Jim Brandenburg examines his image of a zebra u2013 an offbeat, mysterious photograph that succeeds despite breaking all the rules

Photo Insight with Jim Brandenburg

Jim Brandenburg travelled the world as a photographer with National Geographic magazine for more than 30 years. His work has been published in The New York Times, Life and Time, among others, and he has won numerous awards, including Kodak Wildlife Photographer of the Year by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine. He is the chair of this year’s competition. Every month Jim will share the story behind one of his nature images

One of the magical things about the camera is that it can record subjects accurately and in great detail. For this reason, photography often leads people down a literal path where they want to show something exactly as it appears. However, a camera can also be used like a paintbrush – you can shoot in a more creative, abstract way and leave things to the viewer’s imagination. I believe this approach often makes a picture more distinctive and powerful.

When you’ve been shooting for many years, as I have, your visual language can get clouded and messed up by too much thinking. Nevertheless, I believe that anyone can get into a more creative way of shooting, from amateurs to seasoned professionals, so long as you have good visual sense and you’re willing to take chances. You just have to trust your instincts and allow yourself to discover as you shoot.

This image of a zebra is one where I just pulled up the camera and made a shot quickly – probably just one frame – and moved on. It was all done in a flash and I have no memory of thinking about shooting it. Looking at it now, I’d say it was an edgy picture that came straight from my gut.

I shot it while on assignment for National Geographic in Africa in the late 1990s. This is not the kind of image that the magazine’s editors would have chosen to publish back then. Today they might, but at that time they were much more literal. It’s an image I would have shot just for myself and was not part of the assignment.

Zebras are extraordinary creatures and I know of no other animal that has such a remarkable pelt. There are some others that are very beautiful and amazing, but zebras have the most striking markings. For them, it’s camouflage, but from our point of view, the black & white stripes look very graphic and that’s what I was playing with in this picture.

I simply isolated the stripes from everything else about the zebra, such as its head, legs and tail, but rather than going in close on the stripes and doing a tight shot, I chose to crop it in a way that is suggestive of the animal as a whole.

I used a Nikon F3 with a 600mm lens and Kodachrome film. It was taken late in the day. Using a long lens with the aperture wide open has resulted in a relatively shallow depth of field. The zebra’s backside is in focus, but as you go closer to the front of the animal it gets slightly softer. It was standing with its head under some trees, and this area of shadow, combined with the fact that I was underexposing by about 3 stops, has led to the zebra’s front half disappearing into darkness.

The image’s contrast will have been slightly increased at the scanning and printing stages. Kodachrome is quite a contrasty film anyway, but sometimes when you scan a transparency it doesn’t translate as pure black, so I’ll have tweaked it a little in Photoshop to make it darker. This may have increased the shadow area a little, although I think the original would be pretty close to the final image you see here.

The key aspects of this image lie in the lighting and framing, both of which are influenced by the Dutch artist Rembrandt. My background is in painting and art history, and dramatic lighting was well used by painters of Rembrandt’s era. I wouldn’t have been aware of this influence at the time I was shooting, but it would have happened subconsciously.

The use of empty or ‘negative’ space, is crucial to the photograph’s overall effect. If I’d done a nice classic crop of the animal and the patterns, it would have been a throwaway picture. Leaving the large area of black at the top and towards the left-hand side lends it an element of mystery.

This image breaks almost every formal rule of photography that you might learn in a manual, yet it works. It reminds me of another of my best-known images, a wolf peeking from behind a tree, which is successful for the same reasons. It is cropped uncharacteristically, with most of the animal hidden, and there’s a lot of negative space. It breaks the same rules as this photograph and has the same effect.

If I could pass on one thing to other photographers that I’ve learned, I would like to inspire people to take chances when making pictures and to trust their subconscious instincts. So many photographers get caught up with equipment and creating pictures that are sharp and compositionally balanced that they lose their natural photographic language, which can speak in a truer and purer form.

I can’t guess at the number of my photographs that have resulted from shooting just one frame in passing, without really thinking about it. Afterwards, though, when I look back over the results of my shoots, these are often the really special pictures.

Jim Brandenburg was talking to David Clark

To see more of Jim’s images visit www.jimbrandenburg.com