10 tips for better wildlife portraits

Portraiture with humans can be challenging...  setting up the lighting, making sure the scene is perfect, posing the subject, and then re-shooting until you get it perfect. Now with wildlife, we generally don't have control of ANY of these things, and as such, makes it amazingly difficult. So, here are some of my tips to get better wildlife portraits.

I. You need to know your subject

Knowing your subject is key to firstly finding them, and using their behavior to make sure you are in the best place at the right time. But I'm not going to talk about this here, I want to point out that the best portraits (of anyone or anything) are those that capture the character of the subject. This can only be done if you know your subject. So if you want a good portrait then read up a bit about the subject.

II. It's all in the eye

This is key for all wildlife photography in general, but more so for portraits. Us humans automatically look at eyes, and are generally the focal point of any portrait... They are so important I could probably write a whole post about them on their own.

  1. Eye contact - You need to be making eye contact with the subject so that the viewer can connect.
  2. In Focus - The eye needs to literally be the focal point of the image...  this is what you should be focusing on with your camera and it needs to be sharp. If it is not, it will not work as a portrait.
  3. Catch light - This is the little light reflection you can get in the eye of your subject. It sounds like a small detail, but without it, your subject will look part of the walking dead. You need to get a good catch light.
  4. At eye level - This is again a general rule for all wildlife and nature photography, but you want to be shooting at eye level with your subject. Avoid shooting up or down.  If your subject is on the ground, you should be there too. If they are up high...  climb! :)

III. Pre-visualise

Generate a rough idea of what you want, then you can make sure you are in the right place for it...

For example...  I wanted a head-on shot of a tiger with a sunset in the background. I know big ask, but go big or go home! :)

in order to try to get this, I had to listen for warning calls, and make sure I was ahead of where the tiger came out, then hope it followed us...  considering tigers are more active around sunset/sunrise time, it was only a matter of time until this paid off and it happened when there was a sunset and we were going east...  it's not how I imagined it would be, but because I had thought about it in advance, I could capitalise on my pre)visualisation and shoot. In this case, I had to change lens from a 500 to a 70-200, and shoot at 70mm to get the shot.

Read this and/or this for more information!

IV. Patience

Sigh... As I said, we can't actually direct a wild subject to pose like this, lift it's head like that, hold-it...  maybe over their might be better? So you need to be patient. If you want that big cat to be looking at you, set up the shot, make sure everything is ready, then sit and wait... and wait.... and wait some more probably! :)

This is particularly important for get a catch light in the eyes...  Just wait until the subject moves it's head to get it. this only works if the sun is remotely behind you though... 

V. Be opportunistic

Fine, I've just spent the last n tips talking about how important it is to get prepared for the shot you want to take...  but given our general lack of control of conditions, this shot may never happen, so you have to be prepared to be opportunistic...  While your waiting for that tiger, there may be a Gaur just sitting behind you in a very nice light! So, stay focused on the goal, but don't loose sight of other opportunities! :)

VI. Get closer and go wide

If you can, the closer you can get the better...  and with this, you can go wider too...  this level of closeness is great for a different perspective and a more intimate shot.

16mm shot with a remote...  just left my camera in the path of the Tahr and hoped it would come that way.

VII. Beware of the background/foreground

The background and foreground of an image can enhance or distract of the image as a whole, so be careful about it. Don't just focus on your subject (figuratively of course), but check that there is nothing distracting in the foreground or background. It may be that you have to move sightly to remove it.

VIII. Put them in context

Your subject is in the wild, so show that, this is often called an environmental portrait. You may find that you do a lot of these kind of portraits until you get the perfect conditions for the ideal shot, but they are not just practice and really make for some of the most compelling images...  just check out any prize winning image, you will often see that the subjects environment is key to the image. So, don't fight the fact you are not in a studio setting, utilise it to tell a deeper story!

IX. Creative composition (aka ignore everything)

There are many compositional rules and tips (including all of mine) that are good, but never cover every situation...  so experiment, ignore them and try different things...  sometimes it works out for the best! :)

X. Get creative

Generally when it comes to post-processing, i am in the mindset that less is more. However, this does not restrict me from going all-out from time to time when it is required... Not having a private zoo, or correspondingly large studio, getting studio like images of wild animals is not easy, but with the right processing, you can create some nice images. So don't be afraid to get creative! See here for more information of my Wild ART series

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