Photo tip of the week: Better wildlife portraits (Part two)
Professional wildlife photographers Steve and Ann Toon share a few tips for better animal portraits in part two of our photo tip of the week. You can read the first part here.
Turn your subjects into stars
The trick in pulling off eye-popping wildlife portraits is turning your subjects into stars. Train the spotlight firmly on your subject and you won’t go far wrong.
The best light for wildlife portraits is generally seen to be the soft, shadowless light you get on a bright but overcast day. This is brilliant for bringing out fur and feather detail and giving good clarity of colour in your shots. But it won’t give you much in terms of magic. Our personal preference for portraits is the play of light and shadow in early morning or late afternoon when the light is low, golden and raking.
We love turning the strong, directional sun at dawn and dusk to brilliant advantage to sculpt and highlight our subjects’ most striking features. Think of it like an A-list celebrity emerging from the dark on stage – powerfully, but only partially lit – teasing and tantalising the audience.It’s a great way to suggest depth and give a real 3D-feel to portrait pictures.
It also lets us focus more attention on the wonderfully varied textures in the natural world such as soft fur, intricate feather detail or heavy folds of gnarly skin.
Side-lighting works brilliantly for this, so to try to position yourself with the sun at right angles to your subject where you can. Get into the habit of searching out suitable subjects and situations where you might be able accentuate prominent character traits in this way – where the light falls intensely on key elements of your subject while the rest remains in deep shadow.
It helps to go for ultra-close ups when you’re using directional light to sculpt subjects. This will help you draw attention to your subject, or the parts of your subject you want to focus most on even further, by cutting out all the extraneous clutter.
It often helps here if you use a fraction (or two) of minus exposure compensation at the capture stage to ratchet up the contrast and mood yet more.
Add value to wildlife portraits
Commercial photographers often use props to help tell a story about their portrait subjects or simply to enhance or give added attraction to their people pictures. You can do the same in wildlife portraiture too. If you’re setting out to do portraits of waders and waterbirds that catch fish for their living, for example, or bee-eaters that hunt insects, the best portrait captures of these species will probably be the ones where you manage to get the bird with a fish or insect successfully held in its beak.
Over the years we’ve trained ourselves to look constantly for anything like this that will give our images some added value. A full moon or setting sun in the background of a characterful head-study can lift the shot into another league, for example.
A beautifully shaped tree, an unusual cloud formation, a rainbow, or simply a perfect mirror reflection of your subject - these are all contained within nature’s bag of props you can use to turbo-charge an image. We’ve even used other animals thrown out of focus as bonus interest in our portrait photos to add a bit of extra context and depth to our shots.
There’s just one word of caution. Bringing these additional elements into your portrait pictures requires tons of patience – especially if you’re waiting for a bird to catch its dinner! And it can be hugely frustrating achieving the correct position of your subject in relation to a chosen ‘bonus feature’ when you can’t direct models as a studio photographer would.
We find it usually requires lots of delicate repositioning to get the viewpoint we’re after without spooking our subject completely. But when all things conspire in your favour the pay-off can be very rewarding.
Show less and say more
The last time we looked there was no legal requirement to show the whole of your subject in a wildlife portrait, and in complete detail, whether you’re framing it full-body or doing a bust in tight close-up. Yet we all still tend to think we probably should do it that way – recording the natural world as ‘naturally’ as possible.
Buck this trend occasionally in your wildlife portraits and you’ll stop a viewer in their tracks. Frame shots that do the opposite of expectation from time to time. Remove detail altogether or show just part of a subject in the frame. As well as being different this makes the viewer look, and think, that bit harder to fill in all the blanks.
Be bold. It won’t work every time, but if you keep in mind that the end result still needs to be visually appealing and say something about the subject you’ve elected to shoot you can’t go too far wrong. If you’re unsure have a go bisecting subjects with the edge of the frame so only half their face is apparent, or reveal only the reflection of a subject when you photograph wildlife at water next time or showcase just one outstretched wing, perhaps, as a bird flies out of your frame.
If this is a step too far for your taste – no problem. Silhouettes and rim-lit shots might appeal to you more. Rather than distract your audience with an abundance of detail, you can create a powerful wildlife portrait study purely by putting the focus on a subject’s tell-tale outline. It’s a great way to make punchy wildlife studies where a subject has either a classic, clearly recognisable or fabulously funky shape.
Shoot prominent subjects into the light isolated clearly against a clean background in the golden hour. Use a dab of minus exposure compensation to ensure your chosen subject’s details are not recorded and that background colours (or the bright halos in rim-lit shots) are beautifully saturated.
And finally remember that all these simple tips and tricks will work best for you where you use them to further bring out something character-defining or eye-catching about your subject.
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 toonwildlife.com and follow their African adventures on on their 'Beat about the Bush' blog at toonphotoblog.com.