Using Position in Wildlife Photography

by Steve Schwartzman | December 19, 2014

© Steve SchwartzmanThe three most important things in real estate are location, location, location. In wildlife photography, they are position, position, position. As a nature photographer specializing in plants, I offer some suggestions on using position to your advantage when creating your work.

1) Get close.

Photo-worthy details in many subjects only become visible when you get close. Even point-and-shoot cameras often have a macro mode, and if you use an interchangeable-lens camera you can buy a macro lens for it. I took the majority of the pictures in this article with a macro lens.

2) Shoot horizontally.

Often that means kneeling or sitting down to isolate a subject against subjects that are far enough away to remain nicely out of focus in the background. In the picture of a green lily budding, for example, the surrounding land has lost most of its detail. Even less distinct is the background in the picture of a new cedar elm leaf. If a plant is growing along the bank of a river or lake, that body of water can become a mostly neutral background; an example of that is the seed head of a sunflower by a pond. Shooting horizontally, especially with a long lens, can also produce a different effect; with objects that are numerous but small, aiming horizontally can bunch them together and partly fill the spaces between them, as in the photograph of rain-lilies in a colony.

Portrait of wildflower © Steve Scwartzman

Flowerhead © Steve Scwartzman

Flowers © Steve Scwartzman

Leaf © Steve Scwartzman

3) Shoot upward.

Getting down low and shooting at a sufficiently raised angle lets the sky becomes the background. That could be a clear blue sky, as in the photograph of a Clematis drummondii flower and bud, or a softly clouded sky, as in the picture of the basket-flower. That photograph marked the beginning of what I think of as a new approach to nature photography for me. I was at Round Rock, a rapidly growing city north of Austin on an early May day. I was in a field on one side of a cul-de-sac, a bit of prairie that members of the Native Plant Society of Texas had taught me was a good place to see lots of native species. That day I’d gone there alone so I could take my time photographing (other people understandably get impatient if I spend 15 minutes or half an hour in the same spot, as I often do when I take pictures).

Technique © Steve Scwartzman

I was pleased to find a colony of basket-flowers, growing in the field, but they weren’t far from the road that had brought me there, which has since been expanded to a superhighway. To keep the road and the apartments across the way from ruining my picture, I leaned down so that my eyes would be closer to the level of the flowers. Not good enough: I could still see distractions in the background. I ended up lying flat on the ground—a skin-threatening thing to do in Texas—and looking up at a single basket-flower so I could isolate it against the sky. A view from this angle makes it clear why Anglo settlers called this a basket-flower.

Photographic technique © Steve Scwartzman

4) Play a bright subject off against a darker background.

By moving around your subject, you may be able to find a position that lines it up with something shaded in the background, like a grove of trees. That was what I did in the photograph of a mountain pink bud and flower with a stand of ashe juniper trees some distance away. For this photo, I got down low to the ground and held my camera in a position where the bud and flower happily lined up with a shadowed portion of the trunks of a group of ashe juniper trees in the near distance. The trees were far enough away that my aperture of f/7.1 was sufficiently large to render them completely formless yet small enough to keep the nearer side of the bud in focus. The flower, by virtue of being behind the bud—ah, virtuous flower—is pleasingly out of focus but remains recognizable. An active imagination may do more than recognize: It may see a yellow-headed dancer facing forward with upper body thrown back and pink arms upraised.

Bright flower © Steve Scwartzman

5) Play a subject of one color off against a background or a background element of a different color.

An example is the photograph of a coreopsis bud opening in front of a pink evening primrose. Another example, with a similar color scheme but in reversed positions, is the picture of a Texas thistle bud that appears against the bright yellow background of an out-of-focus colony of Engelmann daisies. This closeup shows the plant when the first few disk flowers begin to poke their way out. I compare it to a baby bird hatching out of its shell. I’m also reminded of a solar flare, and the yellow background of Engelmann daisies lends itself to that sunny metaphor, even if the “flare” itself is pink. This picture comes from my visit to the old Union Hill Cemetery in Williamson County in early May.

Bright flower bud © Steve Scwartzman

Bright flower portrait © Steve Scwartzman

6) Position your primary subject way off center.

People talk about the rule of thirds, which amounts to putting the primary subject a third of the way over from a vertical edge and simultaneously a third of the way above or below a horizontal edge to avoid the static image that can result from a centered subject. For example, in the picture of two ants entombed in a drop of sunflower resin, the ants occupy a position one-third over from the left edge of the frame and a bit more than one-third up from the bottom. But the rule of thirds is merely a guideline, and an even more extreme position is possible, as in the placement of the swallowtail butterfly in a wildflower-covered cemetery and of the flowering goldenrod played off against wispy clouds. And of course a centered subject may be just fine too.

Two ants in sunflower resin © Steve Scwartzman

Butterfly on flower © Steve Scwartzman

Golden flower againts blue sky © Steve Scwartzman

7) Go with the flow.

If there’s movement in a scene, as is often the case in nature because the wind is blowing, you can use a high shutter speed to freeze objects when they’re off-kilter. That directionality can make for a more dynamic picture than if a colony of plants had just been standing there. An example is the photograph of cattails blowing, for which I used a shutter speed of 1/500 sec. to stop the action when the cattails were at one end of their arc. A closer and more extreme view using this technique is one showing poverty weed bending in the prairie wind. Another possibility is to do the opposite and use a slow shutter speed to create a blur while some of the objects in the scene move about. A good example of that is the photograph of firewheels, nightshade, and gaura blowing.

Cattails blowing © Steve Scwartzman

Flowers blowing in wind © Steve Scwartzman

Poverty weed blowing in wind © Steve Scwartzman

I use many other “positioning” techniques with my nature photography; read more on my website and follow my blog.

About the Author

Steve Schwartzman grew up on Long Island, New York and moved to Austin Texas in 1976. In his early years in Texas he did some landscape photography, still primarily in black-and-white infrared. In 1999, he became an early adopter of digital photography and launched a project to produce a photographic CD documenting the Austin area. In the process, he grew increasingly aware of and captivated by the many species of native plants that grow where he lives, and they became and remain his primary photographic subject.

Steve has had countless photographs published in Texas Highways, Texas Prairie Journal and Wildflower magazines. In 2007, his photograph of the basket flower described above was chosen as the top 100 of more than 60,000 entries in Parade Magazine, which is included in Sunday newspapers. In 2009 and 2010 Quick Reference Publishing commissioned Steve to provide all the photographs and text for three laminated wildflower guides: North Texas, Central Texas, and Southeast Texas. In 2013, he won first place in a LadyBird Johnson Wildflower Center contest for his photography. To view more of Steve's work see his blog.

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