Returning to film: An exploration of film choices for landscape photography


Joshua Tree NP at sunrise in December. Provia 100F. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Joshua Tree NP at sunrise in December. Provia 100F. © Jaymi Heimbuch


As I started writing my post about Mastin Labs film presets for wildlife photography, I developed an itch for shooting film again. There was just an artistic lure that started tugging at me. Within a couple weeks of publishing the piece, I gave in to it (to my wife's barely contained exasperation).

I haven't used film in about 10 years. It's been a long time away. In fact, I sold my long-stashed-away Pentax MZ-7 and zoom lens in 2009 for about $50. I'm kicking myself for that now. I'd figured digital was the only thing in my future and I'd never use the film camera again so, clean it out of the closet. Should have known. But not having that camera anymore gave me a chance to go back even farther in time as I searched through eBay listings.

I'm now using a Pentax K1000 and a 50mm f/2 lens for the purely nostalgic reason that this is the very first camera and lens combo I ever used when I got serious about photography. It just feels good in my hands - the weight, the construction, the irresistible feel of the shutter button and the satisfying sound of the curtains sliding open and closed. It's a great camera. And it was only $100, which in the world of expensive photography equipment feels like pocket change. Score! The only other gear I'm using is a tripod and a cable release. No piles of filters or various lens options. Just me, a camera and a handful of film. 

Another new thing for me is dealing with a lab. Back in the day, I either developed film myself and printed my own prints in a darkroom, or gave my rolls to Costco and asked for 4x6s. Luckily a wonderful lab is right around the corner from me. Photoworks SF does a great job and has been really helpful and supportive. That's important because it's kind of overwhelming and intimidating to wade into the film world again. And basically I'm starting out as a newbie. It's a really fun, though expensive and humbling, side hobby to my focus in wildlife and conservation photography. 

The first thing I needed to do in this little venture was discover which film I like best. So I bought five different types recommended to me by various sources and started shooting. 

All of the following is based on my experience of shooting 12 rolls of film, trying to figure out what I like most specifically for landscape photos. Every image shown below is how I got it back from the lab - except the Provia, for which I deepened the blacks in Lightroom and also show some side-by-side color corrections. 

This is all in the spirit of fun and experimentation, and of course is entirely subjective. So enjoy what I've written here, and take it all with a grain of silver halide.

 

Ektar 100

I will just start out with a favorite. Ektar 100 has quickly become my top choice for landscape photography. Okay, okay... I have only shot one roll. But I shot it after trying out four other film types. So I can say with some certainty, this one is easily a top choice. It isn't finicky about exposure and has amazing dynamic range. It handles contrast well, captures shadows and highlights without issue, the colors are wonderfully saturated without going overboard. This is just an easy-going, beautiful film and I love things that are easy-going and beautiful. I can't wait to load another roll into my camera and go on a hike. 

Ektar 100 at 1 second at f/16 

Ektar 100 at 1 second at f/16 

Ektar 100 at 1/2 second at f/16

Ektar 100 at 1/2 second at f/16

Ektar 100 at 1/60 second at f/2.8

Ektar 100 at 1/60 second at f/2.8

Ektar 100 at 1/60 second at f/14

Ektar 100 at 1/60 second at f/14

Portra 160

I had a notion that I would really love Portra 160 for sunrises and my first roll proved my hunch was right. This film is about as easy-going as the Ektar in terms of happily capturing highlights and shadows and being forgiving when slightly under- or over-exposed. The difference is it has softer colors. Because I'm a big fan of rich colors, Ektar beats out Portra 160 for me, but only by a nose. I have another roll of Portra 160 in the fridge calling out to me and I'll be taking it on a sunrise hike soon.

Portra 160 at 4 seconds at f/16

Portra 160 at 4 seconds at f/16

Portra 160 at 1 second at f/22

Portra 160 at 1 second at f/22

Portra 160 at 1 second at f/22

Portra 160 at 1 second at f/22

Provia 100F

This is a gorgeous slide film and I've seen it transformed into miraculous images in the hands of experienced film photographers. But for low-maintenance me, I found it to be too fussy. It doesn't handle contrasty scenes very well, so doesn't easily work for the kind of shooting I like to do (shooting into the light) without needing graduated filters. It also leans toward blue tones, so a warming filter or color corrections of the scan are often needed. It does work pretty well if shooting toward the west at sunrise or east at sunset. When the light is more even, it seems to really shine. 

Another thing is with slide film you have to be quite careful about your exposure. If you over-expose, your highlights are shot. If you under-expose, goodbye shadow detail. It is much too expensive both for the film and for processing costs for me to risk getting exposure wrong over and over again. So, while Provia is gorgeous, I've nixed it as an option for me for now. But I do love what it does with clouds. 

Provia 100F at 1/60 second at f/2.8

Provia 100F at 1/60 second at f/2.8

Provia 100F at 1/60 second at f/5.6

Provia 100F at 1/60 second at f/5.6

Here's a sampling of images that show what Provia can do when shooting with soft light. Though, even here, I would want to do a touch of post-production work on these images before calling them done. 

