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Focal Point: Storytelling With Your Photos

Updated: Nov 28, 2020

Less than a second! The question is, how long is the average attention span for a person looking at a photo?

In the beginning of my journey as a wildlife photographer my goal was to get a sharp image of a stationary animal. How thrilling it was to bag and tag an eagle sitting up in a tree- got it! or a bear walking across the road – got it! Or a whale’s tale as they go into their dive – got it!

It took several years to begin feeling that these images are just that – images, nothing compelling or artistic. Yawn! I started looking at my photography in a different light. I tossed the checklist and began focusing on finding the unexpected in my photos- that jolt to cause people to stop and look, really look at my photos and hopefully say WOW!

I began asking myself when I was taking my photograph, what makes it interesting? As a consequence, I find myself spending more time watching the interaction of the wildlife waiting for that wow factor and passing on pictures being snapped by others. Of course, add a cub, an eagle swooping away with a fish, great light, awesome fall colors, a fight on the river--- a bear! NOW you have a story.

In the beginning you are looking to capture a great photo but now you are selecting your shot, picking your story and evoking emotion from your audience. There are two easy ways to trigger an emotion. The first is to try to get to the eye level of your subject. These photos get the most attention. The other is to get a close-up interaction such as between a mother and cub, or an unlikely friendship between animals.

Here are a few tests to run mentally to decide if an image has a story:

1. Is the bird sitting, is the background busy? A bird in flight, landing, feeding or two eagles fighting one another spins an interesting tale and can be a compelling story. Shot at DIPAC in July 2020. Canon 5D Mark III, Tamron 70-200, 1/1600 sec at f2.8, ISO 100.

2. Look for something unique about the environment or weather. These swans landed and were preening on the ice at Dredge Lake. Quite often when swans get out onto the ice they will flap their wings so be ready. The background is busy in this photo but the uniqueness of the swan and the ice make it work. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 100-400mm, 1/1250 sec at f10, ISO 200.

3. Look for a cute factor. A mother seal touching noses with her newborn baby, birds feeding their young, or in this case, a black bear and her cub enjoying a quiet moment together near the Mendenhall Glacier. Canon 5D Mark III, Tamron 70-200, 1/320 sec at f4.5, ISO 4000.

4. Intensity- the toughest of all shots but the most rewarding is when you can go eye to eye with your subject. A bear staring you down is very cool; such as in the case of this male Coastal brown bear on Baranof Island. He was actually turning and looked my way before he strolled off. Canon 5D Mark III, Tamron 70-200, 1/800 sec at f4.5, ISO 320.

Interesting and unique behavior give you the unexpectedness in photos and is what gets the attention and stays in people’s minds. So away with the list and start seeing your subject as an opportunity to tell a story, your story, with your images. Sometimes the subject doesn’t want to be photographed, but when they do the results are worth it.

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