How to Make Winning Wildlife Portraits

(The following is excerpted from Winning Digital Photo Contests, a new book by Black Star Rising contributor Jeff Wignall.)

Getting your first close-up photograph of a wild animal is kind of like getting your first kiss; you’re often so flustered (not to mention grateful) at the opportunity and so satisfied by the conquest that you lose all critical perspective.

You’ve got the shot, and there’s no denying the evidence. But once the initial thrill has subsided, in order for your photography to grow you must apply a more discerning eye to your images, and find out how you can fine-tune the quality to a higher level.

Moving Beyond Shaky Hands and Sweaty Palms

The first set of criteria for masterful wildlife photos is, naturally, technical. Is the photograph perfectly sharp, or (as with that first kiss) did you get shaky hands and sweaty palms? Is the exposure dead-on? Did you have the white balance set correctly, and were you using the optimum ISO and file size?

For your photos to compete with photos from other more experienced wildlife shooters, they must be technically flawless. Anything less than a perfect execution gives a contest judge an excuse for moving on to the next image.

Just as important as technique, however, are aesthetics. Your animal photos must be beautiful. Even though your subject is probably moving, wary, far away, and just as nervous as you are, you have to find a way to slow your pulse enough to compose an interesting, if not elegant image. You must be hyper-aware of the animal’s environment and its visual surroundings so that you can quickly — almost instinctively — design an image that is not only a great natural history example but a classic, winning photograph.

Wildlife Portrait Checklist

Here is a checklist of important considerations:

  • Is the background simple and unobtrusive?
  • Does the animal’s pose look natural and refined?
  • Have you restricted depth of field in order to isolate the subject?
  • Is the animal positioned in the frame in an interesting way?
  • Does it seem alert and attentive to its surroundings?

Very often, creating a beautiful wildlife portrait means patiently waiting for the perfect moment — and giving up shots even if the animal is close enough for an acceptable documentary photo.

Richard hahn - SolitarySurvey_0021

In his notes for this superb photograph of an elk shot in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park [above], photographer Richard Hahn lists these factors that made him shoot at this precise moment: “Bright overcast sky, calm winds, no harsh shadows, animal in perfect position, and in a good pose.” Though he shot 32 images of the animal that day, he says that only two were what he calls “special” images.

And it’s the special images that you’re after. So while it’s exciting to get close to a wild animal — especially one as beautiful as this elk — it’s vital that you bring all of your photographic skills to the table. Do that and judges will find it impossible to turn away from your photos.

One Response to “How to Make Winning Wildlife Portraits”

  1. I would think shaky hands wouldn't be that much of a problem because most of the time lenses needed to get shots like the elk shot will be 400mm+ and are going to be on at least a monopod, no?

    I too feel background makes or breaks a wildlife shot. Here in Florida you can see Great Blue Heron's all over the place, so photographing one is not a rare occurrence, but getting one with a nice clean and appealing background is.

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