While in the field, it can be easy to get caught up in the excitement of an encounter and focus too narrowly on the subject at hand – an aspect of photography I struggled with during my early years. I would often forget that viewers at home did not have the luxury of a first-hand experience and would only be aware of the elements I included within my compositions. Adding or subtracting them in service of the story I wanted to tell became an essential part of my creative process, the first step of which was to evaluate the entire frame mindfully.
While it is true that photographic opportunities with wildlife tend to arise spontaneously, the instincts most of us rely on at a moment's notice are lousy for addressing details. Good images require context and clarity to be compelling, so it is essential to consider every component of a given composition (as well as what lies just beyond its edges) to ensure they are making a positive contribution. For me, that means making a habit of rolling my eye around the whole frame and reviewing each quadrant sequentially, starting at the bottom then working my way up the left side, across the top, and down the right. I ask questions like: "Are these adorable newborn seal pup's antics captivating enough on their own, or would including the crumbling sea ice just out of frame create a powerful climate change narrative? Does cutting off this polar bear's ear or foot with my crop honor the impression of stoic nobility I am trying to create or detract from it?"
By inspecting the viewfinder with intentionality, I quickly discover opportunities to make my image more interesting. I adjust my shooting angle, physically back off, or zoom in accordingly, then repeat the process frequently as I wait for a magic moment to arrive. Hopefully, it is an investment in consideration that will elevate any resulting photo from good to great. Per my 20/60/20 Rule (which you can read about here), I usually start to slow down and look around the frame for things I hadn't noticed before once I already have a few images on my card.
My narwhal assignment for National Geographic is a good example of when this awareness proved especially advantageous. After many years and multiple trips to Nunavut's ice edge, I finally spotted the pod I had been dreaming of from the cockpit window of my ultralight airplane. I embraced my first instinct to shoot with a long lens and immediately began creating tight compositions in which individuals filled the frame.
What I didn't realize until I slowed down and considered my options was that zooming out and capturing groups of the whales resulted in far more interesting lines, shapes, and patterns. When I zoomed out and flew higher still, they became framed in a perfect teardrop of beautiful, textured ice. As is usually the case, the true art and magic of the moment only revealed themselves when I began looking around the frame.
So the next time you are out, give yourself a fighting chance to make an otherwise good image great – take the time to inspect the entire frame, then eliminate distractions and include something more than just the obvious.