Creating animalscapes

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Showing animals in their environment is more challenging — but much more rewarding — than taking portraits. With a few pointers and knowing when to wait for a situation to develop, you can create some stunning shots. So we asked Edward Selfe to share his top tips for photographing widllife in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park.

Generating images of animals in their environment can be done in two ways: by using a wide-angle lens from very close to your subject, or by using a telephoto lens (zoomed to between 100mm and 500mm) and shooting from a distance.

In both cases, you will have included large amounts of the habitat and created an image which tells a story of the animal’s place in its environment.

The benefit of using a telephoto lens is that you don’t have to get very close to your subject, which is of course not always possible on safari. However, you do have to look further into the distance for your animalscape opportunities, and you have to be ready for them.

The following image was taken at about 300m from the leopard. Yes, it would have been nice to get closer to the leopard, but from this range we could take shots of her in her environment, including when she was scenting and then scent-marking this fallen tree.

In this shot, I saw the way that the fallen tree made an arch, and waited for the leopard to pass underneath. When she lifted her head to scent the tree, that was a very welcome bonus!

As this shows, animalscapes are as much about the shape and composition of the surroundings as they are of the animal itself. The leopard image works well because the fallen tree is an interesting shape in its own right, the light is good, giving shape to the trees, and the leopard fits neatly into the space below the trunk.

Similarly, in the elephant photo below it is the surroundings that make the shot. The bands of light and dark sand, with shiny water in between, make for an interesting composition on their own. The position of the elephant is carefully chosen to balance the dark bottom-left section of the image. The contrast is accentuated when converting the image to black and white.

So how do we get animalscape images in the bush? The key is to start thinking about the habitat as a subject in itself, and the animals as a shape in the surroundings. Particularly with Africa’s iconic species, which are so recognisable, it’s not necessary to approach close. Keeping back, and choosing to position yourself with the whole scene in mind (rather than just the subject) will quickly give you great results.

For this shot, I noticed the ‘stripy’ banded scenery in this image before there were any animals in the scene. Hoping that a zebra might walk into the frame (I wanted vertical stripes to run perpendicular to the horizontal stripes of the background), I waited. The zebras didn’t come, but a lone impala walked into the shot and stood neatly against the green band behind. Without the background this shot would be of an impala in the distance, and of little value.

This technique can also be useful when it’s not possible to get close to the animals, either because they are very shy or they’re inaccessible. One of my favourite animalscapes is the eland photo below.

Eland are incredibly shy and I only managed to get to roughly 500m range before he ran for cover. But in this time I was able to capture a satisfying shot by considering how it looked against the surroundings. I could see that the trees behind were more pleasing than the ground below, so I shifted the frame upwards to cut out the foreground. I could also see that the trees either side of the subject made convenient book-ends for my shot, so I shifted the frame until they were arranged at either side of the image.

Although the eland makes up only five per cent of the area of this image, he is large enough to be identifiable and his colours complement the whole scene nicely.

Another benefit of keeping your distance from your subject, and shooting with a long lens, is that your ‘angle of view’ is more flattering. In other words, you are looking horizontally at your subject, rather than down on it, as you do when you are very close. The benefit of this is that the background to your subject is the landscape behind it, rather than the ground below it — this gives a much more natural effect.

In the image above — of a herd of impalas grazing quietly on the short grass dambos at the end of the dry season — the animals are feeding with their heads down; this would not normally make an interesting photo.

But the soft side-light and particularly the tunnel of trees in the background make the image into something special. Had we driven closer, we would have lost the chance to have the trees in the background of the shot — the higher ‘angle of view’ would have meant that the grassland would have made up most of the background.

This elephant image was a long time in the making — boy, it took a lot of patience! We found the herd and hoped to photograph them in morning light with the trees behind. For almost 30 minutes, they kept their backs to us, huddled in a bunch, giving us no chances! Such is wildlife. But finally, the cow broke away from the group and wandered away, allowing us to work with the shape of single elephant.

By this time, the light was not as flattering as it had been, so I decided to ‘think in black and white’, looking for shapes and tones rather than colour. I moved the vehicle until I saw a composition materialising and waited for her to move into it. Here, the large tree on the right hand side of the image balances the elephant, and the smaller trees in the background provide interest without distracting. Crucially, the elephant’s shape is clear and unbroken — a tree close behind her would break her silhouette and disrupt the shot.

Perhaps surprisingly, my favourite animalscape of the year (and one of my overall favourite shots) is this photo of a baboon resting on a termite mound.

The baboon takes up perhaps only one per cent of the frame, but is immediately identifiable and recognisable. The two large trees provide a clear and balanced frame, and the trees behind complement the image and block most of the bright sky.

Where the sky does appear, it is bright and washed out, but it forms a line pointing downwards towards the baboon, which is resting on the beautifully-shaped termite mound. The baboon’s shape is unbroken by the bushes behind and — for just a second — he turns to look at the camera.

Making something unusual from the commonplace is what we strive to do on photo safaris in the Luangwa. I love these animalscape techniques and strive to share these ideas with my guests and help them make interesting images of their own. One of the most rewarding results of this technique is that everyone creates different images, even though we are sitting in the same spot!

Remember: keep your distance, compose carefully, exclude anything that doesn’t complement your image, and look for the shapes and tones in the image. Your subject is often just a shape too, so consider how that fits into the overall scene.

Edward Selfe is a specialist photographic guide based year-round in South Luangwa. www.edwardselfephotography.com

READ MORE: Want to know how to take great pics of carmine bee-eaters? See Edward’s top tips here: https://travelafricamag.com/photographing-carmine-bee-eaters/

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