Text & Photography By Russ Burden
Animal portrait photography is a challenge. Whether you photograph a pet, a wildlife subject or make grab shots, numerous factors determine the outcome of the image. If you photograph people, you have the luxury to move the subject to an advantageous location, instruct them to turn their head a certain way and schedule a session to be at a location when the light is optimum. If you photograph pets, you can control some of these variables. If wildlife is your focus, to capture a great animal portrait you’re at the mercy of where the animal wants to be, how it holds its head, what the background is and if it decides to show up. This is the challenge of the capture and what drives wildlife photographers to get the ultimate photo. The challenge keeps them motivated. Here are some tips for success to help keep you motivated when trying to photograph wildlife in the wild.
Use Backlight: Most animal photographs are made using front light. Understandably, it best shows off the animal. Use it, but don’t be afraid to add diversity to your portfolio. At sunrise and sunset, look for subjects where the light comes from behind. If the animal has fur, a warm glow surrounds its perimeter. Look for animals that have interesting shape and form. The more intriguing the outline, the better the photo. Birds with long beaks, elephants with large tusks, horses with flailing tails and bull elk with large antlers make great subjects.
Focus on the Eye: Depth of field is critical when you make animal portraits. Long lenses are often used and the more telephoto the lens, the less inherent depth of field. Given the limited depth of field, it’s imperative you focus on the eye. The eye is the key element in the photo. Be sure to move the active focus point so it hovers over it. If the animal moves, move the focus point with it.
Environmental Portraits: An environmental portrait shows the habitat in which the animal resides. An important decision to make is how much environment to include versus how large the animal appears. Environmental animal images don’t necessitate the use of a long lens, the subject doesn’t need to be as close and if the subject isn’t in peak shape, it can be disguised. To successfully pull off an environmental portrait, the light has to be good on both the animal and the scene. Additionally, the environment has to be clean and photographically pleasing. So, while a long lens isn’t required to make an environmental portrait, other aspects need to fall into place for it to be successful.
The zoo is a great place to capture animal portraits. Some of the above variables apply in addition to a few not yet mentioned. A guarantee is the animal will be there, but will it be in the best part of its enclosure? If you head to the zoo to make animal portraits, incorporate the following tips.
Light: Go early and late in the day for the best light. You’ll also avoid most of the crowds. Go on bright overcast days as the light is soft and shadowless.
Fences: Use wide-open apertures and put your lens right up to the fence to help throw it out of focus.
Flash: Flash works great when photographing indoor exhibits. Be sure you check the zoo’s regulations and policies about its use. Place the flash and lens up to the glass to eliminate reflections. Since the glass in a zoo often has a green cast, process the RAW file with extra magenta to cancel the color cast.
Action: Wait for the animal to do something. Be it an interesting expression, a yawn, a stretch or anything other than just standing there provides a more dynamic photo.
Technical: Bump your ISO up to stop the action. Shoot wide open to get fast shutter speeds to freeze the motion.
Focus: Place the active focus point on the eye of the animal—focus is critical especially if the aperture is wide open.
Time of Year: Go in the winter as there are fewer people. Go when there’s snow for a different look. Go in the fall to capture the autumn colors in the enclosures.
Backgrounds: The background is equally as important as the subject—try to eliminate distractions through the use of light or where you stand.
Visit www.russburdenphotography.com for information about his nature photography tours and safari to Tanzania.