The basic requirements of a good image ....
In this second part of the series about the making of a good wildlife picture, I want to run through some of the basic requirements that will generally need to be met by any image that is going to find its way off my hard-drive to be shared or seen by others.
I have said ‘generally', simply because I believe that with wildlife photography some give and take is needed. If the photo is of a relatively static subject then perhaps it should fulfil all the important criteria, but if the image has captured some great action or unusual behavioural activity then I personally wouldn’t be too concerned if it wasn’t ticking all the boxes. As I said in the previous article, wildlife is unpredictable and, even when you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in the right place at the right time, there’s invariably going to be some aspect of the overall scene that isn’t as you’d choose.
In an ideal world we’d like all our wildlife photos to be well composed, aesthetically pleasing, nicely lit and, of course, sharp. The attention and importance you personally place on these requirements will often be governed by how the picture is going to be used. If it’s going to be printed, formally published or sold then obviously the bar should be set higher than if it’s just going to be posted to social media.
In no particular order, there are several aspects or features of a photo that I’d be looking for :-
Is the subject in focus and are the eyes sharp? If the subject’s face is relatively large, do the eyes have a catchlight or do they look dead? In most cases, birds’ eyes look far better with a catchlight, whereas with animals there are many situations and/or species where it’s harder to achieve and less critical. Is there enough DoF (depth of field) to capture sufficient detail? The available light and other criteria may have a bearing on this so the judgement has to be made on a photo by photo basis. In general you can get away with a shallow DoF as long as the eyes and/or any other important features are sharp. However, if you’ve taken a photo of two subjects interacting then they both really need to be in good focus for the image to work as intended.
If you take a photo of a bird or animal where the face is in clear view and obviously an important part of the picture, then the eyes have to be sharp; no exception.
The beautiful large yellow eyes of this Short-eared Owl are a prime example as, without doubt, they are its most prominent feature and you'd be doing both it and yourself a big disservice if they weren't the focus of attention. Interestingly, you never get a proper catchlight in light coloured eyes but, even so, they're still bright and alive.
With due consideration to the trade-off between adequate DoF and the avoidance of background distractions, is there sufficient subject isolation? In many situations it will be impossible to achieve simply due to where the bird or animal is positioned. If a bird is perched in a tree or an animal has been photographed emerging from vegetation then it’s just a case of ensuring that the photo is aesthetically pleasing. However, if the framing of the shot allows nice, clearly out-of-focus, soft backgrounds look great and, if that was the intention, they have to be just that. It’s known as ‘bokeh’ and I’ll discuss bokeh in the future article about ‘the importance of positioning’. In the meantime, remember that the single biggest contributor to creamy soft backgrounds is the relative distance between your shooting position and the subject, compared with the distance from the subject to the background. The latter needs to be greater than the former. Whilst the optical design of the lens and of course the lens aperture have a bearing, for the sake of this discussion the camera-to-subject-to-background values will be the most decisive factors.
I'm very aware that when you're taking photos of birds like this Greater Spotted Woodpecker in its natural habitat in the forest that you need a bit of luck regarding the background.
I was rather fortunate here that this particularly tree was quite isolated, although on the flip side of that I remember taking photos of Black Woodpeckers in Finland where the trees were quite closely packed together, yet the photos still look really good. A reasonably shallow DoF of f/5.6 kept the bird in sharp whilst throwing the background trunks and foliage nicely out of focus. The result was completely different from this very clean image, leaving no doubt that it was taken inside a pine forest.
Is the photo properly exposed in terms of looking natural? Is it too dark or too light? Is it too contrasty, or too warm or too cold? This is a subjective one as you can develop the same photo in different ways and arguably they all look good even if they’re not accurately representing the scene you photographed. In general I try to make sure that my images are as natural as possible, but at the same time maintaining a bit of artistic licence if I want to warm them up a bit or, indeed, cool them down if the situation warrants.
I choose this particular image of Black Grouse fighting at the lekking site as it illustrates a situation where a bit of extra darkening of the tree-lined background at the other side of the field really helps enhance the photo on two counts. Firstly, it accentuates the overall feel of the image - it was early morning and it was very cold - and, secondly, it makes the snow and ice that the birds have kicked up stand out. I also like the unusual very dark, almost monochrome, look of the photo, where your eye is drawn directly to the action and the bright red head wattles.
This could be far ranging, but in general I’m referring to the subject(s) unless there is surrounding habitat or a particular feature that I intended to include. The important criteria with the subject is ensuring that you haven’t inadvertently clipped a wing or a foot, or for example, if you had a long-legged bird standing in the grass have you captured enough of the habitat below the bird to ensure that it doesn’t look fore-shortened. I specifically mentioned that last point because when I was developing some lovely photos I took of a Shoebill I found that I’d been concentrating so much on its face and upper body that I’d failed to realise that if its legs and feet had been visible they would have been outside the frame. Those photos are virtually unusable, which is a pity.
What a pity! Lovely face and upper body, but no legs!
Fortunately, I have a number of other photos of the bird in this setting, which have been properly composed.
