Research Photos: Sneaking up on (Un)suspecting Animals / by Lara Neece

Ok. This is obviously not a photo of me collecting research photos of an animal; this is me playing around with a Lomography fisheye camera back in 2011 in the Great Dismal Swamp. I don't honestly know if I have any pictures of me behind my camera, because I'm usually the one taking all of the pictures. However, I do like this photo because this is the bird's eye view (if you will) that an animal sees when I creep up on it and snap my "research photos." 

 Red-tailed hawk at the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw, SC.

Red-tailed hawk at the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw, SC.

 Ink and watercolor drawing of a red-tailed hawk.

Ink and watercolor drawing of a red-tailed hawk.

  Eurasian eagle owl chick at the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw, SC.

Eurasian eagle owl chick at the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw, SC.

 Acrylic painting of an Eurasian eagle owl chick.

Acrylic painting of an Eurasian eagle owl chick.

Research photos are the very first step in the creative process for me, and it's not just about collecting the photos. It's important that I work primarily from my own photos so that the inspiration is sparked by a specific actual experience that happened to me, and also so I'm not relying on other people's experiences or artistic decisions to inform my artistic decisions. I'm mostly talking about compositional, color, or lighting choices among other elements.

You've probably noticed by now that I work from photographs a lot. For one, the subjects in the photos don't move - as animals are prone to do! - and I like to work on paintings at my own leisure in my studio. If you are going to work from photographs, you have to keep in mind that the contrasts in the photograph will be greater than what you saw in person, so the lights will be lighter and the darks will be darker. Color and background are among other considerations to keep in mind when taking a photo for painting or drawing reference.

While I aim to create realistic representations of the plants and animals that I draw or paint, I'm not going for the hyper-realistic photo-like look. I'm trying to capture more than just the visual of the photo, but also my feelings as the artist and the experience I had in that place with that subject.

Words cannot express how much I absolutely love gathering research photos for my art and design projects. Any excuse to wander in the woods or go for a boat ride is a good excuse in my book and all the better if it's actually considered work (sometimes I think I should have studied environmental science instead of creative writing). This research is very much a part of my earth-life balance, and I love that it's built right into my work.

When I know I will be outside for an extended period of time, I always pack a camera - either my old point-and-shoot Cannon PowerShot SX200 or my larger Olympus PEN E-PL2 with interchange lenses. The later is preferable because sometimes you just need a good closeup and to do so you need a good zoom lens. Getting close enough to your subject to get clear accurate details is extremely important and at the same time extremely difficult, which is why I love to go to wildlife rehabilitation or wildlife education centers like the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw, SC,  or Oatlands Island Wildlife Center in Savannah, GA.