Wildlife Photography: Forms and Purpose
The art of wildlife photography elevates simple snapshots to images that grab the viewer’s attention and make a visual and emotional connection. Wildlife images that have the ‘WOW’ factor are not just the result of fortuitous timing. Although luck plays a part, patience and skill all contribute to the impact of the final image.
Making a Visual Connection with Your Wildlife Subject
Bird on a stick and snapshot are some of the common criticisms levelled at wildlife photographers’ work by competition judges. There can be little doubt that capturing a bird on a stick, or anywhere else, can require a combination of both luck and skill. Any wildlife subject can be challenging, and capturing them at their best involves some fortuitous timing. Many of these shots are of beautiful animals, outstandingly sharp and perfectly isolated from the background. Why do these images fail to impress judges, and why is it any different from capturing human portraits.
The answer lies in the connection made between the viewer and the subject. In human portraiture, the photographer working with a person or a group of people can communicate and motivate their subject to interact with the camera. This interaction translates to the viewer as if they are connecting directly with the subject of the photograph. Many ‘bird on a stick’ or wildlife snapshots fail to engage the viewer or elicit an emotional response from the audience. There is a difference between a photo of a beautiful bird and a beautiful photo of a bird.
For me, animal photography falls into three categories: recordings, observations, and images that engage the viewer through eye contact. Record shots are a valid form of animal photography, and many wildlife publications are filled with excellent examples of precisely that. They record the physical attributes of an animal and possibly something about its habits and the environment in which it is lives. The subject should be sharp and well exposed to be considered a good record shot.
By observations, I mean that the viewer becomes a spectator in the subject’s life. In this case, the animal or animals are not engaging directly with the camera. Like many record shots, some may not inspire much engagement from the audience and can have a snapshot appearance, but a great wildlife photograph of this kind would put the viewer right there in the scene.
An outstanding image conveys a sense of place or a mood. It may capture the drama and excitement of a moment in time, an intimate moment, or a definitive moment in the subjects’ lives. The image may communicate something we didn’t already know about the animal or a close-up detail that we haven’t seen, and it grabs the viewer’s attention. These photographs have the ‘WOW’ factor, holding a viewer’s attention for much longer than a record shot.
The third type of image engages the viewer personally, making a direct connection through eye contact with the camera. For wildlife photography aimed at raising awareness of wildlife issues, there can be no more powerful tool. In making an intimate connection, the animal becomes an individual worthy of our attention, concern, and preservation.
WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY >
Shooting Low, Shooting Wide
So how do you step up from snapshots to images that engage the audience and elicit an emotional response? To begin with, consider your perspective when positioning yourself to take your shot.
Many animals are smaller than us. Angling your lens down on a subject often brings the background much closer to the subject, adding to the image’s visual clutter. In this circumstance, it can be challenging to isolate the hero of the subject from the background. Of course, the subject matter can dictate whether you want isolation or not. An example would be a photo that shows how well some owls camouflage with their surroundings. Even in this case, something in the image like the eyes needs to capture the viewer’s attention.
By lowering your perspective, two things happen. With fully extended telephoto lenses frequently used for wildlife, compression results in a nicely blurred background that isolates the subject. This blur is due to the magnification of the area behind the animal, and it can give the appearance of a very shallow depth of field. The longer the focal length, the greater the background’s magnification and the closer objects appear to the subject. The foreground also compresses by getting low to the ground, blurring unattractive and undesirable foreground elements.
For this technique to be effective, the animal needs to be out in the open. There needs to be some space between its position and the background, and you need to make sure you are using the long end of the lens if you are using a telephoto lens. Of course, you don’t need to be shooting from a low perspective to use focal length to help isolate your subject from background clutter.
I took the three images below of the same bird at three different focal lengths by zooming the lens in. Photos one and two were taken at 140mm at f5.6 and 280mm at f7.1 respectively and cropped to show the same area. The third is at 560mm at f8. Despite the aperture being smaller, the depth of field when the lens zooms in appears much shallower. This effect is due to the magnification of the background. In the first two photos, the bokeh behind the bird is smaller, more defined, appears further away and competes with the subject.
The second thing that happens as you lower your perspective is that the subject becomes part of the environment. By shooting lower and wide, you can tell a better story by including the animal’s habitat. Shooting wide doesn’t mean that you need to turn your wildlife photos into landscapes, but it helps create a setting for your subject. For instance, water is an essential part of the life of waterbirds. Including water gives context to the subject matter of your image.
Including some background can help show the light and set the mood for your story. Allow your photographs some room to breathe and some space to draw the eye into the subject.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
The excitement of getting your subject in frame and focus can often stop the photographer from seeing the bigger picture and noticing distracting objects in the final image. Of course, you may be able to remove the offending items afterwards in post-processing, but this would disqualify the final image from many nature photography competitions and is never as good as getting it right in the first place.
The eye is drawn to bright areas, so look for things in the scene that distract the viewer’s attention away from the subject or compete with it. In the following image of a White-faced Heron, there is some white debris behind the heron’s head. In this situation, either shift your position slightly to avoid the area or be patient and wait for the animal to move.
In the next image of a Rainbow Bee-eater, a branch in the foreground partially obscures the tree limb the bird is on. Remember to look at the foreground as well as the background. If you are concerned that you will miss the shot, ask yourself what you will do with the final image. When you have taken many thousands of photos, you become more selective in what you keep. I kept these photos as they demonstrated my point well, but I would generally delete images like these, or better still, not take them in the first place!
Looking past your subject at everything in the viewfinder will also help you learn to see and read your camera settings. Noticing your camera settings will help you to make rapid adjustments to your exposure.
Be Patient, Be Prepared
While luck plays a part, patience is one of the essential prerequisites of being a wildlife photographer. If you haven’t got the patience to wait for your subject to move into a suitable position, you are unlikely to capture those definitive moments that make a ‘WOW’ shot. Understanding something about your target’s behaviour will help you prepare for the type of image you hope to capture. The more often you go out looking to shoot, the more you will understand animal behaviour, which will help you prepare to capture that moment.
When you take up a position, you should ensure that your camera settings are suitable for the location. In my last article, I suggested exposing for the bright areas in the scene or animal to avoid blowing your highlights. Take advantage of any time you have available to sort that out.
Are you expecting your animals to take flight or dart suddenly? If so, make sure your shutter speed is as high as you can go, considering your aperture and ISO. If possible, I like to have a shutter speed of 1/2000 sec or preferably higher if there is a chance of flight or rapid movement. Often, this is not possible without the ISO climbing to unacceptable levels. Some cameras do a much better job at high ISO, so there is no hard and fast rule on how high ISO can go.
Focus modes for wildlife require a separate article to be fully understood, so I will only cover the basics here.To begin with, make sure you are using the correct focusing mode. For animals that are rarely still, you need to use continuous focusing modes such as AI Servo for Canon users and AF-C for Nikon users.
For portraits where eye contact is crucial, single point focus will ensure that you achieve focus on the eyes. For flight shots or shots of fast-moving animals, small dynamic groups of focus points will make it easier to track the animal.
At all times, your conduct in the field should be ethical and not interfere with the natural behaviour of the animals you are trying to capture.
The art of wildlife photography is a powerful and valuable tool in raising awareness of conservation issues, helping people to see the beauty and value in wildlife. While the technical aspects of a wildlife shot contribute to the final image’s success, many other factors combine to create the “WOW” shot.
Luck, composition, skilled post-processing, and the photographer’s creative eye all play a part in elevating a simple snapshot to the art of wildlife photography. For the photographer, the combination of skill and artistic vision is a journey that develops over time and has no definitive end.
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