Top Tips for Perfect Wildlife Portraits

It seems there’s an obsession with action in wildlife photography these days – understandable perhaps given the dynamism of a well-executed example, coupled with the technical ability of today’s top-end digital cameras to seriously increase the overall hit rate. But sometimes this comes at a cost to the ‘humble’ animal or bird portrait,  sadly, and strangely, undervalued and ignored as a result.

The perception seems to be that action shots are tougher to nail and so therefore trump wildlife portraits which are seen as too easy or less interesting to the viewer.  On the surface that might seem a fair assessment, but with modern cameras doing a lot of the work when it comes to fast-action photography you could argue the very best wildlife portraits – those that communicate something more, or something deeper, about the subject  – are not at all easy to pull off and can often be more evocative, emotive and powerful than action photography, while equally as compelling to the audience  – just look at the images that top the portrait categories in the world’s leading photographic competitions for example.

Making better wildlife portraits, like everything, takes practice and time, but there are a few things we’ve  learned over the years that will help give your animal portraiture more punch. The text is a reworking of an article we had published in ‘Australian Photography’ magazine a few years ago that came to mind the other day as we began preparing to head off on another photographic safari. The images are a mix of new and old from our files…

1.Picking the right subjects

Ears and eyes pricked – wait for perfection in animal portraits

The best chefs select the choicest ingredients and simply let them sing. They know for the best results they need the best raw materials. The same goes when shooting wildlife portraits. Be ultra picky and shoot only the finest, most striking subjects. Wild animals are not models, but if you take your role as critical casting agent seriously, searching out the most charismatic critters, you can find  half your work is done. Unless we’re looking to make a photographic point about a wrinkled, old, wounded specimen we pass over poor-condition subjects and those with ‘cosmetic’ flaws, that might niggle and distract a trained viewer. One floppy ear when both should be erect, a torn lip, worn or lifeless fur, missing canine teeth all could mar your results unless you make it absolutely clear to a viewer that’s what you intended. Many wild animals have scars – some photogenic, others less so – hence the need to scrutinise potential subjects vigorously. It’s surprising how easy it is to overlook fine details in the heat of the moment – only noticing them on the computer when it can be too late.

2. Making eyes

A lion’s pupils are key to nailing a predatory stare

Check carefully you’re focused on the eyes –the most important part of any portrait. Direct eye contact with the added spark of a twinkling catchlight are the gold standards to aim for here. If not looking straight at you then wide-awake peepers will help wildlife portraits pop. Snoozy-looking subjects just won’t cut it. To give eyes an extra gleam you could try a dab of fill-in flash or make the most of any handy natural reflectors like water, when animals come to drink, bathe or socialise, to bounce extra light into your subject’s eyes for an added twinkle. Careful positioning of a subject’s eyes within the frame will also help enhance their impact. The ‘golden-ratio’ or rule of thirds  works well here. Many animal portraits you make will be in ‘portrait’ format and you’ll find that your image will be more visually appealing and engaging to the viewer if you place your subject’s eyes on or near where an imaginary line bisects the image roughly two thirds up from the bottom. That said rules are to be broken and really extreme close-up portraits cam be very arresting if only a single eye is shown.

3. Sculpting with light

Underexpose in strong side-lighting to emphasise textures

The general advice when shooting animal portraits is to go with bright, slightly cloudy conditions. Light cloud cover acts like a giant diffuser softening harsh shadows and rendering fine fur and skin detail and colour beautifully. On sunnier days make do shooting animal portraits in light shade. All sound stuff, but if it’s a drum-roll and drama you’re looking for you’re going to need more moody lighting. Low-raking bright sunlight works a treat if you want to crank up the atmosphere. We love using strong side-lighting at both ends of the day to help define a subject’s strong features such as horns, wrinkly hide, and so on. Angled-light throws a subject’s face into sharp relief, illuminating some elements more than others, producing a 3D, sculptural effect. If you like the result, experiment with more extreme low-key techniques where even larger areas of your subject are unlit. Shooting subjects against a dark backdrop and underexposing a bit will help, although you can always tweak backgrounds later in post-processing if you’re not confident. Portraits made this way can have a powerful quality so play around until you get it right.

