Hacks, hobbies, and side hustles: Wildlife photography

Gabi Duncombe on being in the right place at the right time

A Gentoo penguin poking his head through the fog over a snow bank

Photography by Gabi Duncombe

Hacks, Hobbies, and Side Hustles is a for-fun internal presentation series that began as a one-time event and fast became a popular way for us to get to know our talented colleagues. It has only two guidelines: finish in five minutes and focus on a passion that exists outside of Adobe. Learn where creativity takes the members of Adobe Design when they’re not working.

Before getting into product design, I was a cinematographer—completely comfortable shooting moving images. But telling stories with a single frame had always seemed somewhat daunting. And wildlife photography felt like a particularly big challenge.

The unpredictability of subjects, variable environmental conditions, and the need for precise technique—all while hoping for a bit of luck—seemed overwhelming. But after making a personal resolution to develop my skills and confidence as a photographer, I decided to take the trip to Antarctica that I’d been dreaming of for years.

It was an incredible opportunity to practice photography in a stunning landscape teeming with wildlife—and great motivation to keep learning and improving. Since then, I’ve continued to look for opportunities to photograph wildlife and along the way, I’ve learned a few things about what makes a good shot.

Look for interesting light

Understanding how to use light is the cornerstone of taking great photographs—and when photographing wildlife, beautiful light can make the difference between an average photo and an exceptional one. I'll often try to go out right before or after a storm, or in the golden or blue hours around sunset or sunrise, when the lighting conditions and colors can be spectacular. If the conditions for light look interesting, I always try to get outside at the right time, even if that means a pre-dawn wakeup.

A penguin in silhouette at the top of a mound of snow cast in shadow against the pink-yellow sky of morning.
Sunrise in Antarctica for this photo meant waking up at 3:00am.

A Gentoo penguin, backlit by the intense yellow of a setting sun, walking on the snow with it's right flipper horizontal.

Shooting toward the light at sunrise or sunset creates dramatic backlight.

Two Gentoo penguins standing side-by-side, with snow in the foreground and a pink sky in the background, with their flippers outstretched and touching (as if they're holding hands).

Sunrise and sunsets can also lend dramatic color to the sky.

Take advantage of negative space and natural framing

When photographing animals, I like to look for negative space or natural framing elements and use those in my composition. With all the snow and ice in Antarctica, it was especially easy to make use of negative space, but even when I’m not in a polar landscape, I still use out-of-focus foreground elements (sand, dirt, tree branches) to frame and draw attention to the animals. I also play with my position and angle in relation to the animals so I can use backgrounds to create high-key photographs (bright, evenly lit scenes with minimal shadows ) or low-key photographs (dark, moody scenes with strong contrast and deep shadow).

A penguin standing off in the distance at the base of a mound of snow against a cloudy stark-white sky.
The negative space created by the snowy slope and the cloudy sky helps bring focus to the penguin in this stark environment.
A droopy-shouldered Gentoo penguin stands in the foreground of a snow-filled backdrop.
Slight overexposure and a blank snowy background helped create a high-key photograph of a penguin
A bald eagle, photographed through a small grove of trees, is standing at the edge of a small lake nestled among tall grasses.
A window between the foreground elements focuses the composition on this bald eagle.

Watch for specific behaviors

When photographing wildlife, it takes time and patience to get photos of interesting animal behavior. I've learned to be patient and watch carefully. If you watch animals long enough, you’ll get a sense of what they’re going to do next. Once you can somewhat predict their behavior, you just need to be ready to press the shutter at the right moment.

A bald eagle swooping down to the edge of a small lake nestled among tall grasses.
I was just about to head home when this bald eagle I’d been watching for an hour finally swooped down from his perch with dinner in his talons.
Two Gentoo penguins standing side-by-side, with snow in the foreground and an ice-blue background, with their flippers outstretched and their bodies touching. The penguin on the left has its head nestled into the shoulder of the penguin on the right.
I’d noticed that penguins engaging in mating rituals would put their flippers on each other, so I waited to find a pair starting their courtship to capture this “hug.”

Two penguins stand together on a small iceberg, against a background of water, snow. and ice, as another penguin swims by in the foreground.

I enjoyed photographing this “conversation” between two penguins, while a porpoising penguin swam in the foreground.

A flapping and squaking waddle of penguins jostles for space on a small iceberg surrounded by water.

I could sense there might be drama as a group of penguins clamored to get from the ocean onto the ice, so I waited until their activity reached a chaotic frenzy.

Play with scale

When the opportunity presents itself, I like to experiment with scale. I’ll often try to get a mix of tighter shots and wider shots. I like to photograph animals in the context of their environment - I think it helps tell a compelling story about their world.

