Dall's Sheep - Primrose Ridge, Denali National Park, Alaska

The Environmental Wildlife Portrait

by Weldon Lee (photos and text) 

            I’ve spent thousands of hours crisscrossing the United States, observingPlanet Earth from the cockpit of a corporate jet cruising the upper levels of the troposphere. From this viewpoint, I began understanding Homo sapiens’ relationship with this marvelous planet from an entirely different perspective.

            Images depicting our wild brothers and sisters in their environment captures that same spirit, allowing us to begin understanding our relationship with them, and their relationship with Earth. This is the essence of nature — and, the environmental wildlife portrait.

            Simply put, the environmental wildlife portrait is an image depicting a subject in the context of its environment. While it may be tempting to use a 600mm lens for every wildlife image, “head shots” do not depict a subject’s relationship with its environment.

            All of the elements that go into making beautiful landscape images are found in the environmental portrait. However, they have an added dimension — they tell a story. A bald eagle perched on a log in a snowstorm provides a glimpse into its struggle for survival during the harshness of winter. An Alaskan brown bear standing before a majestic mountain range provides not only a breathtaking image of their environment, but indicates the bear’s dependency on a wild, unspoiled world. A mountain goat standing on a precarious rocky ledge overlooking distant mountain ranges provides insight into its day-to-day life and the ability to excel in an unforgiving alpine habitat.

            Unfortunately, such images are not always that easy to find. Follow along as I share some of the techniques I’ve learned for making the elusive, environmental wildlife portrait.

Waved Albatross - Isla Española, Galapagos Islands
Mountain Goat - Mount Evans Wilderness, Colorado

The Process

Subject Considerations.  Last summer, while visiting the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, I had the opportunity to photograph wild horses. One day, we located the herd in a small, protected valley surrounded by rolling hills. The herd was made up of numerous small bands, each containing several mares, their colts, fillies, foals, and a stallion. Standing guard over the entire herd was the lead stallion. It was critical that several factors be taken into consideration. The following techniques can apply to both this situation and many others.

            When photographing distant subjects, or silhouettes, it is important that certain visual clues are recognizable:  head, ears, along with the presence, or absence, of antlers or horns. An accurate outline can mean the difference between an indiscernible “blob,” and a plainly identifiable species. With the horses, it was important to include recognizable profiles of their head, body, and legs.

            With groups of animals, it’s rare to fine a situation where every subject strikes a great pose at the same time. I encountered this predicament in South Dakota. Fortunately, all was not lost. I simply waited until a couple of the more prominent horses provided the desired pose.

            When photographing small groups — such as the horses — avoid “accidentally” cutting off small body parts when an individual ventures too close to the viewfinder’s edge. The only time this is acceptable would be when photographing large masses of animals.

            Pay particular attention to the small nuances of subject posture that often go overlooked. Watch for the slightly different tilt of an elk’s head, a catch-light appearing in the eye of a great horned owl as it turns its head, or perhaps a wild stallion restlessly shifting weight from one leg to the other as he watches over his band of mares. These small¾yet sometimes overlooked details¾often mean the difference between a so-and-so picture, and an award winner.

            Whether your subject is wild horses or bighorn sheep, it’s generally best to avoid photographing their rear ends. While it may be all right if a few have their backs to the camera, it is important that most do not . . . especially the most prominent.

            The ability of an image to portray the feeling of serenity, or tension, depends on your subject’s position in the viewfinder. For a picture to portray the feeling of serenity, place the subject on one of the Rule of Thirds’ power points (discussed later), making sure it faces into the portion of the image having more space. The profusion of space in front of the subject produces an overall sense of serenity.

            Likewise, if you want to impart a sense of tension, position your subject so that it faces the nearest edge of the image. This leads the viewer to what lies just out of his, or her vision. What is the subject so intently staring at? Is its life in danger? Such unanswered questions create a feeling of tension.

