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The Art of Nature Photography

Lesson 2 of 12

An Integrated Life

Art Wolfe

The Art of Nature Photography

Art Wolfe

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Lesson Info

2. An Integrated Life
While painters have more freedom in what they create, Art shares surprising photographs that take inspiration from painters, from pointillism and impressionism to even cubism and surrealism. Discover how your background and what inspires you can influence your photography. Learn how style and inspiration evolve over time -- and why sometimes you may want to shoot slow instead of using a fast shutter speed for wildlife photography. Find inspiration from Art's fine art landscape work.

Lesson Info

An Integrated Life

Over the years I have been asked by a lot of articles magazine editors they would invariably and always ask all right, who are you the photographers that have influenced your work? And though there have been many, I usually go back to my roots as a painter it's not so much the photographers or my colleagues that have influenced my work it's the painters that I studied in art history is interesting to note that for the longest time in human history paintings weren't considered art think about that paintings weren't even considered art so then what were they? They were a record of what was once they didn't have cameras back there, so they always painted to kind of remind themselves of what transpired prior they were always biblical or war or crusades they didn't paint uncle joe they didn't paint still lives they didn't paint everyday scenes they always painted this so the museums of that era were filled with records not so much as artwork but history of what had happened prior then as we...

progressed, human beings progressed, the renaissance came and then at the end of the renaissance the impressionist period in the late eighteen hundreds mid to late teens eighteen hundreds and at that point painter said, we're going to paint art for the sake of art it is not going to war is not going to be biblical it's going to be everyday scenes you know picnic along the same river in paris becomes a subject and one of the foremost painters of the impressionist period wass sarah and sarah build up his campuses with tiny points of color you know that's not black that's blue, orange, yellow tiny points of color known as pointillism that was sarah and sarah influence gustav clamp in a number of other pointless so now I'm giving you a dissertation on art history you're here about photography so what's the point the point I'm trying to make is the biggest challenge for me and my top colleagues are the same challenges as it is for somebody picking up the camera for the first time and that's finding a photo in that three hundred and sixty degree world that we live in everybody would see mount rainier at sunset in in the camera towards there or the north rim of the grand canyon we all see the obvious but it's the less obvious photos that I'm talking about so by using painters and their work that inspires me it helps me boil down and find things I might not otherwise have shot in this painting. There's no you know dominant horizon or leading lines and any part of the words that we might normally use income creating a composition is just points of color and yet when I'm in environment there are times where I will say to myself that looks like a pointillist painting tiny leaves of different colors look like tiny points of pain and if I can say it I can see it this is bit of a but a bit of an example because there's all these other painters so visualize this there like the little red lights going off in the forest and those red lights air saying ok, look a little closer and as I see something and I think that it looks like a pointless painting I might not passing by and that's basically what I'm saying those obvious shots that we see of the sun sets over puget sound or whatever it may be I'm not talking about that I'm talking about these shots that are less it's obvious, more impressionistic in this particular case all these shots either was thinking pointillism as I was finding him because I don't want a million shots of mount rainier in my files I want a great variety and various styles toe all these even this shot which is a little more formal landscape is really a pointless painting if you squint your eyes there's no dark darks or light lights no horizon it's just points of color even the white birch trees in this minnesota forests are not white their tiny flecks of gray white and black it's a pointless painting in my mind as what this old farmhouse in southern france another painter that became famous during the impressionist paris period was claude monet claude monet painted with a lot of movement in his breast strokes when he was young, he painted great detail, but as an older man it became much more artistic and blurry. What do you think that was? His high site was going virtually he was hardwired to paint, but at ninety two he couldn't see anything in front of him but he was hard wired to paint and paint he did so this is painted late in his life and the other thing I want to say about that is painters of the impressions period were living well into their eighties and nineties when they average human was living to be fifty at best. So what does that tell you about the whole creative process that passion creation in the brain vitally important for a long life? Absolutely we're seeing now with alzheimer's that if your mind is being engaged after retirement if you're thinking about even with the computer age where you're forced to think and learn your maybe going to avoid that or delay that were on lee beginning to understand the root causes of all summers but creative people are avoiding it to the most part, they're living longer, vital lives for claude monet without eyesight without those cataract surgeries which they didn't have in the eighteen hundreds or contact lenses or even glasses that looked other than like coke bottles this is what he would see so it was impression and that's where the word impressionism actually comes from because all these painters