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Creating a varied wildlife photo portfolio ....

In this article, which is the third in my six-part series about making good wildlife pictures, I’d like to share my thoughts about the way I categorise photos when I want to create a varied portfolio of shots. 


It’s a simple process for determining the make-up of the photo rather than its composition. It isn't an exact science by any means, but it does help me put together a good mix of photos in order to produce more interesting website albums or selections for posting to Flickr or Instagram. In broad terms I can look at any of my animal or bird images and mentally apply a two-part description to them - the first part appertains to the ‘perspective’ and the second to the ‘type of shot’. 


There are just three options in each category that effectively can produce up to nine variations of a shot which, for some photos, can be extended further by using different crops. However, for the purpose of this particular article I will avoid talking about cropping and the fundamentals of composition as it’s something I want to discuss separately when I get to part 5 of the series. 


Before I explain the process in more detail, I want to emphasise that it’s just a quick mental assessment. In most cases I just select images I want to publish bearing in mind the make-up of the photos. Whilst I may mentally categorise a particular photo as ‘normal - interaction’ or ‘wide - static’ for example, they’re not physically identified. They don’t need to be for small selections, but if I was going to compile a new website album or was looking for a larger selection of varied images for a portfolio or book project I would certainly make good use of Lightroom’s ‘collections’ facility - a subject for a future article.  



The first part of the make-up of the shot is the ‘perspective’ where I would choose one of the following descriptions that would be easily determined by how dominant the subject is within the frame : 


  • normal

  • wide

  • close

Normal - standard compositions


Despite wanting to take more interesting wider angle photos, I find that most of my images come under the classification of a normal or standard composed shot. It’s certainly not something I set out to do, as I do believe that less is often more when you’re looking for a well balanced aesthetically pleasing picture. However, if the setting doesn’t hold interest then there’s little point including too much of the surrounding habitat. 


For most standard shots the subject or subjects are the main focus of the picture. I’m not talking about the proverbial full ‘frame-filling shot’ that some photographers like taking just because they have a long lens, but rather an image where the animal or bird is clearly the dominant subject. There will always be adequate negative space around the subject and if it’s looking, moving or flying in a particular direction then there will always be more space on that side of the frame. 


If the animal or bird is essentially static, for example feeding or preening, and in a good position, I will often zoom or crop in a bit closer to capture facial features or plumage in more detail. These images still fulfil the requirements of a normal shot by virtue of the proportions of the content - the subject(s) and the surrounding habitat. Even for relatively close, partially frame-filling shots, such as the following photo of Grant's Zebra, I doubt that the subject would ever fill any more than 40% of the frame, and in most situations I think it’s more likely to be nearer 20%. 


Unless the subject is particularly large or for some reason I’m closer than normal, most of these images would have been taken with a longer focal length lens and a wide aperture to help isolate the subject.

Grant's Zebra
Spirit Bear


I would define both of the above images as having a 'normal' perspective. The photo of the Grant's Zebra and her foal was taken on a pretty barren East African plain and, consequently, there was little point including any more of the surrounding dry grassland so I opted to fill the frame. The photo of the Spirit Bear on the other hand was captured in the rainforest at Gwaa Creek on Gribbell Island in British Columbia where the setting adds so much added interest. As far as I'm concerned it would be criminal to zoom in any closer when you have beautiful habitat like this. Whereas the photo of the zebras was at the very top end of how large the subject should be in the frame, the photo of the bear is at the opposite end of the scale - arguably bordering on a 'naturescape' image. 


Wide - 'naturescape' images


If the location has visual appeal I will always look to take at least a few wider angle shots in order to include as much of the environment as I can even if the subject starts getting relatively small in the frame. If the situation allows I will probably take a few pictures at different zoom and aperture settings so that I have more than one option when I come to develop them. There are no hard and fast rules here as situations and opportunities will vary greatly. 


