed by shutter speed to blur the flowing water. All this was done handheld with a 120-300mm lens (Mzima Springs, Kenya).
This was a very unique situation where my subject, the crocodile wasn't going anywhere. The only movement I had to contend with was the occasional jaw opening and closing slowly and my own strength to hold the heave 120-300mm lens on the end of my camera. A tripod would have been a preferred accessory for this sighting, however I was on foot and chose not to carry it with me. The natural framing was not deliberate. It was actually the very tight and elusive view I had on the subject. I would have liked to have just moved slightly to the left to include the eye complete free of intrusion with the foreground but unfortunately that wasn't possible. Still the combination of techniques makes a very unique and creative image. Is the crocodile drinking, cooling off, or hoping for some prey to drop in his mouth? I'll let you decide. Either way, it tells an interesting story.
Executed well, natural framing is a hugely effective creative tool for wildlife imagery. I am a huge fan of the technique and love seeing images like this. It would be great if the wildlife photography community would push the boundaries more and challenge the status quo going forward. In my opinion to selectively leave out the animals environment with a view to cleaner more clinical compositions, it is doing a disservice to the reality of the animals environment and the story telling possibilities. Like I said, don't be afraid of natural framing, embrace it and start creating your own visions!