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The Art of Nature Photography

Lesson 5 of 12

Finding the Subject

Art Wolfe

The Art of Nature Photography

Art Wolfe

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Lesson Info

5. Finding the Subject
Sometimes, the landscape offers plenty of possibilities for great photos. But often, the best images are the ones that come from working to find the subject. Dive into the process of working to find the subject, from the first atmospheric shots to the images that really impress. Work through the process of determining the different possibilities to shoot a single subject.

Lesson Info

Finding the Subject

Finding the subject I addressed that a little bit this's just a little bit of the process it's a cold day I'm up there in the canadian rockies it's late fall flowers are kind of gone to seed for the most part the meadows wed I was there to try to find and photograph mountain caribou which are kind of a dwindling sub species of caribou but that there were no caribou out there on that wet day so I'm walking around I'm hardwired I've always already had my coffee in the morning so I'm I'm raring to go I got to find a subject but boy no flowers overcast day no caribou I'm walking around and suddenly I see as I step over I noticed that there's a film on this water it almost looks like an oil slick but it's not well this actually it's oil slick made from rotting vegetation so it puts off kind of oily surface so that could be a subject all right and so you also see little flowers in the foreground so those flowers are losing pedals and they're floating in that oily subject not great from this ...

perspective, so I use a tripod that doesn't have a center column I separate the legs, I get the camera and into position now this is back in the film day but it's just the salient today as if it was a digital camera I'm looking straight down I'm actually creating shade by my own body looking straight down onto that is a subject that still doesn't look like a great shot but through my lands this is what I'm seeing those little pedals air breaking that oily surface into little flakes and it looks almost analogous honestly teo ice floating on the arctic ocean so I kind of like that that I would have expected and I was quite pleased with myself simply because there was nothing that I could find in the bigger landscape but right there at my feet was this beautiful, intimate, quiet scene so that's what feels good when you confined shot that most people would not have seen okay so after the great fires in yellowstone there were vistas that opened up one of the most interesting natural phenomenon in yellowstone national park are the guys obeisance and their springs and in grand grand prismatic spring I've been there I've been by it so many times I looked at it from the boardwalk and you can't see anything but if you get up on a ridge above and look back down then you see the majesty of this place is the brilliant colors of the spring that you cannot perceive from four feet above or from the boardwalk after the fires the forest no longer really interfered and so there's a little hillside you can go up and in this shot it's nothing you know you've got big clouds, you got a bunch of clutter trees, you got a highway over to the right it's not a great shot, so I put on a stronger lands and now the color of the spring becomes more dominant, but you got when the bagels in the parking lot on the upper right it's still cluttered and I'm all about art and design. I don't want to really do a brochure illustrating yellowstone I could care less about that parking lot and the boardwalk I'm going to put on a stronger lands, put on a polarizer and zoom in and make art work out of it because what I see here are these gnarly law branches on these lodgepole pines that is an element I can work with and then bands of color and so ultimately that's what I come on. So this siri's of photos are showing you the process of discovering the subject going in and shooting a shot and looking back and trying to figure out is that the best of what it is? You know, I know most of the other professional photographers and they work the same way none of us just walk right up and get the best shot and move on we all kind of evolved to the best shot is often the fifth sixth earth seventh shot in a siri's that's the best here I'm at a temple garden in kyoto, japan and there's these big pots there water in them they got floating lily so I photographed it then I thought all right there's gotta be something more compelling than that so I walk and I look and then I see the reflection of the trees about okay that's a subject and then I hook a little japanese leaf in and then that kind of distorts the lines see, I like that distorting those perfect lines in the reflection gives interest to the image it takes it away from just being a typical shot so you see the leaf framed by the pot, the lines and you see the sky above but we're looking down so all those kind of things give this shot more of an interest to me than just taking a shot so it's discovering the shot I'm up in the arctic I love going up into the brooks range we float down the rivers there's usually you know it's an open landscape you're looking for grizzly bears you're looking for cara but you're looking for something to shoot and on this particular afternoon there's nothing there's not even a mosquito skeeto so it's just the open landscapes so I shoot this shot to kind of show the openness of the landscape but you know horizon is right down the middle it flattens it out there's nothing interesting here yeah there's bands