Wildlife As Art: Beyond Photography

05/21/2019

With the advent of high-performance SLR and DSLR camera lenses, wildlife photography has become very popular, and the world is now awash with stunning images of terrestrial and marine wildlife taken by both professional and non-professional photographers. One only has to view the winning images in international wildlife photo contests sponsored by organizations such as National Audubon, National Wildlife Federation, and many others to see that this is true.

While highly recognized professionals such as Frans Lanting, Melissa Groo, Art Wolfe, Cristina Mittermeier, Arthur Morris, and David Doubilet have set the standards for this genre of photography for many years, many other professionals (and non-professionals) routinely capture and publish wonderful wildlife images.

I’m a retired university research biologist who began taking nature pictures for my personal and professional use with the purchase of my first Nikkormat SLR in 1967. Over the years, my photos have appeared in many scientific journals, books, and magazines such as Bioscience, Natural History, American Scientist, and National Geographic.

While I was an active field biologist, I didn’t spend much time doing wildlife photography. All of that changed, however, when I purchased my first Nikon DSLR in 2004 and retired and moved to Tucson, Arizona, in 2008. I now have the time to concentrate on wildlife photography and my other photographic specialty, ‘people doing interesting things.’

photo montage

Three-image montage: a Buff-tailed hummingbird from the Ecuadorian Andes; a fuchsia flower from the same site; and a shot of Andean cloud forest.

But from the start of my digital photography, my aim was not just to take excellent wildlife photos such as those I’d been seeing for decades in magazines like Life, National Geographic, National Audubon, and Arizona Highways. Instead, in response to my interest since childhood in art, especially painting and drawing, my aim has been to create painterly digital art based on my photographs. Using the wonderful software and techniques that are now available for digital artists, I began creating photo montages in 2012, and my quest to create impactful and beautiful works of digital art continues to this day.

The following are some lessons I’ve learned in the process of approaching wildlife images from a different angle that I hope will serve aspiring photographers looking to experiment.

1. Take Inspiration from Artists You Admire

Although I use many of the same tools such as Lightroom and Photoshop used by digital photographers, my toolbox also includes Nik and Topaz filters as well as Corel digital painting software. The aesthetic inspiration behind my photo montages more often comes from the world of painters and other manual artists rather than from the world of photography. For most of my life, the emotional content of paintings has had a greater appeal to me than that of pure photography (except for photojournalism from human conflict zones).

photo montage - bats

Three-image montage: a ten-second exposure that captured the visits of three Lesser Long-nosed nectar bats to an agave inflorescence in southern Arizona; an abstract sky image; and a full moon from the night these bats were photographed

As may be obvious in many of my images, my main artistic inspiration comes from the Impressionists. I must also give credit to the incredibly inspiring Sebastian Michaels for teaching thousands of us how to create stunning digital montages using Photoshop. I’d advise you to seek out visual art that appeals to your individual aesthetic and experiment with how you might incorporate these artist’s techniques into your photos, through technology, composition, and approach.

2. Explore Widely, Observe Closely, and Return Seasonally

As is true of most wildlife devotees, I obtain my wildlife images from a wide variety of places around the world. In addition to shooting locally around Tucson and Arizona, I also occasionally attend wildlife photo workshops in places that I’d like to visit, including Yellowstone in winter and the Grand Tetons in spring. I’ve also traveled to biodiversity hotspots such as East Africa, the Galapagos, and the Brazilian Pantanal to photograph wildlife. When I’m home, I like to do in-depth studies of local wildlife.

For example, I’ve spent most of two springs photographing the family life of round-tailed ground squirrels and one month photographing the growth and behavior of a pair of nestling Harris’s hawks. I return repeatedly to photograph seasonal changes in the bird life of Sweetwater wetlands in west Tucson. Whenever I’m out, I also shoot background material, including habitats, vegetation details, skies, and water and its reflections, for my montages. 

Two-image montage: a Wood duck and reflections of cattails near the bird. Both images come from Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson, AZ.

If you are able to travel in search of new wildlife photography experiences, that’s fantastic. If not, there are plenty of ways to get closer to the natural world that surrounds you–try quieter hours (at dawn or nighttime), go for day trips, try different seasons, and don’t discount subjects you might find in your own neighborhood. If you live in the city, you may not have bison on your block but you likely dwell near intriguing insects.

3. Experiment with Montages

I always begin to construct my montages in Photoshop by choosing the main subject or subjects, which I often modify slightly with one or more filters. I then choose one or more background images, usually modifying them with filters before combining them using layer masking. My backgrounds often, but not always, reflect some aspect of the habitat where the main subject lives. Once the background is complete, I copy and paste the main subject(s) onto it and use layer masking to bring up as much of the background as I want. To create a coherent overall tonality to the montage, I often finish it by pasting one or more additional ‘texture’ images onto it, changing these layers’ opacity and blending mode to create the desired ‘mood’ of my final image.

photo montage lion

Two-image montage: a well-fed female lion and sunset, both at Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

Whereas many digital artists create complex montages containing many layers, my finished montages usually end up with only five or six layers. I then save both a layered PSD file and a flattened Tiff or Jpeg file. Finally, I import a flattened version of the montage into Corel’s Painter Essentials 4 to create a digital painting using one of its style modules. ‘Oil Painting’ is my usual module choice. Try your own version of these techniques, experimenting with different subjects, filters, layer counts, textures, moods, and final effects.

4. Build Your Own Audience

The price I pay for going the digital art route with my photographs, of course, is that I cannot enter any of my heavily modified images in national or international wildlife photo contests. But that doesn’t really bother me since my main goal is to create compelling photo art. Instead, I am content to display and sell my art in local galleries. Especially rewarding, of course, are invitations to exhibit my art in solo gallery shows. Consider alternatives to more established promotion routes: build community with other photographers that do a lot of editing, host your own shows, collaborate with visual artists, and try alternative sales techniques.

photo montage owl

Three-image montage: a Great horned owl from the author’s backyard; a bird in flight at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum’s ‘Raptor Free-flight’ show; and a forest scene near Flagstaff AZ

Ultimately, I view myself as a latter-day Audubon or Robert Batemana digital wildlife painter rather than a pure photographer. I feel that for conservation and educational purposes, wildlife needs both straight photographers and other kinds of visual artists. There are many ways to portray the fantastic beauty of Earth’s amazing wildlife. Digital photography allows us to follow wherever our artistic muse takes us.

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Ted Fleming (Guest Blogger)

Ted Fleming is a retired university scientist and photographer. As an ecologist studying plant-animal interactions with an emphasis on bats, he conducted his research in Panama, Costa Rica, Australia, and Mexico. He has published many scientific papers and eight books. He and his wife live in Tucson, Arizona, where his photo art is exhibited in many local galleries. You can find his work at tedflemingphotography.com.