renoir for instance as a boy as you'll see in a minute painted with great detail but look what he's doing in his eighties it's all motion and so why is that relevant for me? Because I as of artist a painting major now photographing I wanted to pay homage to these impressionist painter so I started intentionally taking long exposures I wasn't just happy with sharp shots of mount rainier or four by five shots black and white from the top of the cascades I started experimenting with exposures intentionally long exposures one second to second exposures of my subjects and suddenly I started replicating the impressions period I was learning all along the way I started anticipating what a one second exposure would look like when leaves are floating along a creek or what it would look like if leaves were dancing on the surface of a lake or water was slowing down a river I was becoming again pushing myself into directions I hadn't done prior you know there were a lot of failures during the process you know there were a lot of shots that just didn't quite work the other thing about that is I was trying to sell my work and make a living I was tryingto sell my work to magazines I was working at the time now for national geographic vic for audubon magazine first smithsonian magazine so I was trying to come up with ideas when you have three photos you have the beginning of a story you have six, you have the rial real story for a magazine and when you have ten photos you have the beginning of a book and so this bodywork became known as rhythms from the wild and I went to france and went on to the rhone river delta and photographed these wild, semi wild white ponies running through the water being herded by french cowboys and I had a ball shooting something very different than I ever had experienced before. I was trying to bring and make it unequivocal that photography is art. Even at the time I was at the university of washington, I tried to enroll into a photo class and I couldn't get into it. They said you have to declare being a journalist major, we expect to get a class of photography. So to this day I have never had a class in photography today it's different if you go to the university of washington got all sorts of photo classes in the art department but not back then not in the mid seventies, some of these photos that I took with a two second exposure of three cape buffalo running across a the kalahari doesn't resemble some of the cave paintings I had studied in art history just the hint of farm another painter of the impressionists period was vanco who painted with these wild lines and a couple years ago I was in uh shanghai china and there was the giant aluminum pandas right along the main water front and in the indentations of the pandas form I saw my own reflection but trees and it looked like a van gogh and therefore I saw it I wouldn't have seen it if I didn't make the association renoir when he was younger painted really compact plex compositions again restaurant scenes never would have been considered as a subject years before but now yeah anything goes as a painter and so very complex so the reason he did that is he forces you to look through that composition to stay with his subject because the longer you say stay the more communicative the story becomes if you simply look at a photo and want to move on you're not really communicating so when I take a picture I want to challenge my audience I want to challenge you people to stay on and figure out what's going on so renoir painted these very complex paintings that you have to see the relationships of the individuals involved and later when I was in mali africa I was in a west african market people were ignoring me it was a crowded market and I took this picture with a very small aperture opening which meant all subjects within the frame were sharply in focus and it's a mosaic of color and patterns and people and yet you have to stay on point you have to look at this photo to see all the complexity of it and it was completely inspired by renoir and his paintings of the restaurant now I didn't get picasso when I was in college I just simply didn't get it you know you saw my watercolors when I was young I was a realist I was trying to paint every branch on a tree and when I saw picasso it's like really I was too immature no I was too immature I wasn't ready for picasso but I do remember his cubist period and I remember in the back of my mind that alright I still don't like it but I get it and years later I was in siberia in the middle of the winter and there was this group of small boats overturned along the shores of lake bye call and when I looked at it it's like instantly that looks like a cubist painting and therefore I framed it as such and it looks like a sarah graph it looks like a piece of art it doesn't look just like a photograph simply because the colors they're all pastels thie aluminum of the boat is warring wearing through and revealing that that gray color that gives it a color palettes different is a bright overcast day and I'm shooting it with a tight lens, so I'm not showing you the snow surrounding the boats, just the boats. I'm abstracting the subject and making it a pattern, but it's unequivocal it's a cubist painting to me, salvador dali painted with what they call sexually charged subjects. Now I don't know if that's sexually charges you, others would say, others would say surreal, surreal, and yet there are times where I'm traveling, and for one of a better term, the landscape looks surreal. It looks out of ordinary it looks like nothing I grew up with in the, you know, misty northwest woods. So all these different painters I went through my as a painter, I went through my edward hopper pay period that were hopper was this artist from the east coast who painted american rural landscapes in urban landscapes with bold light and dark, and so I painted that way, and then I'm photographing subjects that looked like a hopper ask landscape so all these different painters kind of give me that visual vocabulary to help draw out photos as I make that connection. Now, many of you won't have studied art history, of course, but you're probably more