Photo tip of the week: Better wildlife portraits (Part one)
Small things count when it comes to wildlife portraits. It really doesn’t take much to turn a “meh” shot into a majestic one. It’s all about paying attention to the finer details. Thankfully you don’t need any fancy camera equipment to do this. The solution is in your own hands – or rather your eyes and head.
Select your shooting approach to suit your subject
Think a bit more before you next shoot portraits about exactly what you want to showcase or say about your subject. Consider what traits or features you’d like to draw attention to or bring out. Remember you’re not simply trying to replicate what you see in front of you like a mirror image. Otherwise all you’ll succeed in doing is adding to the pile of “similars” out there and that’s not going to send viewers’ pulses racing.
Look extra closely before you press the shutter as well. Be on the hunt for ways to use everything available to you to help convey your message or vision better and more boldly. Backgrounds, the time of day, and weather and light conditions should all be viewed as key ingredients in the mix towards a great portrait shot and measured in equal weight to the subject itself when making your image.
Mist, clear white skies, pale backgrounds and gentle rain, for example, can support a sense of delicacy, vulnerability or softness if you’re looking for ways to emphasise ethereal or fragile traits in the species you’re photographing. On the other hand, stormy cloudscapes, strong contrast and dark backgrounds will assist you in conveying a feeling of power, muscularity or mystery. The neat trick is to match the surroundings to suit your subject’s key or defining features. Very often we find ourselves starting with the background and mood on a given day and then looking for a subject that matches it.
Choice of lens, angle of view and decisions about framing can all work together to help you here. If you’re photographing upright, tall subjects with long legs, you can immediately accentuate these features by shooting in portrait format. On the other hand, if a subject is diminutive, you could communicate that fact by keeping it relatively small in your frame – a handy device when photographing the young of many wildlife subjects.
A wide angle lens used from a low perspective and up close to your subject will exaggerate the subject’s features nearest to the lens and can be great for intimate character studies of inquisitive creatures, or to make large creatures appear even more imposing and dynamic. Alternatively, a long telephoto with narrow depth of field can be used to foreshorten perspective and throw backgrounds out of focus, driving all the viewer’s attention in the image on the subject you want to spotlight.
Turn the outdoors into a portrait studio
Think of yourself like a conductor who, with a single wave of their baton, can affect the audience’s emotional response by muting or raising the volume to suit the mood of the music. Except in the case of wildlife portraiture, it’s light, not music, you’ll be fine-tuning to give your shots the big “ta-da”.
Look out for very dark, or quite pale, clean backgrounds against which to shoot an animal or bird and make it “pop” – rather like how a commercial photographer uses a stark backdrop when working indoors. It’s possible to achieve a powerful studio-shot type feel where you can completely isolate your subject in this way, for example, against a large patch of dense shadow or a white-sky on an overcast day. When context is pared right back like this, there’s no distracting detail and the viewer’s attention is trained solely on your subject. It’s amazing how arresting these “outdoor studio” wildlife portraits can be.
The key to success with these shots is using exposure compensation control to heighten the dramatic effect. You can make dark backgrounds even darker and subjects more brooding by shooting at one-to-two thirds of a stop under. Similarly, if you shoot a few fractions of a stop over, when photographing subjects against a pale background, you can make lighter-toned subjects seem even more ethereal and ghostly.
Experiment with this to assess the impact on your shots in different situations, to find out what works best for you. And go bolder if you feel confident; dialling in greater compensation by degrees where you feel your subject justifies it for a more low-key or high-key effect, respectively.
Get a move on – animate your shots
Breathe some life into your wildlife portraits. It’s not rocket science to work out that a still image of a passive subject is going to resonate much less than one that appears to be animated and engaged. When you’re photographing close-ups, wait for an alert gaze – strong eye contact is helpful – and aim for lots of facial expression, even if that’s only a killer stare or look of intense concentration.
Obviously, you’ll need to steer clear of sleepy subjects, but when you get the right candidate, stay patient for ears to be pricked, heads cocked, muzzles scenting the air, or beaks open in song, for example. A growl, grimace or anything that shows personality or teeth is a bonus.
When you photograph full-body portraits, don’t be content with static poses. You’re looking to suggest purpose or motive even in a still character study. The trick in communicating that sense of movement is capturing just the moment when a leg is lifted or a paw is raised above the ground, where body and shoulders are hunched low in stalking mode or where wings are lifted so the viewer senses your subject is a living, breathing creature that at any moment might move away out of the frame.
If your subject is defined by a characteristic piece of behaviour, set out to convey this to your viewer. Your success will be greatest in wildlife portraiture where you’re able to capture the very “essence” of your subject. A leopard is a master of stealth, for example
– capture a sense of that fact as it slinks through the space in your frame and you’ll be halfway there.
We realise it’s not easy with a moving subject to press the shutter at just the right moment where the pose, when frozen, will most suggest movement. The solution is to shoot a series of shots on burst but then edit them carefully at the post-processing stage. Delete those where legs are firmly planted and select the one which best gives a feel of your subject in motion.
Keep a lookout for Part 2 next week.
About the authors: Ann & Steve Toon are a UK-based, husband and wife team of award-winning, professional photographers with a specialist interest in the wildlife and wild places of southern Africa where they spend several months each year photographing and running photographic safaris.
Their work is published in a wide range of magazines and national newspapers, both in the UK and abroad, and they are reprepresented by several leading photographic libraries. They've also written three books, two on wildlife photography and one on rhinos. You can see more of their work on their website at toonphoto.com and follow their African adventures on on their 'Beat about the Bush' blog at toonphotoblog.com.