Wildlife photography is not a cheap investment. It typically requires big, expensive, high-quality lenses and fast cameras to even begin to think about creating a quality wildlife photograph. However, there are many photographers who show up on game day with the equipment but not the game.
In my opinion, it is fine to be a trophy hunter with a camera because you are spending time in the wild and are only taking home photographs of the animals and not the animals themselves. But if you truly want to create an image where you’ll give a wild animal its moment to shine, you need more. You need to give your viewer a connection to that creature.
The Importance of Research in Wildlife Photography
A lot of wildlife is pattern oriented and migratory. This means that you can find massive gatherings of specific species at specific times of the year in specific locations. Many know about the wildebeest migration in Africa but did you know there are locations right here in the United States where you have the same type of scenarios?
In my hometown of Jackson, Wyoming you can photograph ten thousand wintering elk less than a mile from downtown in the National Elk Refuge. If you head to New Mexico in late November, you can photograph tens of thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes. By conducting a little research you will quickly figure out where to be for what you want to photograph.
You don’t want to come to Yellowstone to photograph frosty bison faces in May, you want to do that in January. Once you know more about your specific subject you will then be able to brainstorm the specific types of photos you can take of those subjects. Here are some of the photographic points that I think about whenever I encounter any wild animal.
Eyes are Crucial for Impactful Wildlife Portraits
Anytime you greet a new acquaintance, you shake their hand and look them in the eyes. Wildlife photography is no different. If we are taking a portrait of an animal, the eyes need to be in focus over anything else in the photograph. I want you to begin to think about an animal’s eyes as the windows to its soul.
Eyes show fear, they show sadness, anger, and even happiness, and if you can capture that emotion in an animal’s eyes, your viewer is going to have an equal reaction to that photograph. What’s your reaction to the rabbit above?
If you’re just starting out in wildlife photography and you’re finding it difficult to nail focus on the eyes, please check out All About Autofocus: Focus Area vs Focus Mode for Beginners, which also covers how to manually select your focus point.
Remember, nailing focus isn’t everything. Learn more about creative expression with out-of-focus experiments in my post How to Show Artistic Motion in Still Photography.
Proximity or Environment Makes for Better Shots
Initially, everyone who photographs wildlife has a desire to get really, really close to their subjects – like, hair-splitting close. In some instances, this can have a very dramatic effect, but I feel that you can tell more of a story by showing an animal in its environment.
The above image was taken in Yellowstone this past winter. If you search online for winter images of Yellowstone you see this tree everywhere. You don’t always see this tree with a bison crossing the ridge behind it, though, and for me that is a special moment. It gives you a little more of a story. The day I took that image the weather was perfect, but if I were there when the weather was at its harshest then we would have an entirely different story to tell.
The goal is always to make decisions based on what is going on with your surroundings. If the weather were cold and winter-like then I would have wanted to try and instead get one of those close-ups of the bison with their faces covered in frost.
Choosing the Right Moment to Release the Shutter
Photographing wildlife is exciting and it is that excitement that can cause us to forget all the essential tenets of photography. I can often pick out the inexperienced photographer in a group of photographers at a wildlife encounter because that person is just blindly taking photo after photo of the subject. Although this approach isn’t necessarily costly in the days of digital, it will leave you with tons of (often similar) images to sort through. Which, in turn, will have you ignoring the editing process altogether or bogging you down so you have less time in the field.
We should try to anticipate the decisive moment and release the shutter at the perfect moment to illustrate an action or a specific look. Remember a sad bear may not actually be sad, except when their eyes and body position are a certain way at a certain moment. This is the perfect time for you to release your shutter.
Design the Photograph with Intent
Think about the animals you photograph as elements instead of just subjects as you design your photo – you will begin to produce dynamic photographs that others can only dream about. Snakes have amazing patterns and colors available to us, but they also illustrate the concept of line in a photograph.
I intentionally chose to fill my frame with the curving nature of this snake and your eye does not even care that the line runs out of the frame. Why? Because your brain fills in the gaps. You follow the line of the snake beginning either from its head or from its tail and depending on the direction you started from, you quickly figure out what type of snake it is. There is the story.
Discovering a Moment of Abstraction
Not all animals stand up to be counted. If you were preyed upon often, you too would find a way to hide. Now if you can find that animal before it feels threatened by you, there is an opportunity to highlight something that most people don’t often see. The discovery becomes the payoff when your viewer is unsure as to what they are looking for. The key here is to not take it too far.
An animal that is too small or too hidden from the viewer will have that person looking elsewhere, so it becomes a delicate balancing act. You need to think outside the box in this scenario to be really successful at it.
Making an Emotional Connection with Your Wildlife Portraits
My next concept for creating a successful wildlife photograph is about connecting your viewer to relatable human events. Think childbearing and rearing. Protection. Anything that happens in the human world that can be translated to the wildlife world will make for great photographs. Always think about the scene in front of you.
If it is a top predator is there a moment when it is vulnerable or a moment when it is having fun? Do we relate to something because we are parents? Or because we are lovers? Emotion has an impact and, in turn, success from a photographic point of view.
Climate and How it Might Affect Wildlife Photography
I know that you have probably seen a bunch of different compositions with polar bears floating on ice or scouring barren beaches where there was once snow. I don’t have this visual yet but at some point in my career I am going to get it. Our environment is changing. Glaciers are receding at alarming rates. Those are the visuals we have already seen but by doing some research (remember my first point) you will probably discover that there are many more stories you can tell about where this world may be heading to from a wildlife perspective.
Capturing a photograph of a wild animal can be the highlight of just about any photographer’s career. The key here is to move beyond just a capture. Think about your species and subject, then try to make a connection to the human world. Put people on the edges of their seats when you show them your wildlife shots. Make them want more. Make them ask that simple question of… “How did you get that shot?”
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