Sugar-Free Wildlife Photography

Sugar-Free Wildlife Photography


Good wildlife photography used to be rare. Years ago when we found good images we were like kids discovering the secrets of sugar. We would salivate through magazines like National Geographic and metaphorically lick the sweet animal images off every page.

Now as we flip through Facebook, candy shops full of lollipop images bombard us, begging to be licked and liked. Yet we flip past them looking for something less sweet. As our sense of taste has developed over the years, we have come to enjoy sugar only as a dessert. Now sophisticated tastes of spices and pepper stimulate our palates more, and we are tasting a wonderful new world of seeing.

Imagery chefs, such as wildlife photographers, need to keep this in mind, and need to cater for all tastes to keep their customers satisfied.

Here are some guidelines as to how you as a wildlife photographer can cater for the palate of today’s image consumer:


Truncate, amputate

Édouard Manet was the master of this. In his paintings he would even cut main subjects right through the face, and amputate limbs. (It is ironic that his own left foot was amputated when he was 51 due to syphilitic complications.)

Photographers have taken this skill into their own genre, although admittedly amputation in wildlife photography comes naturally to most. It is easy to do: you just have to be slow.

But to amputate with purpose, you have to think like a butcher.

Take a sharp lens, cut the subject in half and watch it bleed.

Mostly the image will die quickly, but once in a while it will magically transform into art. By amputating a limb, you will force the viewer to see something as if for the first time. They will see the shape more distinctly or the texture of skin, because the blade of the lens will have removed all sugarcoating from the image.

Photograph from all angles.

Photograph from behind. By photographing from the back, the eyes of the animal can’t hold the viewer to ransom, as they often do when photographed from the front. From the back the viewer can see the shape of things unobscured by the boredom of conventional portraits.

Go low. Lie down and shoot from ground level. This is an excellent idea, except if your subject has a sweet tooth for human flesh!

Photograph from above. Get into an aeroplane, or if that is not possible, get your mind into one. Go high and photograph down at animals. But you don’t have to fly to see small animals from above. Just look down.

Look up. Photograph from below. Look at the sky. That is where freedom from sugar addiction lies. Stand next to a tree and photograph the trunk with a wide-angle lens from below. Shoot into the sun. But always remember to keep the front element of your mind and your lens clean.


Close your aperture and open your mind. Don’t be scared to overdo it. Make a mess of it. Dip your mind’s paintbrush into the deepest pool of blur and paint with water colour. Smudge scenes and ruin reality. Somewhere in the muddle of your images you will discover art.

Go close.

There is a beautiful and undiscovered world under our feet. Bend down and dig in. The next frontier of your photography might not lie over the horizon. It might be hiding under a rock.

Tell a story.

The wilderness is full of stories and characters. Find a character and depict it in a way that will show its personality. Don’t default to photographing models on the fashion catwalks of nature. Go to the slums and photograph beggars. Go to battlefields and photograph war. Go to the edge and photograph love and death.

Cook up a storm.

Go out when your good-weather friends return. Don’t be a good light photographer. The wind will shake your images into shape. Stars will be your guide and lightning will be your flash. Go out when it pours. Most images will drown, but the survivors will rule your photo library.

We all love sugar. But it is time to stop the sugar coating. It is time to squeeze the sweetness from your images. It is time to pull your sweet tooth. Spice your images with the salt of perspective and the pepper of personality. Sprinkle your images with chili flakes rather than sugar. Don’t bake desserts. Cook curry.

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