If you are out with a group of photographers, small or large, photographing wildlife and experiencing the wild animals in their home, sooner or later, you will likely hear someone say something like, "Oh, just call it an environmental shot." I have heard this all too many times. The speaker is usually referring to the challenge of not being able to get close enough with their gear to get the wildlife big in their shot. And this is a disparaging "joke" about wildlife photography.
I think this is a really unfortunate comment that hurts good nature photography. A good environmental shot is an important shot to show a subject in context with where it lives. No close shot can ever do that (close shots are important for other reasons). And that context is critical to understanding the life of that wildlife subject (or other nature subject).
This was demonstrated so clearly to me while watching Planet Earth II. The BBC Natural History Unit has completed another Planet Earth series, though it is not available in the U.S. until late March. I got my copy from Amazon.com in the UK, though the univerally playable Blu-Ray version seems to be no longer available.
The BBC Natural History Unit works hard to give context for the wildlife it features. There is a sequence about the Nubian ibex that took my breath away, not because of the animal, but because of the way it interacts with its cliff environment. There would be no way to appreciate that without seeing "environmental shots." If you don't know the Nubian ibex, you can see a bit about it at this page from the San Diego Zoo. Notice that most of the photos only show close shots, which do tell you what the animal looks like, but you learn little of its life. There is one photo of a young animal among the rocks that starts to give some context.
When you can't get close enough, it is okay to simply say, you can't get close enough. It does nature photography little good to flippantly call that "an environmental shot." You can get excellent environmental shots that communicate something unique about the nature of your subject. But to do that, you have to recognize an environmental shot as important and work to get a good one.
One challenge to the environmental shot, though, is that it won't always "read" well small. Sometimes a small shot will not be fully appreciated by a quick view, even to the point of the viewer seeing the scene, but not the animal. This is why it is important to work to be sure the animal shows up well in the scene. That means looking for contrast that will help it stand out.
All of the photos here were recently taken at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a wonderful place to see, photograph and experience wildlife.
I have a new self-paced course available now, The Art of Choice. This is that crazy project I mentioned before that took me way too long to complete. I am pleased with the result, and there is a ton of photos to illustrate, but I just kept going in wrong directions for me. I was never quite happy with how it was going together until I literally had to have a talk with myself. I had to stop doing what I was "supposed to do" based on some imaginary criteria that weren't completely true to me. I had to find my best self and put it out there in the course. I think I finally did that. You can find more about the course on my overview sort of website, www.joyofnatureandphotography.com. And if you use the code, bats, you'll get $15 off the regular price of $67.