a light that's kind of interesting so I might shoot that but I look over here and it's almost like wishbone delicate vertical lines in that last cape so I'm going to turn my thoughts to that you know, bold big swash is of color and very white etched lines that could be a subject and finally I should it is a vertical and I'm not saying this is going to win any awards I could really care less about that I'm all about trying to capture a landscape I'm goingto show this then with those shots of grizzly bears and herds of caribou later on but I love capturing the intimacy of a landscape I want to show not only the details the abstracts but the bigness of the landscape and then pull in some unexpected little details. All right, new york people eating launch beautiful waterfall I shoot everything almost everything, as I said earlier. So what do I see in this shot? Well, you know, I'm not really into these guys reading their paper or eating their breakfast, but I love that waterfall and those lines in front, so I'm just going to zoom in on that just make it an organic shot very clean, symmetrical lines I challenged myself sometimes you know where I'm down on the baja peninsula and we got these really interesting desert type plans call boom I think they're called boom june some sort of strange tree that on ly grows six hundred miles south of san diego on the baja all right so here's a shot I mean they just aren't contorted by the relentless winds that sweep off the pacific and the mountains of the baja there's one shot I'm framing these interesting they almost look like dr sue type trees okay that's one way is that the only way no well there's a like a pc a symbol right there so that's going to be interesting so I'm just showing you the process there's so many different ways of shooting a simple shot there's not just one way there's many right ways and wrong ways but that shows you the kind of process I move around when I teach workshops often people walked to the closest tree and they tried to shoot the closest tree I say to him don't pick up the camera don't shoot the shot for forty minutes just look walk around things look up look down really processed the environment and I'm doing it with a camera right now I'm kind of scrutinizing every different way suddenly we have mastered on tasks coming in from below or from above there's all sorts of ways of shooting and even that putting the sun right behind the end and using a small appetite or opening I've got a little bit of a starburst so there's about eight ways to shoot the same subject you got to be curious I was up in the canadian arctic and there were these beautiful caribou antlers out there in the uh the tundra so I photographed it low as you saw used white and go on get in love but after that I just picked them up and walk to the edge of a lake put him on the edge of the lake but I didn't like that they just looked too much like I just put him on the edge of the lake so I put him in the water well, apparently I didn't quite put him in the water then I put him in the water and now I love this this likes looks like georgia o'keeffe you know the grady eight grady in from light to dark with a polarizer gives interest to it very sensual lines of these great antlers so I like that that's the first one I like and in a different view really a study it's a monochromatic shot but the very subtle grady eight ingredient on those antlers and then finally a wider angle low bringing in the back of the lake it's got all those elements has got the peacefulness of the leg the color of the clouds in the distance, the really beautiful form of the antlers that's my best in this siri's but again and again and again it's not that usually the first shot I ever shoot here we have icebergs uh building up on the edge of a lake in southern iceland great subject is there only one way the shoot it first I shoot it with a very fast shutter speed as waves are crashing against the ice I love the color overcast light perfect subject but I'm walking around I think the lesson here again is to be moving using your feet looking scrutinizing there's never just one right way and I wasn't shooting this for your education I was shooting this is the way I shoot this is the way I come away from any given situation with five six maybe ten different viewpoints of the same subject and I can use all ten of these last week I was up in the arctic up five hours by flight north of oslo norway and we're floating around we were photographing polar bears and all those things but I look at the ice and the snow residual snow patches on these barren islands and I suddenly see, you know bison challenging some sort of animal abstracting it with legs and horns you know we call these metaphors you know I find funny faces in old wood I find funny faces and the way posters are tauron off a wall if you can imagine it you can see it and so I'm often doing this here's a snow patch look at this this looks pretty interesting to me. It's a flat light it's late in the day it's photograph from a boat it's the way snow falls on a slope so I took that and then I inverted it and then I played with contrast and suddenly I've got this beautiful form. It almost looks like abstractions of birds. Primi well, you may think I'm smoking dope, but this is the way the brain is wired. You, khun turn things into something that they're not your whole world opens up you're limited by your imagination I could frame this printed perfectly we use absence by the way we use absent printers I could print this on absent paper frame it put it in a gallery in new york it will sell because people love abstract and this is