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Wildlife Photography is Portrait Photography of Non-Humans

2018-02-27T22:07:39+00:00

This photo was taken June 16, 2017, in Calarca, Colombia.

Although I’m not the top wildlife photographer around, I know a thing or two about wildlife photography. Here we’ll explore the parallels of how wildlife portraits and people portraits collide. Surprisingly, the two seemingly distinctly different genres of photography are almost identical.

Like human portraits, wildlife photography captures the personality and “humanity” of the animal world. We like to assign human traits to animals, anthropomorphism, and photography is no different. Since the beginning of photography (beginning of time with art), photographers have captured shots of animals, pets, insects, and nature’s creatures in human-like settings where they are doing things that we relate to. Just remember the weasel on the back of the bird shot that stunned the world!

Rule 1: Eyes in Focus

Just like in human portraits, the eyes are the window to the soul. We relate to the animal world by looking into the eyes. The eyes must be visible and in sharp focus to get the best out of wildlife photography. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and this one is no different. Some of the best wildlife photos are silhouettes, or closeups of the details of the skin, feathers, or scales. But, in general, if the face is visible, and the eyes are out of focus the photo goes in the trash bin.

 

Vermilion Flycatcher, Parque del Cafe, Colombia

Rule 2: Head Towards the Camera

This one is a little more flexible, but generally consistent with a great capture. The animal (or human) doesn’t have to be looking at the camera, or even have the complete head in the photo. A profile shot, even at exactly 90 degrees, degrades the user experience. The animal, human, or insect angled at one click closer than 90 degrees can improve the shot 1000%, giving the viewer the connection with the subject that makes a great photo.

Rule 3: Background Out of Focus

The magic of bokeh to isolate and focus your subject is one of the portrait photographer’s tricks that always rewards the viewer. Wildlife photography is no different. The problem is that those darn critters never sit still and won’t get into the studio without danger to self and others. The background is the 2nd most important part of the image, the 1st being the subject. Separating the subject from the background can make that lucky shot of the rare bird incredible.

Amazonian Motmot, Barranquero, Parque del Cafe, Colombia

Rule 4: Get Down (or Up) to Their Level

Parents soon learn that the photos they take of their children look quite different when they move the camera down to the level of their kids. Good family photographers know the secret, too. Again, wildlife photography is no different. I see too many photographers with their expensive tripods raised up to their eye level trying to photograph ground animals from the human level. Sure, it’s comfortable to stand their and click the shutter and move around on your $1,000 tripod with the gimbal head, but I’m going to drop down and get the money shot.

Rule 4: Shoot 36 to Get 1 Keeper

For those who remember actually film with 36 exposures on a roll, you already know this one. For the rest of you, understand that people, like animals, have the micro-expressions and micro-movements that require lots of photos to get really good results. Don’t just randomly shoot and hope something comes out, but set your camera to high speed, take 1–2 second bursts, and you’ll see that out of every group you’ll have at least one that works.

Blue Gray Tanager, Parque del Cafe, Colombia

Rule 5: Learn About Your Subject

When you get a job to make a corporate headshot, you don’t just show up and press the shutter. You get the bio or do the quick interview to get to know the subject, and shoot accordingly. The best portraits have been made in context of the subject, and have had lasting effect. The same is true in wildlife photography. There are photographers that are experts in people, but that’s just one species. Wildlife photographers have to be experts in every animal they encounter, making biologists the best photographers in this genre. Study up and learn the behavior, the background, and habits. After all, there’s no interview in the field with a wild animal.

Rule 6: Get Close but not Too Close

I think at this point you’ve noticed a connection between wildlife and people portraits. You need to be close, sometimes right up in their face, but never too close. The gold standard in human portraits is the 85mm, because it doesn’t distort, and you can maintain a comfortable distance from your subject while still being able to move around. In wildlife photography we don’t have that luxury. The subject is usually pretty uncomfortable with people getting too close, and sometimes you don’t want to get too close. Planning for this is complicated, that’s why wildlife images are almost always cropped, taken on a zoom lens, or both. As photographers, we have three zooms, the lens, our feet, and the crop tool. If you can get close, great. If not, zoom in. If that still doesn’t work, crop heavily.

