Wildlife photography means many different things to different people. For me it is not just about the image, but also the experience. Often wildlife photography is just that: an experience. It is getting inside an animal’s world and experiencing the world with that animal. At times that experience only lasts a few seconds. I’m not satisfied simply looking at an animal’s world, but want to experience their world from within, as if I’m one of them.
I’m often asked how I got into wildlife photography and cinematography. This is a question, however, with no definitive answer. Though I became interested in photography in grade school, there was never a point at which I knew: “I am going to be a wildlife photographer.” Rather, I had a passion for the outdoors and an insatiable fascination with cameras that seemed to steer all of my life decisions towards this career. Once I had honed my skills to the point that my passion for wildlife was evident through my imagery, that is when people began to pay me for what I already loved to do.
By no means is this job easy. It’s filled with stress, disappointments and sacrifices. At times the only thing getting you up at four in the morning day after day is that passion that got you into photography to begin with. But from where does that passion come? For me, it comes from those special moments–the kind that cannot be duplicated. A beautiful spring morning comes to mind, when the air was crisp, and I was encircled by lush greenery and silence. As I sat at the base of a tree, a deer walked cautiously into my sight, lying down to give birth to her fawn. In intimate moments such as this, I am inspired to work harder to create more engaging imagery.
Observing anything in the natural world is enjoyable regardless of what the photographic conditions are, but it’s when all the elements come together simultaneously that the magic happens. For me “quality light” is the most important element of photography and cinematography. Even the most mundane subjects become stunningly beautiful in that magical light. When I refer to “magical or quality light,” most people instantly think of the first and last hour of the day when the sunlight is low, soft, and warm. While this is definitely a great time to shoot, it is certainly not the only time. The term “quality light,” is often misunderstood; it should be measured by how well any given light reacts and compliments your subject and how it manipulates the look of the background. Light creates shadows and shadows create detail, so often I find the best light for a subject might be high mid-day sun or conversely heavily overcast or even rainy days. One of my favorite lighting scenarios that I always look for is a back or side lit subject with a shadowed background. Another is including dark stormy skies as a background, which provoke feelings foreign to those produced by evenly front lit scenarios.
For over two decades my career as a wildlife photographer has been profitable, but more importantly it has been rewarding. As rewarding and inspiring as it has been, many years ago I realized there was still something inside of me that felt empty and incomplete. For each person that level of fulfillment is going to mean something completely different, and it took me 25 years to figure it out for myself. I finally realized that if the Earth and everything on it is constantly moving why am I trying to stop it with a single photograph. It was then that I introduced video into my life. The switch into natural history cinematography was an easy progression and felt completely organic for me, but it wasn’t without hurdles. Technically, video is much harder (and grossly more expensive.) There is no such thing as autofocus and it requires that you have a mastered understanding of exposure and how that exposure might change over a period of time. Formerly, as a still photographer alone, I was only concerned with proper focus, exposure and composition for a fraction of a second. Now, as a cinematographer, I am responsible for smoothly and seamlessly adjusting all of those elements over a continuous period of time. As a visionary, the ability to capture motion and tell a more complete story had been the missing link for me.
Regardless the medium you use to tell your story, remember to master the basics, find your niche, and follow your passion wherever it leads because the rewards will always outweigh the risk of stepping outside your comfort zone.
By Doug Gardner
Natural History Cinematographer/Still Photographer