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6 Tips to Instantly Improve Your Wildlife Photos

Written by Thomas C


Posted on January 12 2019

6 Tips to Instantly Improve Your Wildlife Photos

Wildlife Photographer | Guide | Podcast Host: PhotoCast | Founder of Alotech

Focusing on the Small Details

When you are standing in the field photographing an animal there are so many decisions that you make that either help you photograph a great image or create an average photo. All these little decisions combine have a meaningful impact on your photos. As we all continue to improve as wildlife photographers our focus on the small details in the field improves allowing us to continue to capture better and better images as the years pass. 

Today I want to talk about all the small decisions that go into a great image including deciding the camera angle, compositional decisions, the direction and quality of the sun, background choices, the body angle of the animal, and the head angle of the animal.

The biggest mistake that we have all made when we started as a wildlife photographer is not focusing on the angle of our camera. Choosing the angle that our camera either looks up or looks down in relation to the animal is one of the biggest decisions that have a profound impact on our photos. Generally, having your camera pointing down towards an animal does not yield you a pleasing photo. The reason for this is because when you point your camera down it makes the animals look smaller (people look like ants when you take a photo from a plane window) and the background can become distracting because it is close to the animal. 

Deciding to photograph an animal from ground level will instantly improve your wildlife photos. Photographing with your lens tilted up to frame an animal makes them look larger than life and now your background becomes some distant object that can easily be blown out, so the viewers focus can be now on the animal. 

Coyote | Yellowstone National Park | Canon 1DX Mark II | 600mm f/4 IS II | 600mm | 1/1000 |f/4 | ISO 640

Getting dirty is fun and is a part of wildlife photography. I have done anything to get the lower angle including laying in the snow to photograph animals like Polar Bears and Coyotes, laying in much to photograph shorebirds, laying on rocks getting hit with waves to photograph penguins and ducks, and wading in water with my lens an inch above the water to photograph herons. 

Now, rules are meant to be broken. Sometimes photographing a little bit down on an animal can help you achieve the image in your head. For example, I was wading in a saltwater lagoon in Florida photographing herons. I was photographing headshots of herons, and if I wanted to get the lowest angle a group of trees was in the background. I wanted a headshot against a nice and rich dark blue background, so I angled my camera down enough, so the dark blue water became my background. Other times photographing down on your subjects can be rewarding if you are photographing headshots of animals looking directly at you and other times to frame the environment. 

Great Egret | Florida | Canon 5DS R | 600mm f/4 IS II | 600mm | 1/5000 |f/5 | ISO 320

The next decision we have a photographer is composition. We can either choose to photograph an animal horizontally or vertically. Over the years for some reason, many Wildlife Photographers rarely choose to photograph animals vertically. When you start out photographing wildlife a good reason is that it is awkward to hold your camera with the internal rotation of your shoulder and hand on top. An easy solution for this is to use a battery grip that has an additional shutter button on the bottom of the camera or to use a camera with one built in. 

Unlike many photographers, I love photographing animals vertically. I personally think animals that are a lot taller than they are wide is a more pleasing image if photographed vertically. The same goes for subjects like birds banking back towards the camera with their wings spread. A bonus for photographing vertically is that the image can now be on the front cover of books and magazines. The opposite also holds true; for me, photographing animals horizontally that are a lot wider than tall creates a more pleasing image. Even though you can’t get a cover with a horizontal photo you can get a DPS (double page spread) in books and magazines. 

Rule of Thirds

The gold standard compositional rule for wildlife photography, I am sure you have heard of it, is the rule of thirds. Basically, it’s a fancy name for a tic-tac-toe board. Following this rule, you want to place the animal on four points depending on the direction the animal is facing. As wildlife photographers, we want to create photos that people feel like they are present in the scene when they are viewing our photos. To create a natural looking image with animals are waling to the right we want to frame them on the left-hand side of the frame with empty space on the right to give them an area to walk or run. The same holds true for an animal walking to the left. Also, the rule of thirds has four points of intersection. If you are zoomed out and the animal is small in your frame a general rule to follow is to place them on a point of intersection. However, if the animal is larger in the frame what I like to do it put the animal’s eye on a point of intersection. If you are photographing headshots of animals placing the eye on the lines might be impossible. You can still follow this rule because if the animal is looking to the right you can have the eye reach the center of the frame, and just leave some dead space on the right-hand side of the image to give some room for the animal to look.   

