You head out to do a wildlife shoot of your favorite mammals or birds. A natural instinct is to grab your longest lens to get that frame-filling head shot. A full-frame portrait of your favorite subject can have impact, but does it provide a sense of place? Conversely, if you show too much of its surroundings, it leaves the viewer wondering about the intent of the image. Every wildlife shooter faces this dilemma. Should we zoom in to get the head shot and come home with a full-frame portrait or lay off the huge lens and include some of the environment? The best of all worlds is to have a situation present itself where you come home with both. Take advantage of each and every opportunity rather than concentrate on one or the other.
The Head Shot: A full-frame head shot has long been deemed a trophy image. But to truly meet this criteria, there are many factors that must fall into place. Simply filling the frame doesn’t raise an image to this elite status. First off, the light needs to be addressed. Is the face well lit or is the light contrasty? Are there awkward shadows? Are there distractions in the background that lead the viewer’s eye away from the animal? A busy background along with poor light dictate the image is destined for the delete button. Is the face dark and set against a bright background? If so, it will be hard to rescue the image. Is the head angle past perpendicular to the photographer? Conversely, if the face is well lit and set against a dark background, set the motor drive to high and fire away. Does the animal communicate any sort of interesting emotion or does it lack expression? Wait for the subject to do something expressive. Keep your eye glued to the viewfinder. Wait for the eyes, ears or mouth to portray emotion. Note the direction in which the animal looks. If the eyes are too close to the edge of the frame, tension is created, as it has no room in which to maintain its glance. Leave room at the edge of the frame regarding the direction the animal stares.
Show the Environment: Rather than fill the frame with just the animal, include some of the terrain or location in which it resides. This establishes a sense of place and educates the viewer about where and how the subject dwells. Refrain from fully zooming the lens or getting too close. While it feels great that an animal trusts you to get close enough, it may not make the best image. By all means, get in tight and create the head shot as explained above, but learn to back off a bit and go wide. A more common flow of events is to progressively let the animal gravitate closer to you or slowly enter its world to get the head shot. Should this be the scenario, as you get closer, think about the perspective. If while you’re close, go wide to provide a unique look to your image.
The environmental image tends to be more of a storyteller as it denotes a sense of place. The head shot is powerful as it provides an up-close-and-personal look at the species. Both have their place in wildlife photography, and I strongly encourage you to capture both. Regardless of the one you choose, adhere to the compositional rule of thirds. For the head shot, the eyes should fall into the top third of the frame. For the environmental image, position key elements into the power points to create balance and intrigue in your compositions.