You could be looking at a seascape where there are gulls flying around the cliffs. In this example the birds will almost certainly account for less than 5% of the picture, but will still be the clear focus of the shot as they’ll be well defined against the blue sky. Alternatively you could be photographing an animal on the open savanna in East Africa, in the depths of a lush rainforest, or from a boat in the Pantanal or on a northern fjord, where an opportunity presents itself to capture a scene with the subject in its natural environment.


Good ’naturescape’ images are all about location. Places where you can capture a scene that incorporates the beauty and/or remoteness of the location so that you can see where the animal or bird lives.


Although I don’t try to put a figure on how dominant the subject should be I doubt that even with a large animal, such as an elephant or whale, that it would take up much more than 5% to 10% of the frame at most. For the purpose of this exercise it’s just a case of deciding whether to categorise the perspective of the picture as a normal or wide shot. 


Many of the general principles of landscape photography apply when composing and taking these shots. However, that’s not to say that you always need a wide-angle lens, as in many situations a moderate zoom, such as 70-200mm, will work really well. It’s just a question of your position and how much of the view you want to capture and, of course, what lenses you have with you at the time. And, if you haven't got a wide enough field of view, just remember that you could always take an extra shot to produce a stitched photo later during PP. 

White-tailed Eagle
African Elephant


Here are two typical 'naturescape' images. The first shot is of a White-tailed Eagle taken on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in West Iceland. Although I took a couple of photos when the bird came a bit closer, I concentrated on trying to get a few shots as it circled with its wings outstretched as I thought it would make a nice picture against the mountain backdrop. The bird only takes up about 2% of the frame, yet it still stands out well. The photo of the African Elephant is more typical as it's probably accounting for around 5% of the shot.


Close - portrait or detail shot


To avoid any confusion, this final perspective category is for zoomed-in portrait or detail shots, and not close up macro photography which I treat totally separately.


Photos placed in this category are very easy to define as the subject will be dominating the picture to the point that it will almost certainly be spilling out the frame. In the main these images are used to emphasise detail or to focus on a specific aspect or feature of the bird or animal. They can also provide an opportunity for creating interesting crops in PP. 


Almost certainly you’ll be using a long lens for these shots because, even if you can physically get close, it’s best to shoot from further away as the creature you’re photographing will be more relaxed and more likely to act naturally. Dependent on the distance and what you’re trying to photograph you could be using a narrower aperture to maximise DoF or a wide aperture if you’re deliberately trying to focus on a particular feature such as a lion’s paw.

Brown Pelican
Northern Gannets


I deliberately chose two somewhat similar images as they represent both types of shot. The close up photo of the Brown Pelican taken on the Galápagos Islands is a good example of a detail shot. Whilst I really like the image and the long letterbox crop, I appreciate that it may not be to everyone's taste. The second image of the Northern Gannets captured at close quarters on Bass Rock in Scotland is more conventional as it's a simple, but effective, portrait photo. 



The second part of the exercise defines the ‘type of shot’ in a not dissimilar way to the method I use for applying a two or three star-rating. In fact this whole exercise would only be applied to images having a two or more stars as there would generally be little point in reviewing single star shots unless I’m specifically looking for a photo that I can develop or use in a different way.


As with the ‘perspective’ of the shot I again use very simple definitions, which are :


  • static

  • interaction

  • action


Static - as in nothing much happening


For the sake of a better description I use the word ‘static’ to describe any photo where the animal is either stationary or just casually walking or grazing or, in respect of birds, when they're perched or flying rather than landing or taking flight.

Collared Aracari


There would be no question here, that this is lovely image of a Collared Aracari taken in Costa Rica is anything other than a typical 'static' shot.



Interaction - photos with added interest


This definition is applied to photos that depict some form of animal behavioural activity that provides added interest. It could include anything from an animal running, actively feeding or drinking, bonding, mating etc., through to a parent interacting with its young. And similarly with birds, but also including good shots where they’re just about to land or are in the process of taking off.

Guinea Baboons


This delightful picture of young Guinea Baboons photographed in the Gambia is a classic example of what I would call a good 'interaction' photo as its captured the natural big brother behaviour of the older monkey. 