an abstraction. But it's what I've created and I did that with this ice up in the arctic it looks like a floral shaves but all it is is sand collecting in the depressions on ice in a patch of ice in the arctic. But if I could see it, then my mind opens up and suddenly I've got organic shapes and beauty it looks like a japanese woodblock this is part of a larger curriculum and I'm often teaching around the country it's opening europe your imagination seeing the subject is our biggest challenge I started that off earlier today and staying with the idea of a metaphor I'm not seeing a tree covered in snow I'm seeing an old monk up there in the mountains if I can imagine it then it helps you see it and for a large part of what I was trying to do with that sensuous on earth part project I was seeing human form in a group of green peppers I was starting to see butts him back butts and backs in the snow cover rocks, thes air metaphors and then I was photographing the butts in the back still look like a landscape so you get it these are ways of seeing subjects. The other idea I wanted to address their several other things I kind of want to cover here is as abstracting the landscape I love you to get lost in this image you know jackson pollock abstracts think about jackson pollock he threw paint on paper he famously said he wants your imagination to begin where he ended so he would paint these kind of abstractions of color and line and patterns and then you sit there and you stare at him in your imagination goes wild in many ways this is analogous to that there's no sense of scale in this image this could be an aerial over a mountain range in a very humid environment right in fact it's on ly about ten feet across its a geiser basin at fourteen thousand feet in bolivia but without showing you scale it's either an abstract or not so often I will shoot abstract shots but give you scale so scale means something analogous to this this is kind of interesting way I'm not showing you the edge of the rivers that wooden path to go on forever without showing you their margins that's exactly the way I shot uh those boats overturned in the in siberia likewise this could be an aerial shot over the mountains in china and yet it's a long exposure of waves crashing along the monterey coast so either I go completely abstract and leave your imagination to finish the story or I'll show an element so here is a digital illustration you know why this is a digital illustration because ever removed the one element that gives scale to this now I'm going to return it to its original shot that one little person suddenly makes sense of the entirety of that image. So I often look for shots where I'm including people or some object that you can identify these are pig trees the world's biggest trees and yet if you're not there you have no sense of scale so I'm gonna return what I originally had john gringo who frequently teaches a creole live was with me down in your seventy and I used him to show scale to the size of these trees and I started doing that twenty five years ago when I visited easter island and in the easter island you have these really interesting uh head's coming out of the soil but without that person you won't know unless you've been there how big they really are so people and objects for scale is part of my story telling and that's exactly what I did with that waterfall you saw earlier without that person you would not know the size of that waterfall these kids give life and scale to that waterfall they're going to school up in the mountains of bhutan so it's a cultural image but also tells a complete story this boy walking across these boats in the harbor and morocco give perspective to the scene it's a pattern shot and I have leading lines but that one person in the red gives it's another way to look at it it's the noun in the sentence it's the focus from which that pattern becomes obvious so all of these shots people ah animals moving across the plain aerial shot of camels going across the moroccan desert scale we've got great light we got texture we got all those elements but I think that little farm hothouse aerial shot over the police suddenly makes sense of the scale of that landscape shot last week up in our two weeks ago in alaska that little fishing boat is the noun in sentence that little stupid up in ladakh india gives scale to the entire environment and even last week up in the arctic, so I often find that that see the little, uh bald eagle in the center of the frame suddenly those sir racks of ice on top of a glacier makes more sense to because I've included the one thing that you can see okay, I went on the first exploratory trip to the weddell sea to photograph emperor penguins and I shot him with a sixteen millimeter wide angle a distorting reality they look like they're six feet tall in fact they're this tall they're ninety pound birds I was setting up my tent in my tent, making my little nest pulling out the sleeping bag and suddenly the tent went dark and I looked around and there's a penguin in my tent looking around like they're so adorable. So scales another way of saying poison arrow frog in a million so impactful images is surprises, you know, eliciting emotional responses in my audience. All those are thoughts that are going on my mind when I'm framing now framing the subject, finding ways of taking the subject and putting something around it framing is the process here's an old car in brody california and as I zoom in, I'm looking through the car and finally I'm framing the buildings through the car so I should it wide, then I shoot it less expectedly I love looking