Telling Stories With Stills


By James F Wittenberger

Having spent a number of years as a research biologist studying the behavior of birds in the wild, I perhaps see birds and other animals through a different mental lens than many amateur bird photographers. During five summers researching Bobolink behavior, I came to know many of the birds as individuals. I could recognize them by small plumage differences, variations in their songs, and even their unique personalities. In light of this experience, I'm not looking through the camera lens seeking an artful image. I see birds and other animals as living, sentient, behaving beings and that is what I try to capture in my images. My wife Laura Fellows has previously expressed the same sentiment in her article entitled Environmental Portraits of Tropical Birds published in the winter 2007 issue of Nature Photographer Magazine and on our website. An important aspect of seeing birds and other animals as living beings is that they are indeed behaving. It's perhaps understandable that the brief looks we get of birds or other animals in the field during a typical tour would seem to preclude much photography of them in action. After all, professional videographers spend months or even years getting the striking action shots we think of as animal behavior and are able to see on TV. Nevertheless, we do sometimes see snippets of behavior while on a tour. These snippets may be of rather mundane behavior, far less dramatic than the action videos we see on TV. Even so, they reinforce the notion that we're actually seeing living beings and not just ticks on a checklist.

For such snippets of behavior, I would argue that still photography can be superior to video. It's already clear that still photography has its place in even the most action-packed behavioral interaction, capturing and highlighting an especially dramatic moment. However, in more pedestrian and relatively brief behavioral sequences, video is overkill and misses the interesting aspects of what took place. An example illustrating this point is a Bateleur in Tanzania drinking water at a creek. The behavior might seem rather boring as a subject for video, but a series of stills captures a variety of interesting postures that wouldn't have much impact in a brief video.

To capture a short behavioral sequence is really quite straight-forward. One simply puts the camera on continuous high and starts shooting. The point is that one does not simply shoot a single frame but rather, one keeps shooting. Then, rather than selecting one supposedly best frame for presentation later on, present a series of images that illustrates the entire interaction. With some judicious editing, one can end up with a fascinating sequence of freeze-frame moments that happened in the field almost too quick for the eye and brain to absorb in real time. The one technical caveat in presenting such a sequence is that later processing through Adobe Photoshop or other software should use the same adjustments for color temperature, exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, blacks, and the like for every frame to maintain continuity between each shot. The end result should be a series of frames that tell the story while excluding sequential images that are too similar to really advance the story line.

My next example involves Red-and-green Macaws disputing a spot at the Tambo Blanquillo Clay Lick near the Manu River in Amazonian Peru. In this sequence two macaws get into a spat while clinging to the clay embankment, with one getting the better of the other. This example is particularly interesting photographically because when viewing a clay lick one is confronted with a scene of multiple species coming and going from the lick in seeming chaos. It's hard to know what to photograph, and the typical result is just a variety of random shots of numerous birds ingesting clay or flying about. By isolating on a single incident as this example illustrates, one can extract order from seeming chaos.

A third example involves two African Elephants near a waterhole in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. When watching the conflict at a distant, the first impression is that a dominant elephant has fought off a smaller, subordinate intruder. However, first impressions are not always correct impressions. Upon closer inspection of the stills, it becomes apparent that there is something different going on. Both elephants are smaller than adults, with the one on the left being larger than the one on the right. Second, the elephant on the left has grass in its mouth the entire time. How odd if this were actually a fight. Third, the elephant on the right almost seems to be smiling. It's not really possible to know for sure what is happening here without any context, but this interaction looks like two sub-adults doing a little play-sparring, perhaps as practice for adult life.

A fourth example is a short sequence of three Masai Giraffes at Arusha National Park. Giraffes have many fascinating behaviors, among them head-butting and neck wrestling. Thus, at first impression, this sequence seems to involve two of the three fighting while the third is looking on. However, closer inspection leads one to suspect that these are all rather young adults and what is really happening is play-fighting, a form of practice for the real thing that is common among many mammals.

