What makes a great Nature Photograph / Photographer – James Allan

Flight of the Jacana

Flight of the Jacana – James Allan – May not be great but it is one of mine.

What is it about nature photography that is so engaging?  I started out wanting to take pictures like Steve Parish and I have not tired of this obsession.  I’m not sure how successful my images are, but I enjoy the interactions with the natural world.  Watching and photographing small wild animals takes you into their world.  It’s just a privilege to find them.  Knowing the location, the time of day, the little clues that they are there.  Waiting patiently so that they acclimatize to your presence.  It lets you see life through different eyes.  I am clumsy with words, I will use a few quotes.

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”  ~William Shakespeare

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”  ~Albert Einstein

“Adopt the pace of nature:  her secret is patience.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Keep your love of nature, for that is the true way to understand art more and more.” ~Vincent Van Gogh

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs.  When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”  ~Ansel Adams

“Nature never goes out of style.”  ~Author Unknown

What makes a great wildlife photographer?  I don’t believe it is a set of rules.  It’s a sense of wonder.  What makes a great wildlife photograph?

According to the National History Museum “Wildlife photographer of the Year” competition there are ethical standards that must be adhered to.  I have paraphrased these requirements below:

Entries must not deceive the viewer or attempt to disguise and/or misrepresent
the reality of nature;

Entrants must not do anything to injure or distress any animals or destroy their habitat in an attempt to secure an image.  The entry will be disqualified if the entrant has achieved their image through cruel or unethical practices, including the use of live bait.

Entrants are responsible for relevant permits that may be required which will include the subject’s permission (human subjects).

Grey Headed Fish eagle

Image Source – Nikon , Birds in Flight  – This is an image of the grey headed eagle and not an example of live baiting.

The endangered Grey Headed fish Eagle that can be found near Singapore has created an ethical controversy.  Wildlife photographers have been filmed using live bait packed with polystyrene in order to get action photographs of this bird.

And there are image requirements:

Digital files must be submitted as JPEGs, saved at a high quality setting of at least 8 in Photoshop, Adobe RGB (1998), and at 1920 pixels along the longest dimension. No borders, watermarks or signatures should be included.

Entrants whose work has been shortlisted will be required to provide the following:

  1. RAW files (eg .CR2, .NEF, .ORF, .PEF etc), original untouched JPEGs, and original transparencies or negatives, will be required for authentication. DNG files are only permitted if this is the native RAW format of the camera;
  2. High resolution files (preferably TIFF) required for printing should be 8-bit, Adobe RGB (1998) at full resolution, and match the colour and cropping of the JPEG submitted at entry. Please do not upscale. Files must not exceed 500MB.

Digital adjustments including tone and contrast, burning, dodging, cropping, sharpening, noise reduction, minor cleaning work, HDR, stitched panoramas, focus stacking and multiple exposure taken at the same location at the same time are permitted providing that they comply with the Competition’s principles of authenticity so that they do not deceive the viewer or misrepresent the reality of nature.

While digital adjustments are allowed, adding or removing objects, animals or parts of animals, plants, people etc, is not.

Caption information must be complete, true and accurate, and provide the following:

  • Description (behaviour observed; background story; exact location; if any bait was used, and if so, of what nature; if the species is of scientific interest)
  • EXIF details should be kept intact (eg camera, lens, exposure etc)

The faking of wildlife images has become big news.  Some writers claim that the majority of “wow factor” nature photographs on the internet are faked.  For instance a range of small animal photos can be taken using devices like string to create unusual postures and dramatic poses.  Is it a great image?  Is this cruel and unnatural?  It is certainly not in the rules.  No adding or subtracting.  No intentional deception.  The rules are there for a reason.

At this point I need a reality check.  Is this such a crime?  A century ago wildlife enthusiasts killed and stuffed their subjects.   Butterflies were mounted on boards with pins.  After all these “fake” photos make for  interesting images, and the animal can be released back into the wild.  I guess the crime is more dishonesty rather than harm to the animal.

