Six ways to add wow to your wildlife pictures

I can tell from the way we’re needling each other now after long days in the office, processing pictures, polishing pitches and chasing unpaid invoices, that it’s high time we were heading off back to the African bush. Our run-down engines are spluttering, our creative juices have evaporated, the RSI is flaring up and our pasty skins and bleary eyes, after hours in the ‘digital darkroom’ with blinds drawn, are truly zombie-like.

It’s got so bad that yesterday, just to keep going on the projects in hand, we had to down tools for 15 minutes to listen to BBC sound recordist Chris Watson’s wonderful Kalahari soundscape, broadcast earlier this week on Radio Four, on the iPlayer. It’s amazing how much renewed energy you can get just hearing the ping, ping, pinging calls of barking geckoes. A sound we’ll forever associate with evenings in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Reserve after a busy day ‘connecting’ with Africa’s awesome wildlife.

Fortunately it’s not too long now before we’ll be taking down our special ‘Africa’ crate once again (see our post ‘Six Things to Love About Photography in the Kalahari‘  about this important pre-trip, packing ritual). Re-charging our batteries and nourishing our souls in the wild just can’t come soon enough.

After years of doing this you’d think we’d have this wildlife photography thing nailed by now. But every time we look forward to travelling we resolve to improve our pictures and return home with better shots than before. While we certainly learned early on that there’s no silver bullet or short-cut to getting that great shot we have found a few simple techniques and approaches along the way that help our pictures pack a punch. Here are just a few (and then we must get back to work!):

1. Turn round
Turning your back, quite literally, on the prevailing wisdom that recommends photographing with the sun behind your shoulder immediately presents you with the opportunity to exploit the changing moods and magical effects of back-lighting. Back-lighting is a boon for wildlife subjects because it allows you to focus more attention on them. Distracting detail, and colour even, is held in check, (or is almost non-existent in the shadow areas) so there’s nothing at all to detract the viewer’s eye from the main event. Keep compositions clean and experiment  under-exposing shots a bit to further dampen down detail and saturate the golden light. Look out for back-lighting opportunities when photographing animals in water, when it’s cold, or in dry, dusty conditions. A golden spray of water droplets, a veil of condensing breath or a shimmering cloud of dust will really enhance the eye-appeal of your shots.

AMHAL17(D) Common (blue) wildebeest (gnu)
Shoot into the light to add mood, magic and mystery to wildlife images

2. Go wide
While the foreshortening effect of long lenses can be brilliant for throwing backgrounds out of focus in wildlife shots (and getting close to stuff in the first place!) the downside is your results can sometimes look a bit flat.

That’s why wherever we get the opportunity we like to use wide-angle lenses. Wildlife images made this way always look refreshingly different and have bags of immediacy because subjects appear so ‘in your face’. Unlike long lenses, the broad angle of view when shooting wide gives pictures a dynamic 3-D feel and allows you to include lots of in-focus background detail, too, telling a story about your subject’s habitat and immediately enriching your picture with context. Wide-angle animal close-ups work best at eye level with your subject (or below it) so you not only need to get very close, you need to get down low – often lying prone. The effect is to exaggerate your subjects’ size and characteristics, making them appear to loom out of your picture – straight towards the viewer.

AMHRW168(D) White rhinos
Low and wide is one way to go if you want to make dynamic images of large mammals

3. Think landscape
When we started out and had splashed all our savings on long lenses we photographed everything close-up – all the time. We still do close-up shots, of course, but we temper that desire to fill the frame all the time now because these shots don’t really communicate much about our subject to the viewer – the habitat it prefers or the eco-system it belongs to. They also don’t really capture the sense of scale of a subject or establish any relationship between the subject itself and the world it inhabits. These days we force ourselves to think more like landscape photographers; placing wildlife subjects in the wider scene as thoughtfully as a landscape photographer would frame a scenic shot. As always, photograph when the light is best to make the most of impressive skies and surrounding scenery.

AMHZ83(D) Zebra with storm
Good landscape techniques with a strong wildlife subject is a winning combo

4. Make eyes
Strong eye contact takes a wildlife image to another level since eyes are the first thing a viewer engages with. We’ve discovered that getting this part of the picture right is vital – putting the ‘life’ into wildlife images. We often pass up on a  subject with no catchlight in the eye because  we know the resulting image will look lifeless. You can add a catchlight at the post-processing stage, but nothing beats a natural sparkle. Always be ready to press the shutter at the precise moment your subject is wide-eyed and be prepared to shift your position in relation to the sun and your subject. If you can’t get a catchlight immediately, this shuffling of viewpoint often helps. Eyes are such an important feature we often try to make them the ‘essence’ or stars of a picture.

AMPL106(D) Lion
Strong eye contact, an alert stare and pupils clear to see will all help grab and hold the viewer’s attention

5. Break rules
Experiment, be creative, aim to find your own visual style and be prepared to dispense with photographic convention. A lightning bolt won’t strike you if you stray away from the rule of thirds. If you feel it will improve the aesthetics of your image, advance the story you want to tell, or convey the emotion you’re after – go for it. The best images are not the ‘me too’ wildlife clichés, but the ones that dare to be different. A word or two of warning ‘though. Be bold when you veer off the straight and narrow. If you’re too tentative you risk not pulling it off – and always do it for a reason.

AMHRW186 White rhino
Dare to be different – rules work, but can be broken too!

6. Be there
Our best and final advice  is quite simple – get out there with your camera as much as you can. Luck is a rare commodity, whatever you’re doing in life, but you can increase your chance of getting better wildlife shots simply by putting more time in. It certainly seems to work for us. That tired old saying ‘F8 and be there’ holds more than a grain of truth. So keep a camera with you at all times when you’re out where the wild things are – that winning shot is out there waiting for you.

AMPFS88(D) Cape fox cub with dead rat
Put as much time in as you can to get the most out – patience brings the privilege of seeing and shooting great wildlife behaviour in the field, whether at home or abroad

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