into music, then I am, I could sit. In the symphony and only hear it on one level those ofyou into music can say oh I can recognise this instrument that one this one and I don't hear that because I'm just not tuned in and some people hear music when they photograph flowing water or wind blowing others think haiku you draw from what you've got I have art history and that's what I find andrew wife painted the cold austere northeast and there are times where I see andrew wife in this abandoned homestead in eastern washington another artist that greatly influenced me was robert bateman this great american wildlife painter american canadian sorry robert he lives up in the salons islands any rate before I met him and we did our raft trip on a wild alaskan river about twenty years ago I was like a hunter with the camera I was trophy hunting I would not rest until I got so close to the animal I could see my own reflection in its eyes so I love stocking with the camera getting in close probably too close and getting that shot and then walking away animals still alive a little more neurotic but still alive but then I saw all robert bateman and I saw the way he was painting he was not just painting a coyote he was painting the environment of the coyote so he would take pictures of the way snow recedes around rocks and grass in the spring and he would take those pictures and when he was back in the studio he would have that visual record to get it just right. He was painting atmospheric conditions sorely missed around buffalo and I started looking at my own work and backing off incorporating those elements of atmosphere conditions blowing snow, missed dust and my work became better. My work became better. You know where he painted these elk and snow I found a pack of wolves in blowing snow. My work became better and this bodywork eventually morphed into a book called the living wild and from the living wild I invited jane goodall and george shaller great wildlife biologist william conway was the director general, the wildlife conservation society john sawhill created the nature conservancy and richard dawkins was out of oxford university and they all wrote our regional tax for this book and they wrote for the need to preserve more habitat and from my photographic perspective I went out and got as close as I could with wild animals shooting ah wide angle perspective getting really close with a sixteen millimeter wide angle. Ah lot of the islands I went to in the south alagic in the south pacific where nobody ever hunted animals you khun virtually sit right next to a giant albatross within twelve inches and they just look at you others I was a little more brazen a little more brazen now these air not aggressive alligators or crocodiles these are came in there in the family but they're not dangerous to people he's sure they'll bite your hand off but they're not going to kill you so that wide angles perspective each book now that I show you if its wildlife you'll see will have a distinct different style by intent I never wanted just tow have one style and do it to death I always wanted teo evolve my intellect my imagination and keep it engaging for myself and yet as I was photographing these wild creatures in their environment the art end of it my background in design painting history kept coming forward a kip on sneaking the abstracts into every project I ever do many of my colleagues enter the world of nature and wildlife photography from a scientific point of view biology I was a painting major and so I started channeling designs into my work there was one particular artist this artist from holland by the name of m c escher that lived in the eighteen hundreds and I saw this creation in a design class in nineteen seventy six and I thought oh my god this guy is amazing because he played with our perceptions he played with positive and negative space and what do I mean by that? Well look at this next illustration that's positive and negative if black is positive that's the subject if why doesn't positive that's the subject you can't focus on both figures at the same time we have to switch automatically back and forth so he had a clever way of blending the positive and the negative million old by the way he was dutch so he was probably smoking dope at the time but I thought uh this guy's really clever someday I would like to pay homage to him and twenty years later I did a book called migrations and I took this shot and this was really controversial at the time because I we were still not shooting digital back in the earlyeighties mid eighties we were shooting film but we had the ability to scan the film and create a digital component so I took this image that was part of a herd of a thousand animals and photos from left and right I've pieced in digitally and made this image and this wass blasphemy for my audience the purest wrote hate letters left phone calls at night literally literally we're top I had to change my phone number u s news and world report atlantic monthly half a dozen newspapers condemned it even though in the very introduction on the book we said this book contains digital illustration but our worst critics said nobody reads ports regardless. Out of one hundred illustrations, seventy were untouched and out of the thirty that had some sort of degree of digital altering it was not no more innocuous than turning the head of one bird we never created flocks of birds. We never created false realities, but this was a hard one for my audience to follow because they always viewed me as a natural history and on lee natural history photographer never an artist, never a background in art natural history. So that was a bit of a challenge and it was the first book though it wasn't the first book to use this technology were the first book that actually mentioned it. And so I was a lighting rod that caught all the flak. But most of the work as you see here is completely unaltered, and yet the people that were condemning me on honesty we're writing about this saying, well, it's really easy to take one bird and replicated a thousand times never did we do that so yellow journalism was very much in evidence when people were