Here are a couple examples of the film's blue color cast. The original scan is on the left, and the image color-corrected to be more accurate to the scene is on the right. In the first example, I took a few frames of the ocean because I loved the pink light that was happening on the water at sunrise. But the film basically thumbed its nose at the pinks. And in the second example, the lichen I photographed is a very pale white-green color. The film picked it up with far more blue-green than it really has. A warming filter would probably have fixed this in camera. But I'm filter-free. I will probably come back to Provia in the future when I have more experience and can do what the film wants, rather than tangling in an (expensive) fight with it. 

Jaymi-Heimbuch-84200007-01.jpg

Fuji Pro 400h

It's no joke when people say this film is at its best when you over-expose. In the two test rolls I shot, the photos I liked the most were those that I over exposed by at least a stop or two. While it has a nice dynamic range and beautiful grain, this film is a bit ho-hum for me. I know folks love it for great skin tones and for events such as weddings where soft, cool colors are often preferred. But as someone who doesn't photograph people and who likes rich, warm colors and plenty of saturation in nature photos, I don't think I'll be picking up more 400h. Lovely film, just not for my use. But that's all part of experimenting. Have to try it to know for sure!

Fuji Pro 400h (Didn't keep settings notes)

Fuji Pro 400h (Didn't keep settings notes)

Fuji Pro 400h (Didn't keep settings notes)

Fuji Pro 400h (Didn't keep settings notes)

Fuji Pro 400h (Didn't keep settings notes)

Fuji Pro 400h (Didn't keep settings notes)

Fuji Pro 400h (Didn't keep settings notes)

Fuji Pro 400h (Didn't keep settings notes)

Fuji Pro 400h (Didn't keep settings notes)

Fuji Pro 400h (Didn't keep settings notes)

Fuji Pro 400h (Didn't keep settings notes)

Fuji Pro 400h (Didn't keep settings notes)

Portra 800

Ok, so the way I feel about Ektar 100 for landscapes is the way I feel about Portra 800 for walk-around general use film. I LOVE this film. It is so warm, so rich. The grain can admittedly be a little much sometimes, but that can be a plus in some ways. Having a lot of grain reminds me of the process of creating a photograph and feeling the overall mood and concept of an image, rather than analyzing the details for perfect sharpness and clarity. There's no pixel peeping in film! So a lot of grain is pretty much fine with me. 

Portra 800 at 1/8 second at f/11

Portra 800 at 1/8 second at f/11

Portra 800 at 1/500 second at f/2.8

Portra 800 at 1/500 second at f/2.8

Though I am getting back into film for landscapes, I found myself mainly photographing my dog with Portra 800. He's always with me for these morning hikes, and I just leaned toward photographing him instead of the scene. I can't put my finger on why, but this film seems to make a lot more sense with a specific subject within a landscape, rather than as a landscape film. Maybe it's the grain after all -- it just works with a live subject better than a landscape scene. Maybe it's the fact that at ISO 800 it's fast enough that I can actually hand-hold my camera at sunrise and sunset and so can more easily capture my dog in scenes. Maybe it's that I'm a wildlife photographer and not a landscape photographer so a frame doesn't feel quite complete to me unless there's an animal in it. I don't know. But I do know that for me, this is a must-have film for general use. Completely in love with it. 

Portra 800 at 1/500 second at f/2

Portra 800 at 1/500 second at f/2

Portra 800 at 1/1000 second at f/2.8

Portra 800 at 1/1000 second at f/2.8

Portra 800 at 1/250 second at f/2.8

Portra 800 at 1/250 second at f/2.8

Portra 800 at 1/1000 second at f/2.8

Portra 800 at 1/1000 second at f/2.8

Portra 800 at 1/500 second at f/2

Portra 800 at 1/500 second at f/2

Lab work

One thing I've learned so far is that equally as important as film choice and exposure settings is great communication with your lab. The technicians doing the processing and scanning are making specific choices that affect the outcome of your image. If you let them know what you shot and what you're hoping to get from your images, you'll have a much more satisfying experience. 

For example, I tried overexposing a couple frames of Portra 800 to see how well it can handle keeping highlights. I knew I was overexposing by a lot, so when I got Scan 1 back from the lab and saw the blown out highlights, I figured I just went beyond the abilities of the film. However, I liked the image enough that I wanted a larger scan file, so I took the negative back to the lab. Either another technician handled the scans or the first technician made a new choice about the brightness, because check out all the detail that was actually still on the negative that now shows up in Scan 2. 

 

Portra 800 at 1/1000 second at f/2 - Scan 1

Portra 800 at 1/1000 second at f/2 - Scan 1

Portra 800 at 1/1000 second at f/2 - Scan 2

Portra 800 at 1/1000 second at f/2 - Scan 2

I understand the decision the technician made the first time around - the exposure here really gets the dog's face, and especially eyes, to stand out. But I much prefer Scan 2 because I have more flexibility to make adjustments to the scan in Lightroom, brightening the image to my taste without losing detail. I can't bring the detail back with Scan 1. So now I know to tell the lab that my preference is to have a nice bright image but to maintain detail in the highlights. Problem solved! 

Technicians at the lab control much of the look of your final image, from exposure to color corrections. Check out the huge difference in the rescan below. 

Portra 800 at 1/250 second at f/2 - Scan 1

Portra 800 at 1/250 second at f/2 - Scan 1

Portra 800 at 1/250 second at f/2 - Scan 2

Portra 800 at 1/250 second at f/2 - Scan 2

This is a great example of why learning how to communicate with a lab and getting on the same wavelength is such an important part of film photography. You work together to get the best image. (Unless of course you have your own film scanner. I tried that, and totally would rather have a lab do it for me!) Luckily, adjustments can be made at the lab or at home, so there is still quite a bit of flexibility for the final results. 

