I’ve been fortunate to travel to some of the most beautiful places and to photograph some of the world’s most exquisite creatures, and I’ve come to know that a beautiful subject doesn’t necessarily translate to a beautiful photograph. These experiences have taught me quite a bit about my role in picture-making and in managing my expectations.
I want to create photographs that aren’t simply mugshots of animals. Creating expressive wildlife images requires more than using my biggest lens, waiting for wildlife to show up and pressing the shutter. When I realized my hard drive was full of “meh” and not much “yeah!,” I was determined to become more creative.
Now, instead of just grabbing some random shots, I push myself to capture the feeling of the animal. Here I will share the techniques I’ve added to my visual toolbox to do this. Although the images in this article were shot in Africa, the techniques apply to all animal subjects no matter where you are in the world. Lean into the adventure to stretch your ways of thinking about your craft and the photographs you make.
Mapping The Mood
To help set the mood I want to create in my photographs, I observe the scene for a bit before I pick up my camera and ask myself three questions:
- What makes this animal interesting?
- How does it make me feel?
- What does the viewer need to see to experience this mood and understand what I want to convey about this animal?
In my experience, the answers to these questions provide a framework that rarely results in a composition of just the animal itself—the typical “postcard shot.” And if I’m not getting the answers to my questions or a true sense of an animal once I start shooting, I’ll put the camera down and continue to watch the scene for a bit to help guide my creativity.
Spotting leopards on safari usually takes the keen eye of the guides. When they’re not hanging out in the trees, these cats tend to stay low in the brush, either to hide from their prey while hunting or for their own protection from predators. When I first saw the leopard pictured in this article, she was watching a group of gazelles and seemed to be plotting her attack. I initially focused on her eyes peering through the grass, using it as part of the composition to create a sense of mystery and depth. After a few frames, the bigger question became, “How do I show her less as an overgrown kitten and more as an apex predator?”
Because she was hunting, I waited until she emerged from the brush and made a move toward the gazelles to communicate visually the sense of being on the prowl. I also deliberately narrowed the depth of field to portray her as a stealth hunter emerging from the grass. However, the feeling I wanted in the image still wasn’t quite there.
In a perfect world, I would have been lying on my belly on the ground to get the perspective I was after, but since the only thing that protected me from becoming her next meal was the safety of the vehicle, that wasn’t an option. However, she was far enough away that I was able to change my point of view by lowering my camera over the side of the Land Cruiser. This helped to reinforce further the story I wanted to tell of the leopard as a stealthy, determined hunter.
When Less Is More
The nature of wildlife photography is an open invitation to artistic possibilities since it’s not always necessary to see the entire animal to know what it is. For example, as I watched an elephant gently use her trunk to pick out the tastiest branches, it answered my question about what was most interesting about this animal. I moved from framing her entire body to her trunk, which was the part that drew me to the scene. I didn’t initially include the tusks in the frame, opting instead to zoom in tightly on the trunk, which resulted in an image of what looked like a gray log surrounded by trees. By zooming out, I captured more of the curve of the trunk and the tusks to reveal more of the story.
To push this idea even further, it’s worth asking whether the viewer needs to know much about the animal at all. When I saw some red lechwe drinking in a flooded grassland in Botswana, I wanted to express the idea that life is resilient and keeps going. To photograph only the water and grass wouldn’t have relayed that message, but getting low and framing the lechwe behind the grass created both a pleasing frame and a narrative about animals surviving and thriving during the flood season.
Understanding how well attuned our eyes are to picking out animal shapes can also lead to interesting compositions. It’s surprising how tiny an animal can be in the scene and still be the center of attention. One evening at sunset, I noticed some gazelles on the horizon. They were too far away to photograph using a more conventional composition, but I found that silhouetting them among the Acacia trees allowed me to capture the feeling of the end of the day in East Africa. It also allowed me to slightly underexpose the sky to render the colored clouds even more dramatically.
Filling The Frame
The unique size and shape of giraffes make them instantly recognizable, and the most obvious reaction to being close to one is, “Wow, so tall!” The typical way to portray that height is to place the giraffe next to a smaller animal or a tree to create a sense of scale. I tried a few different compositions and settings to find something more artistic to express the magnitude of this animal but wasn’t getting exactly what I wanted. The silhouette idea developed as I played with the framing of the shot. I filled the entire image with the silhouette of the giraffe and the texture in the cloud because those are the major elements of the story; everything else is unimportant. The final result is a photograph that implies giraffes are so tall that they live up in the clouds.
Working With Difficult Light
The graphic nature of a silhouette offers interesting options when the light is tough—and it also works well when the animal is smaller in the frame. I wouldn’t typically have photographed this olive baboon because of the harsh midday light, but after I spent a few minutes watching him move around the tree, I realized I could still tell this story by changing my settings and capturing only his outline against the bright sky. This high-contrast shot resulted in an abstract pattern that shows the animal in his natural habitat. I’ve also used this same technique successfully when photographing birds.
Rising Above It All
The emergence of drones as a photographic tool has created a new option for graphic wildlife images. However, not all African parks and conservancies allow drones, so I made this aerial shot of a herd of antelope from a helicopter. No matter how you get your camera up in the air, the key is to photograph when the sun is relatively low in the sky to create the long shadows that make thought-provoking visuals—some abstract, some less so. If you find a group of animals together, make sure to pay attention to the entire scene and aim for a composition where there’s enough room between the animals, so the shadows are spaced out and not overlapping.
To convey a feeling of movement or action in wildlife, one of my favorite techniques is panning. Using a slower shutter speed, pan the camera to track the animal to create a sense of movement in the frame and to isolate the subject; the background and anything other than the moving animal become a blur. Stop down your aperture to ƒ/8 and adjust your ISO so that your shutter speed is at 1/15 sec. Once I’ve figured out my exposure, I put my camera into manual mode and lock in my settings.
When you locate your moving subject, get it in focus and start tracking it with the camera. Once your panning feels smooth, gently press the shutter and keep the panning motion going throughout the shot. If you’re using a mirrorless camera, turning on the electronic shutter keeps the viewfinder from going black during the exposure to help keep the subject stable in the frame. You can also put the focus point over a specific spot on the animal and keep it there for the entire shot.
This is the most technical of all the methods in this article, and it takes practice to get comfortable with it, but you can practice at home on pets, moving vehicles, bicyclists and runners, or whatever else is in your neighborhood.
Embrace The Experimental
Photographing wildlife can be intimidating, but if you’re willing to take the time to experiment and exercise your creativity, it can be a fun way to add unique images to your portfolio. I understand the feeling of not wanting to miss a shot by trying different techniques, but I’ve found that the gamble pays off. I have a friend who completely converted to being a motion-only photographer after accidentally making a panning image that she—and her Instagram followers—fell in love with. You never know until you try.
See more of Jon McCormack’s work at jonmccormack.com.