writing they wrote what they thought, regardless of truth, that was a valuable lesson. I had a great time doing the book I get up above herds of elk and flocks of flamingos in ultra lights. I had a great time. I should have called the book wallpaper, and it would have been less controversial. Georgia o'keeffe painted the american west in bold washes of color with very little detail. And though I never replicated her there are times where I'm out there and I see subjects very akin to the style and the subject she would paint so nobody lives atomic nous lee from anybody lt's were all influenced by others. I influenced people like you and I am influenced by people like you, so we all react when I was studying in president's pay period, every painter was aware of what the other guy or gal was doing, so we all are influenced, and the trick is to take that influence and put your own unique slant on it. That's how cultures evolved with georgia o'keefe flower pastels I start to see that in inverted shots of ice in antarctica it's the trick of finding the subject because again and again and again, I want to find shots that most people might not see that's what does it for me? Is a photographer to shoot the shots that you didn't know was right at your foot a second before it's not shooting a better shot of a pretty obvious subject now when I was on everest, I remember being sick, cold and miserable, and I heard the bells of yaks coming out of the blowing snow and I mustered enough strength to and I say that sincerely, because when you're at sixteen thousand feet, your tests for that day are so simple today I'm going to get up and go the bathroom. And if I can accomplish that mission accomplished, and then as you acclimatize, your energy comes back. What it takes weeks in the first four days of being at sixteen thousand feet. This came into camp, this team of, um, yaks with a yak herder. And even though I was sick and cold and miserable, I took the picture and I knew my life had changed. At that very moment. I was cognizant of the fact that everything in this view could have been taken if marco polo that camera you know, hundreds of years ago. And I thought to myself, that's the coolest thing about photography is that you, khun photograph cultures, traditional cultures and faraway places. And that's what I grew up dreaming about there was a show called travels with lowell thomas that I remember watching in the sixties, and he would go up the tendrils of the amazon or into new guinea and take his audience with me, and I was glued to the black and white set, and some day I thought, I want to do that, and now I'm doing that. I'm up in the himalayas and a yak team is coming in and blowing snow. And when I took that picture, I vowed when I would come back off everest that I would spend a lot of my life traveling to remote cultures around the world and more importantly, photograph him before they would surely be affected by there western creep of civilization so that's why I did I traveled the world photographing in the amazon in the mountains of new guinea in the, uh in the deserts of africa, so culture and art became part of my work. I first started taking black and white photos of the tops of mount rainier and now I'm in africa photographing traditional people. I went into the amazon, I was able to get into the yano mama on the border of colombia, venezuela and brazil took me and my staff three months of negotiating with a negotiating with the venezuelan government and that bodywork became endangered people sanctioned by the united nations and published by the sierra club. Now I'm realizing that rather than pursuing magazines books were it because the magazine stays on a shelf for a month a book would last a lot longer, so I start pursuing booked with reckless abandon. If I could think I'm up, I could do a edge of the earth corner this guy was a look at the great austere landscapes from the summit of mount etna in full explosion mode to start trails over the namibian desert and even though that mission of that book was to capture earth's glory and all the different environments again, I was challenging and channeling monet. It kept coming forward as I was creating my work. That element of art was very much in evidence. I was thinking a picasso I was thinking of picasso when I photographed this plants along the white sands of western australia. So history and inspiration, I'm in fired by so much of what I see and I take that inspiration. I turned it into projects russo painted this shot of an olympian figure that draws your attention. And yet that forest around is filled with hidden animals. That is a concept that became a book called vanishing it think about this you saw that I was a trophy hunter. Then I started shooting with a wide angles perspective animal in a small a small animal in a big environment. Then I did patterns, migrations, and now the challenge was trying to hide the animal in front of you. Do you see it? Do you see that animal or is there an animal or am I just plan with you? Okay, there is an animal there, a leopard leopard in the forest. Amazing. You know, when you photograph a bird on a stick and the only thing in focus is the burden stick, everybody sees that but if you use a small aperture opening where everything is in focus, I'm not giving you any visual clues as to where it is great gray owl. So animals evolve into their environment, eat or be eaten, they say, so a predatory bird, like a great gray owl remains concealed until it pounces in the winter. Willow ptarmigan turned pure white in the summer they're brown and modeled. They evolve with the season to stay away from the jaws of a fox sam there's two so that became a book that was a great book, and when I would show that work. When I do a book, I go on tour. I speak around not only north america, but also europe, and I can remember giving that body of work and people in the audience starts squirming and mumbling, and then one would just like tourette's shot out, left tree is like, and they just couldn't contain themselves because basically what they were doing was saying, I saw it before you and I'm smarter than you that's what that was about.