If you want an analysis of film choices for landscapes from a pro, I've found this article by Alex Burke to be really helpful. 

I'm entirely open to advice and input from experienced film users in the comments. Maybe what you have to say will save me some money in experimentation, and that I warmly welcome!

Portra 800 at 1/1000 second at f/2

Portra 800 at 1/1000 second at f/2

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

Psychedelic mushrooms, tripping coyotes, and the real trouble with feeding wildlife


A coyote habituated to being fed by people from their cars approaches oncoming traffic hoping for an easy meal. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A coyote habituated to being fed by people from their cars approaches oncoming traffic hoping for an easy meal. © Jaymi Heimbuch


Recently there has been a spat of absurd headlines about one or a couple coyotes in the Bay Area of California. The headlines read that coyotes tripping on mushrooms are attacking cars. If you said, "Um, what?" then you aren't the only one.

We can chalk this up to bad journalism and click-bait headlines. What actually happened is that folks have been noticing that at least one coyote is running up to cars along a certain stretch of road in Bolinas, CA. At the time of the first news article, it was a behavior that had been going on for about three weeks. 

Then a writer (and I'm purposefully not linking to the article because I don't want to provide pageviews for irresponsible journalism) decided that he would posit a few ideas about why this was happening, including maybe the coyote was high after eating mushrooms and was just having a bad trip. It was intended to be funny, and almost maybe could have been funny if so many news outlets didn't pick up the headline and run with it. 

The problem is two-fold. First, too many people take this kind of thing seriously and let their imaginations run wild. When it comes to coyotes, a species around which there is already an extraordinary amount of vilification and irrational fear, this kind of click-bait writing does more harm than I'm sure the writers intend. Too many people see the headline and take it as fact, rather than researching or, let's face it, even reading the article where writers put a little more information about the actual cause of the behavior.

So now some people think coyotes get high on mushrooms and charge at cars. Great. And some people think it's pure ridiculousness. Thankfully.

But here's where our second problem comes in: how many people are so distracted by the notion that a coyote is having a bad trip that they fail to focus on what is most likely the actual cause of the behavior? It is a cause that could absolutely be deadly to a coyote and other wildlife, yet unfortunately is being overlooked or at least not given due consideration.

The most likely cause of the coyote's behavior is actually bad behavior on the part of humans. Someone, or several people, have been feeding the coyote from their cars. And now the coyote associates cars with food.

Feeding wild animals is at the root of so many - perhaps even most - conflicts between wildlife and people. It causes animals to lose their natural fear of humans and become overly assertive or even aggressive while trying to get an easy meal. In most of the cases when coyotes have nipped or scratched someone, it is discovered that the coyote was being fed by either that person or someone in the neighborhood. And yes, it can cause coyotes to run up to approaching cars. 

I witnessed the behavior first-hand the very same week that the news story came out. Not by this particular Bolinas coyote in the news, but by one in Yosemite National Park. 

A coyote runs up to, and then follows a mini van, the driver of which had been tossing out bits of sandwich and lunch meat to the coyote. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A coyote runs up to, and then follows a mini van, the driver of which had been tossing out bits of sandwich and lunch meat to the coyote. © Jaymi Heimbuch

When my wife and I came upon a van driving slowly in the middle of the road in the park, we figured it was just someone focused more on the scenery than the road. Then my wife pointed and said, "coyote!" 

I pulled over and grabbed my camera. The coyote was focused on the van and within a few moments, I realized why. Part of a sandwich flew out the passenger window and the coyote ran to grab it, chewing it as she ran back up the hill to watch the van for more. 

That's bad enough, but it gets worse.

The van slowly pulled forward, so the coyote ran into the road -- in front of several other cars that were driving up -- and followed the van. The van stopped and the driver threw lunch meat out of the driver side window, which the coyote also ran up to grab. 

So now we have a coyote that not only associates cars with food, but does not associate cars with danger. She doesn't hesitate to run into the road in front of other cars if she predicts food is on its way out a window. 

Angry at the driver in the van, my wife and I followed to get the license plate number, find out where they stopped next, and I called in a report to the park service. The fine for feeding wildlife in the park can be up to $5,000. And it's obvious why. Both wildlife and people are put into danger. This coyote is basically one oblivious park visitor away from being hit by a car or marked as a problem animal. 

We saw the coyote again later that afternoon, not too far from the first location. I pulled over and got out the camera. I watched the coyote for probably about half an hour, and in that time I watched her move away from the side of the road when no one was around and go roll, stretch explore. But when a car approached, she would come back up to the road and watch. Every time. Sometimes coming into the road to approach a stopped car.

The coyote would approach the road each time a car drove up, likely curious about whether or not food would appear from a window. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The coyote would approach the road each time a car drove up, likely curious about whether or not food would appear from a window. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Luckily I didn't see anyone feeding her. Folks watched her as they rolled by, and one guy got out of his car with a selfie stick to get a photo with her in the background. Unfortunately when he got back in his car, he rolled down the window and snapped at her, getting her attention to come closer. (And yes, I waved my arm scoldingly to get him to stop. I'm that person. I have no problem playing hall monitor to keep wildlife safe, and why you would interest an animal in coming closer to a moving vehicle is beyond me.) 

