One of the most common frustrations for people starting out in wildlife photography is not having a big enough lens. When the dream is to capture frame-filling, jaw-dropping portraits of an animal looking down the lens, it is easy to forget that a photo showing the animal in its environment can be just as powerful.
Until a couple of years ago, I almost exclusively used my 400mm telephoto lens to get soft dreamlike images of animals. Taking a wider 10-20mm lens on a trip to Slovenia was one of the best things for my photography as it took me out of my comfort zone, forcing me to take a wider perspective and tell broader stories about nature.
There are many articles available online that will make a strong technical argument on why wide-angle lenses are a versatile and very affordable addition to the wildlife photographer's kitbag. So for this blogpost, and as a relative newbie to wide-angle nature photography myself, I'll share a few of my favourite shots and why I feel that having a wider perspective can add a whole new dimension to your picture-taking.
This Great Bustard is one of 50 birds living on the Salisbury Plains in England as part of a reintroduction project. Although I learned that this particular individual is very friendly around people, I wasn't expecting her to come within just a few inches of my camera. It was a no-brainer to photograph her against the open expanse of her home, with the rolling sunlit hills and summery clouds of Wiltshire adding visual interest. A telephoto lens wouldn't be able to show this much depth whilst still keeping the bustard large in the frame.
Get Down Low
Every April and May, tourists swarm to the Dutch town of Hillegom to witness the vibrant displays of tulips. What I really wanted was a low wide-angle view with the flower-heads reaching up as if in celebration towards the sunny sky. My wide-angle camera was able to squeeze into a very snug space among the stalks, allowing for unique views of this annual event. The petals and flower-heads provide a natural frame.
Get Intimate With Small Subjects
This photo from Slovenia was my first test with the wide-angle on an animal. Having spent a few hours searching under rocks in a pine forest in Slovenia one dry summer's day, we finally found this Alpine Salamander on a clump of wet moss. This shot was to show the salamander at home, and to give some depth and intimacy to the image which would have been hard to achieve otherwise. I shone a diffused flash to add some light and texture on the salamander's inky-black skin.
This exquisite Marsican Iris can only be found in the Abruzzo National Park in Central Italy, so I wanted an image that showed that special relationship. With the snowy peak of Monte Marsicano (Mt. Marsican) lying at the far end of the valley, I was able to capture both icons of the Marsican landscape in one image, telling a stronger visual story as well as showing the habitat where this rare flower grows.
Tell A Whole Story
This is one of my favourite wide-angle shots as, although far from perfect, it tells a complex story. This Darkling Beetle is clinging on to a sand-dune during a fierce sandstorm in New Mexico. It rears its hind end in self-defence (if a predator comes close, it squirts noxious liquid) and bites its mandibles into the dune so that it won't get blown away. When the animal is this small in the frame, I used a little fill-flash to lighten up the foreground and also add drama to the stormclouds. A slow exposure of 1/30th seconds captured the flurried streaks of sand in the blackened sky. You see the harsh world of the open desert in which the beetle survives.
Embrace The Exaggerated Perspective
One of the first things you discover when using a wide-angle lens is that the closer the subject is to the camera, the more it dominates the image. In this case, I got an exaggerated and comical view of this pigeon as it looked into my lens. The two little children walking by gives a funny (and slightly ominous) sense of scale, with the pigeon appearing far larger than life!
Get Closer To The Action
When animals are as unbothered by your presence as these pigeons were, it's easy to get super close and get interesting shots of them as they feed and flap about. Waiting for a moment when the pigeons flew, combined with a low and wide perspective, makes for a more immersive photograph.
Take Creative Risks
On a trip to Texas, I decided that I wanted a unique photo of the giant Yucca flowers that bloom in springtime in the desert. Travelling with an astrophotographer gave me an idea of photographing the Yuccas against the starry night sky. To capture the starlight, I used a long exposure of over 10 minutes. For the first 30 seconds of exposure, I "painted" light over the flowers with my torch, resulting in a more unusual flower portrait.
These experiments make me realise the exciting potentials of wide-angle that I'd never been able to explore with my telephoto and I have no plans of looking back!