The Stages of Growth as a Wildlife Photographer

stage 5 attemptAn attempt at a stage 5 photo, noticing the gold colors of the rising sun on the water, I waited for an elk I heard bugling. The elk did merge and swam across the river but was too far away to make this an award-winning shot. It is about getting in position and waiting. 

As you progress through your wildlife photography journey I believe you go through various stages as you develop your skills. I mentioned this on one of my social media pages and it generated a lot of comments and conversation. I believe there are 5 stages you go through as you progress as a photographer in this field. 

STAGE 1: Your goal is to just capture a photo of X. This would be a species you have never caught on a camera before like an owl, a grizzly, a lion, a lynx etc. You are just so happy to see the animal you just start clicking and want to get a photo that is not blurry with no thought of light, composition, background etc. 

stage 1 photoA stage 1 photo. The background does not enhance the image, there are shadows because the sun is too high in the sky making the light harsh, but the subject is in focus.

STAGE 2: Your goal is to get a photo of X with nice light. You spend a bit of time considering the time of day, and where the sun is and try to get a photo that does not have a lot of shadows, is really underexposed because it is too late in the day or in deep shadows or has harsh light because the sun is too bright. 

stage 2 imageA stage 2 photo. The caribou is in focus and due to the clouds there a no shadows or harsh light but a soft light that is good for photography, However, there is no unique behaviour and the background does nothing to enhance the subject and is distracting in some places especially the tree right beside the antlers which is bright and draws the attention of your eye. 

STAGE 3: Your goal is to get a photo of X with nice lighting and a creamy background or another background that greatly compliments your subject. At this stage, you are starting to consider the composition of your photo and you are aware of the light. You are looking to position yourself in the field to maximize the effect of the background, you are moving around a bit and seeing how the background changes as you move. Are there branches that can be minimized if you move, are there pockets of color that better compliment your subject if taken from a different angle, can you get enough separation from your subject and the background to blur the background? And almost everything you are shooting is at eye level. These make all the good photos you see on social media. The subject is well-light, it's at eye level and it has a nice background, you like the image on Instagram as you scroll by, it's that type of image. 

stage 3 imageA stage 3 photo The coyote is almost at eye level, the lighting is good and the background blurs out so the focus remains on the subject. 

STAGE 4: Your goal is to get all the elements of stage 3 in the photo but with a unique behaviour of your target species. So this is not just another nice photo of a grizzly, a leopard, or an eagle. This is a photo of a bear charging or a leopard showing a tender moment to a cub or an eagle just as it clutches a fish, all with great lighting, great composition at eye level with an awesome background. These are the images on social media that you pause at as you are scrolling along and you may even leave a comment, like nice capturegreat shot etc.

stage 4 imageA stage 4 photo. It has good lighting, there is great action and behaviour in the photo, the background is not competing with the subject and the bear is nice and sharp in great focus and at eye level. 

STAGE 5: These are the award winners, the ones that really stand out. You have all the elements of stage 4, but the image has that special lighting, not just good lighting. That rare light that only lasts for a few moments, like the purple or gold only seen right before sunrise or sunset on occasional days, the backlighting that elevates your image. You recognize the moments in the field when the light is just so special, the purples and golds just so intense and you hope you getting a cooperative subject at that moment. When you enter these images in a contest even as a thumbnail it stands out as the judges are scrolling through the entries because of the unique color and when viewed full screen all the other elements are there, the composition, the background, the sharpness, it is simply a WOW photo. And if you really knock it out of the park you get great behaviour with it, like the backlit bear shaking off water, or the trumpeter swan rising slightly out of the water flapping its wings in the beautiful purple colors of the rising sun reflecting on the water. You get comments like incredible, WOW, unbelievable on your social media when you post these ones. 

stage 5 photoA stage 5 photo. The owl is in golden light coming from behind making the feathers of the owl that are blowing in the wind golden. Rarely do you see winds strong enough that the feathers of the owl can be backlit and the owl has an intense stare which makes the behaviours or actions a bit more unique than just an owl perched on a fence post.

What I find is you are never entirely operating in a single stage, except for when you first start out and all your photos may be stage 1 or 2. The reality is most of my photos are stage 3 and 4 photos, as the light is just not happening most times to get a stage 5 photo. You have the subject lined up and nicely composed giving you some great Stage 3 shots and then luckily you are ready when the action happens and a coyote pounces or a second hawk dives at another and you get a stage 4 photo. That is the majority of the time in the field. And these captures make good photos for stock photography and on occasion a nice print if you are looking to sell your work. The top photographers though are always out looking for stage 5 photos, They are thinking about them and planning them, the award-winning image. They are considering where is the best location to get the best background, the best light angles, and to encounter the species. When I am in the field I am always giving myself the best possibility to get that photo, I make sure I am out at the times of day when I have a chance to get them. You have to be out before the sun rises and be in position. That means getting up at 4 am and getting to a special location out in the field and waiting. It means putting in the work, time, and effort. These types of photos you might get 3 or 4 a year and if you are really lucky but they are the photos that can make a career. 

Stage 5 sort ofAn attempt at stage 5 photo. The trio is ascending in height making this image unique. The image has great lighting and ambiance and is nicely composed. It was just a few minutes after the intense purple of the raising sun, so there is only a hint of purple remaining at the top of the image. But I had been out in the right location early to try and get the perfect shot and at that point, you have to hope your subject cooperates with the desired behaviour at just the right moment. This image was printed by the Canadian Wildlife Federation. 

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