Background Considerations.  When an animal occupies a small portion of the total image area, it is important that the viewer’s attention be directed towards the subject. Contrast is the answer. A white egret, for example, will immediately attract the viewer when surrounded by the deep, azure surface of a pond. For darker subjects, such as a bugling bull elk, try framing them against a sea of lighter fall vegetation. And with colorful subjects like the blue Steller’s jay, look for contrasting background colors such as the yellow of fall aspen leaves.

            All too often, you will find that your subject is not in position...the pose seems awkward, or it’s a hundred yards away from the ideal location. Fortunately, animals are not inert — they do move. It’s simply a matter of anticipating when and where they will move next. Knowledge of species behavior, combined with the ability to previsualize the desired result, will help in your pursuit of the elusive environmental wildlife portrait. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of changing your own position to frame the subject against a more desirable background. In other scenarios, you might first locate the ideal background, and then wait until your subject works its way into position.

Wild Horse & Bison Herd
Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, South Dakota
Bison Herd
Waterton Lakes, National Park, Alberta, Canada

Essential Elements.  While wildlife subjects are important to environmental portraits, the remainder of the image must be able to stand on its own. The elements that make a good scenic photograph also produce winning environmental wildlife portraits. Take a tip from the landscape photographer and consider the following points.

Lighting sets the mood.  Dramatic images require dramatic lighting. The most predictable times for this type of lighting occur near sunrise, and again around sunset. Likewise, dramatic lighting sometimes occurs just before, during, or immediately following a thunderstorm. Some of my most dramatic images involve wading birds in the water at sunrise. The combination of reds and golds reflected in calm waters magnifies the intensity and saturation of the colors.

Anticipate dramatic lighting conditions.  Locate your subject before the ideal moment occurs. The old adage “f/8 and be there” applies here. Begin your search when you first see that thunderstorm approaching. Then, keep your fingers crossed. The desired conditions may not materialize, but unless you’re with your subject when they do occur, you’ll never be able to take advantage of them. A grizzly lit by a shaft of brilliant light, framed against the storm clouds of a retreating thunderstorm, will reward your efforts.

Take advantage of the soft lighting produced on bright overcast days.  Under such conditions, you’ll find greater color saturation in fields blanketed in wildflowers and forests clothed with the colors of autumn. Contrast is also moderate, allowing your film to hold detail in dark fur and bright surroundings at the same time.

Simplify your images.  In Denali National Park a few years back, I came upon a caribou grazing amidst the fall colors of the tundra. The scene had much to offer — rich color and a breathtaking view of the Alaska Range. However, I did not feel that the mountains were the strongest element of the landscape. In my opinion, the strongest element was the horizontal layering of the fall colors. I decided to eliminate the mountains, thus creating what I felt was a much simpler and stronger image.

Evaluate the situation.  Once you’ve located a potential image, ask “What,” besides the subject, “is the most important, or strongest, element of the landscape?”  Once you’ve decided on an answer, carefully crop out everything that does not add to, or compliment, that element. This includes anything that might draw the viewer’s attention away from the subject. Especially bright areas — a bald sky, a large white rock, or a bright body of water — tend to pull the viewer’s eye, distracting him or her from appreciating your intent. If it does not add to, or compliment, the overall scene — remove it.

Effective Composition.  The masters of landscape art generally create a well-balanced image containing the proper organization of elements that relate to each other and integrate them into a successful union. Their concepts can be applied to photography as well. Consider a scene involving a bull elk in velvet near the edge of a woodland meadow with several large aspen trees in the foreground. Soft light from an overcast sky illuminates the scene.

            The “Rule of Thirds” will assist you in creating a compositionally balanced image. To understand the concept, look into the viewfinder of a 35mm camera. Using imaginary lines, divide the grid into thirds, both vertically and horizontally. The imaginary lines are referred to as “force lines.” The four intersecting points created where they cross one another are the “power points.” Place the elk on one of these points. This will produce the balance you are looking for.

            If the sky is dramatic, consider placing the horizon along the lower force line, so the image consists of two-thirds sky and one-third land. This places emphasis on the sky. Likewise, when skies lack spectacular elements — such as dramatic color or well-defined cloud formations — consider placing the horizon on the upper force line. In our scenario, eliminate the sky altogether since it’s gray and overcast.