Action - when animals or birds are in conflict


The vast majority of photos that I take seem to fall into one of the previously defined categories. In fact, I could probably get away with using just two definitions - 'static' and 'action', but I feel that whilst 'interaction' and 'action' can be confused at times they are not the same. For me, ‘interaction’ refers to friendly behaviour whereas ‘action’, in the sense that I’m applying it to my wildlife images, is for full-on non-friendly encounters, which essentially means fighting - or possibly, with certain predator species, hunting.


Obviously different forms of behavioural activity varies greatly from one animal group to another, such that you’ll often capture animals doing something that could easily be classed as an ‘action shot’, which is actually just normal behaviour for the species. This is best explained by looking at the following photos :

Humpback Whale


I chose to feature the above images to illustrate the point that certain behavioural activity, such as a breaching Humpback Whale or sparring Impala, is normal for the species. The images capture the moment and both could easily be regarded as an 'action shot', because to all intent and purposes they are. In fact, when you look at the photo of the Impala, it could well be mistaken for a fight between rivals rather than a friendly tussle between two young males. It's a fine line and, to be honest, does it really matter how the shot is categorised?

However, for consistency, and to ensure that all behavioural activity is treated equally I prefer to put shots like

these in the 'interaction - photos with added interest' category. 




This is a photo of a Cheetah hunting - it's in conflict with the gazelle and, therefore, it's an 'action' shot. 



Here are three more examples :

Barn Swallows


This photo of a Barn Swallow feeding it's chick couldn't really be regarded as anything other than an 'interaction' shot that's captured typical behavioural activity. 


Eurasian Coots


Next we have a shot of a couple of Eurasian Coots fighting during the breeding season. Whilst it's normal behaviour for the species, they are actually in conflict as they need to establish their territory. If you look carefully you can even see some blood on the bill of the bird on the left where it's been pecked. For me, this is an 'action' shot. 


White-tailed Eagle


Finally, and deliberately chosen, this image captures the moment that a White-tailed Eagle is just about to grab a fish. Is it feeding or is it hunting? I noted earlier that if an animal or bird is feeding the photo would be categorised as an 'interaction' behavioural shot, but if it's physically hunting it would be a true 'action' shot.


It's a bit like the dilemma with the Impalas, consequently I'd just define images like this in line with any other photos that are going to be used within the same collection set or portfolio.



At the outset of this article I said that the process wasn’t an exact science, which is why I’m not particularly bothered about the exact interpretation of certain ‘action’ photos and whether they should be regarded as interactive and/or behavioural photos or true action shots, because that’s not what the exercise is about. It must be remembered that this is a quick mental assessment for the sole purpose of creating a varied wildlife portfolio. In part 1 of this series I acknowledged the fact that many photographers have developed a distinctive style and are quite happy that their photographs have a similar appearance. I understand that, but it’s not what I want to achieve. I’m looking for variety so that my photos remain interesting. For me this starts with wanting to photograph different species in different locations, and then looking for some different perspectives and different types of shot. I want to couple all those things together. 


We all know the saying ‘variety is the spice of life’ and, although it can be used in various ways, it essentially refers to seeing or experiencing different things in order to make life more enjoyable and interesting. That’s all I’m trying to achieve from this exercise.



The bottom line ....


I purposefullly avoided labelling the above photos with their full two-part descriptive tag as I wanted to focus on the individual definitions, so to finish off here’s a list of how I would categorise them :

Grant's Zebra : 'normal - interaction'

White-tailed Eagle : 'wide - static'

Brown Pelican : 'close - static'

Collared Aracari : 'normal - static'

Humpback Whale : 'normal - interaction'

Cheetah :  'normal - action'

Eurasian Coots : 'normal - action'

Spirit Bear : 'normal - static'

African Elephant : 'wide - static'

Northern Gannets : 'close - interaction'

Guinea Baboons : 'normal - interaction'

Impalas : 'normal - interaction'

Barn Swallows :  'normal - interaction'

White-tailed Eagle : 'normal - action'

Part 4

  the importance of positioning

the basic requirements of a good image  

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