So, is chomping on psychedelic mushrooms the cause of the coyote approaching cars? No, but sliced turkey is. 

The only solution to keeping wildlife wild is to not feed animals. If you see someone feeding wildlife, please report them to the appropriate authorities. You're doing a favor to both wildlife and people visiting the area. And if you see a headline that says coyotes tripping on mushrooms are chasing cars, please don't click on the link. You're doing a favor for us all. 

You can get more information about coyotes by following my urban coyote photojournalism project The Natural History of Urban Coyotes. I'm working alongside Morgan Heim and Karine Aigner to document the stories and science of the coyotes who live alongside us in our urban and suburban jungles. 

The coyote stuck to the edges of the road waiting for food. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The coyote stuck to the edges of the road waiting for food. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Playful, even silly when hanging around, the coyote would sit and wait for the sound of wheels on pavement. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Playful, even silly when hanging around, the coyote would sit and wait for the sound of wheels on pavement. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Scavenging the remains of picnic goods in a park that receives over 4 million visitors a year is, unfortunately, pretty easy. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Scavenging the remains of picnic goods in a park that receives over 4 million visitors a year is, unfortunately, pretty easy. © Jaymi Heimbuch

I left her as the rain picked up and the sun faded, and she still maintained her post at the side of the road. © Jaymi Heimbuch

I left her as the rain picked up and the sun faded, and she still maintained her post at the side of the road. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

Why landscapes should be on every animal photographer's shot list


In the right conditions, a big swell means amazing fan waves at Ke'e beach on Kaua'i. Spending hours here waiting for the sun to set and watching for the best waves gave me opportunity to soak in the changing moods of this beautiful location.

In the right conditions, a big swell means amazing fan waves at Ke'e beach on Kaua'i. Spending hours here waiting for the sun to set and watching for the best waves gave me opportunity to soak in the changing moods of this beautiful location.


There are a lot of dichotomies in photography where most of us find our selves making an either-or decision: Canon or Nikon, people or animals, commercial or editorial. The same tends to be true, I think, for wildlife or landscape. I venture to guess that many if not most wildlife photographers think of landscapes as simply the place where they find their subject, but not something they really want for their portfolio. The landscape is a tool for context or composition, but the goal is always the animal.

This is especially true for those just getting started in wildlife photography, when the excitement of photographing an animal overshadows the enjoyment of the scenery. The landscape might be beautiful enough -- we see so much outstanding scenery while we wait quietly for an animal to show up -- but the landscape isn't why a photographer trekked out there. We are there for the critters.

I used to think this way as well, but over time that opinion has evolved. I've realized that paying attention to landscapes plays a critical role in helping me become a better animal photographer and a better storyteller. Because of that, landscapes are now on my must-have shot list for any shoot.

I think it comes down to two things. Now, I'm going to dive into what those two things are and why landscapes are so important for animal photographers. You can read it and dish on a little philosophy of photography for awhile. Or, you can skip down to the part where I offer 7 tips for improving your landscape photography. Don't worry, I won't be insulted if you just skip to the tips. Back to those two things...

1. Are you truly seeing where you are?

While traveling to photograph shorebirds, it was worth looking up and out across the bay to get a better look at the world those birds inhabit while feeding and resting in this quiet but human-influenced place.

While traveling to photograph shorebirds, it was worth looking up and out across the bay to get a better look at the world those birds inhabit while feeding and resting in this quiet but human-influenced place.

Recently I was going through photos from a trip to Midway Atoll I took a few years ago. It was my first big trip after I started in nature photography. I spent a week on the atoll, knee deep in Laysan and black-footed albatross, frigatebirds and tropicbirds, sooty terns, blue-footed boobies and so many more species.

I was sorting through the images looking for shots that illustrate the atoll, that show both what it looks like and feels like to be there. Something that showed the weather and white sand and brilliant blue water, the stands of ironwood trees and the seeps set up for Laysan ducks. There was little to choose from my collection that expressed the personality of the landscape as much or more than the wildlife. I had been so focused on photographing the animals that I did not come away with shots that highlight the place that they call home.

This is a problem for a few reasons. First, it means an incomplete portfolio. When I want to pull images to talk about the critical threat of sea level rise to this atoll, or the impact of invasive plant species, or the work that has been done to restore the landscape, or even the military history of the atoll, I have little to choose from.

This is one of the few landscapes I took while on Midway Atoll, a place that is filled with opportunities for beautiful tropical landscape images.

This is one of the few landscapes I took while on Midway Atoll, a place that is filled with opportunities for beautiful tropical landscape images.

But perhaps more importantly, paying little attention to the landscape means I have an incomplete understanding of the animals that utilize the habitat and how shifts in the habitat affect the various species. I'm not really seeing how their world works.

I captured a few photos of albatross caught in and killed by the ironwood trees, and chicks in nest cups surrounded by the invasive verbesina plants. But I missed so much -- like how the bonin petrels enter and exit their burrows and how many burrows pocket the sandy ground; or how naupaka provides shelter and shade to chicks along the beach; or how the white terns utilize the ironwood trees (and pretty much every other odd surface) for nesting.