Class Description


  • Improve your composition in landscape photography
  • Develop an eye for better nature photography
  • Find --and grow -- your inspiration
  • Go from nature lover to nature photographer
  • Spot creative shots even in popular places
  • Fine-tune composition with the unpredictability of wildlife photography
  • Tell a story through fine art nature photography


Spend a day gleaning insight from a nature photographer with five decades of experience shooting on every continent, Art Wolfe. This special one-day class includes two 90-minute discussions, 90 minutes of student critiques, and three episodes of Art's documentary series Travels to the Edge.

Go beyond basic nature photography tips and dig into the psychology of nature photography and what takes an image from a snapshot to fine art. Learn to find your inspiration, break the rules and see the story inside grand landscapes. This is not a class for taking textbook plain nature photography from a boring list of landscape photography tips -- it's a class designed to help you find your own unique voice to capture your own fine art prints of landscapes, wildlife, and culture.

After this class, you'll have the confidence to experiment, to work for the shot, and to capture the story in nature photography.


  • Beginning photographers shooting landscape, wildlife and nature
  • Intermediate photographers ready to refine their eye
  • Advanced photographers looking for insight from a top nature photographer


Art Wolfe is a nature and conservation photographer with a background in fine art and painting, a start which continues to influence his work to this day. Often described as a "prolific" nature and wildlife photographer, Art has published more than 80 books of photographs, along with images appearing in major publications such as National Geographic Magazine, Smithsonian, Audubon, and more. Art has received numerous awards, including Nature's Best Photographer of the Year. He also leads a documentary television series Travel to the Edge. When he's not traveling nine months out of the year (including leading photography tours), he's teaching and working with his stock agency and production company in Seattle.

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What a fantastic use of time! My photos improved dramatically since this course. I found it so useful, I recommended it to 3 people, and am coming back to purchase. My favorite segment was about composition, which is where I really needed the most help. I'd previously subscribed to the take a hundred shots and hope one turns out well. Now I think much more carefully prior to the shot, and the quality of the photos is on a completely different level from what I'd taken before. Then entire course was excellent, and I really appreciated the segment on audience submission critiques. It helped me to internalize the concepts he'd taught, and to develop a keener eye. Art Wolfe truly is a master. His photographs have the ability to stir the emotion deeply and soothe the ailing heart. Mr. Wolfe is a great instructor too. Concepts were presented clearly, and illustrated well. I am so thankful to have participated in this course. Thank you, to Art Wolfe, for sharing insights into your talent, and also thank you to everyone involved in making this course widely available. I cannot recommend this course highly enough!


I have always loved you CreativeLive, for being there in so many ways to teach me how to do better what I love to do. And, so I doubly thank you for re-featuring this and, thus. allowing me to buy this at a no-brainer price. I live in New Mexico. I have struggled to discern how to photograph New Mexico in a way that it hasn't already been photographed. It's like the Eiffel Tower. This class has SO helped me think about how to do that. I LOVED how Art Wolfe talked about how he started as a painter and how that has influenced how he captures his photography. I'm going to really start thinking about that and experimenting with this. New Mexico has had MANY painters, besides Georgia O'Keefe, whose work I love. I'm committed to studying them more and being influenced by their work. I haven't been photographing landscapes here very much, because of how much New Mexico has already been photographed. But this class has helped me think about how to do that more powerfully.and uniquely. And also, total kudos to the videographers of the last three segments of this class. Just watching these videos and Art Wolfe narrating this is worth the price of admission. So, in short, being a New Mexican who aspires to photograph her beloved New Mexico in a way that is different and more powerful, I think this class will inspire and focus me going forward. Thank you!

a Creativelive Student

I enjoyed your presentation and critiques so very much. I was able to watch it all but decided I would love to watch it again. I bought the class. Art's sense of humor was enjoyable. I loved his time working with his models and oh my what he was able to do with them artistically was so incredible. I learned so much through his critique. I went to our local Barnes &Noble; and was shocked they didn't have any of his books. I will continue looking for them as I would enjoy having some of them for inspiration. I also want to thank creative live as I have enjoyed your programs so much and I continue to spread the word about your classes. Thank you. Frances