When first getting into wildlife photography, it's hard not to dream about photographing your favourite species in distant, exotic countries. When I first picked up a camera, all I could think about was Arctic Foxes, and Albatrosses and what I would give to photograph them. Of course, for most people (myself included), setting off to photograph our favourite species is not possible right at the beginning and this can leave you wondering what to photograph.
At first, common, habituated species, such as Mallards on a park pond will satisfy the urge to create images and practice your technique but it won't take long before you want to create a broader body of work that focusses on a particular species. This is where building a project becomes useful.
Continuing in the same vein as the previous post about shooting locally, working with one or two species at a time - over a long time - gives you focus and forces you to concentrate on building a portfolio of work that lets you explore different creative avenues with the ever-growing knowledge of the species you'll be gathering along the way. Working this way isn't supposed to be restrictive - rather it tries to prevent a scatter-gun approach to shooting that leaves you with little structure, and often little reward, for your efforts.
For example, for the last 6 years I have been photographing local buzzards that live about a mile from my home. In that time, I've become familiar with individual birds, their routines and habits and what they will and will not tolerate. With this knowledge, I've been able to refine techniques and experiment with new ideas to create a large and diverse portfolio. It's not as if I haven't photographed anything else during this time, far from it (see my Instagram account for recent work), but I know I can fall back on this species to build up more images at any time.
Where to begin?
Be realistic about your project's subject. You'll want to make sure you have enough interest in the subject to want to keep photographing it throughout the year and in all conditions. You'll also want to make sure you have easy and frequent access to the subject and where it lives. In addition to these crucial points think about the following:
- Has the subject received any attention in the past?
- Does the subject have an interesting natural history?
- When is the subject best photographed (is it nocturnal)?
Answering some of these questions can help provide answers to others. For example, if you decide to document the life cycle of local bees, you'll probably want to be out around dawn with a macro lens during spring and summer with one eye on environmental news headlines as the reports on the national demise of pollinators seem to be becoming more common.
Research is key
The more you can find out about your subject, the better prepared you will be. This can mean talking to people who know a lot about the subject. Legendary Nat Geo and Sea Legacy photographer, Paul Nicklen had over 600 contacts worldwide and researched his subject for a month before making the first image for his first assignment! That many contacts is probably overkill research time is probably overkill for a lot of people but it illustrates the point.
There is no minimum number of hours that you have to put in before you can say your research is complete. Think of it more as an open-ended aspect of the project but remember that even just spending a couple of hours in the field will be a good use of time.
Tools like trail cameras are extremely valuable at this stage of a project, allowing you to monitor locations when you have to be elsewhere. It can be a good idea to invest in or even make one of these cameras.
When visiting your location, think about:
- The direction of light at the different times of day
- Where you can conceal yourself (if required)
- The likelihood of disturbance and at which parts of the day
During the 'down-time', when conditions aren't great or in evenings when there is no light, continue your research and produce a list of images you want to create. If you're interested in using your images, contact experts in the relevant areas of study, charities that have an interest in the species, picture libraries and newspapers. All these outlets might be interested in using your images. Study the types of images some of these organisations use and think about how you could market your images to fit their needs.
Play the long game
When building a portfolio of work, there is a temptation is to create the images on your hit-list as quickly as possible. While it's good to tick images off, be prepared for your list to grow as you gain more experience with your subject. The more you learn, the more you will understand what is possible and the more ideas you will have. Remember, these projects are supposed to be open-ended so don't feel you have to stop once you've ticked off everything on your list.
If you are about to begin or are in the middle of an on going project, leave a comment below and let me know if you have found it useful to work this way. What bits were easy and where were (or are) the hardships?