Several things have made me think a bit about context in nature photography. It can be an important part of nature beyond the subject, but sometimes a simple photo of a subject without context is also important. Context is the "other stuff" in a photo that goes beyond the subject itself and tells you something more about the subject. Context can help a photo tell a story about the place where an animal lives, for example. On the other hand, all of that "other stuff" can at times be distracting and keep you from seeing the subject.
Niall Benvie, Paul Harcourt Davies and Clay Bolt started a terrific website, Meet Your Neighbors, that uses a very specific technique of studio-like lighting with a white background to isolate, emphasize and highlight distinctive natural subjects. These are photos without context so as to emphasize looking at the unique differences among life around us. They are working hard to use photography to show off the biodiversity of nature everywhere.
Niall has a wonderful e-book, The Field Studio, that shows you exactly how to do this beautiful photography. This is a stunning book worth checking out even if you don't plan on doing this type of nature photography. It will give you ideas on what is possible. Click here to learn more.
For some unknown reason dwelling deep in my psyche, I often seem to gravitate toward images with context. I started shooting close-ups with a wide-angle lens and a small extension tube 30 years ago when I worked as a naturalist in Minnesota. Wide-angle close-ups show off the setting and context along with the subject. For me, they are photos that show relationship and ecology. Shooting with a wide-angle this way can be challenging because you have to deal with so much "other stuff" showing up around your subject, but it can also be a lot of fun. I love using a camera with a tilting LCD, such as my NEX cameras, because it means I can set the camera on the ground and easily see what I am getting at subject level.
That is not to say that you cannot get context with a telephoto. You have to take a wide enough shot (not to be confused with a wide-angle shot) that includes setting or other details to tell you more about the subject in relationship to its environment. I find that even when I am shooting birds with a telephoto, for example, I like including context.
This green heron is part of a photo e-book I am working on called Reports from the Wild that I hope to have done by the end of the month. As I put together photos of green herons and other birds, I realized that no matter what I did, I tended to include context. You can also see that in the photo of the moorhens opening at the top of this post.
It also occurred to me that none of these bird photos would ever win any photo contests. Both types of photographs are important, with and without context, however, many nature photo contests seem to overly favoring images without context, which to me, does not represent the full possibilities of nature or nature photography. I just saw a recent Audubon magazine showing winners from its photo contest and nearly every shot (though to be fair, not all) was done with a big telephoto lens, wide-open f-stop, blurred unrecognizable background – pretty and definitely worthy, but this is very limiting to photography if this is the main type of photography featured. NANPA contests have been similar.
I feel we need both types of photography, with and without context. Yet the emphasis today is so much on no context because folks are just using telephotos with limited depth of field. I see this in my class on storytelling photography at BetterPhoto.com. They find learning to bring context to their subject challenging, yet context is critical for storytelling. Photographers have such an emphasis on seeing the subject and making it look good (which can be a good thing), that they struggle to see possibilities in adding context to give something new for their subject.
Look at your own photography. Are you concentrating so much on the subject that you don't see the context? Or if you want to isolate and emphasize that subject, are you doing all you can to make images simple and direct like Niall does? Both approaches are valuable and important to both nature and photography.