Angle of view
I’m not going to go into too much detail here as I want to discuss the subject in part 4 of the series, but the overriding criteria for me is to be happy that the angle of view looks natural. Wherever possible you will want to ensure that it doesn’t appear that you were either shooting down or up from an unnatural position. Obviously when you’re photographing a bird in a tree or in flight you’ll invariably be looking up to a degree, but if that degree is too acute you’ll struggle to achieve a pleasing image. The goal is always to try to get into a position where your lens is as close as you can get it to your subject's eye level.
A lovely female African Leopard walking across the sun-baked ground.
If this one of your first leopard sightings, you'd probably be quite pleased to capture an image like this, but for me she's now far too close and, consequently, it's obvious that I'm in a vehicle looking down at her. Yes, it's still a nice shot, but the photos I took when she was further away are much better, simply because the angle of view was shallower, which effectively lowers my position relative to her face.
Framing and overall composition
I’ve linked these two together as they’re so closely related and, in fact, many would consider them to be the same. In my view, ‘framing’ means the way you’ve framed the shot - basically what you’ve included and how much of the frame it fills. On the other hand, ‘composition’ is more to do with how you’ve framed the shot in terms of making it aesthetically pleasing. This is another subject that I’ll discuss in more detail in part 5 of the series.
Not much to say here, other than I think that this picture of a Saddle-billed Stork is a pretty good example of what I mean by framing and composition. I've framed the shot to include a fair amount of the habitat, whilst still keeping the bird a good size in the frame, and I've composed the photo with the bird nicely positioned to the left, which I hope makes the final image more aesthetically pleasing than if, for instance, it was placed dead centre.
Although closely related to framing and composition, I’ve listed it here as a separate requirement simply because some distractions can really mess up an otherwise good image. I had a classic example of this when I spent one of the most memorable days I’ve ever had photographing wildlife, which was when we were in the Great Bear Rainforest at Gwaa Creek on Gribbel Island. I’ve been specific with the location because I’ve seen pictures from other photographers with the same distraction. Here we were photographing the beautiful and rare Spirit Bear in a pristine rainforest environment where the river bed and associated habitat just had to be included. The problem was that there was one particular silvery-coloured reflective tree branch overhanging the bank that was in a position that you really couldn’t avoid when you were taking a photo looking down the river. When you looked through the viewfinder or at a photo on the LCD screen your eyes just went straight to the branch! Here there was no choice other than to include it and deal with it later in PP. However, in most situations where you have some freedom of movement you can reposition yourself so that you can keep the distraction out of the frame or at least get it into a less offensive position. Whilst some distractions are obvious, it’s amazing how you can think you’ve carefully composed an image only to find that you didn’t notice that the tree in the background looks as though it’s growing out of the animal’s head! The message here is to check the scene before putting your camera to your eye, then again when you look through the viewfinder and, if there’s time and particularly if it’s a busy scene, on the back screen after you’ve taken the shot.
This is a straight out of the camera un-edited shot apart from a few basic import develop settings,
that clearly shows the horrible tree branch I was talking about. Fortunately I had a couple of other very similar, but slightly better composed, photos where the bear was a bit further to the left. Those were the photos I edited and it was a reasonably simple job to darken that whole top left-hand corner so that the branch was barely noticeable. Interestingly, after working on the images my eye was going to the reflection on the pale green leaves, so I also darken those down a bit. It would have been nice to have featured one of those photos, but of course that would have defeated the purpose as I wanted you to see the distraction and the way that it can affect an otherwise good image.
Capturing the moment
Notwithstanding the fact that the moment you were trying to capture may already have passed as I mentioned in the previous post, there will be many situations where you’re photographing an extended run or sequence of behavioural activity or interaction when movements or interplay is being repeated. If you know for sure that you’ve caught the moment you were looking for there’s little point in keep taking similar photos, but if you’re not sure then it makes sense to take some insurance shots. By way of an example, I wanted to get a close up photo of this lion cub drinking with his tongue licking up the water. It looked relatively straightforward as his little tongue was constantly flicking in and out, but after taking a reasonably long burst of photos I reviewed them to disappointingly find that I only had his tongue out in the very last shot. I was lucky, and fortunately I only needed one shot. If I’d been using my Nikon D500 rather than the D850 I’m sure that I would have had at least three of four shots simply because of the increased frame rate of the D500. To avoid being disappointed when you review the images later on it’s best to play safe when an opportunity presents itself. Better to have too many shots than not enough.
I think that this image speaks for itself although, in saying that, it's perhaps only when you compare it with one of the many similar photos, but where his tongue wasn't out, that you really appreciate how important it was.
The difference between capturing the moment to just missing the moment can be a split second in time.
I think that the above covers all the main points that I’d look for. In most cases you can quickly see if the photo meets the general criteria and has potential. It’s then just a case of picking out the better shots and reviewing them in closer detail to ensure that the eyes are sharp and that you haven’t inadvertently excluded, or indeed included, something that you shouldn’t.
creating a varied portfolio