The photographs in the Human Canvas series aim at depicting the strength and diversity of different cultures in his trademark style_Art of Good Photography_Art Wolfe_Saevus

The Art of good photography

Art Wolfe’s photographs of animal camouflage and human canvases are famous around the world. In this interaction, he shares with us how he manages to see in nature what the rest of us can only hope to.

Art Wolfe

An American photographer and conservationist, Art Wolfe is known for his unique perspectives in the photography of wildlife, landscapes, culture and the use of colour. His work has been appreciated by environmental groups and peers alike. He has won prestigious awards and has published more than 80 books, including Vanishing Act, The High Himalaya, Water: Worlds between Heaven & Earth, Tribes, Rainforests of the World, and The Art of Photographing Nature. He serves on advisory boards for the Wildlife Conservation Society, Nature’s Best Foundation, Bridges to Understanding, and is a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP).


SAEVUS:  You have a staggering 80+ book titles under your belt. Your book, Vanishing Act: The Art of Camouflage is a brilliant concept, interactive to the point that readers feel like they’re part of a game, like a quiz that asks them to ‘Spot the animal’. How long did this project take?

ART: I have been photographing for my camouflage series since the mid-1980s. Hiding Out was a children’s book I did in the early ‘90s and Vanishing Act was the culmination of this endeavour, which went on to become a favourite with children and adults alike. My intent was to show the animals not as I normally would, selectively focusing them on a branch or in a field with a soft background, but rather as they really are, perfectly blended with their environment, hiding in plain sight. Animals have evolved with the patterns in nature, which they mimic for their very survival.

I rarely photograph with just a single project in mind. Generally, I’ll have 10 to 20 different projects, future books, classes, lectures floating around in the back of my mind as I’m in the field, allowing me to take advantage of a wide variety of subjects and compositions in a given location.

I particularly enjoyed touring with this book around the US, where I’d reveal a selection of the photographs during presentations. Within minutes, an audience of 500 adults would transform into a classroom of children. The moment a new image would flash on the screen, the room would become still, with a palpable tension as collective minds focused on the task of identifying the animal before anyone else did. After the first few slides, it was always the same regardless of the audience; people just couldn’t help themselves as they shouted out, “Leopard, top right!” or “It’s a giraffe!” or “It’s a bird, er, or something!”


A Great Gray Owl has positioned itself in front of a similar pattern to take advantage of this camouflage. Oregon, United States.


SAEVUS:  You are also a teacher. How has that inspired you on the field? What aspects do you focus on while designing workshops?

ART:  I have always enjoyed teaching. In fact, before my photography career took off, I always assumed I would be a teacher, perhaps at a local college and enjoy my work as an artist and photographer in my spare time. I have always made a place for teaching in my career, even for local one-day photography seminars, right from the very early years.

With a passion for fine art painting, my college courses included art, history, sculpture, drawing, etc, and I built my photography composition seminars on those roots. Paintings are held out as masterworks today not simply because they are old, it’s because of the choices the artist made in composition, use of line, pattern and colour, having stood the test of time. Those same choices apply in photography today. I don’t dwell on how you use your camera in my courses; I am interested in how you see the world around you: to see a Monet in the softly swaying blossoms of a flowering tree; to see the work of MC Escher in a flock of Demoiselle Cranes in Khichan; to see the hand of Renoir in a market scene where every individual is of equal importance to the viewer as their eye moves from one interaction and vignette within the scene to the next.

I am continually growing and learning as a photographer, constantly challenging myself – just as I challenge those who come to my classes – to see with new eyes.


SAEVUS: Your new book, The New Art of Photographing Nature, is out. It comes after over 50 titles about photographing nature. You’ve constantly innovated, and shared with your readers. Can you tell us a bit about the ‘new’ aspects that you’ve touched upon in this book?

ART: This is a heavily, heavily revised edition of The Art of Photographing Nature, published in 1993. Most of the photography has been updated, as well as a good portion of the text. I still engage in a lively dialogue with former Audubon Photo Editor, Martha Hill, and I brought in digital expert Tim Grey to add text on digital imaging.  A lot has changed in photography in 20 years; this book was a bestseller when it first came out and it definitely deserved a much-needed update.


A Common Snipe is well hidden in the shoreline vegetation of a Minnesota stream


SAEVUS: You’re known as an artist, with a special focus on colour and perspectives. How do you think about colour in the photography of nature, when there is little in your control?
ART: There is a lot more in your control when it comes to colours in nature. Granted you can’t choose the colours before you but you can choose which to emphasise in a composition, how to frame your image, what time of day or year to shoot… a lot of planning and many decisions go into a successful image and how you work with the colours available is critical.

