How to Use Storytelling in Nature Photography to Create Compelling Images

What makes a great photograph? Does the answer simply depend on technical composition or is there some other element that can infuse a technically-sound image deep meaning? Nature photographer Florian Schulz would say that the key to a truly moving photo is storytelling. A photographer may have mastered the technical aspects of the craft and create lovely images, but the most potent photographs connect with the viewer and tell a story.

In this short interview, Schulz provides several general tips for improving one’s landscape and wildlife photography and discusses how he incorporates storytelling into his own work to create truly compelling photographs:

5 Tips for Landscape Photography

1. Do your research. Study topographical maps and figure out the peak lighting times and directions of the area you’re planning to photograph. It’s often beneficial to also take a look at other photographers’ images of the area, if only to find out how not to photograph a space in order make your images unique. Do your best to set yourself up for success on the ground.

2. Scout the location. If you’re strong enough to resist the urge, don’t immediately grab your camera and start snapping when you arrive on location. Instead, spend time exploring the area, studying angles and imagining what the light play will look like at golden hour. Look for elements in the landscape that grab your attention and decide how to incorporate them into your composition.

3. Put something important in the foreground. This is perhaps the most crucial aspect of composition in landscape photography. In order to get that dramatic “sweeping” effect that characterizes the greatest landscape photos, you usually need to communicate depth and lead the viewer’s eye through the photo by providing an interesting, sharp foreground.

“What’s really important often is to have some dramatic opening, something that’s really important, in the foreground,” said Schulz. “That might be a small reflection pool. It might be an ancient root or a rock that’s covered with lichen. You really need to have one of those elements… to lead you or the viewer into the image.”

florian schulz nature wildlife animal landscape outdoor mountains wildflowers rainbow

Schulz used a higher aperture to keep the foreground and the background sharp in this image.

4. Wait for the right light. As with most types of photography, golden hour lighting tends to make for some of the best landscape images. However, that might not be the effect that you’re going for. Know your vision for each image and be prepared to wait a long time for the perfect lighting and weather conditions to achieve it.

“What’s nice about a landscape is it’s not going to run away,” said Schulz. “It stays put so I can really wait for the right light and that’s pretty much the key in a landscape photograph.”

5. Know why you want to make the image. During the entire preparation process, decide why you want to photograph that particular scene and what you want to communicate through your images. This will make your images stronger by far.

“Think about the story that you want to tell,” Schulz said. “Why do you really want to capture this image? Why does it mean so much to you? That will probably give the answer [about] how to photograph it and what you want to bring into the picture.”

aerial river valley field visions of the wild

Schulz used the river in the foreground to lead viewers’ eyes to that majestic mountain range.

5 Tips for Wildlife Photography

1. Learn and practice the craft. As with faster-moving photography genres, such as sports photography, you’d better know your stuff when you head out into the field or you will miss or butcher those “wow” moments instead of skillfully capturing them. Learn your camera, learn lighting, and learn how to predict what might happen next.

2. Log time in the field. The success of your wildlife photography depends on your patience level and your willingness to bunker down in the field for long periods of time. Master wildlife photographers spend days, weeks, or even years working to get a shot that they have envisioned.

3. Observe animals to learn their behavior and habits. Before you ever bring your camera to your eye, you must become a student of the animal you’ve decided to photograph. If you will spend the time learning habits, game trails, and nest locations, as Schulz suggests, you will know how to predict animals’ movements and you’ll be able to capture totally unique images.

“In the course of days or even weeks, you start to understand the personality of the animal,” said Schulz. “You may learn about habits that this bird may have and when you do see, for example, repetitions, you are a lot more likely to be able to set up and be prepared to capture one of those images that you’re imagining.”

wolves wolf pack tundra hills

Schulz likely knew that these wolves often passed through this area, so he knew where to wait.

4. Know the proper etiquette. Give the animal its space when you’re observing and photographing it. If you conduct yourself quietly with respect for the creature, then it will likely do the same for you and eventually cease seeing you as a threat. That means better photos. In the video, Schulz recounts an awesome experience with a family of grizzly bears that would never have been possible if he had ever previously misconducted himself in their presence.

“I think some of the most happy moments is if you feel like the animal that you’re photographing builds some kind of a trust with you,” said Schulz. “That only happens after you’ve been in the vicinity of the animal for several days, maybe even weeks.”

5. Know why you want to make the image. Don’t just take pictures—become a photographer-storyteller. Determine why you want to photograph this particular animal and what you want to try to communicate through your photos. It’s not enough to nail the technical aspects. You need to mean something by the image.

“What does it mean to you to photograph your subject?” Schulz said. “When you’re producing an image and this image will tell a story, then it’s an image that resonates with people. Some of it may be a series of images, but the big goal would be that one single image captures a story that goes beyond the image.”

bear white grizzly black forest river stream fish eating

Viewers connect to the bear’s gentle expression in this image.

Florian Schulz is widely known for his strong conservationist views and he uses his nature photography to encourage viewers to become involved in worldwide conservation efforts. He lives in Germany, where he co-runs his photography business, Visions of the Wild, with his wife Emil.

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One response to “How to Use Storytelling in Nature Photography to Create Compelling Images”

  1. Avishai says:

    Great article! Love the tips about wildlife photography!

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