Despite all the recent photowalks shooting urban ephemera, my primary interest in photography was always wildlife and animal photography.
Forests of trees have been sacrificed to literature on this subject, and I accept with all humility that I may not have any earth-shattering technical insights to offer here. There have been plenty of excellent articles on this site alone about wildlife photography and the equipment one can use in its pursuit.
But elsewhere I have seen too many photos of wildlife and animals that have been captured simply because they were there. As laudable as they are, the most inspiring images for me are where the subject engaged me and caught my imagination, giving me a more profound relationship with it and enhancing my viewing experience.
Of course I am not an expert on the subject and would never claim to be. Nor will I wax lyrical about telephoto lenses and shutter speeds. This is an ideological submission in which I hope to reflect on a desire to capture something special, albeit sometimes typical, about wildlife.
This does not happen just by turning up, of course. All the usual advice applies. Learning about the animal and its behaviour; being in the right place at the right time; having a great deal of patience and reverence for the animal you wish to photograph, the last of those being most important. More than anything, however, since wildlife can be as unpredictable as we are, a tremendous amount of luck is involved too!
There may not be a special methodology or killer tip to producing engaging wildlife images, but I believe lighting plays a big part. How the animal is lit in relation to its surroundings can have a profound impact in how we perceive and relate to it. Even a silhouette can express the animal’s presence or character. I remember one of the winning images of WPOTY one year was merely a partial sunlit outline of a polar bear. Just a short, single orange line on a black background, but you knew immediately what it was; profound through its simplicity.
Behaviour is always satisfying to capture, and this may be an exercise in waiting for the subject to do something! It may be as subtle as a parent reassuring its young or as dramatic as two polar bears having a fight. Patience leads to opportunity, and then the unpredictability of behaviour, in all honesty, begets a flurry of shots, hoping that one of them will capture a decisive moment.
Again, knowledge of your subject will help understand their activity. For example, most big cats sleep during the day, so getting a decent shot of them being active usually involves waiting until the light is waning. Seals are very anthropomorphic in their gestures, and lend themselves to great captions.
As previous articles have suggested, rendering in black and white can remove the distraction of colour to create more impact and imposition through the clarity of lines, shapes or expression.
Another factor is eye contact. Now, I would never advocate confronting or disturbing a wild animal just to get a photo! Please don’t do that! But if you are lucky enough to win your subject’s curiosity from afar then it’s worth taking the shot at the peak of their glare. Eye contact will personalise the viewer’s experience by reeling them into the animal’s world.
One important consideration, which Nasim has rightly reinforced many times, is the post-processing. Understandably, most people would want to see wildlife in its natural glory, without any manipulation or need for enhancement. Wildlife rarely needs any make-up! But at the same time, the camera doesn’t know how you as an individual wish to represent the subject. Perhaps selective dodging and burning, or better contrast and colour can truly project the subject to the viewer.
To be sure, as many of my images have been captured of animals in captivity as they have in the wild, but usually the same rules on capturing an image apply. It is good practice to try to frame the subject in a way that belies its captive environment.
Many people, including myself, have been attacked for presenting images that were taken in captivity, as if that somehow diminished the aesthetic quality of the animal. While seeing an animal in its natural habitat is rewarding, I have stated on my blog many times that I am not claiming to offer a commentary on any animal’s environment. I simply want to capture its aesthetic and promote a greater appreciation of it through the image. I have also stated many times that I would gladly give up the opportunity to photograph any animal if its safety in the wild and protection against humans was guaranteed. Of course we know this will never be true. Soon, many of the iconic species we take for granted, such as tigers, rhino, sharks and orang-utans will become extinct in the wild. A shameful indictment on humankind’s behaviour.
Furthermore, creating engaging images of animals, wherever they may be, can surely only enhance the viewer’s appreciation of them, and perhaps promote and contribute to conservation efforts. Getting closer to the animal will help procure images that fill the frame and are more dramatic. I understand the reservations that people have with captivity, and they are entirely valid. I have been lucky enough to visit many of the top wildlife parks in the world, and almost all achieved that status by giving their animals plenty of space and enrichment. Not the same as freedom in the wild, of course, but still cared for with compassion.
Well, I hope my images here, taken both in the wild and in captivity, demonstrate that in either case it is possible to represent the beauty of life on Earth. I also hope they reflect on my commitment to capture wildlife in a way that invokes the viewer’s sympathy and compassion for the animal. Thank you for reading.
All the images you see in this article were taken with the Nikkor 70-200mm F/2.8 VRII, with or without teleconverters, and on various bodies. You can see more of my wildlife images here.