            Use foreground objects, such as boulders, plants, or trees, to create depth and a sense of space. In the scene involving the elk, the large aspen trees in the foreground provide an effective frame for the scene. When including foreground elements, it’s critical that foreground, midground, and distant objects all be rendered in acceptably sharp focus.

Maximize Depth of Field.  To achieve that effect, focus on the hyperfocal distance. First determine which f-stop you’ve set. Now set the infinity mark on the focusing collar opposite the corresponding f-stop mark on the depth scale. Read the minimum distance of acceptable sharpness opposite the f-stop mark on the opposite end of the depth scale. The hyperfocal distance is twice this distance, which just happens to be the point of focus. These days, many lenses have no aperture ring or depth scale. In that case, consult a hyperfocal chart. You’ll note that the hyperfocal distance depends on the focal length and the aperture. For example, a 28mm lens set to f22 will render everything in focus between approximately 2.5 feet and infinity when focused at 5 feet. With a 100mm lens at f/32, the hyperfocal distance is 42 feet; everything from 21 feet (half the hyperfocal distance) to infinity will be rendered acceptably sharp.

Equipment Considerations.  Environmental wildlife portraits offer several advantages. The beginning photographer generally has all the necessary equipment. Since the 500 and 600mm bazookas are not necessary, even those on limited budgets can capture exceptional images of wildlife. Plus, there’s less weight to carry afield. My recommendations are as follows:

Lens Selection.  A wide angle lens, along with a moderate power zoom is all that’s required for even the most discriminating photographer. You’ll definitely want something in the 24 to 28mm range. When used under the right conditions, wide angle lenses are capable of drawing the viewer into the image. Most environmental portraits can be made with a 28-85mm and an 80-200mm zoom lens. That’s it! Nothing else is required.

Filters.  As far as I’m concerned there are only three filters worthy of finding their way into your equipment bag: warming, polarizing, and graduated neutral density filters. My old standby is a light amber 81A warming filter. It’s great for removing the unwanted bluish cast on overcast days, or adding pizzazz to reds and yellows. Ninety-nine percent of my images are made with this filter.

            Polarizing filters are idea for darkening blue skies along with adding a dramatic flair to clouds. Likewise, they increase the color saturation of red sandstone formations and foliage by removing glare. The polarizing effect is most pronounced when the camera is aimed 90-degrees from the sun.

            A graduated neutral density filter (or ND Grad) — generally a rectangular model that can be moved within a holder — is neutral gray on one half and clear on the other with the gray gently feathering into the clear section. They’re handy when faced with scenes involving bright skies, snow, sand, or water, along with darker areas. Position the filter so the gray section covers the bright elements of the scene. This tactic balances the sky’s brightness with a darker foreground, reducing contrast so the film can record detail in both segments of the scene. Graduated neutral density filters are available in various corrections. The single most useful is one where the gray is 2-stops darker than the clear half: called a Two Stop or 0.6 ND Grad.

Tripod. As I’ve said before, a tripod is like a good margarita — they both need to be strong. For this type of photography, the ability to steady a heavy lens is not required. However, a good tripod is invaluable for improving your compositions. Using a tripod, you can setup on a potential image, examine the entire frame from edge to edge, and then tweak as necessary. You can then maintain the desired composition while waiting for just the right pose from your subject.


            As we work to preserve the remaining species on our planet, the preservation of habitat is equally important. I am convinced that environmental wildlife portraits will have positive effects to that end. They portray not only where, but how an animal lives and how it interacts with other factors in nature. Since animals are the product of their habitat, we have a responsibility to portray them in that environment.

            As we learn to capture the loveliness of our wild brothers and sisters on film, let us also capture the beauty of their world in that same image.

Brown Bear - Morning Light on Cook Inlet
Lake Clark National Park, Alaska
© Weldon Lee/All Rights Reserved
You have to EXPERIENCE IT . . .