Windows to the wildlife soul
Text and Photos: Diana Andersen, Animalinfo Publications
What is Wildlife Portrait Photography?
Wildlife portrait photography is the art of capturing the essence of a wild animal in an image. Capturing engagement between an animal and the photographer places the audience in the photographer’s shoes, sharing this connection with the person viewing the final image. For those photographers working for conservation, there can be no better way to make your audience care about wildlife.
Record Shot or Portrait?
Many wildlife portraits taken close to a stationary subject fail to impress photography judges. They are generally labelled as record shots because they record the animal’s physical appearance. However, despite the technical skill and difficulty required to capture the image, they don’t engage the audience. In addition, some judges will tell you that the subject needs to be doing one of the three ‘F’s. A photograph worthy of an award requires the animal to be flying/fighting, feeding or fornicating.
From my perspective, I don’t think this is a valid criterion, and it’s not because the subject is difficult to capture. I can’t entirely agree because it suggests that taking an engaging portrait of an animal is impossible, and I know this is not true. There would be outrage if we required human portrait photographers to meet these criteria with their subjects! In addition, there is a portrait category in many wildlife photography competitions that is looking for photographs that capture an animal’s personality or uniqueness in an image.
Wildlife portrait photography is the art of capturing the essence of a wild animal in an image.
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Understanding Your Subject
The saying ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul’ applies to wildlife as much as humans. But what are we hoping to see in the wildlife soul? If you learn to recognize them, many expressions can be captured in wildlife when we achieve a visual connection. Curiosity, fear, playfulness, and watchfulness are among the stories our images can tell. So, we need to prepare to hit the shutter when we see the expression in our subject. To achieve this, we need to learn to read an animal the way we do with humans.
Imagine, for a moment, two children in a classroom. One focuses on the teacher, listening intently and watching as they explain the lesson. Although looking in the same direction, the other is thinking about what they will eat for lunch or what they will do after school. We can picture the difference in our minds because we are human and can read people’s eyes and facial expressions. In short, we can recognize the difference between engagement and someone whose mind is elsewhere just by looking at them.
Portrait and fashion photographers understand the importance of capturing this moment of connection. Consequently, they often encourage engagement from the model with directions such as, look this way or look at me. This moment is also essential for wildlife portraiture but a little more challenging. Unlike humans, wildlife doesn’t take direction well, so we need to learn to recognize that moment as we do with humans and position ourselves to capture it the instant it happens.
We need to learn to recognize that moment of engagement as we do with humans and position ourselves to capture it the instant it happens.
Getting Your Position Right
Our subjects are often far from us, so we are unlikely to connect with the animal personally. However, our telephoto lenses can bring us close to the animal at long focal lengths. Regardless of how well-disguised we are and how quietly we approach the subject, animals are sensitive to disturbance in their immediate environment. Therefore, being prepared to take a shot as you creep closer is an excellent place to start.
Of course, we want the best light on our subject, so that should be your first consideration when choosing your position. In addition, a catchlight in your subject’s eyes is vital, so understanding the direction of the light is essential. A catchlight in the eyes brings your animal to life, and it can be simply waiting for the subject to turn a little or shifting your shooting position slightly.
After positioning yourself, it is often a matter of staying quiet and simply observing. Animals are watchful in general, and with patience, your subject may turn their attention to the camera. By being positioned between the subject and the target of their attention, you can capture that moment of expression. In doing so, your audience can share that moment through the image.
The Importance of Eyes and Ears
A successful portrait image may rely on factors such as shape, outline, and texture in fur and feathers. However, many rely on eye contact so if your image includes the eyes, sharp focus is crucial regardless of the aperture and depth of field. Most digital DSLR and mirrorless cameras will have single-point autofocus, allowing you to pinpoint focus on the eyes. Without it, the autofocus will likely grab the animal’s nose if you use multiple focus points or larger zones.
Your subject should be at eye level as much as possible. Of course, this depends on the animal, so you must adjust your shooting height. A tiny bird or mammal might require laying down on the ground, whereas an elephant would be fine and safer from a vehicle! By connecting with the subject at eye level, we also place the subject into the environment, and the image tells a better story.
Another factor to bear in mind is the position of an animal’s eyes. Human eyes face forward, which is typical of many, but not all, predator species. In contrast, many prey species have eyes on the side of their heads to give them better peripheral vision. Therefore, for wildlife portrait photography, the angle of your subject, relative to the camera, must vary depending on the animal.
Ears can also contribute significantly to expression, so waiting for the position of the animal’s ears to enhance your portrait is beneficial. For example, forward-facing or pricked ears are often appealing to the viewer. However, there is no right or wrong position with ears. It is simply relevant to the expression you wish to capture.
Your shooting height should relate to the size of the animal. A tiny bird requires getting low whereas an elephant would be safer from a vehicle.
Focus Modes and Techniques
I recommend continuous autofocus even though your subject is unlikely to move much. Unlike human models, there is always a chance that an animal will move unexpectedly, causing you to lose focus. For Canon users, continuous AF is known as AI SERVO. On Nikon, the mode is AF-C. Other brands may use a variation on AF-C or C-AF. Most cameras, by default, have autofocus assigned to the shutter button. By pressing the shutter halfway, the camera focuses. When you have achieved focus, fully pressing the shutter button captures the image.