Everyone knows that to get excellent images of a subject, you have to know that subject well. How can you expect to do that without understanding and appreciating the habitat where they live? The flora, the soil, the wind or waves, what the heat or cold does to the light... paying close attention to the environment in which your subject lives allows you a new level of information about what you're seeking to photograph. It gives you an insight into their behavior, into their unique struggles, into their evolutionary path.

Making landscapes a priority also may provide you with a new appreciation for a place you perhaps feel indifferent about, or even dislike. For most of my life, the desert depressed me. It was a place to drive through as quickly as possible while traveling from one green, wet place to another. The arid desert with its brown rocks and brown plants, where you have to squint from sun up to sun down, where nothing interesting lives... I'd never understood the appeal. Then I became a photographer.

I visited Joshua Tree, on purpose! It's something I never thought I'd do just a few years ago when the desert seemed to be an utterly depressing place. But now it is a place I can't wait to visit again and again.

I visited Joshua Tree, on purpose! It's something I never thought I'd do just a few years ago when the desert seemed to be an utterly depressing place. But now it is a place I can't wait to visit again and again.

Suddenly, the desert was full of subtle and vibrant colors, fascinating textures, plants with otherworldly shapes. It became a place to cherish during sunrise and sunset, with spectacular colors coming out in full force at twilight, and at night a blanket of brilliant stars creates a canvas for the silhouettes of cacti. Importantly, I became aware of the breathtaking diversity of wildlife that calls the desert home, and the unique challenge of photographing animals with particular skill at hiding themselves. Without photography -- without landscape photography -- the desert would still be a place I readily pass up.

Now that I think of landscapes as a goal, the desert is suddenly filled with beautiful light, color, and textures to photograph. The way you think and the way you see go hand in hand.

Now that I think of landscapes as a goal, the desert is suddenly filled with beautiful light, color, and textures to photograph. The way you think and the way you see go hand in hand.

Landscape photography makes you stop and consider the type of beauty a place holds - harsh and cruel, soft and rich, full of shapes and textures, unique species or light that you can't seem to find anywhere else on earth. Landscape photography makes you look at how to portray what a habitat has to offer. As I discovered with the desert, you don't see ugly; you see the personality and the potential ways to show it. You don't speed through a place anymore because you're always looking for a way in, an angle, a quality of light, a way to tell its story.

I can list of a good handful of great photographers known for their wildlife work who also produce stunning landscape shots. I believe this is because they have learned to appreciate the habitat in which an animal lives every bit as much as the animal itself.

That brings me to my second point.

2. Can you show others the whole story?

Animal photographers want to show viewers the species we love. But too often, that means a frame-filling portrait, or a pretty pose within a scenic setting. If we're lucky, we might capture some interesting behavior, from grooming to interactions with offspring, mates or rivals. And if we're really lucky, perhaps we will get a shot of hunting behavior or perhaps something never seen before. However, it is important for animal photographers to step back and look at the larger story of a species. And this is where landscapes come in.

How can we show the movement of an animal through a habitat? What does the stream look like where the animal comes to drink? What plants does your subject graze on, or what stands of trees does your subject like best for nesting or collecting seeds? How does your subject's trail cut through the ferns in the understory, or what does the sky look like when your subject is getting ready to hunt in the evening? These are all pieces of the story we can tell about animals, and they can be told through landscape photographs.

When we start thinking about the landscape as a crucial supporting character in the story where animals play the lead, then we can become more creative in how we loop the landscape in, and be more thorough about the important details we provide for a viewer's understanding of an animal.

When we go out to photograph wildlife, it's wonderful to bring home a collection of portraits of the various species. But we do a great service for wildlife, for nature in general, and for viewers when we can show where species live and how they move about, take advantage of, struggle with, and survive in a habitat.

Once you are able to stop and really see a place, as well as really see how your favorite animals live within it, you can create a full, rich and visually satisfying story of the species you're photographing.

Making the landscape part of your shot list fills out both your portfolio and your personal experience with a place. So how can you get better at it? Below, I've listed seven tips.

I visited Nome, Alaska for the wildlife but made sure to capture some of the scenery as well, to show what it's like to live in such an extraordinary place...

I visited Nome, Alaska for the wildlife but made sure to capture some of the scenery as well, to show what it's like to live in such an extraordinary place...

...And of course, I made time to stop and smell the tundra flowers.

...And of course, I made time to stop and smell the tundra flowers.

7 tips for taking landscape shots while shooting wildlife

1. Use what lenses you have in easy reach

I was waiting around for a coyote to show up when I turned around and saw how the sun was coming up over the hilly landscape that the coyote calls home. This was taken with the lens I happened to be holding, a 70-200mm, at 200mm.

I was waiting around for a coyote to show up when I turned around and saw how the sun was coming up over the hilly landscape that the coyote calls home. This was taken with the lens I happened to be holding, a 70-200mm, at 200mm.

Never let anyone tell you you have to have a certain lens for landscape photography.

The tendency is to lean toward a 24mm lens when shooting landscapes, and for good reason. This is about the widest you can get before seeing distortion, and you can capture the biggest view of a scene. But you don't have to have a 24mm to make landscapes.

Whatever lens you have on you works for landscapes, and yes, that includes telephoto lenses. With a telephoto, it might be harder to get a shot that expresses the vastness of an area the way you can with a wide-angle, but you have the opportunity to compress the distance between the foreground and the horizon. This can be a nice advantage; for example, it can make mountains in the distance appear bigger and closer, and thus have more of a presence in the image.

