Art Wolfe is one of the world’s best-known nature and wildlife photographers. Yet, while his images are published in more than 80 books and featured in a globally syndicated television show, Wolfe has never defined himself solely through these specialty subjects. “I was trained in a fine art school, and developed an early interest in everything from the antiquity of Europe to modern cityscapes to photographing people,” he says.
Photographs © Art Wolfe
In many of Wolfe’s books and projects, he seeks to broaden people’s understanding of arts and culture. Dual degrees in painting and art education gave him a strong foundation for translating his worldwide adventures into images, while also making him uniquely qualified to engage people in visual literacy and in training them how to see.
With these pursuits, Wolfe often shifts his focus from documenting the world on a grand scale to exploring the realm of intimate space—a world that is more a function of one’s imagination. “What I truly like to do is get in close, and I’ve done that ever since I’ve picked up a camera,” he says.
Over time, he has explored different close-up techniques—assisted by a range of macro gear—to open people’s eyes to new ways of experiencing the world around them.
Getting in Close
Primarily a Canon shooter, and currently working with Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and EOS 5DS R bodies, Wolfe uses a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens for some macro subjects. Yet, for best results when depicting tiny creatures in their natural habitats, he uses extension tubes paired with telephoto zooms.
As Wolfe explains it, one tenet of macro photography dictates that the farther the lens is from the camera, the closer you can focus. Extension tubes aid in this effort by creating empty space between the lens and the camera’s sensor, while still preserving the camera’s electrical connection. “With extension tubes, I can use a slightly bigger lens,” he says. “I’ve got a series of two that are collectively about 3" long, and that much open air between the lens and the camera enables me to focus closer.”
Combining a telephoto zoom, such as the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM or Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM with extension tubes, such as the Canon EF 12 II or Canon EF 25 II, allows Wolfe to maintain close focusing ability while keeping a respectful distance. This proved to be a winning combination for the images in the book Vanishing Act, featuring close-ups of animals hidden in nature.
“A lizard concealed on a tree in a rain forest is reliant on its camouflage to go undetected,” notes Wolfe. “But if I was to go up with a macro lens and simply hover two or three inches away, it is smart enough to know the ruse is up and to get out of there really quick. Putting those extension tubes on my zooms allowed me to focus really close but still remain a respectful six feet away,” he adds. “This really proved to be the right move for capturing a lot of the smaller critters populating that book.”
Wolfe’s Abstract Compositions for Photography as Art
In a shift from the rigorous camera setups of Vanishing Act, technological advances allow Wolfe more freedom in creating the abstract images featured in his current lecture series, Photography as Art. For these pictures, Wolfe avails himself of the macro capabilities of Canon’s EF 24 – 70mm f/4L IS USM lens. “It’s such a universal lens for a lot of what I’ve been doing as of late,” he says.
Wolfe’s abstract compositions shift much of the visual focus from the natural world to details that exist largely on the margins of society, “The abandoned warehouses, the old cars, the discarded,” he explains. “From that, I found art and a metaphor for birth and renewal, and that’s what I love to teach people—to look at a subject with new eyes and reconsider what other people have cast off.”
When searching for this subject matter, Wolfe spends a lot of time walking through cities, hunting for just the right details. “I have to free up my mind, and so I don’t want people interfering with me,” he says. “I also don’t want to be distracted by dragging a tripod with me, since that makes people aware of you as a photographer.”
For these photographs, Wolfe seeks to capture the accumulated culture of the streets, “the result of all these unknown people who have put a chicken scratch on the wall. I’m going in and basically composing a shot out of that collective scratching on a wall that was unintended to be seen together,” he explains.
He often finds the most engaging abstracts in the seediest parts of a given location, from Johannesburg, to Addis Ababa, to Havana. In contrast to his process for capturing the living creatures in Vanishing Act, Wolfe composes his abstracts straight on, using a mid-range f/stop. “I’m holding the camera parallel to a flat wall and using image stabilization for tack-sharp shots,” he says. “I’m generally not shooting in bright sunshine because I want the richness of the color to come out. That’s the great thing about shooting in the city,” he adds. “If the subject is in bright light you just turn the corner and you’re in the shade.”
When hunting for these images, Wolfe makes note of locations that may prove interesting under different circumstances. “I always double back,” he says. “If I see a shot, I won’t forget it, I’ll always return when the conditions are better.”
While image stabilization regularly allows him to eke out a few extra stops of speed, Wolfe uses another trick for image sharpness in windy conditions or fading light. “I often shoot a blast of three or four shots in fast succession,” he explains. “By doing that, the middle exposures tend to be a little more stable. But I would be very reluctant to shoot lower than 1/15 of a second handheld,” he adds, “and that’s when it’s absolutely necessary.”
A key inspiration behind Wolfe’s Abstract compositions are the paintings of modern abstract expressionists, such as Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. During his Photography as Art seminars, Wolfe intersperses paintings by these artists with his own photographs as a visual test. “I want to confuse my audience as to which is the real painting and which is a photograph inspired by that work,” he says.
His goal is to open peoples’ imaginations, and to get them to think beyond cliché, redundant shots and standard post card views. “With the invention of modern cameras and digital, everybody is now a cameraman,” says Wolfe. “And yet their imaginations are compelling them just to go to the same old spot and shoot the same old stuff with newer cameras. But that’s such a hollow victory,” he adds. “I think the biggest challenge for almost anybody with a camera is to maintain enthusiasm and inspiration, and not replicate what they’ve shot for the past 10 years.”
Hand in hand with inspiring people to think—and photograph—differently, Wolfe notes that this lesson carries other enduring consequences. “At the beginning of a class, I like to tell students that I want to ruin their lives, because they will never walk past a dumpster, an abandoned washing machine, or a degraded wall, without looking at it twice or a third time,” he says. “I’m giving them permission to explore their imaginations and, once that happens, there’s no reverse. As I say, I ruin people’s lives in a very good way.”
For more on macro photography, visit Explora’s Macro Photography Week page, where you’ll find plenty of other tips, inspirational articles, and gear reviews.