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. However, 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. Here are some tips to help you achieve the best possible wildlife images.
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 animals eyes, your viewer is going to have an equal reaction to that photograph. What’s your reaction to the rabbit above?
Proximity or Environment
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 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 were at its harshest then we would have an entirely different story 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 get close-ups of bison with their faces covered in frost.
The Proper Moment to Release the Shutter
Photographing wildlife is exciting, and it is that excitement that can have us forgetting 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 often 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 as you design your photo, and 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 pay off 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
My final concept for creating a successful wildlife photograph is about connecting your viewer to relatable human events. Think child bearing 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 impact and in turn success from a photographic point of view.
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