I've been doing nature photography for 16 years now, and this blog for a good 10 years. As far as my photographic preferences are concerned, over this period I have achieved a good balance between wildlife photography and photography of landscapes and their details. Nevertheless, my focus changes for weeks or months at a time, as I go with the seasons and what nature has to offer.
Sometimes I am asked whether a broad focus on several genres doesn't degenerate into stress, whether I don't have to accept too many compromises, whether I favour one genre and how I actually proceed when choosing between wide-angle and telephoto, especially when a location offers both.
Today I would like to take this as an opportunity to share a few thoughts. I will also highlight a few advantages and disadvantages of animal and landscape photography. To give these thoughts at least a little structure, I have divided them into 8 topics.
4. effort & accessibility
5. planning & network
6. culture & community
7. quality of the portfolio
Of course, nature photography can be broken down into many more "genres" (or "segments", categories, you name it...). In wildlife photography alone, there are strong specialisations, for example in bird, mammal and macro photography. In my view, however, the two most contrasting "genres" of nature photography are wildlife and landscape photography, which is why these are the focus of my article. So here are my thoughts:
- Let's start simply: the equipment actually speaks against a broad range of photographic orientations: in short, if you want to cover everything, it tends to be heavy and expensive, which I find disadvantageous
- However, I have two things to consider here that relativise this somewhat
- You don't have to carry everything with you: there are very few places where I actually have a super telephoto and wide angle in my rucksack; usually the chosen location already gives the decisive hint and half of the equipment stays in the car, hotel room or display case at home
- In the last 3 years in particular, an incredible amount has happened in terms of lens development in the telephoto range, and you can now get high-performance telephoto lenses for significantly less money and weight, which make it easy to get started
- Personally, I feel the disadvantages especially when travelling by plane - there are solutions here, but in the end it is still annoying at the airport, because I have to take everything with me
- Overall, from my point of view, this is no show stopper to a broad orientation
- I think that every genre brings its own special emotions to photography on location. If I broaden my photographic focus a little, I can actually enjoy all the benefits. I would like to
highlight some of these emotions:
"Enjoyment through perfection": here I see landscape photography (in the realisation process) as having an advantage - I can take very
good care of the image composition, choose an ideal foreground at my leisure and then enjoy waiting for the sunset; if the sky then plays along, I get an image that is almost 100% in line
with my ideas - this is often not possible in wildlife photography and I sometimes have to accept image elements that I might have wished for differently and were not planned that way.
- The "surprise factor", on the other hand, is, in my opinion, slightly in favour of animal photography: for example, this happens to me regularly in close-up deer photography - I have an image like this in mind...
-> ...in reality I come home with my first black stork picture. Instead of deer in a meadow, black stork by a stream, completely different picture elements. You experience such twists and turns incredibly often in animal and detail photography and that makes it really exciting. Of course, I also get surprised in landscape photography, but it's not often that I drive to the Vestrahorn, for example, and then come home with a picture of a white sandy beach with a sandstone rock arch 😉
- The frustration factor, on the other hand, speaks against wildlife photography - how many times have I waited for something that didn't
materialise in great lighting conditions - I could have used the time elsewhere. I've also travelled to a place for 8 days in a row without being able to take a picture of the animal - I find
that much rarer in landscape photography, especially as most of the picture elements don't "run away" either
- I find that the fascination is equally strong on both sides: in my eyes, seeing a coloured lenticularis cloud is just as intense as, for
example, the sight of a kingfisher taking one fish after another out of the water a few metres in front of me
- Stress: a broad focus can have this disadvantage - when I didn't have enough experience in nature photography and started to be open to other genres, it sometimes turned into stress because I saw potential subjects everywhere. But that goes with time, as you become so picky anyway that you're happy for any really good opportunity...
- You can already see from the list of "emotions" that it is extremely changeable and that advantages and disadvantages within a genre go hand in hand - it is precisely this variety that I also
love about "crossover nature photography"
- In my view, the high diversity of the portfolio also speaks in favour of a broad portfolio - it's really fun to look at such variety in the annual review - in the years with a strong landscape focus, on the other hand, I felt a kind of "more-of-the-same" effect at some point...
- I also find the variety on location beneficial: the feeling when practising photography is simply completely different in the different genres, with different equipment, completely different
photo techniques, different questions, different demands on the weather and a completely different approach...at the moment, for example, I've been doing a lot of landscape photography and I'm
really looking forward to reaching for the telephoto lens again in March
- Also: when I'm in new places, as a photographer with a wide range of subjects I have many more potential motifs than if I'm stuck in one segment - before I take a bad landscape photo, I'd
rather go for a good picture of the flora and fauna
- Accordingly, you experience a trip, for example in Iceland in summer, differently than if you only have the landscape perspectives in mind; every corner is teeming with photographic temptations, as in this situation, during a petrol station stop...
4. Effort and accessibility
- I think there is a big disadvantage in landscape photography: if I don't live near the Alps or right by the sea, I often have to drive several kilometres (e.g. here in western Germany) if I
want to see a spectacular landscape
- This is completely different in the other "genres" - here I can potentially capture really good pictures in my garden (macro photography), in the neighbouring meadow (wildlife photography) or
in the frozen puddle in front of the house (ice structures - colours and shapes)
- This is also the reason why I personally tend to favour landscape photography on our travels, as I can also do animal and detail photography at close range with less effort, for example between NRW and the Netherlands, like on this day, 300m from my front door
5. Planning and network
- When it comes to planning, I consider a broad positioning to be a clear disadvantage. I know some absolute specialists who are almost exclusively active in one segment and have even
specialised a little further, for example in individual countries or animal species. Here you can build up completely different networks, sources of information etc., which are of great
- Doing this for all segments is correspondingly time-consuming for me in terms of planning. Let's take a visit to a new place: I usually don't just want to know where the most interesting landscape perspectives can be found, but also the most fascinating animals or most beautiful plants - quite a lot of research...
