Wildlife Photo Impact

Tips and insights for creating dynamic portraits of wildlife

A polar bear emerges above the ice, Barter Island, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.

Technological advancements and improved lens design are making wildlife images more popular than ever. More photographers are “flocking” to their nearest national parks and beyond to experience, make connections with and capture the wild creatures with whom we share this planet. And with the environmental challenges many of these species face just for survival, the collective photos we make might be all we have as mementos of their existence one day in the future, unfortunately.

Most photographers understand that in order to capture wildlife subjects successfully, you must possess technical skill, patience and some specialized gear for even the most basic image or static portrait of a wild creature, but it takes imagination and artistry to capture wildlife images that stir the soul and make a real impact on the viewer.

The following 10 tips will help you do just that—create more impactful wildlife images beyond the conventional animal portrait and help your wildlife images better connect with your viewers on an emotional level as well.

Use Dramatic Backlighting

Wildlife images: cape fur seal

Cape fur seal in backlighting, Cape Cross Seal Reserve, Namibia.

I remember after purchasing my first camera, I sat down and read the manual from front cover to back. One bit of actual photography advice it offered was to keep the sun over your back shoulder at all times. In other words, make sure your subject is front-lit.

This was sage advice for the beginner that I was, since the light at this angle would evenly illuminate the subject, the metering would be accurate, and I wouldn’t have to worry about flare and ghosting, either. But the results, over time, become boring and predictable. In order to add drama and emotional impact to my wildlife images, I began looking for alternate lighting situations for more impactful wildlife portraits—especially backlighting.

Backlighting occurs when your subject is directly between you and the light source, typically the sun. If the animal or bird has translucent fur or feathers, a brilliant glowing rim light can be captured around the outline of your wildlife subject, which is both mysterious and visually striking. You should watch for possible underexposure issues (I always overexpose by at least one stop if I want to retain detail in the shadowed areas), autofocus difficulties (place your AF point on a clear contrast edge), and sun flare when shooting back-lit subjects. For best results, you need a bright, sunny day during early or late hours when the angle of the sun is low.

Try Long Exposures

Wildlife Images: zebras running blurred by slow shutter speed

Zebras running across the Serengeti Plains, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

Animals on the move or birds in flight offer excellent opportunities for panning the camera to demonstrate motion in an expressive fashion. While a faster shutter speed will freeze action or movement, a slower option allows the viewer’s eye to follow the flow of motion naturally.

For camera panning, I prefer to use Shutter Priority mode since I am seeking a specific shutter speed. I start with 1/15 sec. and adjust if necessary: slightly faster exposures for rapidly moving animals and longer exposures for those that are slower. Swing your torso smoothly as you begin focus-tracking your subject well before you start shooting. Gently hold down the shutter release (in continuous AF mode), taking many images in succession. Follow through with your tracking even after you stop taking photos to ensure the last image in the series will be smooth. The best results are when the animal is moving 90 degrees from the direction you and your camera are pointed.

Wildlife subjects that are perfectly still but have elements of movement within the scene—like moving water or blowing leaves—can also be captured with a slow shutter speed to help create a more impactful image than a faster option.

Dynamic Compositions

wildlife images: trio of puffins

A trio of Atlantic puffins along the cliffs at Dyrhólaey in southern Iceland.

Wildlife photography should be approached just like any other genre, with an emphasis on working with magical light and creating strong compositions. And while I’ve noticed wildlife shooters will put great effort into seeking the best light possible for their wildlife subjects, the same effort is absent when it comes to compelling, dynamic compositions and image design. Unfortunately, sometimes just capturing the animal in tack-sharp focus and in flattering light is good enough.

To truly elevate the quality of your images so they make a more powerful impact with your audience, look to the same compositional tools and concepts you would when capturing landscapes: use lines, shapes, patterns and space to achieve a pleasing aesthetic. With all the urgency and excitement of the moment, this can be difficult, but it will help set your image apart from the many other average wildlife portraits out there.

Go Wide

Wildlife images: giraffes in Africa

Giraffes under a big savanna sky, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

The initial impulse of too many wildlife photographers is to grab that big telephoto lens in the bag, zoom in as tightly as possible on their subject and fill the frame from corner to corner. After all, that super-tele costs a pretty penny, and it would make a poor investment if it just remained in the bag, right?

Instead, be mindful of your subjects’ habitat and environment by looking above and beyond the camera’s viewfinder. Do these elements help tell a compelling story about the animal’s daily life? Do the surroundings contribute to a stronger overall composition than the conventional close up? The answer is probably yes more often than you think, especially if you’re not paying attention to what’s around you and your general awareness is limited to the fractional angle-of-view offered by a 500mm lens. Keep a second camera body with an attached 24-105mm lens (or something similar) nearby for wider wildlife opportunities when they present themselves.

Show Gesture In Your Wildlife Images

Gentoo penguins, Paradise Bay, Antarctica.

An effective way to create wildlife images that have real impact with your viewers and go beyond the stiff wildlife portrait is to wait for your subject to display a gesture of some kind. A good working definition of gesture is “a movement of part of the body that expresses some idea or meaning.” Capturing gesture at a very precise moment—the decisive moment, as Henri Cartier-Bresson would say—and freezing that moment forever is what makes photography such a powerful, impactful medium.