I am usually carrying a 50mm with me and so it turns out that I take the majority of my landscape photos with this lens. I love it, and it usually works just great when I put a little extra thought into planning out my shot.

The point is, though, don't skip a potential landscape shot because you didn't bring a wide-angle into the field with you. See if there's still a way to work a scene with the lens you have and come away with portraits of the place as well as the wildlife within it.

2. Make time on your way in or out of a location to do landscapes

Often wildlife photography starts at sunrise, when there is enough light for a fast shutter speed, and ends at sunset. But landscapes can be taken with long shutter speeds in near darkness. That means you have opportunities going to locations before sunrise and from locations after sunset to capture beautiful landscapes.

Often wildlife photography starts at sunrise, when there is enough light for a fast shutter speed, and ends at sunset. But landscapes can be taken with long shutter speeds in near darkness. That means you have opportunities going to locations before sunrise and from locations after sunset to capture beautiful landscapes.

Sometimes the goal is to get to a location before first light, or to use the last rays of light to capture critters. When you're an animal photographer you're totally justified in spending all of the hours with the best light in photographing animals. But if you can spare some time during the trek to or from a location -- or better yet, build an entire day into your shoot just for landscapes -- you'll thank yourself later. Dedicating even 20-30 minutes for long-exposure images in twilight or at night will add a lot of great material to your portfolio, and it won't take away much time at all from your wildlife work.

3. Save room in your pack for filters and other landscape photography necessities even if you don't think you'll use them

When I came across this lovely stream while searching for wildlife, I was so happy to realize I'd stuffed a polarizing filter in my bag that morning. I was able to cut the reflection in the water to catch a glimpse of the rocks below the rushing creek.

When I came across this lovely stream while searching for wildlife, I was so happy to realize I'd stuffed a polarizing filter in my bag that morning. I was able to cut the reflection in the water to catch a glimpse of the rocks below the rushing creek.

There's nothing like coming across the perfect spot for a landscape photo only to realize you didn't bring a few simple tools that would help you capture the scene perfectly.

All you really need are a couple graduated ND filters (or a matte black card to dodge the sky by hand), a polarizing filter, a remote shutter release, and maybe a flash (or headlamp) for some fill light. It doesn't take up a ton of room or add much weight. So if at all possible, carry landscape gear with you even if you don't think you'll have the time or desire to take shots. That way, you won't miss an opportunity when one unexpectedly presents itself.

4. Make a shot list of possible landscape photos that add to the wildlife story

When in Nome, I wanted to make sure to get images that reflected the past history and current impact of mining on the area's flora and fauna. So, I always kept an eye out for landscapes with dredges or other mining equipment.

When in Nome, I wanted to make sure to get images that reflected the past history and current impact of mining on the area's flora and fauna. So, I always kept an eye out for landscapes with dredges or other mining equipment.

Use the landscape to fill out the story of the species you're excited to photograph. This could be everything from photographing berry bushes that a certain species feeds on, egg shells in an abandoned nest on a prairie, lichen or moss you know is collected by a certain species for nesting material or food, or even simply a gorgeous sunset over the lake or mountainscape where you're watching out for a particular animal.

Think about how the landscape matters to the species you're photographing, and how you might capture the beauty or hardship of life in the area, the abundance or scarcity of food, the amount of space or lack thereof, and other aspects of animal life in your landscape photos.

5. Don't be afraid to keep it simple

While out with a researcher checking for coyotes on frigid morning, I looked out across the lake we were walking along to see this frozen scene. It tells the viewer a bit about the weather that wildlife endures in a beautiful, minimalist way.

While out with a researcher checking for coyotes on frigid morning, I looked out across the lake we were walking along to see this frozen scene. It tells the viewer a bit about the weather that wildlife endures in a beautiful, minimalist way.

You don't have to create epic sunset or sunrise photos to have landscape images that add to the story. You can use a landscape to convey mood, weather, solitude or crowding, silence or noise. Or you can use a landscape to simply show what the area looks like without making a grand statement.

While it's great to have landscapes that are packed with color, texture, and objects that advance the story of a place, you can also create landscapes that simply give the viewer's eyes and brain a scene upon which to rest.

6. Do landscape photography any time you can't do wildlife photography

When I take my dog out for morning runs at the beach, I know there's no way I'll be able to photograph wildlife. But his presence doesn't stop me from being able to shoot landscapes. As long as I can throw a ball with one hand while taking landscapes with the other, then we're both happy!

When I take my dog out for morning runs at the beach, I know there's no way I'll be able to photograph wildlife. But his presence doesn't stop me from being able to shoot landscapes. As long as I can throw a ball with one hand while taking landscapes with the other, then we're both happy!

Use weather that restricts your ability to photograph wildlife as an advantage for unusual landscape images. Thick fog, a downpour of rain, a snow flurry, or harsh light in the middle of the day, all may yield surprising and dramatic photos. Get creative with how you can use weather and light that normally ruins your wildlife photography to your benefit for landscape photography.

If your wildlife subject has hunkered down for the night, it's time to do long exposure landscapes and star trails. These are especially important to remember if you're photographing nocturnal animals, since you want to fill out the story of the night life for these critters.

