Some personal thoughts about what makes a good wildlife picture ....
This is the first in a planned six-part series of articles where I’m going to discuss some of the aspects and compositional requirements that I personally look for in my photography. I fully accept that the subject line of ‘what makes a good wildlife picture’ is going to be very subjective. And so it should be, as photography from any genre or of any style is an art form and, as such, is naturally going to be interpreted and appreciated in many different ways.
These are simply my thoughts on the matter which, for the purpose of the articles, can be treated as considerations rather than specific requirements that have to be adhered to, as I certainly wouldn’t presume to suggest that my feelings will be to everyone’s liking.
Although I’ve had the idea of putting some of these thoughts down on paper for a long while now, it was only after writing the previous posts about ‘rating wildlife images’ that I decided to take the plunge as the articles are so closely related.
My current intention is to cover the following topics :
Part 1 : introduction,
Part 2 : the basic requirements of a good image,
Part 3 : creating a varied portfolio,
Part 4 : the importance of positioning,
Part 5 : composition and cropping,
Part 6 : looking for something special.
I’m not sure how long it will take me to write all these articles as this is just one of a number of personal projects I’ve set myself for this year, but this introduction is a start.
Obviously the taking of any good picture is somewhat dependent on the situation and our individual skills as a photographer, but there’s a lot more involved in actually creating the final image than just pointing our lens at the subject and pressing the shutter button. Apart from the normal basic requirements associated with framing and detail, there are other factors and options to consider both in the capture and the subsequent development of the photo.
The problem of course, is that 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. Perhaps that’s the very reason why wildlife photographers are always striving for better pictures! Sometimes you get lucky, but for the most part you just have to extract as much as you can from the encounter whilst you have the opportunity. It’s no good thinking later that, if only I had done this or that, I could have captured something better, because the moment will have passed. And that’s another thing; the moment is quite often just that - a situation that sometimes lasts no more than a few seconds. This is why you need to be prepared with your camera set up ready, and a good idea of what type of image you’d like to capture.
I always have some vision of what I’m hoping to see floating around in my mind when I’m watching wildlife. It could be as simple as a bird taking flight, or perhaps spreading its wings to shake out its feathers after preening or, if it’s an animal, some interesting behavioural activity. Every situation is different, and the more you watch wildlife the more you’ll learn, and the more you learn the more prepared you’ll be for those few vital seconds you’ve been waiting for.
During one of our trips to Iceland I had a couple of good opportunities to photograph a pair of Red-throated Divers. Not only were the birds very confiding, but they were in a relatively small roadside pond where it was possible to get quite close and down low. For the most part the birds were just casually swimming around, but now and again they’d start preening. I knew that it would only be a matter of time before one would partially submerge and then rear up to flap its wings. The behaviour is no different from what you’ll see on your local lake with more common wildfowl. It was just a case of waiting and being prepared.
It’s called ‘anticipating the moment' and it’s an important skill that can only be acquired by spending time in the field and getting close to nature. If most of your wildlife photography is centred around the area where you live it’s likely that you will be concentrating on a relatively small number of species, and if that’s the case you’ll soon get to understand their behaviour and habits, their favoured locations and even the times you’re likely to see them. If you travel, it’s a bit more difficult, because you’ll often be photographing species that you haven’t seen before, but if you have some reasonable knowledge of wildlife behaviour you’ll generally find some similarities and familiar traits.
Since I’ve just made reference to getting close to nature, it’s an appropriate time to make the point that the animal’s welfare should always be put in front of any desire to take advantage of a situation purely for the sake of getting a photo. If you get to understand animal behaviour you’ll soon start to appreciate that different species, and even different animals of the same species, have different comfort zones. If you’re on foot and you creep up on a bird there’s a point you’ll cross when that bird will take flight. When you’re outside the bird’s comfort or safety zone there’s every chance that it will carry on doing whatever it’s doing without giving you much attention. You can watch the bird and take photos and then walk away slowly without disturbing it. Move that little bit too close and it will react, it will feel threatened and will most likely stop what it was doing. One step more and it will fly. The situation is much the same with animals. It will vary greatly species to species and situation to situation, so there are no hard and fast rules. Even if the animal is confiding and safe to approach there is absolutely no need to take advantage of the situation. Stay back, give it space, and hopefully it will just carry on going about its business.
I want to enjoy the experience as well as taking better and more interesting photos, and by staying back I believe that as long as you have enough focal length for the situation you’ll have more scope in composing your images. When we’re on safari I always ask our guide to keep further back so that the animals are not disturbed. You’re then giving your subject more respect and you’re giving yourself much better opportunities of capturing more natural behaviour.
The following photo of one of the Bila Shaker six-pack male lion coalition walking across Topi Plain in the Masai Mara early one morning is a good example. This shot was taken at 500mm so he was even further away than he looks. In fact it took him nearly four minutes to get to where we were parked during which time I took a number of long-distant photos similar to this one, plus many more as he got closer and closer, eventually winding my 200-500mm zoom lens right back to 200mm. I appreciate that you don’t have a lion walking straight towards you that often, but the lesson here is that there are occasions when you can take a variety of pictures from the same position by changing your focal length whether it be to accommodate the subject’s position like this photo or to widen the view of the scene you’re looking at.
There are some other benefits of not getting too close, but I’m going to leave discussing those until I get to part 4 of the series on ‘the importance of positioning’.
Regardless of the above comments about field craft and giving yourself better opportunities, I suspect that the majority of amateur wildlife photographers just want to take photos for their own personal pleasure, and if they’re happy with the results that’s all that really matters. However, I also believe that most people want to improve their skills so that they can take better pictures. I certainly do.
In a recent article about rating images I mentioned that my Lightroom Catalog is full of photos that I took years ago that I considered good at the time, but if I was looking at those same pictures today many would be deleted or, at the least, downgraded. That’s because my photography has evolved over the years and, as such, my perception of what really constitutes a good wildlife image today is very different from what it was even a couple of years ago.
Another related point that’s worth mentioning before I wrap up this general introduction, is that most photographers develop a style, whether by design or subconsciously. I know that if I look through new uploads from my Flickr contacts I would have a pretty good idea who has taken the photo without seeing their name. Whilst I can fully understand why someone would want to have a distinctive style, I feel that it’s a difficult thing to achieve with wildlife photography if you like the idea of ‘creating a varied portfolio’ of images. That's certainly what I want to do, which is why it's the subject of part 3 of the series.
My mission is to try to move away from standard detail shots of the bird or animal and to look for better or alternative ways of capturing the scene I’m looking at. I know that in many circumstances it will be difficult, but if an opportunity does arise I want to ensure that my brain gives me the right information to process the situation and assimilate the options before my gut instinctively tells me to just point the lens at the subject and press the shutter button!
That final comment takes the discussion back full circle to the opening paragraph. For my brain to provide the right information so that I can quickly decide on the best options for any situation I need to ensure that it has been forearmed, and that’s what I will be trying to do through the associated articles in this series.
the basic requirements of a good image