Gesture through physical expression can be interaction between animals, hunting or mating behavior, playing or simply a yawn or a stretch. Success in capturing animal gesture depends not only on a great deal of patience and waiting for something interesting to happen but also extensive knowledge of a certain species habits and natural tendencies. Wait for the decisive moment, and be ready.

Get A Low Perspective

Galápagos giant tortoise on Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos Archipelago, Ecuador.

There are very few instances when using a downward shooting angle for wildlife works better than getting low and gaining a level vantage point. In fact, shooting downward is the absolute worst perspective when it comes to photographing wildlife. Psychologically, it’s condescending and authoritative, implying dominance over the subject instead of equality and acceptance (eye-level perspective) or respect and exaltation (an upward angle). A lower, eye-to-eye connection between animal and lens makes it much easier for the viewer of the image to relate to and connect with your subject.

Additionally, a low shooting angle will likely provide a cleaner, less cluttered background than a downward angle, giving your subject more visual impact by creating spatial separation between the two and making the animal subject “pop” off the screen.

Use Effective Negative Space

Giraffes reflected in sunset light, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

Negative space is the empty area that surrounds your wildlife subject. If you think of your primary subject as positive space, the negative space is everything else inside the image frame. The negative space is every bit as important as the subject itself, since it helps to define the boundaries of the space occupied by the subject and creates balance.

If there’s not enough negative space, the subject of your photo will feel cramped and crowded by the edges of the frame. Too much negative space, and the image is out of balance in the opposite way; the wildlife subject will get lost in the overwhelming amount of sky or background. There are occasions when you can use this overabundance of extra space to help create a story or set a mood. The image at the beginning of this article of the polar bear with the excess negative space and sky adds a feeling of loneliness or despair, which, in this case as an example, can be used in a story about climate change or wildlife conversation.

Don’t Chase Wildlife

It’s only natural that wild animals are going to be averse to your presence. Ideally, they wouldn’t even know you exist at all, and you become proverbial fly on the wall, silently observing and capturing photos while having absolutely no impact on their behavior. Unfortunately, that’s usually not the case; the animals either accept your presence or they flee. If the latter occurs, do not under any circumstance chase them.

Chasing or closely following any wild animal, at any rate, is putting too much stress on it and should never be a part of your wildlife photography strategy. Artistically speaking, capturing an image of the animal’s posterior as it flees is not the aesthetic you should be aiming for as a wildlife photographer. You should put yourself in a position where your subject is approaching you, is comfortable or unaware of your presence, and not running or flying in the opposite direction. In most cases, if I can’t see at least one of their eyes—the key to making a connection between your subject and your viewership—I’m not making a photo.

Anticipate The Action

Zebras, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

Hockey great Wayne Gretzky once explained that he doesn’t skate to where the puck is but instead where he believes it’s going to be, a perfect metaphor for anticipation in wildlife photography.

An example of how you can anticipate rather than react: If I’m on safari and there is a group of zebras moving across the savannah, instead of following or riding alongside trying to get the odd or awkward photo, I’ll ask my guides where they think they’re going. They probably have a good idea and might respond by saying that there is a water hole over the hill or a shade tree where they will likely be taking their midday nap. There might be a river crossing along the way where they might need to jump or swim. I’d rather set up near the destination and wait for them to come to me so I can be ready.

Rarely do I create a good wildlife image by merely reacting and pressing the shutter release. I need to know what is going to happen in advance so everything, including myself, is ready when it actually does. How is the light going to illuminate the subject and scene? Where should I position myself for the most dramatic results? What type of behavior might come next if XYZ happens? Think ahead and anticipate, don’t react.

Be A Better Naturalist: Know Your Subject

There may be no more important preparation for wildlife shooters than knowing as much as humanly possible about the habits and behaviors of the animal species you plan on photographing. As an example, large birds and waterfowl always take off and land into the wind. That sort of information might be important when deciding where to stand for take-offs and landings. Other important details to know include the animal’s food sources and where it’s available, when and where does hunting or regular feeding take place, migration patterns, breeding habits and the time of year it occurs. All this information is important not only for finding and anticipating specific animal behavior but also for planning your trip as well. Bottom line: You can never know too much about your photography subjects.

Embrace The Mystery

A mountain lion peering through the trees, Height of the Rockies Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada.

I believe, whenever it is possible, in creating a little mystery in my images, particularly with wildlife subjects. I do this by purposely holding back a little from the viewer, teasing them and offering only part of the whole story. Taking a mediocre wildlife image is almost too easy: Find an animal in its entirety, in good front lighting, wait until it stares blankly into the camera and expose it correctly. All the information the viewer could ever want is in the photo. There is no mystery.

I would rather engage and challenge my viewers to make them active participants and not merely just a passive audience. By omitting some important information and using visual metaphors, you just beg your viewers to complete the puzzle and stir their collective imaginations. Hide some of your subject behind visual obstacles or use shadows and reflections as proxies to the literal animal subject. Author and artist Julia Cameron once wrote that, “Mystery is at the heart of creativity,” and I agree. Embrace the mystery. 


See more of Richard Bernabe’s work at richardbernabe.com.