Polar Bear | Alaska | Canon 1DX Mark II | 600mm f/4 IS II | 1/1000 | f/4 | ISO 640

Again, rules are meant to be broken. My favorite time to break the rule of thirds is if an animal is walking directly at me. Photographing from a low angle with the animal dead center in the image with eye contact can create an intimidating photo. Another great time to break this rule is for headshots. 

It was really cold and windy as a Great Grey Owl was perched feet in front of me as I watched it hunt for food. As the owl was perched in a branch listening for faint sounds of rodents under the snow, I wanted to photograph a headshot. So, I aligned my lens perfectly center in front of the Great Grey Owl with a Canon 600mm f/4 IS II lens and a 2X III extender allowing me to get a 1200mm field of view. Even though the center of the owl’s face is in the center of the frame both eyes fall on the lines depicting 1/3 of the frame. 

Great Grey Owl | USA | Canon 5DS R | 600mm f/4 IS II | 2x III | 1200mm | 1/60 | f/8 | ISO 800

The next choice we have is the direction the illuminates the animal. The way I think about lighting is simple: highlights illuminate, and shadows define. I personally think shadows play an integral role in your image because they give your photos a three-dimensional look and feel. There are three basic sun angles you can choose: front lighting, side lighting, and backlighting. In the field front lighting is directly how it sounds, the light for front lighting comes directly over your head, side lighting some from the left hand or right-hand part of the scene, and backlighting comes from behind your subject.

My favorite lighting is between front lighting and side lighting and it is a natural lighting angle for portraiture. I like this lighting because it casts great light on the animal, but also creates some shadows that bring out details in animals. To get the best quality of light make sure you are photographing around the Golden Hours of sunrise and sunset. 

Manatee | Florida   Canon 5DS R | 16-35mm f/4 IS | 16mm | 1/160 | f/9 | ISO 400

The next decision you make in the field is choosing your background, and this can either make or break your photo. When you approach an environment you need to decide what you want the viewer of the photo to focus on? Is it the animal an environment they are in, the animal, or the animal and some other object. 

Let’s start off with just having your subject be an animal. If you only want the viewer of your image to focus on the animal then minimize all the other distractions. You can change your camera angle to make sure a twig or rock is in your field of view, angle your camera at a non-distracting background, and choose a wide-open aperture to blow out your background. 

If you want two aspects in the image like two animals or the snow and an animal, then you might have to stop your lens down a little bit. To keep your background blown out to be non-distracting you can change your camera angle to have a background that is really far away from your subjects. 

Lastly, if you want an environmental photo showing off the animals and where they live to make sure to stop your aperture down and pay attention to framing. One framing option I love to do is when photographing on uneven terrain is to have it start in one corner. For example, you can see how the grass starts in the left-hand side of the frame. 

Magellanic Penguins | Falklands | Canon 5DS R | 24-70mm f/2.8 II | 61mm | 1/320 | f/10 | ISO 200

As you progress as a wildlife photographer you will start to pay a lot of attention to the body angle of the animals. My favorite body angle is to have the animal either slightly walking towards me or walking directly at me. I personally like with the animal appears to be walking slightly or directly towards the viewer of the image. Images with animals walking slightly away from the lens or but shots are not that pleasing.

However, this rule can be broken. As I was snowshoeing up a mountain in Wyoming with a group of Bighorn Sheep I decided to approach them from the way they were walking away. I did this because I wanted to show how they create their own trails to traverse the mountains in the winter.  

Bighorn Sheep | Yellowstone National Park | Canon 1DX Mark II | 600mm f/4 IS II | 1.4X III | 840mm | 1/1250 | f/13 | ISO 100

The last small detail is the head angle of the animal, and following the body angle the most pleasing views are when the animal looks slightly towards the camera (just a few degrees), directly at the camera for an intimidating photo. These are a general rule of thumb and are meant to be broken. 

Overall, I hope you learned about all the small decisions we make and how they add up to create a great image. When you are in the field I hope you become more cognizant when deciding the camera angle, compositional decisions, the direction and quality of the sun, background choices, the body angle of the animal, and the head angle of the animal. Thank you for taking the time to read this article, and I would love to hear about what you think in the comments below! 

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