through something to something else here's an adler that I propped against iraq up in the canadian arctic shy like this it looks too much like I did that then I flipped it over zoomed in now I'm framing the river through the times of the moose antler, and this is my favorite in the siri's framing the subject. I'm framing that kid with the antlers of the reindeer he's riding or the icicles in antarctica or even looking through ah hole in an iceberg to a penguin in the boat I was on some twenty five years later, the penguins dead, the ice is melted and that ship has sunk, but I'm still here my rainier in the summer months looking through the ice patch up at the rainier, finding new ways of photographing a subject I've photographed for fifty five years, so framing the subject using telescopic effect put thing egyptian dot in front of the sun or egress from the sun or even framing the washington coast through the gap and rocks or cultures. You know, I'm using multiple themes when I'm composing images, making depth, creating interest, framing the subjects all right, so, yeah, all sorts of ways of framing a subject is being conveyed all right now we're getting to the nuts and bolts I'll shoot point of view one more just one more. This kind of epitomizes what I'm trying to say ah lot of times, because you see the fish, you see the hands, the hands suddenly forces you to reevaluate what you're looking at, because initially you see the fish and the lid to the basket, and then you see the hands and say, wait a minute where those hands doing there, then you realize it's, not the lid of a baskets, it's a hat on a person there's a person under there. So I love that I love that kind of forcing you paying homage, teo, I'm respecting you by knowing that you're going to get there, but I don't want you to get there instantly, so where I place the camera matters from above, it becomes analogous to migrations patterns of people, but as I lower the angle view, emotion starts coming into because you get connected to the people's faces and then when I'm on their level, then you have that connection. So depending on where I put the camera, it really matters. You know, when I was photographing elephants at the waterhole, I'm tryingto abstract siri's of aunt trunks and legs to do that, you know, it wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done here, I'm on the edge of the ganges I've placed the camera really close to those foreground elements that I've purchased, and now I'm waiting for the sun to rise. I like two candles and now I've got a stepping stone foreground elements of culture people kind of engaged in each other and then the sun is rising beyond I'm creating depth and separation of subject, but it took placement of the camera I had to put that camera really close but not low so I could shoot across the top of those plants or those flowers and the candles and the sun beyond. In this one, I'm laying on the ground again, getting low to the subject. Everybody else in the image are not willing to bend her legs, so they're getting one thing and I'm getting the reflection of mount fuji. The frosted rocks, the background here, I'm not right low to the ground, I'm because if I was low down here, what would happen? The flame would obscure the tor egg camel drivers, so from a distance a little bit above, maybe from two feet above, I'm getting the flame plus the people, so the placement of the camera is critical. Most people tend to shoot from three feet above at a subject, and what they get is the normal point of view, but to create drama to create art, you shoot low shade above different angles. Sometimes I have to kind of be organic where the animal is knowing that if they see the reflection, you know, for migrations it was all about getting above and shooting down, separating the individual birds to create the pattern from a ground perspective. Have I shot that entire book from a ground perspective? I wouldn't have gotten the separation or the pattern, so it really mattered. And so for earth is my witness. I took it to the culture rather than shooting a traditional view from three feet above, I got above and shot down so it's the patterns of the rugs, the fact that the donkeys carrying the carpet this is in fez, morocco, great place to go becomes an abstraction of the same subject. In the masai village. I climbed in up on top of a goat kraut and shut down on the folks too play with different perspectives, so point of view mattered out. And roger stan, I crawled out on the end of this letter that we put on top of a roof and relied on the weight of people helping me so that can shoot straight down and abstract the culture, so point of view mattered, so you get always in the age of digital, to reward to show people what I'm doing, engages them and they love it. Shooting it and I don't particularly use flash, but in this particular case, I did. I use firelight, I used lantern light, I use candlelight, and I use sunlight for most of it, people that use flash are great at it. I'm not. I used traditional light, but in this case, to get thes dear dancers in bhutan, I needed a little bit of feel like just to get color in them. Otherwise it would have been a impossible exposure. So you saw this before. For that bodywork, it mattered. Can you imagine waking up, by the way, on having this these air, the feigned mud man in new guinea? This was photographed a couple months ago, but that looking up often lay right flat on my back in the middle of the village and have people kind of hover over.

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.



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