I take my dog hiking in areas where I also photograph wildlife. When my dog is with me, there isn't much chance to photograph critters, but there is plenty of opportunity for landscapes. Take advantage of hikes with family or friends, road trips when you have only limited time to stop for photos, or even morning or evening walks on paths around your neighborhood.

7. Experiment

Since I don't know what I'm doing with landscapes and haven't gotten any training, I have no restrictions on me. I love to play with light, try different compositions, and I've even started getting back into film specifically to experiment with landscape photos.

Since I don't know what I'm doing with landscapes and haven't gotten any training, I have no restrictions on me. I love to play with light, try different compositions, and I've even started getting back into film specifically to experiment with landscape photos.

When we're photographing wildlife, it's scary to try and experiment because we don't want to mess up what might be our only opportunity to photograph and animal. But when working on landscapes, the scene isn't going anywhere. The light and weather may shift, but that's about it, and all that means is more diversity in your scene. So take landscapes as a grand opportunity to experiment with your photography and push your creativity.

Use weird settings you wouldn't normally try. Shoot into the light to play with lens flare and haze. Try the same scene at different f-stops or different camera heights to see what you like best. Use film! I've taken a liking to experimenting with film for landscapes as I have to think a lot more about a scene to make sure I capture it as best I can (and since there's money at stake with each frame, every shot is carefully considered!).

You never know what technique you might discover that can become a tool for when you're shooting wildlife. Plus, experimenting is simply a lot of fun. The world is your oyster, and you should play with your food.

Find freedom in the notion that you're a wildlife photographer so you don't have to be great at landscapes if you don't want to be. But if you experiment enough, you just might become great after all.

Don't let any must-have gear or should-follow rules get in the way of adding landscapes to the story you tell about the wildlife you photograph. Stop to enjoy the view, and ponder how the scene can improve both you and your work.

Don't let any must-have gear or should-follow rules get in the way of adding landscapes to the story you tell about the wildlife you photograph. Stop to enjoy the view, and ponder how the scene can improve both you and your work.

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

3 tough truths about finding your photographic style



After coming home from a shoot, I uploaded my photos into Lightroom and started sorting through them. When the photo above popped up, I felt a brief wave across my brain and a quick squeeze in my stomach that comes when I see an image I've made and just know: this is exactly right.

It wasn't some epic shot I'd been trying over and over to get, nor was it necessarily because of a purposeful composition or subject. Frankly, it was an unexpected moment caught in a few seconds as a wild urban coyote moved through the brush. But I got that rush of excitement at seeing the image because something I had been working on for awhile finally showed up. Invisibly, but certainly there, is me.

There are some photographers whose work you immediately recognize because they have a certain style, a certain approach to the scene or subject. Maybe it's the mood, or the angle, the light they prefer or the depth of field. Whatever it is there's a something that makes you look and say, "Oh, I know who took that." Or at least, "This reminds me of [photographer]'s work."

Nick Brandt's elephants, Ian McAllister's wolves, Brian Skerry's marine life, Cristina Mittermeier's indigenous people... there are photographers who show their subjects in a way that you see the subject, but also recognize the photographer in how the subject is shown. It is a certain something that sets their work apart, that makes it identifiable. It's like recognizing someone's voice as soon as they say, "Hello" on the phone. You recognize the pitch, the accent, the way they stress certain syllables - you don't need them to announce their name to know who is on the other end of the line.

I had been wondering for years when I would find my voice in photography. It was an evolution I knew would happen if I just let it roll forward on its own. I have waited a long time for it to appear, and during that time I've learned three difficult truths about the process, or really the waiting, behind finding one's own style.


1. You don't find your style, your style finds you

There are dozens of articles on the web about finding your style in a certain number of steps. The claim is that by following their five steps, or seven steps or ten steps, your style will suddenly emerge. It's true you can do a few things to help move the process along, like study the work of other photographers with whose style you feel a kinship, or give yourself assignments to push your creativity or editing process.

While these strategies will help your photography in many ways, a genuine style is something that cannot be decided on and then pursued. That would be the same as deciding what personality you want to have and then acting only in that way. A nice idea (and something so many self-help books promote) but not realistic. You are who you are, and your style is an extension of that.

It's not something anyone can force, or else the forcing is made apparent in a photograph that just doesn't sit quite right with viewers. There's a something that isn't there, or is too much there. You just know when someone tries too hard. It has to come forward on its own.

For the last few years, I've simply kept a set of emotions and thoughts in my head as I shoot -- a nebulous, shapeless notion of what I like, of who I am, of what I think on an instinctual level about a scene. I've tried to bring that out in the images I take, and in the images I select for editing.

Eventually, those decisions added up into something that has become more and more apparent, like a mist slowly thinning until you can finally make out the scene beyond.

2. Your style is crafted with intuition

Ask any expert and they will tell you that to make great photographs, you need to know your subject well. Knowing your subject provides you a connection with them, allows you to predict behavior or movements which leads to capturing "the decisive moment."

When you know your subject well, you have a fluidity of feeling and thought. You shoot with your heart as much as your head. There is an intuition to knowing how to compose a scene, when to click your shutter.

And really, you can really only find this level of connection when you shoot what you love. For some, that is families or weddings, for others it is pets or wildlife, while others connect most deeply with adventure or travel or landscapes. Whatever it is, you have to find out what you most love to shoot before you can find out what your style actually is.

