How much of the environment do we really need anyway?

By February 28, 2017Wildlife Blog

WAIT! Before you click on that unfollow, unsubscribe, unlike button, please hear me out…

I’m not talking about the environment environment (this is not an anti-climate change rant), I’m talking about pixels, the digital blueprint of most modern day photography. When it comes to creating an image that crosses the threshold from ‘just a picture’ to a ‘work or art,’ the key in terms of pixels is ‘knowing what to throw away, knowing what to keep’ – as the wise Kenny Rogers once sang.

To me, art is something that speaks directly to my soul, tapping into my inner creatively and evoking a sense of wonder . Like a song where the voice, instruments – every single note – complement each other perfectly, each element (or pixel) of a photograph needs to be arranged in a way that enhances the main subject or adds to the overall story. I believe creating this harmony is the key to great photography.

As a wildlife photographer, I am prone to letting the amazingness of the animal over-power every other aspect of a photograph. My tendency is to zoom in as much as possible in an effort to capture a detailed close-up. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but the more experience I get, the more I understand how everything works together, how the background/environment can either add to or distract from the story.

Awareness of the environment needs to be front and centre while photographing, but cropping in post gives photographers the opportunity to further refine their work of art.

I’ve allowed the analytical side of my brain to deconstruct some of my own images in effort to figure out – how much of the environment do we really need?

Sometimes the decision is obvious and intuitive, like with this grizzly bear on the railway tracks in Banff.

Banff, AB

Banff, AB

The lines of the tracks draw the eye to the grizzly bear, then the deer, then the back-lit trees – the story in this image just jumped out at me, both while I was taking the photo and later when I cropped. I knew a close-up of the bear in this case would not make a compelling image.

Sometimes, however, I feel compelled to leave more of the environment than I should in an effort to adhere to the rules of composition.

This lynx photo was taken four years ago, at a time when I was still relatively new to the game of wildlife photography. This is my initial crop:


It wasn’t until I took the image to my friend Bob Cook (Branded Visuals) to print that I realized the extra environment distracted from the beauty of the lynx.


While the top image may adhere more to the rule of thirds, the extra environment is just more of what is already in the close-up – leaves – some blurry, some in focus. Seeing more blurry/focused leaves does not add to the story.

Context, context, context…

I posted a question to my photography friends on Facebook a while ago to get some feedback and inspiration for this blog:

Screen Shot 2017-02-28 at 3.26.23 PM

Even though the bears are absolutely adorable on their own, most of the feedback from my friends spoke to the need to keep the shoreline in order to provide context. Without it, viewers could question whether the bears were in a zoo, or in trouble, too far from the shore, etc. Interestingly, I realized that I have several hundred images of these swimming bears and 90% of them include the shoreline. I seemed to intuitively know the shoreline was needed even before I questioned it.

Context is important, and losing the environment (or cropping too close) often means losing context. However, the background is not the only way to provide context. I have two versions of this six-month-old lion cub, but I’m only going to display my favorite – the extreme close-up:

The Maasai Mara Reserve, Kenya

Despite the fact that there is no background, there is an important element of this photo that speaks to the fact that it was taken in Africa, in the wild, not in a zoo. I’m curious if anyone else sees it and agrees or disagrees? If so, please post a comment below.

Addition: I’m not sure this element is as obvious as I think, so wanted to clarify – it’s the flies near the eyes that I think really speak to Africa, wild vs. zoo, etc 🙂

Obvious distractions

I love this gray jay image, but why did I not crop out that little stick on the left? Looking at it now, it drives me crazy – I feel like it obviously distracts from the beautiful bird reflection. I suspect I was looking at the overall composition, like I did with lynx above, and missing a seemingly minor but very distracting element.


Here’s where it gets tricky…

A lot of times, I struggle with whether background elements add to or distract from the story of the photo. Take these white-tailed ptarmigan photos:



I feel like the top one adds more context because it shows more of the environment – ptarmigan are often found at the base of pine trees when they are at rest. But does it distract from that ridiculously beautiful bird? I have no idea – I honestly can’t say which of these photos I prefer.

This uncertainty is part of the art of photography – despite the fact that I don’t know all the answers, I love being able to flex my creative muscles in trying to figure it out.

I’m curious about the thoughts of fellow photographers, artists, wildlife-lovers – anyone actually – on this matter. Please feel free to comment below if you have anything to add.

Until next time, continue loving life and everything wild 🙂

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  • That bear on tracks photo remains one of my faves. As for the Lynx, I kind of like the extra environment as it shows how he’s hiding (part of the story). What’s in the lion cub photo? I don’t see it!!!

    • Kerri Martin says:

      Thanks Michael! For the lion pic it’s the flies near the eyes that I feel like speak to Africa. It’s great you like the extra around the lynx too – goes to show that now matter what we do as the photographer, there is always going to be individual preferences of the viewer 🙂

  • Rob Fullen says:

    Hey Kerri, the re crop on the the Lynx is an improvment from the original, I agree with your reasoning. I like the “little stick” in the Gray Jay shot, it says “small water pond” to me and instantly takes me to that type of place rather than a lake or a bigger river, the stick balances the picture for me, as without it, the land and bird would be way too heavy on the right side. I did not immediatly see the flies on the lion until you mentioned it and it only said Africa to me because it is your photo and I know you travel there, so I wasn’t thinking zoo but may have if it was anothers post, so in that case maybe more envronment may have helped. (or highlights on the flies wings). I like the close up Ptarmy but if it was printed large and on a wall I think I would prefer the one with more environment, so final display/presentation might play a cropping role too.
    I’m looking forward to seeing my first Lynx. Great Blog,Thank you

    • Kerri Martin says:

      Thanks so much for your feedback Rob! It’s so great to get another eye on these things. That’s a very good point about the Gray Jay, and the Lion. I cropped the lion that close because of the flies, but they still are not obvious, so this I realize that may not work as I had planned. So interesting!! 🙂

  • Thank you for the great post! I love all of your photos and like how you are experimenting with cropping. The little stick in the water provides a nice counterpoint and attention grabber to the composition, I would leave it in. I noticed the green grass bottom right corner of the lion image, is there slightly more of that in the original photo, that might help it say it is in the wild. I like more environment in the ptarmigan photo, perhaps if the image was cropped off more on top to ‘clean’ the shape of the tree and convert to longer horizontal format might be an interesting experiment.😃 Beautiful images!

    • Kerri Martin says:

      Thanks for much the feedback Georgia! I realized again I might be overly critical that little stick in the water when it actually seems to work for most people 🙂 I also looked at your site and I LOVE LOVE LOVE your beautiful bear paintings 🙂

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