Anyone can take a picture of an animal sitting in front of them. You just press the shutter, and there you have your picture. It’s not hard to get in front of animals nowadays, especially if you are paying for the pleasure – take safaris to Africa, for example. Hop on a plane and into a jeep with a guide, and you’ll find yourself watching lions before long.
The difference between your average holiday-snap wildlife photo and a great photo that makes others look on in awe is significant. How do you bring your photos to life to achieve this? Well, here are some ways to introduce impact into your wildlife photos.
1. Capture a Catch-Light
A catch light is a glint of light in the eye of your subject. If you can get this into your wildlife photos, then you are well on the way to producing a great image. Catch lights are not always possible to capture, but with the correct angle and sufficient zoom you can achieve this.
Calculating the angle of light behind you would be impossible. Instead, work out when you find catch lights appearing. A shot that fills the frame with an animal will often have a catch-light as the eyes appear larger in the picture, giving more ‘space’ for the catch-light to be evident.
2. Be at Eye Level
It’s all in the eyes. If you can get down onto the level of your subject, you will see a huge difference. Even being just a few feet lower than normal will greatly improve your photo – it’s actually surprisingly how much of an effect this has.
Often this will involve getting down and dirty – you definitely shouldn’t wear your best clothes for it. Most animals you’ll be photographing are smaller than you, and you’ll need to stoop to their level so to speak.
Keep your camera low and you’ll bring a new perspective into your photos. You may also find that this benefits the first point in this article about using a catch-light, too.
3. A Beautiful Bokeh
That beautiful bokeh that all wildlife photographers strive for will set your photo apart from the happy snappers’ photographs of animals. Bokeh is determined by four factors:
- Focal length
- Distance of subject to camera
- Distance of subject from camera
- Depth of field
The correct combination of these four factors will allow you to achieve that mushy goodness that is so sought after.
[REWIND: DEPTH OF FIELD, DEMYSTIFIED]
Firstly, a longer focal length will increase the bokeh effect in your photos. This is good news for those with telephoto lenses, but not so much for those shooting on smaller kit lenses. Sorry to break the bad news, but having a telephoto of sorts for bokeh in wildlife is fairly essential. Unless you can get right up to the face of an animal with a wide-angle lens (which you shouldn’t do – you need to adhere to the ethical expectations of wildlife photography), you won’t be able to get a shallow enough depth of field.
The closer the subject is to the camera, the more shallow the depth of field will be at a particular aperture. So get close (but not too close). The further the subject is from the background will help a lot as well.
Finally, your depth of field will play a big factor. Use a wide aperture to achieve a shallow depth of field, meaning less of the scene is in focus. This throws the background into the nice out-of-focus blur that you want it to be. Be careful not to use an aperture that is too wide – bigger is not always better.
4. Experiment with Light
Light is a huge factor in creating a fantastic wildlife photo. The most commonly ‘perfect’ conditions for wildlife photography is a bright, overcast day. The clouds act as a giant diffuser and soften the light in your photos. However, experimenting with more ‘difficult’ lighting conditions can set your photos apart from the rest.
Achieving a beautiful backlit wildlife photo is difficult, but looks incredible when done successfully. This is definitely something to bring your photos to life.
Strong light conditions are perfect for increasing your shutter speed beyond normal levels, and can be used to capture high-speed action shots. If the light is sufficient, you won’t need to boost your ISO too high and can achieve action shots with little noise spoiling the photo.
5. Maintain Eye Contact
If you can get eye contact with an animal in your photos, having it stare straight down the lens, then you will introduce a lot of impact into your photo. It can be difficult to do so, especially if the animal is far away. But animals are naturally curious, and the chances are they will spot you and look straight at you. You just need to be ready, with your finger on the shutter.
Allowing the viewer to look into the eyes of an animal is the perfect way to draw them into a photo and make them say WOW.
About The Guest Contributor
Will Nicholls is a professional wildlife photographer from the UK. He is also the founder of Nature TTL, a website full of free tutorials for nature photographers written by some of the best photographers in the world.