Back Button Focus
Many wildlife photographers use back-button focus, which has advantages over the factory default autofocus method. Firstly, setting up back-button focus separates the two functions. A button on the back of the camera, usually the AF-On button, activates autofocus. The shutter button’s only function then is to capture the image. In addition, back-button focus also allows for the easy recomposing of your portrait shot.
Portrait shots can benefit from having negative space in front of the subject to balance the image, so pressing the focus button will fix your focus point, allowing you to recompose the scene before pressing the shutter and taking the photo.
Alternatively, you can continually autofocus by pressing and holding the back button while using the shutter button to capture the shots. For cameras with the technology, eye-tracking focus with the target set to animals is excellent, but it is not without problems. For instance, it can get confused with very hairy animals or those with pronounced nostrils. However, setting up two forms of back-button focus will help avoid this issue.
With two forms of back-button focus, you can set the AF-On button to use eye-detection focus. You can also program a second button for single-point continuous autofocus, usually alongside the AF button (for example, the * button). Then, if the eye-tracking autofocus struggles to grab focus on the eye, you can switch to the alternative button and tell the camera where you want it to focus.
Isolating Your Subject
One of the best tools we have as photographers is aperture and depth of field. However, understanding the difference between how the lens and our eyes see a subject is essential to use these effectively. Isolating our subject from visual clutter enhances the expression and personality of our animal. Humans have good depth perception, so we see like a lens with a high aperture, such as f/22. However, this depth perception brings both the background and the subject into sharp focus, which competes for our attention. If your lens is capable, by using a low aperture such as f/2.8, we can create an image that removes the distracting background with a soft focus.
Understanding Focal Length
However, the relationship between the subject and the area behind it also impacts the image. For example, even at f/2.8, the background will be busy if an animal is close to a bush. By contrast, the further it is from the objects behind it, the softer the background will be. This effect is due to the magnification of the area behind the animal.
Therefore, if possible, we should aim to place some distance between the subject and the background. Shoot at the most extended focal range of your lens, even if you need to move back to fit your subject into the frame, as this will result in greater background magnification.
As a result, we can often increase the aperture, which will help get more detail in the face by increasing the depth of field. Humans have relatively flat faces, but animals often have longer faces, and birds have beaks that can benefit from a greater depth of field to ensure that more of the head is in focus.
Finally, it is essential to learn to see distractions in your viewfinder. Bright areas at the edge of the frame and objects intersecting your subject can ruin an otherwise successful portrait. Often, all that is required is a shift in your shooting position to avoid unwanted areas in your frame.
Shooting at the longest focal length can allow you to increase the aperture, improving detail in the face by increasing the depth of field. It also creates a softer background due to greater magnification of the area behind your subject.
To help isolate your subject, aim to place some distance between your subject and the background. Shoot at the most extended focal range of your lens as this will result in a softer background with greater magnification.
Of the three exposure variables, shutter speed, aperture and ISO, the aperture would be the most critical for animal portraits due to the importance of depth of field. Ideally, manual exposure is desirable if we have the time to set up our shot. However, if you are worried about missing the shot with birds or animals that may move or depart suddenly, aperture priority or auto ISO may be easier for you, depending on how quickly you are accustomed to changing your settings.
Once you choose your aperture based on the subject and its position, your camera will automatically adjust the shutter or ISO relative to the available light in aperture priority. Reading the settings in your viewfinder is essential to avoid shutter speeds becoming too low or your ISO creeping too high.
Highlight Alert Function
Most digital cameras will have a highlight alert function in their menu system. This function causes bright areas with no detail in the image to blink, a valuable tool to avoid losing critical texture in fur and feathers. Spot metering or partial metering can be excellent for getting the correct exposure for your subject, but it can lead to errors if your animal is dark or bright. Dark subjects can overexpose when using spot metering, and the opposite occurs with very bright or white animals.
Using exposure compensation is essential to achieving the correct exposure for your subject. I have exposure compensation assigned to a dial at the top right of my camera body, so my thumb easily accesses it. However, it would be best to determine what is comfortable and works for you. There is no absolute right or wrong when setting up your camera. In reality, it is a matter of personal choice.
Post-production is a vital part of creating a successful image with digital photography, just as darkroom techniques were in the past. However, unsubtle vignettes, excessive sharpening and clarity, oversaturation, and other processing techniques can ruin an otherwise compelling portrait.
On the other hand, the subtle use of digital manipulation can enhance wildlife portrait photography, drawing the viewer’s attention directly to the eyes of the subject. The goal of the image is to capture the animal’s personality, so identifying the aspects of the photo that tell the story should be the key to your post-production choices.
Seeing the Wildlife Photography Portrait
Wildlife portraiture can have many positive benefits to wildlife conservation by connecting viewers to their wildlife subjects. However, learning camera craft is only part of the skills needed to make this visual connection. Learning to ‘see’ your subject and making your shooting decisions relevant to the story you wish to tell is the key to images that have a visual impact. Whether the animal is common or exotic, capturing a compelling portrait is immensely satisfying, holding your audience’s attention in a visually saturated market.