6. Culture and community
- Here I have my very special experiences and can clearly state that the communities outside of wildlife photography are much more pleasant for me. I have had many bad experiences with the
German and more ornithological scene in particular, although there are of course just as many exceptions. But I won't go into it any further here…
- Incidentally, in terms of social media "success", I find a broad positioning to be a clear disadvantage and I can understand that. For example, if the photographer devotes weeks in May/June to bird photography, then that's very special. If you as a consumer have no ornithological interest here, then even with a 64th story about birds I would think to myself "not again... why don't you show me a few more pictures of Norway or at least landscapes, which is why I actually follow you...". I myself have therefore often considered sharing my account.... and by the way, I have also noticed with many accounts that specialisation tends to lead to more followers
7. Quality of the portfolio
This last chapter is so big that I'm even going to leave out the bullet points 😉
First of all: in my opinion, it is very difficult to create a very high-quality portfolio in different segments that can keep up with the image quality of real specialists. In my eyes, you have to learn each "genre" from scratch and gain a lot of experience if you want to effectively turn good (and usually short) moments into good pictures.
I always have the greatest respect for photographers who manage to do this well - examples for me are Guy Edwardes, Marco Gaiotti, Florian Smit, Mel Weber, Robert Haasmann, Florian Warnecke and Radomir Jakubowski, even if they all have different specialisms and sometimes take longer breaks in some genres.
I think the image yield and quality is also the main reason why I have a broader photographic focus.
Let's start with a simple thought; with an example that is pretty accurate for me in terms of numbers: if I, as a landscape photographer, decide that I want to devote half of my time to other segments in future, half of the time for this segment will also be lost. Half of all sunsets and half of all travelling days, at least for the previous "genre". Logical at first.
As a landscape photographer for the time being, I will miss out on many extreme weather situations in landscape photography, I have to be aware of that.
And it also means that you can't achieve many of the desired goals or projects in a segment as quickly as a "specialist" does. My "bucket list" in wildlife photography is much longer than in landscape photography, so it will take many years to realise both.
At the end of the day, I'm left with a photographic compromise, which can sometimes hurt (from a photographic point of view):
If, for example, I have decided in favour of songbird photography on a beautiful summer evening, even though there would have been good alternatives, and then suddenly the sky turns pink due to unexpected veiling clouds - yes, that does hurt a little 😅. After all, I can only rarely capture the entire habitat with sky and may not have any of the colouring at all if the perspective doesn't allow for backlighting or similar. I often experienced this, for example, with my extensive eagle owl series 2021 at the quarry. This feeling is also intensified when the animal doesn't appear 😅
So much for a major disadvantage. But this is where it gets interesting: let's stick with the example of me wanting to split my portfolio in half. In my experience, if I practically replace half of my photographic focus with other genres, the following happens: I gain half (with new segments), but only lose a quarter (in the previous segment). I practically increase the yield of good images from 100% to 125%. In very simplified terms and only to be understood schematically.
Whaaat? ok, that might be difficult to understand, but I'll try to approach it:
I can always go very much with the current conditions, motifs and weather with a broad focus and thus noticeably increase the probability of success of a good nature photo.
Here are some examples and pictures:
I love Texel in May or June as a nearby nature photo location. Here I can capture great sand details in dunes or with the waves, see wonderful orchids, photograph interesting animals such as the bluethroat and the island also has great opportunities for landscape photography, the latter of which I like to favour in the evening when I'm out and about with Christina.
Unfortunately, there is regularly only pure sunshine during these months. I usually know very reliably 2 hours before sunset whether there might be a few photogenic clouds around. And although I really enjoy doing landscape photography in the dunes of De Hors, for example (see above), I leave them out in such cloudless conditions.
Do I then miss out on a "nice" landscape photo? Yes, maybe. Will I miss a good picture with a great sky? Very unlikely. So I prefer to devote myself to the sand plovers, for example. Like on this day, when I actually wanted to go out with the wide-angle lens and then just used the last 60 minutes of sunshine with the telephoto lens:
But I don't just use this principle when it's sunny, but also when the sky is absolutely featureless (without fog!). These are conditions that I personally don't like for landscape photography. The following scene, for example, shows a favourite subject that I was able to capture well in combination with a brighter exposure - despite the rather uninteresting sky, I managed to get a really nice picture of this golden plover. It was captured directly at a very popular landscape photography spot in Iceland.
As a landscape photographer, I then don't have to deal with "bad" conditions, but use these conditions for motifs where they appear much more photogenic.
This principle cannot be applied to all locations, but it can be applied to most. And so, in the end, you can utilise the conditions on location much more efficiently than if you are fixed to one segment.
I think there is a price to pay for a broad photographic focus, not only financially, see also the disadvantages described in this article.
In my opinion, however, the gain in image quality and variety for your own portfolio is ultimately greater than the losses resulting from the compromise. Especially in the long term, as I always deal with the same image elements in a specialised way.
Besides, these clear differences in the overall approach to photography are really fun and provide more variety and adventure. I can also simply react more flexibly to subject and weather conditions.
However, there are of course two essential requirements for this: firstly, that I have a similarly distributed interest in the motifs of nature. And secondly, that I have access to very good subjects in the various genres of nature photography. If this is not the case, you quickly lose the fun of it, as I know from my own experience.
Incidentally, I tend to find it a little more interesting for landscape photographers to expand their focus, as there are some specific weather conditions in which you can hardly realise interesting things, whereas the same conditions can still be used very well in animal and detail photography.
So that's just food for thoughts, maybe there's some inspiration for you 😉