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Tips and techniques

The Soloist or the Orchestra?

By June 21, 2018No Comments

Polar bear soloist © Kathy Lichtendahl

Story & Photography by Kathy Lichtendahl


About a decade ago the Yellowstone Association Institute offered a series of Master Artist workshops in the park. I was lucky enough to be accepted into a class with one of my favorite wildlife painters, Robert Bateman. Over the course of three days in Mammoth, the renowned artist captivated participants with stories, demonstrations, and instruction on how to better portray the natural world in our chosen medium.

One of the tidbits that struck me immediately upon hearing it and that has stayed with me ever since was when Bateman suggested that before beginning a composition, you must first decide whether your focus will be on the “soloist or the orchestra”. As a photographer, I took that to mean that I must first determine if I am going to try to capture the details of an individual animal or if I am going to portray the subject as part of its larger environment. It is a question I still ask myself constantly as I try to photograph a particular species.

Polar bear orchestra © Kathy Lichtendahl

Some wildlife photographers specialize in capturing a portrait of their subject and I am happy to do so when the opportunity presents itself but my greatest joy is when I can show an animal in its habitat. As a conservation photographer, I often try to tell a story about my subjects and feel the surroundings of a particular species can demonstrate the importance not only of that animal but of the habitat in which it exists.

Mountain goats orchestra © Kathy Lichtendahl

Planning and preparation are required for both types of shots although the equipment may vary. It seems obvious that a longer lens would be the glass of choice for a portrait but it can also be the best option for a shot that includes much of the background.

Mountain goats soloist © Kathy Lichtendahl

Many of my images are made off the beaten trail so I try to pack as lightly as I can while still leaving myself options for photographing the soloist or the orchestra. Depending on the distance and the terrain, my F-stop Gear pack is usually loaded with a tripod, one or two camera bodies and at least two lenses along with extra cards and batteries, a polarizing filter and a certain amount of food and emergency gear. I have a much larger kit if I am photographing close to the road but as a relatively small woman, I have to consider weight when I am planning to be out on the trail.

Swallow orchestra © Kathy Lichtendahl

To give me the greatest flexibility I carry a Really Right Stuff TQC 14 travel tripod. Equipped with a compact ball-head, the combination weighs in at just over three pounds. My camera of choice is a Canon EOS 1DX Mark 2 with the Canon 5D Mark 3 as the second body. If I am planning an especially gnarly day I might travel with only the latter as a lighter option. The majority of my images are made with the Canon 100mm – 400mm lens but I also carry the Canon 24mm – 105mm for those times when I need a wider angle. As a rule, I try to keep my load under thirty-five pounds when possible to allow me to travel farther and faster than I might be able to if burdened with a heavier pack.

Swallow soloist © Kathy Lichtendahl

I am always surveying locations for that perfect spot that will tell a story of the animal and its surroundings. While I want the subject to be the focal point, I also want to give the orchestra the attention it deserves!



Kathy Lichtendahl is the owner and operator of Light in the Valley, LLC, a professional photography company based in northwest Wyoming near Yellowstone.