Nobody puts baby in a corner

Sat, Aug 10, 2013
or "How to frame animal shots for emotional impact"

Something I've heard many times from folks who take good photos of wildlife and animals is to avoid caging in your subject as you compose your shot.  The advice is basically this: don't stick the animal's face against the edge of your frame.  Instead, be sure to leave some "room to run" for the animal in your shot.  The reason for this advice, is that most people have an intuitive, emotional response when they see an animal shot where there's no space out in front of the critter.  The lack of space gives most people an impression of the animal being constrained or otherwise inhibited from living out its god-given right to wild, free living.

My family recently visited our local teaching zoo at Santa Fe College.  Afterwards I was looking through my shots, and I found myself thinking of this advice because some of my photos demonstrated this principle of unintended emotional responses to composition.  In addition to "don't stick their nose in the corner", I found that some of the images conveyed emotion based on the position and relative visibility of the cages these animals were in.  Here are a couple examples that I found:

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This shot of a caged squirrel monkey just breaks my heart.  These little guys move fast; leaping and climbing through their enclosure.  Honestly, they seem to have fun in their little contained world, but you can't tell that from this photo.  This monkey's nose isn't just in the corner of the frame, but it seems to suggest his nose is in the corner of the cage (the cage actually extends several feet to the left of the monkey's position).  Talk about closed in with nowhere to go!  Adding to this claustrophobic impression is the separation between the subject and the viewer that's created by the cage itself.  That sense of separation is accentuated by the monkey being so close to the cage that the cage is in focus here along with the subject.

I'm actually a big fan of zoos, so I wasn't trying to make a statement about zoos being monkey prisons.  Nonetheless, this shot makes me feel empathetic towards the monkey, and frankly pretty sad.

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This one is similar to the first in some regards.  Mostly in that the cage is an important part of the composition; however, the cage doesn't separate this tree kangaroo from the viewer.  So some of that hard, imposed distance isn't present.  In this one the thing that got me was the way the subject is interacting with the enclosure.  That hand on the cage wall with his stare going beyond invokes a sense of yearning for something beyond the cage.  The green foliage and light in the background seems to suggest this guy is has something to look forward to.  Additionally, and back to the original composition tip, the fact that his nose isn't stuck in the edge of the frame seems to give him space to hope, even though he's clearly caged up.

So while most elements of this shot give me the impression of a distant hope for better things to come, just look at the face.  I have no idea of the range of facial expressions that a tree kangaroo possesses.  That said, as I anthropomorphize this character that face seems to convey defeat and resignation.  Alternatively, maybe he just needs to poop.

Of course these are just my emotional interpretations of these photos.  Though I do think they do demonstrate how space in front of an animal subject can change the feel of a shot.

I welcome your emotional responses to these photos.