Updated: Feb 8, 2021
Photos by Greg Basco. © Foto Verde Tours
I know. We've all been there. We spend that money on a fancy big lens and want to fill the frame with every subject we encounter. And if we can't, even as we're shooting, we're thinking about how our high megapixel camera will allow us to crop in tightly in post-processing. I'll tell you what. You have an addiction, and this is an intervention :-)
This tip is less about technique than it is about mindset. Shooting with a telephoto lens but rendering the subject small in the frame will benefit you in three ways as a photographer. First, you'll add some diversity to your portfolio. Second, you'll become more adept at exposure as you'll have to consider all of the light in different parts of the frame. And third, you'll be forced to think about composition - how that cool bird or mammal serves as simply one element (albeit an important one) in a larger scene.
The image above is a kind of a gateway drug to beginning to embrace the small in the frame mentality. I set this perch up specifically for one of our workshop groups because I just loved the epiphytic ferns and the high-key misty forest background. Any bird that landed where I hid some mashed banana would be a bonus, and this Silver-throated Tanager looked great. In fact, it looked so good that I couldn't resist grabbing a shot myself. Thinking about a bird as part of a mini-telephoto scene is a good step toward getting smaller in the frame.
This old photo moves us forward on our quest. While shooting from a boat in Costa Rica's Tortuguero National Park, I came across this Snowy Egret. We couldn't get any closer, and this is a common bird in Florida as well as the tropics. I really like this photo because I think I was able to find a nice composition and provide a hint of tropical context with the vegetation and the dark, tannin stained water. It's a nice arrangement, and it tells the viewer that this was not taken in Florida but rather in a tropical rainforest area.
Dappled light can be a huge help for composing in chaotic rainforest environments. Why is that? It's because bright highlights allow us to let the shadows go dark and emphasize elements that contribute to a pleasing composition. That's the strategy I employed at one of my favorite lodges in Costa Rica for this photo of a Bare-throated Tiger Heron. We still have to work hard to see these opportunities and be lucky to have things come together. But again, simply being mindful of the possibility for different kinds of telephoto images is key. The subject is important but being aware of light, background, and supporting elements is what will set our photos apart.
Mammals look good small as well. This is a Central American Agouti, a rodent that, like squirrels, will sequester seeds and then forget about them, thus enhancing the dispersal of a number of rainforest tree seeds. By framing wide, getting low, and including an overarching, out of focus, palm leaf, I was able to convey a bit of sense of place. If I had attempted to approach closer to fill the frame, I think the resulting photo would have just said "Oh, there's a weird-looking rat." Also, that strange rat very well may have scampered away.
Flying birds small in the frame. Why not? I pre-focused on this Montezuma Oropendola in the hopes that it would take off in the drizzle of a Costa Rican rainforest garden. The palm trees and the rain definitely tell the viewer that this photo was taken in the tropics.
Compositional forethought is key for photographing birds and wildlife small in the frame. I photographed this common and nondescript bird (sorry, little buddy!), a Willet, during an absolutely torrential rainstorm from a boat on the Tarcoles River in Costa Rica. Those are mangroves in the background, and they suggest a bit of habitat. Key to the success of this photo was getting low in the boat and waiting until the willet walked in front of a dark spot in the mangroves. But the real trick was not giving up and instead realizing that the low light and heavy rain provided an opportunity for a unique bird photo!
Reptiles look great small too, even big ones like this Spectacled Caiman. I've been fortunate to be able to photograph them in a number of different places in Costa Rica, and I always prefer them as part of the habitat. In the photo above, I got down low in a canoe and used the reflections in the tannin-rich black water of Costa Rica's Tortuguero National Park as leading lines.
And in the photo below, I used a 300 mm lens on a tripod to show that same caiman species eating what I assume must be a really old armadillo. I just love the juxtapositon of the caiman in it's typical calm water habitat with a faster flowing mid-elevation stream in the background. I think it's much more interesting than a tight closeup.
At this point, you might be thinking that I must hate that typical long lens photo. On the contrary, though not my favorite kind of image, when a tight shot presents itself, I'm all for it. These classic photos are popular for a reason and look great in our portfolio. The King Vulture portrait below is a nice example - clean background, a little hint of bokeh that sets off the subject, and some nice details that show off interesting anatomical features of the species. But, I could see this type of depiction in any bird ID guide or app.
I much prefer the King Vulture photo below even though you can only see the adult male's head as a small part of the composition. Instead of simple documentation, we move into the world of interpretation. And yes, I also feel pretty strongly that clean, unobstructed views are also overrated. But that's a topic for a future tip!
In sum, I firmly believe that embracing the "small in the frame" mentality will make you a better nature photographer. You'll start to see photo possibilities that you would not have considered previously, and you'll begin to create images that stand out from the crowd!