Unfortunately myths and untruths sour the way we see our world and result in harm being done.  We don’t really know how this animal was treated.  It may have perished as a result of the endevours to photograph it.  There has to be a point where photographers behavior is no longer conscionable.  This can not be determined if there is not full disclosure.   When you know the true story of an image you want to be inspired, not let down.

But what makes a truly great image?  I’m going to tell you what I think

Image quality


Ron McComb – Third place in Scottish Seabird Centre 2012 Annual competition

A beautifully exposed and focused image is a wonderful thing, even better when it is a beautiful wildlife shot.  This is obvious.  You know, things like sharpness, contrast, accurate colour and lack of noise are all important.    Unfortunately it seems that high image quality requires photographic skill and often high quality (more expensive) equipment.  It’s not something you can fix with post processing.



Jonathon Gaunt – Nuthatch – experiment with unconventional composition

A lot is said about composition.  I have decided  that most of the comments are conventions and preferences, not rules.  For instance why do you need space in front of a moving object and not behind.  Why should action move from left to right.  Why should there be three birds on a branch and not two?  Who is to say what colours go together and which clash.  Every combination of colours occurs in nature.  These statements of conventional wisdom are useful guides, but are not meant to limit the number of acceptable images.

My Advice is to experiment with different compositions and chose the format that best suits the subject matter.  How much space do you put around a subject?  Experiment, it makes a difference.  A good image does not follow tradition.  Often the best images defy convention.



Beetle-cam picture of a Leopard – Burrard Lucas

The best wild life shots are engaging.  They take you into the world of the subject.  They shrink you down to the size of a mouse or as large as a whale.  A common piece of advice is to move the camera up or down to the height of the animal.  Well more specifically to look them in the eye.  Eyes are engaging.  When they are staring at you, you just want to stare right back.

The other thing that captivates is action.  Wildlife in the process of doing something is more captivating than a static image.  Licking a paw, leaping from a perch, stalking a prey, protecting a nest.  Whatever the action,  it’s better than a bird on a stick, or an animal on the grass.  Capturing action often requires time.  It doesn’t usually happen at first contact.  the animal tires of your presence after a period and things get back to normal and that’s when things happen.  Also you need fast shutter speeds and quick reflexes.

Environment / Background

winner - pin up 2016 Simon Tassell On the hunt 680px wide

Simon Tassell – On the hunt – Barn Owl

The background is important.  Usually the photographer is trying to make the background dissapear so that they can isolate the subject.  Long focal length lenses help with this task.  However the subject may be less than 10% of the total surface area of the photograph.  The bland non-descript back ground must also be pleasing.  It is nice if it has muted colours, a low contrast and a soft texture or a repeating pattern that does not distract from the subject.  Sometimes my favorite images are ones where the animal is juxtaposed over an abstract but vibrant background.

One important role for the background is to place the animal in context.  An owl in a forest is more authentic than one in a cage.  An elephant standing on an endless plain is not likely to be taken in captivity.  Placing an animal in it’s natural habitat often makes the difference between a good image and a great image (in my opinion).

The story

When I first saw underwater pictures of elephants swimming in National Geographic magazine I was fascinated.  I didn’t know they could do that.  How do they get those shots?  Perhaps the best series is by commercial wildlife  photographer Steve Bloom.  There is certainly a role for wildlife photography to show the unexpected, the unusual.  Fortunately there is a lot of really weird stuff that actually takes place.  You do not have to make things up.  Reality is weird enough and certainly the best story teller.

I get a little annoyed by anthropomorphic images.  “Anthropomorphic” refers to the tendency to interpret events through human eyes.    You know, the bear has his paw raised and the caption says, “Hold on honey I forgot my hat”.  It is good for a laugh, and the expression is priceless.  However it is just as much a lie as the frog and string image.  It is not the true story of this image.  I can’t claim to be blameless, I am guilty of making these comments myself.  However I think we should attempt to tell the true story of what’s going on.



The House Sparrow is actually quite an attractive bird

There is an aspect where great images transform the subject mater.  An ordinary every day thing becomes a thing of beauty.  That’s what you want to do.

Well that’s my point of view.  What do you think?