A fifth example is a sequence of two Lion cubs at a waterhole. Here, the cub on the right is getting plenty to drink while the cub on the left seems to be looking on in envy while getting very little. In reality, the cub on the left had arrived first and evidently had its fill shortly before the cub on the right joined it. The two cubs seem to be well bonded, making it likely they're females. We know that lion prides are primarily made up of related females, with an outside male or two controlling access to the pride at any given time. It's reasonable to presume that bonding between sisters starts at an early age, which seems to be in evidence with these two cubs. Would one gain any understanding with a 30-sec video clip that doesn't allow for dwelling on each step of the sequence? Perhaps. But, I suspect most people watching a video clip or even the actual interaction would not wonder much about what is going on with these two cubs.

Finally, a sixth example is a straight-forward sequence of a Spectacled Caiman that had been sunning on a river bank along the Rio Madre de Dios in Peru choosing, perhaps in response to our presence, of gliding back into the river. Here the behavior is nothing more complicated than locomotion, but the postures through the sequence illustrate the grace of a reptile that many people would take for granted as nothing more than just another `croc' along the river. Locomotion is of itself an activity that can produce fascinating sequences of stills.

Capturing and presenting sequences of stills brings birds and animals to life in a way that single stills often fail to do. It's only natural to try for beautiful and artful photos of birds and animals in all their glory, but many stills make it quite easy to forget that they are actually frozen moments in the daily lives of sentient beings rather than mere objets d'art. Sequences of stills are a good antidote to the mindset that the natural world should only be viewed through the eyes of an artist or sportsman, and they help raise awareness among viewers that the subjects of our photography really are alive and worth watching for a while.

After writing this article, we've shot some new sequences that tell simple stories. These are listed below.

Waved Albatrosses are very special birds that nest primarily on Española Island in the Galapagos. My wife Laura Fellows shot this sequence of Waved Albatross pair-bonding behavior.

While on safari in Etosha National Park, we were fortunate enough to encounter a Cheetah mother and ¾-grown cub on a recent Springbok kill. The kill took place about 20-min before our arrival and was adjacent to the dirt track we were driving. People who witnessed the kill said it was an ambush that did not involve any chase. My photos of behavior at the kill show some interesting interactions between the mother and her cub during the gorging and after they were satiated. Be warned that the photos are somewhat graphic.

During a tour of Ethiopia, the star attraction on the Sanetti Plateau in Bale Mountains National Park is the Ethiopian Wolf. One individual was drinking at a waterhole close to the road as we reached it. After it walked away, four more crossed the road in front of us, with one stopping briefly to investigate a possible spot for its main prey, the Giant Mole-Rat.

Pair bonds of many birds in the tropics last a lifetime and often involve song duetting or allopreening (preening each other) to reinforce the relationship. My photo sequence of allopreening in Bare-cheeked Babblers near Etosha National Park is one example.

My tour of Namibia took place during the rainy season, a time of year when males are rutting or preparing for rut. We saw frequent conflicts between male antelope including the elegant Black-faced Impala in Etosha National Park. Male birds were also in conflict at times. One interesting example was the "combat dance" of two male Marabou Storks in the Mahango section of Bwabwata National Park, formerly called Mahango Game Reserve in the Caprivi region of northeast Namibia. In a different twist, an adult Rüppell's Griffon tries unsuccessfully to chase a juvenile off a road kill near Yabelo, Ethiopia.

The motion of birds taking flight is always fascinating in slow motion, and I was able to capture this sequence of a Black-breasted Snake-Eagle taking flight in the Naukluft Mountains of west-central Namibia. In another sequence an Augur Buzzard takes flight on Sanetti Plain in Bale National Park, Ethiopia.

The gaits of mammals are subject to numerous studies of animal locomotion and provide insights into biomechanics. They're also interesting just to watch and photograph. Two examples are a graceful Gemsbok running parallel to us below Spreetshoogte Pass in central Namibia and the rather awkward looking gait of a loping Spotted Hyena in Etosha National Park. Also interesting is a sequence of an injured Cheetah running with a limp after it was finally tired of our watching him. He and his brother were both along the main highway through Bwabwata National Park and both were reluctant to move because of the one Cheetah's injury.