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From Pretty Picture to Portfolio

May 21, 2010

For me, in the beginning, it was about pretty pictures and a love affair.

The affair began simply enough–on the final night of a last minute-two day safari to the Masai Mara–in a safari truck filled with student tourists, parked next to an acacia tree housing a lazy leopard.  The cat had no intentions of getting up, and we had to leave the park.  A duvet of stars spread out above me, and the primal roar of lions echoed in the distance-my heart was instantly stolen.

And so commenced my wildlife photography.  I was a ‘people’ photographer, now hooked on a continent, and also quite obsessed with spotted cats and cameras. At the time, I was a good people photographer.  I could capture “moments” and portraits.  Shooting wildlife?  Never crossed my mind. But, the obvious way to get back to Africa was on a safari, taking pictures.

The trips to Africa began, and the first days in the bush after long absences were like a Wild West shoot-out for me.  Sleeping lions?  Rat-a-tat-tat-tat went the shutter.  Impala herd?  Three gigabytes gone.  Zebra stripes?  More pixels exhausted. Hundreds of fish eagle portraits, dozens of midday shots of giraffe; I filled every second on the vehicle with shutter noise. Each time I returned to the US from a safari, I’d scour my images.  I am a decent editor, so I knew which ones to choose. Everyone loved them. My mother thought they were the best compositions on earth.  My father beamed.  I had parties and showed my friends who ‘ooohed’ and ‘aaaahd.’  But somewhere between my third and fifth trip, something inside me changed.  I was no longer satisfied with my images–ironic, as I’d taken them. I had stunningly pretty pictures of Lilac Breasted Rollers, and leopards in trees.  There was nothing wrong with the images. They were well lit, and well composed. Sure, the cats were different, and spot patterns were unique, and the light varied a bit, but a leopard face was a leopard face.  It hit me. I had these shots already.  At the time, I didn’t know how to fix that.  I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I am a photo editor by day; a photographer all the time. I know what makes a good photograph, as I’m surrounded by the highest standards, the best images and the best photographers in the wildlife photo industry-on a daily basis.  Unlike most photo editors,  I also know what it’s like to be a photographer: emotionally attached to images and experiences.  I know what it’s like to look at my own images that are “almost there”, and I know all the excuses I use to keep those files from the trash bin.  But, as an editor, I know there’s another pro out there who actually already has the shot I almost got-and has already won some award for it.  The combination makes me my own worst critic.  Which, in hindsight, was the reason I kept going back for more.  I was missing something in my own images, something that others had figured out how to capture.

It takes time to begin to learn that photography, if you want it to be, is more than just an exercise in shutter depressions.  It is more than just taking images.  For me, this lesson was an accident. Five trips back and forth to Africa, and a few key experiences later I began to understand the nature and satisfaction of the photographic wildlife game.


Two years ago, I spent two consecutive weeks in Zimbabwe with the unique opportunity to follow African Wild Dogs. I had no interest in the dogs as a subject (and secretly figured that I’d be able to see a spotted cat at least somewhere during that time), but the opportunity was in front of me, so I went along for the ride.  For two full weeks, morning and afternoon, I followed dogs.  We napped with them in the heat of the day, and raced alongside them at dusk; we watched while they greeted each other as the sun came back over the horizon.

I was forced by circumstance to ignore every other photographic subject, and forced to quell the urge to take ‘pretty pictures’ of everything we were speeding by.  I was forced to relax, and forced to focus.  I was forced to give up the need to constantly shoot, and was forced to figure out when to shoot.  We had one subject-it was my only choice.  The first week, was filled with pretty portraits of dogs.

And then, I started to shoot.

I became driven; by the shots I missed, and the shots I didn’t have yet, by the behavior I was learning but had not yet been smart enough to capture.  I wanted the chase, the kill, the greetings, the licking, the frolicking and the blurred motion. I wanted dogs on green grass, and puppies and play.  My editor side kicked in-I was going to be brutal to myself-if it wasn’t 100%, then “DELETE.”  There was a tomorrow, and I would try again.  If I could say,  “I already have that shot,” then I needed to look for new ones, and new ways.  I didn’t want pretty shots.  I wanted compelling ones.  I wanted ones that others didn’t have.

And that’s when it hit me.  The feeling I’d been missing in my images was now clear: there was no Intimacy, and there was no Time.  I’d never taken the time.  I had been a ‘drive by shooter.”  It finally clicked-this time in my brain.  This was how I wanted to shoot; in horizons lined with black storm clouds, in the wind and pouring rain; in air too hot to breath, and mornings too cold to get out of the sleeping bag.  The only way to truly capture behavior is to witness it in all situations.  The dogs were dealing with their environment, and the only way to tell their story, was to be doing the same as them.

It’s a simple equation.  Time.  If you are not there, you can not capture it, and if you don’t spend the time, you won’t know HOW to capture it.  Time teaches behavior, and behavior teaches anticipation.  Anticipation of behavior, let’s you better position yourself for the possibility of shot you don’t already have.

The beauty of photography is that it is completely subjective.  There is nothing at all wrong with ‘pretty pictures.’  But, if you want to create a solid body of work, or a thorough portfolio of a subject, you must push yourself further.

Find a subject-like it or not-but, stick with it.  Shoot that subject at night, shoot it in the rain.  Shoot your subject with a long lens and a macro.  Shoot it at slow shutter speeds. Get on the ground.  Get in the air.  Use a pole cam and a remote.  Study what others have done, and then try everything they haven’t.  The more you work one subject, the better your images will get.  Spend the time, go back again and again and you will reap the rewards.

I’ve finally graduated from the portraits, and pretty pictures.  Today, getting the images I want, means day to day with my subject.  I didn’t know that until I actually did it, and for me, living on a continent 14 hours away, makes it a much more difficult task. Two years and many trips later, I’m still not done with my dogs. I don’t yet have all the moments that I want.  But, I do have a solid, intimate portfolio of a highly endangered species that has not only taught me how to shoot, but how to fall in love all over again-cats might just have fallen to number two-I never did see that spotted cat in Zimbabwe.

Post Script:  I’d like to thank Gerry van der Walt who has a great site:  www.photo-africa.com, and who asked me to write a guest post for his blog last week.  He gave me the space to write this posting, and I liked it and wanted to repost it on my own blog.  You can see the original posting here:  http://bit.ly/cQ5Hbo.  I changed a few of the pictures-and added a few others,  since the BBC article has some of the same ones on the original posting on Gerry’s site.  Thanks again Gerry, it made me really think about my own photography, and my own learning experiences.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2010 03:43

    Karine, very moving. Which reminds me, I need to get out and see if I can find the BBC magazine around here.

  2. June 27, 2010 18:38

    Time, never enough. Making the time is the hard part
    Great blog! You hit the essence on the seperation of a good wildlife photographer and a great wildlife photographer.
    Fab pics

  3. February 9, 2015 02:05

    Reblogged this on daphnedawn and commented:
    Amazing wildlife photography from Karine Aigner

  4. February 9, 2015 02:08

    Your time definitely paid off with these amazing photos! Loved reading about your experiences in the learning process.

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