What’s This Picture For? Different Approaches to Conservation Photography

Not all conservation photographs are taken for the same reasons and purposes. Your particular goal will determine what sort of approach you use for each shot.

Not all conservation photographs are taken for the same reasons and purposes. Your particular goal will determine what sort of approach you use for each shot.

Story and photos by Dave Huth

When people learn I’m a “conservation photographer,” they may form many different ideas about what my pictures look like.

No matter what they’re thinking, they’re probably right!

Photography can support the work of conservation in many different ways. Each makes good use of a certain kind of photograph. When I’m in the field, I try to keep in mind the particular ways my pictures might meet a conservation goal — and I set up my shots accordingly.

The examples in this post are all conservation photos about salamanders, despite their obvious differences. Different approaches are due to the different purposes behind each image’s own way of supporting conservation.

Emotion

One of the best ways to support the conservation of species and ecosystems is to give people reasons to care about them. Very often, caring is about emotions. People form bonds of concern for nature through their feelings, which can help make conservation goals easier to meet.

Though we’re built to appreciate what’s beautiful or familiar, some people might have a hard time caring for certain creatures. But over time, pictures can help!

Aesthetics of light, shadow, complementary color relationships, and textures probably don’t impress salamanders — but human viewers notice these things.

Aesthetics of light, shadow, complementary color relationships, and textures probably don’t impress salamanders — but human viewers notice these things.

Emotion Through Art

The goal: Making your pictures with careful attention to colors, form, light-and-shadow contrasts, and pleasing compositions can help someone see how special these animals can be.

The method: Work from a point of view and composition that highlights artistic formal properties. Find angles and light sources that show beautiful shapes, contours, and textures. Be ok with sacrificing some detail or context in order to capture colors or contrasts with aesthetic impact.

We know salamanders don’t express their emotions by smiling. But recognizing something like a smile on its face can still trigger warm feelings!

We know salamanders don’t express their emotions by smiling. But recognizing something like a smile on its face can still trigger warm feelings!

Emotion Through Connection

The goal: People respond to perceived emotions in others. (It’s difficult to suppress positive feelings toward a smiling salamander, even when we know salamanders don’t express their emotions by smiling!)

The method: It’s always ethically wrong to manipulate an animal or its environment to produce a false sense of anthropomorphic expression or behavior.  But careful patience and study of your subject’s natural behavior may reveal a moment in which an animal’s face, posture, or interactions remind you of a laugh, or a skeptical side-eye, or simply a parent’s care for children. You might use that moment to click the shutter and offer viewers an imaginative glimpse into the animal’s life.

Science

Conservation relies on communicating a growing body of rigorous scientific understanding. Photographers can be extremely helpful in supporting this work by documenting and presenting scientifically useful visual information about nature.

With extreme care and ethical methods, small plants and animals can be isolated from the background. This can be one way of making sure important identifying details can be clearly seen.

With extreme care and ethical methods, small plants and animals can be isolated from the background. This can be one way of making sure important identifying details can be clearly seen.

Science Through Illustration

The goal: Images important to science may require clear and accurate details that identify species or clarify concepts.

The method: Using studio lighting techniques and deep depth of field will help you show clear features and precise details for ID or comparison purposes. It’s ok to forego dramatic shadows and textured backgrounds for the sake of clarity (although images like this can have a jewel-like beauty of their own!). If it’s scientifically important to show the animal in its ecosystem, pull back your framing or choose a wider lens to include more information about the surrounding environment.

Conservation work involves scientific processes of research and investigation. Conservation photographers can support this work by documenting it clearly.

Conservation work involves scientific processes of research and investigation. Conservation photographers can support this work by documenting it clearly.

Science Through Documentation

The goal: Sometimes documenting the process of research itself can be very helpful for scientists working in the field.

The method: Bring along lenses suitable for human beings doing the kind of scientific work you’ll be shooting. Familiarize yourself ahead of time with the process you’re observing so you know what will be most helpful for the scientists involved, and how to avoid getting in the way!

iNaturalist, one of a number of nature documentation apps, doesn’t require perfect photos — just clear enough to ID, along with some basic information such as location.

iNaturalist, one of a number of nature documentation apps, doesn’t require perfect photos — just clear enough to ID, along with some basic information such as location.

Science Through Observation

The goal: Many citizen science observation projects need photographers who are good at spotting species and quickly shooting them in the field.

The method: This doesn’t have to be about gorgeous aesthetics, or following around working scientists. Any identifiable plant or animal snapshot, with a record of its location and habitat, is usually sufficient to add a lot of value to online observation projects such as Encyclopedia of Life, Bug Guide, iNaturalist, Yard Map, and others.

Storytelling

The work of conservation is interactive, process-oriented, and embedded in the fabric of society. This makes storytelling crucial to protecting and restoring species and ecosystems.

Storytelling Through Narrative Composition

The goal: To tell a story with a picture, think narratively about your work to make a photo that can communicate beyond the boundary of any single frame.

The method: This takes time! Invest in long observations of your subject, getting to know habits and behavior that unfold over time. Watch for opportunities to capture details that are crucial for telling a larger story: setting, movements, interactive objects, atmosphere, conditions, and change.

Photos that depict an unexpected turn of events can tell a surprising story as well as document interesting natural behaviors.

Photos that depict an unexpected turn of events can tell a surprising story as well as document interesting natural behaviors.

Storytelling Through Photo Essays

The goal: People are open and eager to being told a good story! Our attention will follow multiple images in sequence if they’re skillfully arranged to communicate a more complex tale.

The method: With practice, you can become skilled at combining multiple images in sequence to deliver compelling and educational stories about the natural world. Pictures can be connected by plot points, similar themes, or other narrative methods. Accompanying text can further explain and enrich a narrative series of pictures.

These are only a few of the many ways to pursue conservation goals through photography. Often multiple approaches can be combined to make pictures that are useful in multiple contexts. Feel free to comment on this post with ways your own styles and approaches have been useful in supporting conservation.

 

Dave Huth is a teacher, storyteller, picture maker, and whistler of jaunty tunes. He works as a professor of visual communication and media arts at Houghton College in western New York state. Dave is obsessed with finding new and effective ways to combine conservation photography, science communication, digital media, and raw enthusiasm in ways that draw people into deep thinking and even deeper feeling about ecology and human life.  He also serves as co-chair of NANPA Conservation Committee. See more of his work at https://www.davehuthmedia.com.