Jeff Brenner is a Montana-based wildlife photographer with a distinctive photographic style. His portfolio is full of images of red foxes and grizzly bears, bald eagles and gray wolves, all appearing to have practically posed for the camera. The images are polished, with an almost studio quality in terms of composition, lighting and graphic power.
But Brenner isn’t photographing these animals in controlled environments. In fact he relocated to Bozeman specifically for its easy access to the wilds of Yellowstone where he photographs on a regular basis. His striking photographs are the result of deliberate skill in choosing locations and lenses, combined with a diligent sensibility and the work ethic to spend hours retouching at the pixel level in order to instill a painterly quality in his wildlife photos.
We asked Brenner about his transition from casual hobbyist to dedicated professional wildlife photographer, and how he balances his love for the natural world with the digital skills it takes to meticulously craft such refined portraits of his favorite Yellowstone residents.
Q: Your work is beautiful, and I know you spend a lot of time in the digital darkroom making your images as perfect as they can be. Without giving away any secret recipes, I wonder what advice you would give to other photographers about taking their photographs from good to great in the computer?
A: I love this question, and I appreciate the kind words! I do spend a lot of time in the post-processing phase, but I want to start this one out with a little disclaimer. A lot of times when people hear that I spend hours editing my photos they think that I’m taking out and putting in elements into the composition, or just flat out turning them into digital art instead of photography. In reality, I always try to keep the image as true to life as I experienced it in that moment. This probably seems contradictory because the most “true to life” image would be one that is unaltered, right? Maybe so, but my goal is always to share images that convey the impact I felt in the moment and give the viewer the same feelings I had the second the photo was taken. Sometimes looking back at images where I felt a profound connection to the subject, I feel they lack a genuine representation of that encounter. That’s where the “digital darkroom” comes in.
Rather than altering elements in the scene, I will fine tune the details of what made that experience noteworthy. Our eyes are a biological miracle and the details we absorb as we look into the eyes of a wild apex predator or across an illuminated landscape at sunrise can never truly be duplicated by a machine—at least in my opinion. So I revisit the image in Lightroom and sometimes Photoshop and will bring out certain components that were present when I took the image. It’s a lot of very detailed dodging and burning to emphasize the lighting that was already part of the scene. It’s also no secret that if you look at my images, I rely on a very shallow depth of field to draw the viewer’s eye to the focal point of the frame, which most of the time is the face of an animal.
To provide a visual, here’s a before and after that depicts my editing process on a shot of a gray wolf I captured a while back. To give some background on the unedited image, I have my camera set up to where my raw files are relatively flat, which caters to my editing style by giving more control with highlights and shadows. By looking at the raw image you can see that my natural light source comes in from the top left corner of the frame and sits behind the wolf, making the subject back lit. After identifying the direction of your light source you can start dodging the areas that are open to the sun while burning the areas where shadows would naturally occur. By using a small brush in Lightroom, I made a lot of very detailed adjustments in the wolf’s coat, face, and eyes which created texture and depth. I also slightly adjusted the softness on the fur lit up by the rim light in order to create a more shallow depth of field. Lastly, I gave a boost to the original light source as a way to generate a bit more drama in the scene, as well as directing the viewer’s eye to the face of the wolf. Rather than relying on a dark vignette to guide focus to a specific area of your frame, you can also use an emphasized light source or an exaggerated blur to achieve a more balanced and less distracting result.
Q: Before you became a professional photographer I know you pursued wildlife photography as a hobby for a long time. What did you learn from that experience that might help other photographers who want to be great without—or perhaps prior to—going pro?
A: This is something that I see a lot of photography enthusiasts conflicted with. As I was starting to take my work more seriously I constantly asked myself this same question. I compared my photos to what was popular and getting engagement on social media, and I couldn’t figure out why my work lacked the impact that all of these other images seemed to have. Eventually I realized that comparing myself to other photographers and trying to create art for the approval of people I don’t know on social media were the main factors getting in the way of taking my work to the next level. It blocked any original and unique ideas I had. I finally began focusing on capturing images that inspired me, and then experimented with different techniques throughout the editing process that would tell the story and convey the emotion I intended.
The best advice I could give to elevate your work—regardless of the level you’re at—is probably the most simple and cliche: focus on creating what you love. Forget about what other people are doing and set aside the pressure to share photos with the goal of getting “likes” and “follows.” Without those distractions you will quickly be able to figure out what subject matter truly fascinates you, and you will continue to develop ways to convey your artistic interpretation. If your goal is to keep it as a hobby—and many of the happiest photographers remain hobbyists!—then keep the focus on creating for yourself and for the things that inspire you.
Q: Is there a subject or location that’s at the top of your list of things that you have not yet photographed but desperately want to? A photographic “white whale” of sorts?
A: This is a tough one for sure. Yes, there are specific subjects and locations on my bucket list that I’d love to photograph. The challenging part is picking the one that’s top priority among countless others on my ever-growing list! The one that came to mind pretty quickly has been a goal since I began wildlife photography. I’d say my all-time dream location and wildlife “white whale” (which is actually a pretty accurate analogy for this one) is to photograph the Kermode bear, or “Spirit Bear,” at the Great Bear Rainforest. Every couple of months I get on Google to research the location along with info on the Kermode bear and the other wildlife found in this massive stretch of land along the British Columbia coast. Not only do they have this incredibly rare subspecies of black bear, but the rainforest is also home to grizzlies, coastal wolves, eagles, and the list goes on. It’s probably not too difficult to tell that I’m fascinated by this place, but unfortunately I still don’t have concrete plans to visit. I don’t know when that day will come, but I do know that it will be worth the wait!
To see more of Jeff Brenner’s wildlife photos and to buy prints, visit jeffnbrenner.com or seek him out on Instagram @jeff.n.brenner