4. Being background savvy

The sombre background purples tone well with the dirty pinks of a ‘striking’ marabou

Keep backgrounds simple for portraits. Your subject has the lead role – the background plays second fiddle – so steer clear of anything that might steal attention from your subject. Be as colour-wise as a designer too – alert to backgrounds with a palette that complements or contrasts well with your subject. Shoot fairly wide open, where you can, to throw the background out of focus; bearing in mind you’ll need enough depth of field to ensure your subject is pin sharp from the nose-tip to the eye. In long-snouted subjects that can mean stopping down quite a bit so we try to ensure subjects are not positioned too close to the background. It helps here to exploit situations where a subject is sitting out in the open or standing proud of its surroundings. If this isn’t possible, try a low-angle and isolate your subject against a bright blue or pale white sky ( keep a close eye on exposure as you go). By ensuring backgrounds drop away we can stop down as much as we need to make sure our subject’s sharp throughout while being confident the distant background won’t intrude. Always try shifting your viewpoint in relation to your subject to assess the different background options a fresh perspective might give you.

5. Building character

Aim to make the viewer see your subject in a new light

The most successful wildlife portraits communicate a strong message about the animals they portray. Consider what you want to emphasise to the viewer most about your chosen subject – the imperiousness of a male lion, the intense concentration of a hunting  heron, the don’t-mess-with-me attitude of a grouchy old buffalo. Because you haven’t the luxury of lots of background context in a portrait shot you’ll be relying on lighting and composition to help you communicate the spirit of the species. Bear in mind that curving, sinuous shapes, blurred edges and soft lighting are better suited to vulnerable, small or elegant subjects. Hard lines, high contrast and strong, directional lighting work best for big, bold, intimidating creatures. Aim to match the mood of the image with the key characteristics of your subject.

6. Getting closer still

Extreme close-ups need careful framing to pull them off

If you find your portraits still don’t pack a punch it could be you’re not getting close enough. Extreme close-ups, with frame-busting facial features, can be hugely effective providing you crop and compose them well. Close cropping needs to look deliberate or it can look like a mistake – as if you misjudged things and accidentally clipped bits at the edges of the frame. So if you’re going to try this, don’t be tentative. Extreme close ups tend to work best with large, or menacing and fearsome creatures and those subjects with really fascinating, ugly or heavily furrowed faces. Be bold.

7. Concealing to reveal

A single-eyed stare seems more powerfully intense

Mystery adds the spice of intrigue to a portrait and one of the simplest ways to add mystique is to take something away. If you want to hold the viewer’s attention – leave something to their imagination. Try photographing just part of a subject’s face and head. Your subject might be partly hidden by a rock or you could crop in so closely that only part of the face, or just one eye, features in your shot. Doing this helps throw attention on the ‘curated’ features you choose to include. This selective cropping can prove useful in conveying a message about your subject too, for example, showing only part of a leopard’s face might communicate the idea that staying hidden is this stealthy predator’s modus operandi.

8. Framing portraits

Frame subjects with out of focus foreground and background – a low angle helps here

An effective way to emphasise and draw attention to your subject is to frame it. By framing we don’t mean hanging it on the wall in the conventional sense, but creating an inner frame within the confines of your image to pull a viewer further to your focal point. We’re always on the look out for backgrounds that contain a natural frame into which we can place our subject – the curving branch of tree neatly overarching an animal’s head, perhaps, or a ‘window’ in dense foliage. If there’s nothing suitable that suggests itself, try using a shallow depth of field. Photograph wide open, lock focus on your subject and then shoot with your camera very low and very close to the foreground, whether it’s grasses, a bank of sand or tangled undergrowth. The shallow depth of field will mean everything, other than your subject, will be out of focus – framing it softly.

9 Holding up a mirror 

Wide angles work well for characterful and comic portraits

Take a look at successful wildlife portraits and you’ll see many appeal because they’ re anthropomorphic – their content reflects back our own human behaviour and emotions, from tenderness to humour to aggression. Recognising the kind of behaviour, or subject, that will resonate with the viewer in this way is the easy part – capturing the exact character or moment of interest is the hard part. Being there is half the battle. So spend as much time in the field as you can patiently watching and waiting. And when you find promising subjects stick with them for as long as possible. Wait to see what happens next. Something usually does.

10. Ignoring all the above

Find a new way to say stuff – here we wanted to show the rhino’s current vulnerability

The above tips work routinely for us, but that doesn’t mean you should follow them slavishly or that’s all there is to it. The trick is to evolve your photography and try something different. We’re always looking to take our photography forward and find something fresh whether it’s unusual angles, unconventional framing, creative blur and so on. At the end of the day it’s your call. But whatever you decide there’s one single thing to remember to be sure of success.

Your subjects are the stars.