What makes a good nature photo? An expert explains


Many of us will never visit eastern Kenya, West Java or any number of the far-flung places where conservationists are racing to protect nature.

But a skilled photographer can take you there, to tell a story about these places and to offer a glimpse into the lives of those who depend on nature.

A farmer in Gedepahala, West Java, Indonesia. (© Jessica Scranton)

How, then, to pick the right photo to tell the right story?

In honor of Nature Photography Day, Human Nature sat down with Louisa Barnes, Conservation International’s photography manager, to talk about three of her favorite photos of the organization’s work, and how she selects the most compelling images.

Q: When you’re scrolling through a ton of images, what jumps out at you as something that makes a good photo?

A: An effective photograph makes you feel something that you didn’t previously. It should make you curious about the main subject, or even take you by surprise. Photography is our emotional window into the world — able to transport you places you may never go otherwise.

Conservation International’s photojournalistic style is bold, colorful and saturated — everything is bright and optimistic. So, a lot of the time I’m looking for color. I’m also observing the way that people or elements are interacting. The crucial function of photography and videography is to tell a story, so if there’s no curiosity behind the image, it feels too two-dimensional to me. To share a narrative — excite, intrigue or trigger emotion — these are the goals of our photography.

Sikoyo Laudini, 33 (from left), Lenku Jacob Lomunyak, 21, and Morinke Kipaa, 25, pose for a portrait in the Chyulu Hills, Kenya. (© Charlie Shoemaker)

Q: Tell me about this photo.

A: This is an image from our Chyulu Hills work in Kenya. Charlie Shoemaker, one of Conservation International’s commissioned photographers, spent a week traveling with our field staff and incredible partners in the region. He covered so much exciting content — carbon emissions and cloud forests, Big Life’s ranger team in action, the Maasai community (pictured here), REDD+’s project verification and David Sheldrick’s elephant feeding. This area is doing some wonderful things and documenting it to share with our audience was a privilege.

Q: What do you like about it?

A: This was one of my favorite shoots that we’ve done so far and this particular photo for me is very powerful. It’s one of the photos that I would print and hang in my home. The color contrast and their gaze against the stark landscape is startling, and it really grabs you. These men are looking directly at the camera, which often doesn’t work because you feel like the voyeuristic moment is spoiled, or it’s staged. But the way that they’re looking at Charlie is intense, and the scenery looks like a painting. They see you seeing them, and you’re locked in.

Gertruida Cloete in her home in South Africa. (© Charlie Shoemaker)

Q: Tell me about this woman.

A: In 2015, when this shoot took place, I believe Gertruida Cloete was 70. She is a shepherd who lives and works in Namaqualand in South Africa, a rural area about seven hours north of Cape Town by car. Cloete is a member of the Biodiversity and Red Meat farming cooperative, which was established with the help of Conservation South Africa, to assist local farmers in preventing overgrazing and protecting their flocks from predators in humane ways.

Q: What strikes you about this photo?

A: It’s so intimate, as if you’re peeking behind the curtain. It makes me wonder what she’s going through and what her experiences in life have been; what’s brought her here. I want to ask questions about her history and viewpoint on the world. I want to know who made those hand marks on the wall, and where she collected the dried flowers. I want to know what else is in the shadows. I want to know why she works with us.

The point of our produced shoots for Conservation International is to see the real people whom we’re working with — the actual men and women in the field, doing this important work. It’s crucial to avoid just using stock imagery, but to invest in visuals of boots on the ground. That emotional connection makes you so much more invested. The moment captured in this image is a real invitation into her home and that access is special.

Women farmers in Gedepahala, West Java, Indonesia. (© Jessica Scranton)

Q: What’s going on in this photo?

A: Photographer Jessica Scranton went to Gedepahala, Indonesia, in 2012 to shoot our “Green Wall” project. She followed one of the rivers down from our project areas towards Jakarta, particularly near Gunung National Park, visiting the communities that bank this river. This work touches everything from reforestation, community engagement, wildlife preservation, sustainable agriculture, hydroelectricity and fresh water.

Jessica went back in 2016 on the back of a motorcycle, to revisit the exact same route. We wanted to visually document how Conservation International’s work had impacted their lives. I love this photo because it’s effervescent — these ladies are in their element and their smiles seem so genuine.  It has a lot of elements Conservation International’s brand is known for — energy, action, color, positivity.

Q: So this image is from the later shoot?

A: Yes, this is from 2016. I just love this photo because you know it really conveys the way that they’re feeling in that moment. They’re coexisting with nature, and it’s just really lovely.

One of the compliments that Jess receives regularly, is her innate ability to make her subjects feel at ease. As a photographer, it’s so important that your subjects let you in. She is really talented at that. She just has a way of making you open up — me included.

Q: In an era when images of environmental destruction are everywhere in the media, these three shots are uplifting. How do you make choices about what kinds of photos to run?

A: The reason that we try very hard not to use negative imagery repeatedly is because it does not convey the kind of organization that we are as a whole. Everything that Conservation International does is to respect, empower and uplift the communities that we work with. So our images should serve to empower and uplift them as well.

However, it is important on occasion to use images of forest fires or flooding, for example, as long as they are followed by a message of hope. There needs to be an actionable step that makes you feel like you can make a difference. The message that we receive commonly from folks about the environment is, “I feel so overwhelmed,” or “I don’t know where to start. What can I do? I’m just one person.” My job as a storyteller is to get an emotional response from the viewer, make them interested and invested in what they’re seeing, and give them a way to engage with it later. I want our audience to feel that they can do something, that they are powerful and that they absolutely can be a part of the solution.

Check out Jessica Scranton and Charlie Shoemaker’s work.

Louisa Barnes is Conservation International’s photography manager. Morgan Lynch is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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