Rule 7: Get the Best Equipment you Can

This one is most controversial, but the one that I think holds true. When you are doing a human portrait, you can usually control the environment. The lighting, the setting, the focus, and other factors that make a great shot can be worked carefully with a people portrait. In wildlife photography, those luxuries are out the window. You need the highest resolution camera body, fastest shutter speed, longest lens, and a steady shooting platform to get the best shots. Buy the best equipment you can afford, then rent the rest. I spent years on a cheap system and got some really good photos, seemingly at random, but the majority of the incredible compositions were lost to crappy equipment. Gear isn’t everything, but it helps.

Rule 8: Be a Hunter — Shoot and Capture

The human instinct to hunt is an ever-present genetic trait we won’t soon get away from. I’m not a hunter, some are, but there’s something about getting out into nature, stalking a creature, holding up a long, black device with a trigger and pulling it. My trigger is the camera shutter, and I can tell you that my most memorable moments were capturing an animal, after shooting it, but on the camera. The biggest advantage here is that I can shoot the animal several times and still lives for another day.

Rule 9: Respect the Natural World

Portrait photographers have a responsibility to respect the privacy and personal space of their subjects. There are boundaries. It’s no different on the outside, when dealing with nature. I’ve contracted guides before in certain sensitive habitats, and in other places gone solo. Do your homework before chasing down that rare mammal or bird species. You may be trampling over protected or sensitive habitat. Politics commonly influences whether or not areas receive protection, so just because it may not be marked, it isn’t necessarily safe to enter. Google is your friend. Use it.

Rule 10: Ignore all the Rules and Have Fun

Wildlife photography is awesome. It’s rewarding when you can really appreciate a creature in its own habitat. Whether it’s traveling to the other side of the world or just shooting through the window in your backyard, photographing animals force you to slow down and study the subject, briefly getting into the mind of another species. Regardless of your religious views, it’s usually a spiritual experience. It also lowers your blood pressure! Enjoy nature and get out!

Rule 2: Head Towards the Camera

This one is a little more flexible, but generally consistent with a great capture. The animal (or human) doesn’t have to be looking at the camera, or even have the complete head in the photo. A profile shot, even at exactly 90 degrees, degrades the user experience. The animal, human, or insect angled at one click closer than 90 degrees can improve the shot 1000%, giving the viewer the connection with the subject that makes a great photo.

Rule 3: Background Out of Focus

The magic of bokeh to isolate and focus your subject is one of the portrait photographer’s tricks that always rewards the viewer. Wildlife photography is no different. The problem is that those darn critters never sit still and won’t get into the studio without danger to self and others. The background is the 2nd most important part of the image, the 1st being the subject. Separating the subject from the background can make that lucky shot of the rare bird incredible.

Amazonian Motmot, Barranquero, Parque del Cafe, Colombia

Rule 4: Get Down (or Up) to Their Level

Parents soon learn that the photos they take of their children look quite different when they move the camera down to the level of their kids. Good family photographers know the secret, too. Again, wildlife photography is no different. I see too many photographers with their expensive tripods raised up to their eye level trying to photograph ground animals from the human level. Sure, it’s comfortable to stand their and click the shutter and move around on your $1,000 tripod with the gimbal head, but I’m going to drop down and get the money shot.

Rule 4: Shoot 36 to Get 1 Keeper

For those who remember actually film with 36 exposures on a roll, you already know this one. For the rest of you, understand that people, like animals, have the micro-expressions and micro-movements that require lots of photos to get really good results. Don’t just randomly shoot and hope something comes out, but set your camera to high speed, take 1–2 second bursts, and you’ll see that out of every group you’ll have at least one that works.

