Documentary & Conservation Photography


Documentary & Conservation Photography

By Richard Pearse

Marine science and conservation photography fall into two camps, compelling visual storytelling and documentary record, and the use of either depends on the audience to which you want to appeal.

Compelling Visual Storytelling

Compelling visual storytelling relies on photography of the subject animal in its natural habitat.  Often the interpretation of an image is dependant upon the person’s understanding of that animal, whether they are scientists, conservationists, fishermen, government regulators, ecotourists, or the general public.  We may refer to these persons as ’stakeholders’.  They work to understand the subject animal, its role in the wild, and any threats it may pose or to which it may be subjected.


It’s this dynamic between the animal and these people that needs to be captured to make a compelling story to the broader public.  This imagery should be very dynamic visually, with engaging depth of field, bold colour, captivating action of the subject animal, its natural behaviours (feeding, mating, etc.), interaction between the animal and the ’stakeholders‘, perhaps satellite tagging of sharks or turtles, and the provision of medical attention to injured animals.


This is the place for some experimentation, some interpretation in the photographic, a chance to provide an impression of the subject animal that is striking and easily differentiated from standard documentary imagery.  Using no flash or flash from one side of the animal’s face or head, can add a lot of depth to an image while maintaining an illusion that very little if any fill flash was used – the subject will look more natural in its environment and keep the focus on the subject – not the photographic ’tricks‘ used.


Documentary Photography

Documentary record photography is very dependent on following a methodical, rigorous and consistent process that yields easily reproducible and comparable results that can be quickly analyzed.  Animals such as sharks are typically photographed as cadavers in bright daylight, on their side with fins out from the body – the length of the animal is parallel to the lens, and the subject is photographed with a scale.  This angle allows for easy documentation of subject length, overall size, colouration, sex and any distinguishing marks or scars, etc.  A wide angle lens of 10-20mm focal length is ideal for this work.  Typically, the eyes, teeth, mouth, gills and fins will be photographed in more detail, again parallel to the lens, and sometimes perpendicular to the lens as well.  The use of a 60-105mm macro lens is great for this work, along with multiple light sources to minimise distracting shadows.  Additionally a brief written record must be provided detailing where, when and how the photograph was taken, along with any specifics about the subject animal.  This written record, referred to as an image caption or legend, is essential to the viewer getting the full benefit of the image.


The Audience

When would you use one type of photography or the other?  It depends completely on your target audience.  The compelling visual storytelling is more likely to appeal to and be appreciated by ’stakeholders‘ including conservationists, government regulators, ecotourists and the general public.  Documentary photography is an absolute must when the audience is comprised of scientific peers, and can also be very beneficial to government regulators and fishermen.  Generally, the compelling visual storytelling will have some appeal to everyone, and will greatly benefit scientists in getting their work seen and understood by the widest audience possible.




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