The Watched Photographer To learn from globe-trotting Art Wolfe, the first thing you've got to do is keep up
by Jennifer Hattam
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You don't have to travel to the ends of the earth--or even a big national park--to photograph nature. "So many people go to the Grand Canyon and shoot it no matter what, but great light on something small can make a better picture than something monumental," photographer Art Wolfe says. He attributes much of his success to "being receptive and learning to translate the landscape on various levels--the grand, the intimate, and the minutia." Here's what I learned from my day shooting with Wolfe:
Learn about the place you're visiting. But don't be wedded to preconceived notions of what to shoot.
Think small. "Even in the worst conditions, you can still shoot a macro [close-up] shot," Wolfe says.
Try a tripod. Although it adds bulk, Wolfe says that it forces him to slow down and "be more critical about what I shoot." A tripod also lets him take long exposures.
Don't be discouraged by "bad" weather. "Our minds tell us that overcast is drab," Wolfe says. "But if you go out on a foggy day, it's rich in color." Long exposures can pick up those hues.
Start early and stay out late. Grand landscapes are often best captured in the warm light of dawn and dusk.
Experiment. Some of Wolfe's more unusual photographs have been produced by moving the camera up and down to create an impressionistic blur, using a telephoto lens to render an ocean scene into bands of light, and employing fast film (or the equivalent digital setting) and a fast shutter speed to capture individual lines of rain.
Take a lot of pictures. Even a professional photographer like Wolfe only uses a fraction of his shots.
Wolfe rankles at those criticisms and draws a distinction between his traditional landscape and wildlife photographs and the more impressionistic images for which digital tinkering is just another tool. "Where I misstepped in that whole debate was calling the book Migrations instead of Wallpaper," he says. "A scene is always subject to how I interpret it and what choices of lenses or angles I make. I manipulate people's emotions all the time, based on how I choose to shoot a subject, and I make no bones about that."
Migrations was not the only book in which Wolfe toyed with viewers' expectations about wildlife photography. In 1997's Rhythms From the Wild, he used long exposures and camera panning to blur the images and highlight the animals' movements. Eight years later, in Vanishing Act, he took a nearly opposite tack, capturing every inch of the scene in sharp focus, so the creatures recede into their complex environments. What Wolfe calls his "Where's Waldo?" approach is fun to look at, but it also conveys an environmental message.
"Historically, photographers tended to shoot wildlife as trophies: The main objective was to get in as tight as we could, to get that portrait with the biggest rack or the biggest horn," Wolfe explains. "Vanishing Act gave a more honest look at how animals are seen, or not seen, in nature. It's also about how habitat is as important as the animal and how animals have evolved to look like their surroundings for survival."
Wolfe is proud of his skill at the Vanishing Act game. "I can't read my menu in front of me, but I'm really good at seeing animals in the wild," he says. "I know the difference between, say, a Bengal tiger and a Siberian tiger, and I have a pretty good idea of animals' behavior." That knowledge often allows Wolfe to be in the right place at the right time. Once when he was following a wolf pack in Yellowstone National Park, he spotted a large herd of elk nearby. Anticipating an encounter between the two groups, he got into position, and, sure enough, the wolves chased the herd right into view. "Two or three hundred elk streamed up onto the meadow below us," Wolfe recalls. "It looked like the Serengeti."
Not all of his encounters with animals go so smoothly. Wolfe once kept a bear at bay with a Wal-Mart umbrella; another time, he evaded an angry Indian rhino by hopping through the thick roots of a banyan tree. "The rhino wasn't able to negotiate the roots, and it wasn't smart enough to go around the tree," he says with a laugh. The risks are just part of the business, as are the long weeks on the road, the eight-day treks over the mountains of Patagonia to get the perfect view, the all-night hikes to be in position for sunrise, the days of waiting for conditions to be just right.
"Landscapes are not static; there's just one moment when the light is right, the mist is swirling," Wolfe says, explaining how strong midday sun can flatten forms and wash out colors. "I won't shoot anything where the light is harsh and ugly. I'd rather come away with nothing than have that associated with my name. Whether it's the deserts of Africa or the forests of the Northwest, bad light is bad light."
EARLIER IN THE DAY, we paused on a trail to watch one of Wolfe's assistants photograph a stand of trees where the sun was coming through the branches, creating a striking pattern of shadows. It looked like a good shot to me, but Wolfe shook his head. While the mind and the eye "close down on the highlights and fill in the shadows," a camera can't capture the full tonal range, he explained. "People look at all kinds of things that are pretty but don't translate well in a photograph."
As we drive and talk that morning, Wolfe scans the sides of the road for opportunities. "Right now the lighting sucks!" he says. "And yet we might turn a bend, and suddenly there will be this juxtaposition of light and subject that will just click."
As the road curves toward the Sol Duc River, Wolfe pulls over abruptly. He jumps from the car, and his assistants rush after him. Wolfe says there's yellow reflecting in the water; the white caps will translate as blue in the image, providing a complementary contrast. That won't last longer than 15 minutes, he predicts. We clamber down mossy wet rocks. As I struggle with my footing, Wolfe already has his tripod firmly planted. After a minute or two, he moves to another spot.
"The way the water is flowing, there's a hundred different compositions," Wolfe says. "As bad as the light is for forest shots, it's making this happen right now. As a photographer, your job is about going out early on a given day and finding what's given to you. It's about seeing the opportunities."
Wolfe packs up his gear, and I pause to look back at the river. The yellow is gone; the water is a dull blue and green. Wolfe is back in the car and ready to move on.
Jennifer Hattam is the senior associate editor for Sierra.