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How to Take Impacting Portraits of Wildlife

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by WILL NICHOLLS

Do you want your wildlife photographs to make people say “wow!”? Creating an impact like that in a photo is no easy feat. It takes time, patience and luck. An impacting portrait aims to draw people’s attention straight to the animal in the image, so they feel that they are in your shoes looking at it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve put together these top tips to help you achieve the wow-factor.

These points are by no means rules that should be applied to every photograph, but they can really work for some portraits.

Catchlight

If you look at a portrait of an animal, it is likely to have a catchlight in the eye. This is that small, white light in the black pupil caused by reflected light. This tiny feature can create a huge amount of impact by bringing “life” to the image.

There is no definitive way of achieving this, as you can’t position the sun and your subject perfectly for obvious reasons. Even so, avoid shadow being cast directly over an animal’s face, and you are likely to see a catchlight appear.

Eye Contact

Creating eye contact with wildlife in your photo instantly grabs the viewer’s attention. Usually, the composition will then lend to breaking the “rule of thirds”. Don’t worry though, as rules are made to be broken.

If you’re finding it tough to get an animal to look down the lens, try making a small squeaking sound or snap a twig. It won’t send anything running away but will cause them to look up in an alert, and usually, that involves staring straight at where the sound came from.

Get Down to Eye Level

You’ve probably heard it time and time again, but getting onto the same eye level as your subject really adds to a photo. Even if it’s just a couple of feet lower, the difference can be huge. It changes the sense of perspective and is something I try to achieve in the majority of my photographs.

Humans are much taller than a huge number of animals, so it often involves getting down on the ground. Don’t be afraid to get muddy, as the results will be worth it. If you need to, lay flat on your stomach, even if you’re in a muddy field. Clothes can be washed, and you want to ensure you maximize the impact of your photo.

Close-up

It often helps to almost fill the frame with your subject for impact. When applying the above points, keep the animal center in the frame and zoom in. The viewer has nowhere else to look, and for that reason further draws their attention.

Capture Character

This is probably the hardest thing to achieve that is written in this tutorial. The real secret to impacting images is the character they capture. Most species have been photographed again and again, but the best photos show off the “personality” of an animal.

This may sound ambitious to achieve, but they can occasionally seem to show different expressions. With practice and learning behavioral traits, you will begin to know exactly when to press the shutter to freeze that moment in time.

That’s the real key, on top of everything mentioned above, to make somebody say “wow”. If you are showing someone your photos and they say something as simple as “it looks so happy”, then you know that you’ve succeeded in capturing its character.

Experiment with Light

Try to capture something unique by experimenting with different lighting conditions. Side-lighting can look very attractive, or maybe even rim-lighting your subject. By underexposing the image greatly, the edges of an animal with fur will be lit up, showing off its shape. This will work if your subject is backlit.

Final Thoughts

It is important to remember that whilst these points do apply to a lot of situations when shooting portraits, there is no perfect formula for every situation. Developing your own style over time, you’ll get to know when, and when not, to apply some of these points.


Will Nicholls is the founder of Nature TTL and a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from England. Having been photographing since the age of 12, Will’s images have won a string of awards, including the title of “Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year” in 2009 from the British Wildlife Photography Awards. Will is also the author of the book On the Trail of Red Squirrels.

 

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