A snowy and cloudy stark-white background makes it almost impossible to make out the silhouette of a penguin standing off in the distance.
Penguins have a very distinct and iconic shape that reads clearly, even at a distance.
The up-close face of a droopy-shouldered Gentoo penguin, against a backdrop of a blue sky, with a drop of water falling off its beak.
This fearless penguin walked towards me and allowed for the capture of a perfect closeup.

Find interesting backgrounds

Rather than going around trying to photograph everything, I try to focus my energy and look for a striking background. I frame up and wait patiently for an animal to cross the frame. This is easier to achieve if you’re in a spot with dense wildlife.

A lone penguin stands at the base of a blue-white ice and snow formation that looks like a massive rolling wave.
This ice formation made a dramatic penguin portrait.
In the yellow-orange light of sunrise a crane stands in the foreground of a small lake nestled among tall grasses while in the background a small group of cranes paddles in and lifts off the water.
I loved this background with birds on the water at sunrise, so I waited until a Sandhill Crane entered the frame.

Photograph multitudes

While portraits of individual animals can showcase their personality, photographing multitudes of animals is an interesting way to show how they interact with each other and the world around them. One of my favorite moments was watching a “blastoff” of snow geese at sunrise in Bosque del Apache, New Mexico. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard.

A huge flock of geese take off from the edge of a small lake against a yellow sky.
The blastoff of snow geese sounded like an airplane taking off!
A raft of penguins swims with their heads up in clear blue-gray water.
Pops of red from the beaks of this large group of Gentoo penguins.
A huge flock of birds takes off against a blue sky from the grasslands at the edge of a lake.
I was glad I had my camera ready when this flock of birds suddenly took flight.

Don’t forget to lay low

Wildlife photography involves finding the right physical position. Since animals are often much shorter or smaller than we are, getting on their level sounds like it would be intuitive, but many people forget in the moment. When I'm photographing animals, I'm often lying face down in the mud and the snow, as close to their eye-level as possible. (My investment in waterproof pants and jackets has really paid off!)

A close-up of a brown Skua resting in the snow.
Eye-level shots help create a connection between the photographed animal and the viewer.
Four baby geese nestle in the grass as their mother stands, out of focus, behind them.
I wore my waterproof pants and jacket and spent an hour lying in some very muddy grass to get this shot of a group of baby geese.

Embrace grittiness

Nature isn't clean. Polished animal portraits are nice, but the grittiness of reality almost always tells an interesting story. I like to embrace it when photographing wildlife because it inevitably shows the character of the animals.

A waddle of penguins on a rock and snow formation against the backdrop of a gray and gloomy sky.
Even though the smell was intense, I love the colors from all the grime and guano in this penguin rookery.
An extreme close-up of the contented face of Weddell seal lying in the snow.
A touch of blood on this sleeping seal makes you wonder what the story might be behind its blissful expression.

Look for reflections, interesting forms, and silhouettes

Reflections lend themselves to interesting compositions, and I use them whenever I can. A still pool of water is always a helpful photographic tool for capturing reflections. I also try to use silhouettes in some cases to simplify animals into their basic forms and shape—it can be a fun creative challenge. The simplified forms and shapes created by shooting in silhouette can introduce constraints that bring focus to a visual story.

A crane flying in silhouette against a backdrop of an orange-yellow sky.
This stark silhouette of a Sandhill Crane suspended in a sunset sky is one of my favorites.
In the yellow-orange light of sunset a group of large birds take off from the edge of a small lake nestled at the base of a hill..
The reflections on the water in Bosque del Apache, New Mexico, add to the composition.
A crane, in silhouette against a backdrop of an orange-yellow sky takes off from it's dead-tree perch.
The silhouette of this bird lifting off from its perch makes the composition more dynamic.

Find wonder wherever you are

It’s not possible to be in exotic destinations all the time, but there is plenty of wonder to be found closer to home. Whether you’re using a macro lens to photograph your local bugs or breaking out a telephoto lens to photograph the birds that are nesting in your neighbor’s tree, don't forget to look for opportunities to photograph wildlife wherever you happen to be!

A close-up of the back of a mama goose with her babies nestled in her feathers.
I happened on some baby geese in a nearby park and was eventually able to capture this sweet moment as they nestled under their mother’s wing.
A close-up of a Hummingbird sitting in a nest against the backdrop of greenery.
This nesting Hummingbird took up residence outside the second-floor window of Adobe’s Seattle office.
A side close-up of a pelican with a yellow-feathered head against an out-of focus backdrop of foliage.
While in San Diego, California, for a wedding I was able to sneak out early one morning to photograph pelicans.

Becoming a more confident wildlife photographer has been incredibly rewarding (there are more photos on my Instagram) and I hope these tips will inspire others to start taking notice and photos of the wildlife around them.

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