On my last trip to Africa, I knew I wanted to photograph elephants in Botswana backlit with the red and orange hues of the pre-dawn light and this didn’t just ‘happen’, it required a lot of forethought and planning. When photographing orange flowers,
I may take advantage of a complementary blue sky as a backdrop. Likewise, the complementary colour to green is red – thus red barns look nice with green grass in the foreground, just as red blossoms jump out when accompanied by an in-focus green foliage as a backdrop.

Animals and foliage alike show different colouration at different times of the year; spawning salmon in Alaska turn to a bright red, many animals turn white in the winter and larch pines show a brilliant yellow in the fall. When your approach to photography is ‘once in a lifetime’, you can plan your shots seasonally rather than just accepting what you see at the moment.

Sometimes, when photographing wildlife, the backdrop I find them against is horrible for their colouration, doing nothing for the composition. I may wait for the animal out, hoping, almost willing it to move to a better location for the photograph or I will try and move my position – staying slow and low – to take advantage of a different location, maximising the colours available to my composition.


A pygmy seahorse near Papua New Guinea takes advantage of the coral’s maze-like structure to hide in cryptic safety


SAEVUS: Your work must have given you innumerable instances that remain as treasures in your mind, of information, and the rare connect with nature that few can boast of. Can you give us an instance that stayed with you?

ART: I was photographing an elephant seal in the shallow water of South Georgia Island, one of my favourite destinations, for its beauty and wildlife. This place doesn’t see too many visitors and thus the animals do not fear you, allowing access unseen in other parts of the world. As the curious seal inched closer seeing its reflection in the lens, my main concern was to protect my camera, and I missed seeing the young weaner Southern elephant seal that was scooting along the beach headed straight for me. I was lying on my stomach with my legs stretched out behind me when I first felt his presence. Initially, I thought it was just too lazy to work its way around me and was going to simply crawl across my legs. So, imagine my surprise when it paused halfway across my legs, changed direction and began crawling up my back! After a few minutes, it was clear, it wasn’t just trying to get by, it was looking for a softer place to take a nap and thought I’d do just fine! That’s a lot of blubbers pinning you to the ground when one of these creatures decides to use you as its personal futon.


The photographs in the Human Canvas series aim at depicting the strength and diversity of different cultures in his trademark style_art of good photography_saevus_art wolfe

The photographs in the Human Canvas series aim at depicting the strength and diversity of different cultures in his trademark style.


SAEVUS: You’ve been on possibly every continent in the world. What is your perception of India and the biodiversity that exists here?

ART: India is a wonderful bounty of opportunity for photographers. One of the biggest mistakes in my career was to listen to advice at a young age from people who told me India held nothing of interest for the likes of me. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

I first travelled to India in 1990 and have returned many times, even attending three Kumbhs in the cities of Allahabad and Haridwar. The cultural diversity found within India – the naga sadhus descending from the mountains, the beautiful and vibrant dresses of the pilgrims enjoying the festivals – is a feast for the eyes and lens. The beautiful traditions around sunrise make for magnificent compositions as well. I love the strength of spirit you can see in the faces of the Indian people.

Likewise, photographing tigers in the national parks of Bandhavgarh, Ranthambhore, and Kanha mounted on an elephant is an experience no one can forget. I love the warning cacophony of the langurs, the elegant chitals, and the colourful peacocks. The wildlife in India is quite simply spectacular.


Demoiselle cranes, Khichan, India


Art Wolfe’s 10 commandments for photographers:

  1. Always get up early and stay out late. If you are going to be a nature photographer, you need to photograph at what I call the margins of the day.
  2. Use a good, sturdy tripod.
  3. Plan your location, plan your packing, plan your goals. Plan, plan, plan! This cannot be understated.
  4. If the weather turns, be prepared mentally to keep shooting. Can’t get that grand landscape because of fog? Photograph more intimately — close-ups and abstracts. You never want to come back with nothing.
  5. Get the best equipment you can afford; however, megapixels aren’t going to make you a better photographer, getting out of the door, practising and experimentation will.
  6. Get your work out on a website, Facebook, Twitter, and blog. Self-promotion is extremely important and no one is going to do it for you. Photoshelter and liveBooks are great tools for photographers.
  7. Back up your photos. Again, this cannot be understated.
  8. Break the rules; sometimes a cock-eyed horizon or a centred subject works.
  9. Take a seminar from me! Seriously though, I do recommend taking a workshop from a photographer you admire.
  10. And lastly, enjoy your photography and the experiences you have because you are making imagery you love!


Originally published in Sep-Oct 2013 Issue of Saevus Magazine

Read also: Revisiting the moments in the wild 

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About the Author /

India’s premium wildlife and natural history web portal and magazine It was somewhere out there in the wilderness that an idea was born. An idea called Saevus. A dream, a vision to bring India’s amazing bio-diversity to every home. To celebrate the bold, beautiful and dynamic India, much of it unseen and unexplored. It was the coming together of seasoned entrepreneurs, ace photographers, naturalists, and storytellers to captivate your imagination and arouse your consciousness.

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