Personal projects for the widlife photographer

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Professional attitudes

Many professional photographers, e.g. Chase Jarvis, Jonathon Kambouris and Jose Rosado, discuss the importance of personal projects to both practice their craft and to develop new sources of potential revenue. Specifically as a tool to demonstrate their competence in a genre to prospective clients. Amateur photographers often participate in photographic competitions or evenings at clubs which include a theme. A theme is chosen and it is incumbent on the photographer to represent the theme in their photography.  Themes can be the practical or mundane, e.g. ‘local town’ or ‘landscapes’, to the esoteric e.g. ‘life’ or ‘yellow’. It is a staple tool of art schools teaching artists and photographers and in many ways is intrinsic to developing their ability to understand and develop a client’s ‘brief’.

Theme or personal project?

I would suggest for the purpose of this discussion that the term ‘theme’ and ‘personal projects’ are interchangeable. For a professional photographer a theme is akin to a client’s brief whilst a personal project is exactly that. A photograph or portfolio of images taken for enjoyment or possible future benefit (possibly both).

To the amateur photographer, unencumbered by the requirements of clients, every shoot can be a personal project whether it has a theme or not.

Use in wildlife photography

How often does a wildlife photographer throw their camera in their bag with a casual thought of taking taking some photos? Upon reviewing their days photography how often do the same repetitive images appear in their portfolio? The classic ‘bird-on-a-stick’ imagery. With the associated slightly derogatory implications of the phrase.  

How could a theme be interpreted into wildlife photography?

Classification & distinction

Animals and birds can be classified broadly:

  • male

  • female

  • adult

  • juvenile

  • healthy / sick / injured

Behaviour also falls into broad categories:

  • feeding

  • display

  • fighting

  • predation

  • flight

  • walking / running

Often plumage or colouration changes depending on sexual maturity or season.

When taken in combination e.g. male breeding plumage displaying versus female plumage or seasonal changes, then photographing even the most common of UK garden birds takes on a whole new challenge. The photographer is not taking a photograph of a bird but a specific bird demonstrating a specific behaviour under specific circumstances. A theme is developing and from that a personal project.

Using projects successfully

To successfully undertake a project identify the parameters that require consideration. For example:

  • Season – will the species be demonstrating the behaviour at this time, if not when?
  • Location – some species only display certain behaviours at specific locations.
  • Time – animals follow patterns of activity, are they sedentary during the day but active at dusk & dawn, nocturnal, do they feed in a pattern?
  • Migratory – some species move with the seasons.

From this list a plan develops.

Benefits for your shoots

Anything that focuses the photographer prior to embarking on a shoot has several benefits:

  • Minimises the equipment taken to that required to fulfil the expected outcome – no more lenses in the bag ‘just in case’.

  • Increases knowledge  of the species in question – you need to know its behaviour, locations and patterns prior to the shoot.

  • Understanding a species minimises disturbance, e.g. interrupting displays, inadvertently disturbing nests.

  • Better planned shoot has more chance of success.

  • Less chance of missing a shot because of distractions – you have a goal.

Portfolio selection

As the photographer gains an increasingly diverse range of images of a species portfolio selection becomes easier. Images are added as they show different behaviours yet are part of the same, or similar, themes.

The selection of images within this post are all taken of one species (pine marten) from one location (my hide) yet cover a range of behaviours (climbing and on the ground) in different seasons (summer & winter) and with the animal wet and dry. The gallery Mammals of Scotland have more.