What exactly are Animalscapes?

About a month ago I announced our new photography contest for subscribers to the Journal of Wildlife Photography. As with our contests in the past, this one is themed, and the particular focus of this particular contest is animalscapes.

But what exactly is an animalscape, and why do they matter?

More often than not, what I am calling an animalscape here is typically referred to as an environmental portrait. Language is a funny thing though. Countless books have been written about the psychology of language and the words that we choose and use. And it’s for this reason that I am attempting to use a completely different name for all of this.

Let’s get the pedantic stuff out of the way here first.

When we hear the word environmental portrait, most assume this simply means that the photograph was just taken a little further away from the animal. That is to say, it’s not a frame filling portrait. Quite often, this is just a matter of the photographer not having a long enough lens to create the photograph they really wanted.

An animalscape is different. Here, the success of the photograph is directly hinged upon the landscape or environment the subject is in. With these types of photographs, the emphasis is on designing the composition based around the environment as opposed to just the animal. Set and setting are priority. The animal, whether it’s a bird or a snake or mammal, is the anchor.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are only incorporating grand landscapes here. We CAN do that. And those photos can be completely mind-blowing. Instead, what this means is just that the environment comes first in the way the photograph is seen and experienced – not just in how it is created.

Perhaps some examples are in order here. And the ones that follow were selected specifically to dispel the notion that this style of photograph is based upon big and beautiful landscapes.

I created this first photograph of a great gray owl while in the boreal forest of Minnesota this winter. Of all the thousands of photographs I came home with, this is unquestionably my favorite. The gray on white. The pop of color in the eyes. The way the aspen trees unfold around the bird. I’m in love with this photo and how completely different it is from most gray owl images.

The composition here was everything. I had previsualized a photograph like this in my mind beforehand. Overcast day with white skies and the white of the aspen trees with no green anywhere to speak of. Now, set the gray owl against this white-on-white tapestry. Finding the right angle, where bird and trees and twigs and sky all lined up took some work even once the scenario unfolded for me. And in the 10 minutes this owl set here, I spent most of that time trying to suss out these little details.

In this photograph, the arrangement of the environment around the bird was everything. But the arrangement of the environment around our subject is ALWAYS everything to me. To say otherwise would be to say that composition simply doesn’t matter. That only the bird matters.

Although this photograph will be sold as a fine art print as an open edition, this photograph is not an animalscape.

Each year I run a workshop in Alaska photographing brown bears. On this particular evening, a sow with two very young cubs emerged from the forest and wandered down to the river to fish. Spotting this through a pair of binoculars, we scrambled to load up behind the ATVs and get to the river. But as we were racing down the beach, I noticed this bald eagle fly in and perch on the carcass of this massive tree that had washed up in a storm.

Bald eagles in Alaska are a lot like gulls on a beach in Florida. They are oftentimes everywhere and can be VERY accommodating. But instead of moving in closer to capture some classic portraits of this bird, I opted to stay back in order to incorporate the enormity of the driftwood in the composition.

For me, the tree made the photograph. It’s not that the tree adds to the photograph. It’s not that the tree provides complimentary colors and tones like in the great gray owl photo above. Here, the tree is the point. The tree dictates how you see the photograph – set and setting first; bald eagle second.

I don’t’ know how many photographs of bald eagles I have in my files. It’s a lot! Most of them are flight shots or frame filling portraits. You know, those types of photographs we are ALWAYS after. Every one of them is actively marketed and sold to everything from magazines to advertisement agencies. And yet it is this photograph of a dead tree with an eagle that takes up a little more than 1% of the composition that outsells all the rest 10 : 1.


Set and setting came first. This is not a photograph of an eagle. It’s a photograph of an idea of what Alaska is.


I realize that’s a heady statement – a photograph of an idea of something. You really can’t be more abstract and subjective than this. But by homing in on a quintessential element of the Alaskan landscape, large old growth sized driftwood trees on a beach, and anchoring it with an eagle, the photograph captures the essence of the place.

I think it’s important to state that I am not inventing something new with the concept. In fact, all I am doing is borrowing from the artistic philosophy of nineteenth century painters of the American West.

Before photographs, we had paintings. Before airplanes and personal vehicles and a giant middle class with disposable income, Americans, and the rest of the world, relied on the paintings to show them what was “out there.”

When considered through the lens of this perspective, we can see that more often than not the goal of these artists was to show us what it was like to EXPERIENCE the West.

Sure, some drew and painted nothing more than portraits of animals. But these were often done for the sake of science and not for the sake of the general public.

Animalscapes give us the ability to transport our viewers to a place and allow them the opportunity to experience what we have seen.

Let’s be honest, very few people WANT to experience a brown bear in real life that is so close that all you can see is her head and shoulders. This is, of course, how we often photograph them with a 600mm lens. But it is never how someone other than a photographer with that giant lens is going to see the world or that bear.

None of this is to say that animalscapes are better than close portraits. This is art. There are no rules. And we are all doing this stuff for our own reasons.

Art is all about psychology.

A close-up portrait may be created to humanize an animal and create a psychological connection and sense of familiarity. A tight shot looking into the eyes of a predator on the other hand can be done to tap into a person’s limbic system, invoking a feeling of fear we all know deep down on a genetic level, creating a momentary adrenaline rush in viewers. An animalscape gives our viewers the feeling of experiencing the magic and beauty of the natural world firsthand.

What I am trying to do here by running a photography contest for animalscapes is to try to get you to begin seeing other possibilities. And really, that is the artistic process in a nutshell – being able to see the possibilities.

To enter please click on the link below to head over to our official Facebook group.

Be sure to check out the official rules and contest hashtags.

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