Wildlife photography is thrilling on many levels. Simply being near a wild animal and having it allow you into its world is a thrill unto itself. To see a magnificent creature up close and feel a connection is special indeed. Whether it be in the Serengeti, the western mountains, the midwestern plains, the Everglades or in your backyard, it’s all the same. When these encounters occur, it behooves you to be prepared to preserve the moment and memory with gorgeous digital captures of wildlife portraits. Use the following tips so each time you look at the print on your wall, you’ll feel proud of the photo.

Eye Contact

Be patient and wait for your subject to make eye contact with the camera. This results in a connection with the viewer of the photograph. Diverse moods will be portrayed depending on when the animal looks down the barrel of the lens. It may look friendly if it reveals a large grin or hard if the expression is stern. Both are powerful. Alternatively, there are times when it’s more effective to not have your subject make eye contact as you want to depict a look that says “stand off.” Work with your subject to achieve the effect you want as a final result.

If the animal turns fully away, refrain from pressing the shutter as it’s best to make an image when the head angle is closer than perpendicular. This provides a range of 180 degrees: from 90 degrees to your left all the way to 90 degrees to your right. Once it turns past perpendicular, the psychological connection between the viewer and the animal is lost. 

Tell A Story With Your Wildlife Portraits

Work with subjects in their natural environment to help convey a story. For instance, the perch upon which a bird rests provides a sense of place. Once the bird takes flight and the background is all blue sky, the image could be made anywhere. While I love flight shots, they don’t tell a story as to where the image was created.

Create photos during different seasons that show life cycles. Nesting birds, bears coming out of hibernation, the birthing of wildebeests all bear witness to what occurs during the life cycle of the species. If possible, document all the events from the building of the nest until the time the babies fledge. Be cognizant of the light with regards to the time of day, quality and angle. Make images in early and late light, monitor the weather for clear mornings and evenings and position yourself so the animal is front lit. Be cognizant of the background. Avoid clutter, distracting highlights and busyness that confuses the viewer and prevents the subject from coming forward in the final print.


The size of the animal along with how close it allows you to approach determines just how much of a close-up you can make. The most common close-up is the headshot. To fill the frame with the subject’s face is a thrill and it nets a powerful photo. Other potential images come in the form of an abstract. When I lead my safaris to Tanzania, I encourage my participants to look past the obvious. For instance, when a zebra or giraffe allow us up-close contact, I encourage each person to break out their long telephoto and zero in on the patterns of each animal. It’s not uncommon for either to have a bird perched somewhere on their coat pecking for insects. I tell the people to place the bird in the rule of thirds and find an intriguing set of lines or pattern on the hide of the animal and fire away. It makes a unique capture, especially when the bird finds a bug.

Show The Environment

The purpose of this type of image is to capture the animal in its surroundings so the viewer can absorb the location. I liken it to an actor in an Oscar-winning cinematic setting. First and foremost, I look for what I call “the perfect stage” and simply wait for the “actor” to appear. Oftentimes, finding the location is the more difficult challenge. We drive the roads to seek settings that exemplify the environment. It’s as if we first look for the scenic component. Once found, we patiently wait for the actors. This means an intriguing-looking animal that fits the scene. We then wait for it to stroll into the proper location to create a great composition based on the given light. When it all comes together, the sound of clicking shutters fills the vehicle. Patience is rewarded with images that possess many layers of intrigue.

Using Flash In Wildlife Portraits

When the outdoors is your studio, the light doesn’t always cooperate. But in that the topic of this week’s tip is wildlife portraits, the subjects are often close enough for flash to enhance the light or fill in dark areas with illumination to even out harsh and contrasty light. In essence, the use of flash elongates the shooting day as the photographer has more control over how the animal is illuminated. I incorporate the use of a flash modifier so it will project the light a greater distance. Therefore, if the animal is a bit farther away and I use a long lens, I can still make wildlife portraits and have the ability to add brightness where it doesn’t naturally exist. The scope of this tip is too short to go into detail on how to use the modifier, so let this paragraph be your motivator to integrate it. The image of the lizard was made with flash and greatly benefitted its success.

To learn more about this subject, join me on a photo safari to Tanzania. Visit www.russburdenphotography.com to get more information.

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