Aaron Baggenstos: Capturing Emotions in the Wild
Award-winning photographer and videographer Aaron Baggenstos joins us to talk about his work as a professional wildlife photographer and author.
With a passion for capturing images of the natural world, Aaron’s photographs tell stories to help protect, preserve, and conserve biodiversity and habitats worldwide.
Aaron not only creates captivating images that have graced the pages of several national and international publications, but he is also passionate about inspiring and helping others to improve their nature photography.
How did you develop your style, and how do you think it differs from when you started out in photography?
When I started my photographic journey I often grabbed the longest lens I could find and tried to fill the frame with my subjects.
I was drawn to those “full frame” portraits because I was in the discovery phase of wildlife photography and getting closer often led to the best viewing experience of what I was photographing.
I still take a lot of portraits, but nowadays I am much more intentional about including the landscape in my images to create a sense of place. This means grabbing zooms like 200-600mm or 70-200mm more often.
With these lenses, you need more skill with field craft and understanding animal behaviour. When you take environmental portraits they often stand out from the crowd.
The catalyst for this evolution was international travel to exotic destinations.
Do you ever feel stuck or uninspired in photography, and how do you overcome these feelings?
Yes, of course. 2020 was the worst! Here are three simple ways that have helped me and the photographers I mentor find inspiration and get the creative juices flowing when we are stuck.
1. Travel: The further away from home and the more exotic the destination the better. There is no better way to start thinking outside the box and gathering inspiration than new scenery, new animals, and new cultures.
2. Change your crowd: Who you photograph with will dramatically change the way you see the world. If your photography friends aren’t making images that inspire you, branch out.
Join a photography club, visit your local parks and talk to every photographer you know, or go on a photography tour to make friends who will also become your travel companions.
3. Cross-train: Pick a field you have never worked in. Choose from weddings, portrait photography, landscape, wildlife, real estate, etc. I’ve taken countless ideas from different genres of photography that I have been able to apply to my work as a wildlife photographer.
I studied wedding photography for a while and discovered that they often hold shiny objects in front of their lenses to create visual effects.
I’ve been able to do this with leaves and snow in the foreground to create a beautiful foreground blur which adds depth to my images. This is just one small takeaway; there are many more gems you can uncover this way.
Do you have an animal or place that you’ve not yet photographed but hope to?
I would love to photograph the Vogelkop suburb bird-of-paradise (also known as the crescent-caped lophorina).
What is your favourite photograph that you’ve taken, and what makes it so special?
A theme that has recurred throughout my career is that I seem to favour my latest work. That’s probably because my work has evolved and improved every year.
However, my image of the herd of elephants against a dramatic sky has stuck a cord with me for quite some time. It powerfully conveys a timeless quality and sense of majesty that accentuates the power of the elephant group.
I took this image on my first trip to Africa, and it brings back fond memories of exploring one of the top wildlife photography destinations on earth.
You’ll never forget your first trip to Africa.
When capturing photographs that tell a story, what do you feel is the most important element to think about when planning your shot?
I believe that emotional impact is the most important element to think about.
Think about how the viewer feels when they look at your photograph. How will your image have an impact on them?
With so many photography awards out there, could you give our readers your top tips for choosing their first competition to enter?
Start local and work your way up to international.
Often state fairs have contests that attract fewer entries than the big international contests so your odds of success are greater. Or look to your local photo club – they may put on a contest each year.
Show your work to your friends and family. You’re looking for images that provoke an audible reaction from your audience.
Consistency is one of the keys to finding success in competition. Don’t only study previous years’ award-winning images, but also look up the judges’ work. See if they lean toward a specific style of photography you can cater to.
Lastly, hard-to-find and endangered animals seem to do quite well; the judges have surely seen less of these specimens.
From photographing the natural world in rainforests and across the great plains of Africa, to filming inhabitants of the underwater world, what helped you master these different environments and techniques so well?
Over the last 10 years, I’ve built an award-winning photography tour business that takes photographers all over the globe.
I’ve published coffee table books that were displayed at Barnes & Noble and Costco, sold fine art, been awarded by countless photo contests, and more recently been honoured to judge a prestigious photo contest called NatureVisions.
It’s been through these diverse experiences that I finally learned the true secrets of wildlife photography. These are the epiphanies that, had I known early in my career, would have been such a blessing.
My journey to learn these things was long – I did it the hard way.
I missed some big shots over the years, struggled with camera settings, and made every mistake there is to make with post-processing. However, I treated each mistake as a learning experience and tried to “fail forward”.
If you’re struggling to consistently get images you love, both in the field and in post-processing, it’s probably not because you aren’t a talented photographer. It’s surely not because you don’t have the right gear. It’s almost certainly because you don’t have access to quality information and a framework to guide your photographic journey.
A photographer without a fundamental understanding of key skillsets essential to being a great wildlife photographer is destined to fail, regardless of how nice their camera is.
As the photography space continues to become increasingly saturated, do you feel this will have an impact on the direction of wildlife and nature photography in the future?
I wrote about this in an article that made the front cover of Outdoor Photographer magazine.
My approach to getting photos isn’t necessarily changing; my focus continues to be to document, tell stories and, through my workshops, inspire and educate others about the alarming rate at which we are losing species.
We can do this through a multi-media approach. The future is giving us new tools in video, audio, stills, and drones that elevate our perspective and enhance creativity. I think there has never been a more exciting time to be a wildlife photographer.
However, as more photographers pick up cameras, it means we need to push our creativity and explore new venues for our images to stand out. Photographers must indeed search and work harder for an original image these days.
I work around that by choosing to visit iconic places at times when they are less crowded, usually in the shoulder seasons.
This allows me to offer more exclusive venues, which means better value to photographers and more meaningful experiences in the field.
I’m also travelling to places not many other photographers venture into, like India for Bengal tigers, Madagascar for lemurs, and Ecuador for hummingbirds.
Do you have any advice for intrepid photographers when planning a photography expedition to arctic climes, such as Svalbard?
I teach a framework called ‘The 6 Steps To Create Better Outcomes’. In short, 6 primary considerations will guide you to the photos you desire.
The first step to making an image is pre-visualization and inspiration. Ask yourself important questions about what animals you want to photograph, and the types of images you want to create.
Here are a few I ask myself before every outing:
Does the species in mind have a peak physical condition? Is there a tourist season that could get in the way and limit access? What does the environment look like from season to season, and how does that influence specific behaviours and migrations? When does the animal mate and have offspring?
You talk about how expensive photography gear is not needed to capture award-winning images. What would you say amateur photographers should focus on before looking to upgrade their gear?
Every quantum leap I have had in my career came out of the knowledge I obtained, not from the gear I had.
Concentrate on three things:
1. Master post-processing
2. Study animal behaviour
3. Learn the art of capturing images in magical light