For me, the key factor in helping my style finally appear was my dog. I know how cliché this may sound but, let's face it, many photographers get their beginning in photographing their own children, or their own creations in the kitchen, or their own travels or yes, their own pets.

In the first year or two of starting in photography, I struggled in finding subject matter with which I really connected. I began with street photography since opportunities were everywhere, but never felt comfortable photographing strangers. Sports photography had a certain appeal because I love tracking fast movement and capturing a critical moment, but I don’t have a connection with sports themselves. I have always had a profound connection to the natural world, and I finally knew that wildlife photography was where I was headed. But even then, for the first couple years I was taking descent photos but not photos that said something, not photos where I looked at them and got that squeeze in my stomach. My photos were the result of a certain fledgling skill set and a situation, but they lacked soul.

Then I got my dog.

There is such a quiet comfort in our hikes and beach runs together, such an intimacy of spirit that it makes it easy to create images in the way I want to create them. I know my dog like I know myself. I know what each little flinch of muscle means, I know what he's going to do before he does it because I can see him planning a move as he plans it.

It was through this connection with him that I finally started to truly connect with my photography. My subject wasn’t going anywhere, I wasn’t worried about a wild animal taking off, about missing my one and only chance with a species. I could play.

Importantly, it was at the same time that I adopted him and was working on The Ethiopian Wolf book. I realized that canids have my heart and soul. And when I realized that, I knew it wasn't long before I would start to see my style click into place -- quietly, tenuously, it would arrive if I was patient and mindful.

Jaymi-Heimbuch-_JH_3464-01.jpg
Jaymi-Heimbuch-_JH_1311-01.jpg

With enough time photographing my own dog, photographing rescue dogs, and photographing wild coyotes and other canid species, I started to see my style appear in the same way as an image appears on a sheet of paper floating in a bath of developer.

But this was when the third lesson became apparent.

3. If you can’t translate your style into every subject you shoot, then you haven’t really found your style

One bit of advice from experts is to study the photography of the greats. Learn how they crafted iconic photographs and with that knowledge, go shoot. But there is a difference between copying and creating, and it takes knowing your own style in order to create.

You can study the masters, but you’ll only find your style through study if you can identify exactly what about their photos speak to you. Recognizing that you connect with the photos is step one. Step two is zeroing in on exactly why. When you know why, you can question if that aspect of their style is actually part of your style, or if it is simply something you appreciate as a viewer. 

So if you want to study the masters, you need to know that you’ll only find the smallest fragments of scattered somethings, that you then have to recognize in yourself in order to adopt, or rather, to nurture. If some approach to composition, or some relationship to light, or some preference for expression isn’t in you already, it’ll probably never be part of you. So resolve to appreciate that in other images but continue the search for your own ideals.

This is important because when you copy a style, it's difficult to translate it to everything you shoot. It is something you have to be highly conscious of in order to pull off because it doesn't come naturally. But if you discover yourself, you can translate that into anything you shoot, because all you're doing is being you.

Jaymi-Heimbuch-_JH_3554-01.jpg

Some beginners think they can rely on a certain preset or filter in post processing to give their images a unique look. But this is jamming a square peg into a round hole. You can’t force your photos through a filter and pretend you’ve created a style. The only thing people will recognize of you in your photos is that you have a penchant for a certain filter and relentlessly process your photos this way. But are you reflected in the photos? Possibly, but probably (hopefully) not.

When I first picked up photography, I thought that I didn't want to develop a style because I wanted to be able to shoot anything in any way. I was actually mistaking a lack of skill for perceived flexibility. Because I hadn't yet gathered a skill set solid enough to shoot in a specific style when I wanted and shift out of it into something else whenever I needed, I thought that meant I would be fettered if I did indeed settle into a style.

I eventually learned that in finding my style I am not ruling out possibility, I am polishing my identity. The reality is that once you find your own style and have a hefty set of skills to pull from, you can shift in and out of certain looks whenever the moment calls for it. You can shoot one way for a commercial client but come back into your own when working on a photo project. It becomes as easy as wearing a fancy dress for a cocktail party, then slipping back into my usual jeans and a t-shirt when I get home.

What a thrilling thing it is to know that you can stretch out of your comfort zone and come back to yourself whenever you want. How much the possibilities for your photography expand once you know who you are! You can not only shoot in whatever way is needed, but you can also bring a touch of your signature style into it as well.

But the translation can take time. Even when I started to know myself in my dog photography, the way I photographed dogs was different from how I photographed wildlife. I had a tendency to leave that intimate, more emotionally connected look, and shoot in a more traditional, static and sterile way for wildlife. I was afraid to leave behind expectations for what wildlife photography is supposed to look like and let my own preferences push forward. I questioned if I could bring my style to the forefront and have my wildlife images seriously considered in photo competitions, or for magazine pieces. It just took time and experience to set my priorities straight.

Experience creates confidence, which opens up room for your style to emerge. With a subject I know just as well as I know myself, there is a calm clarity that allows me to bring forth both who they are and who I am in that moment into an image that is recognizable as that subject's true self as well as my self as photographer.

Now, I am watching my style translate into my wildlife photography more and more, and it feels wonderful. "Oh, there I am," I find myself thinking every so often while editing. There is a profound comfort in knowing that this style will continue to evolve, but at least now I know what I’m reaching for.

When you find your style, you will find yourself looking at any image you take and saying, "I know you." And you will be speaking both about the subject and about you.

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.