Why Nature Photography is Stuck in the Past

From my desk calendar, a tiger peers at me behind leaf sprays. I flip through the months. A whale fin splashes; butterflies feed at flowers; a bear catches a salmon; a fish hides in an anemone; moonlit elephants bathe and trumpet, or just gaze into the camera like the one in the simple image here. Each situation has been the subject of countless photographs.

These images are technically and aesthetically up-to-date, and certainly have their place. Yet with more than a century of experience now behind us, I believe nature photographers should be reaching deeper into new territory. We can be natural historians with a camera, journalists transcending color and design to encompass the uniqueness and drama of a species’ existence.

A magazine article’s interconnected images should tell a story; each one, like a well wrought paragraph, must instruct and enthrall. Furthermore, as in ordinary journalism, the goal is to record not simply everyday routine, but decisive moments -- actions or events that might occur once in a subject’s lifetime, such as a marriage or bereavement might for a human.

For any publication, then, I look at the proportions of three types of images: decisive moments; landscapes; and portraits. Within the portrait category I include rudimentary or commonplace behavior, such as a bird brooding her young; bugs mating; a snake threatening the camera; a leopard in a blurry dash. While satisfying when executed well, portraits weaken a story when they are too numerous, because they draw little from life’s most poignant dynamics. On the other hand, a story feels incomplete if a sweep of the subject’s environment -- a landscape -- is not introduced at least once.

Of the three kinds of images, usually an article with few dramatic action pictures especially suffers, no matter how elegant the presentation or sumptuous the plumage. If the topic were human affairs, the viewer might conclude that the photographer had weak emotional or intellectual connections with his own species. In this respect wildlife photography lags well behind other forms of journalism.

The fault lies as much with editors as photographers. It is effortless to pick that calendar-style image or (in a frequent regress back to many Life magazine stories of a half century ago) the staged shot in a studio. This reflects both a lack of originality and emphasis on technical perfection over content. Just review most of the winners of nature photography competitions.

The scarcity of (non-trivial) action images of nature subjects suggests opportunities for growth. Rather than ever-refining their presentation of the same, familiar events, photographers and their editors can seek out new behavior and insights to surprise their viewers. It is astonishing how much there is still out there to find.

Updated and refined from:

Magnificent Moments:
The World’s Greatest Wildlife Photographs
GH Harrison, editor. Willow Creek Press (1995)

This post expands upon page 126 of AAA.


  1. Well, I certainly don't know nature photography like you do, Mark, but this rings true. Some of what you're saying sounds like nature photography needs to me more like good street photography. You're after moments in time, possibly unique ones, not just standard-issue poses that allow the view to identify the animal (and marvel at the photographer's chops).

  2. Interesting ideas. Some of the points about the types of photos needed to make a story complete almost start to sound like a discussion of film editing conventions: establishing shot, medium shot, close up, two shot, etc.

  3. I'm listening to people talking about bees On Point, June 18th. It sounds like there may be some similarities between bee and ant culture. Has anyone researched possible connections?


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