Blue Gray Tanager, Parque del Cafe, Colombia

Rule 5: Learn About Your Subject

When you get a job to make a corporate headshot, you don’t just show up and press the shutter. You get the bio or do the quick interview to get to know the subject, and shoot accordingly. The best portraits have been made in context of the subject, and have had lasting effect. The same is true in wildlife photography. There are photographers that are experts in people, but that’s just one species. Wildlife photographers have to be experts in every animal they encounter, making biologists the best photographers in this genre. Study up and learn the behavior, the background, and habits. After all, there’s no interview in the field with a wild animal.

Rule 6: Get Close but not Too Close

I think at this point you’ve noticed a connection between wildlife and people portraits. You need to be close, sometimes right up in their face, but never too close. The gold standard in human portraits is the 85mm, because it doesn’t distort, and you can maintain a comfortable distance from your subject while still being able to move around. In wildlife photography we don’t have that luxury. The subject is usually pretty uncomfortable with people getting too close, and sometimes you don’t want to get too close. Planning for this is complicated, that’s why wildlife images are almost always cropped, taken on a zoom lens, or both. As photographers, we have three zooms, the lens, our feet, and the crop tool. If you can get close, great. If not, zoom in. If that still doesn’t work, crop heavily.

Rule 7: Get the Best Equipment you Can

This one is most controversial, but the one that I think holds true. When you are doing a human portrait, you can usually control the environment. The lighting, the setting, the focus, and other factors that make a great shot can be worked carefully with a people portrait. In wildlife photography, those luxuries are out the window. You need the highest resolution camera body, fastest shutter speed, longest lens, and a steady shooting platform to get the best shots. Buy the best equipment you can afford, then rent the rest. I spent years on a cheap system and got some really good photos, seemingly at random, but the majority of the incredible compositions were lost to crappy equipment. Gear isn’t everything, but it helps.

Rule 8: Be a Hunter — Shoot and Capture

The human instinct to hunt is an ever-present genetic trait we won’t soon get away from. I’m not a hunter, some are, but there’s something about getting out into nature, stalking a creature, holding up a long, black device with a trigger and pulling it. My trigger is the camera shutter, and I can tell you that my most memorable moments were capturing an animal, after shooting it, but on the camera. The biggest advantage here is that I can shoot the animal several times and still lives for another day.

Rule 9: Respect the Natural World

Portrait photographers have a responsibility to respect the privacy and personal space of their subjects. There are boundaries. It’s no different on the outside, when dealing with nature. I’ve contracted guides before in certain sensitive habitats, and in other places gone solo. Do your homework before chasing down that rare mammal or bird species. You may be trampling over protected or sensitive habitat. Politics commonly influences whether or not areas receive protection, so just because it may not be marked, it isn’t necessarily safe to enter. Google is your friend. Use it.

Rule 10: Ignore all the Rules and Have Fun

Wildlife photography is awesome. It’s rewarding when you can really appreciate a creature in its own habitat. Whether it’s traveling to the other side of the world or just shooting through the window in your backyard, photographing animals force you to slow down and study the subject, briefly getting into the mind of another species. Regardless of your religious views, it’s usually a spiritual experience. It also lowers your blood pressure! Enjoy nature and get out!

Rule 2: Head Towards the Camera

This one is a little more flexible, but generally consistent with a great capture. The animal (or human) doesn’t have to be looking at the camera, or even have the complete head in the photo. A profile shot, even at exactly 90 degrees, degrades the user experience. The animal, human, or insect angled at one click closer than 90 degrees can improve the shot 1000%, giving the viewer the connection with the subject that makes a great photo.

Rule 3: Background Out of Focus

The magic of bokeh to isolate and focus your subject is one of the portrait photographer’s tricks that always rewards the viewer. Wildlife photography is no different. The problem is that those darn critters never sit still and won’t get into the studio without danger to self and others. The background is the 2nd most important part of the image, the 1st being the subject. Separating the subject from the background can make that lucky shot of the rare bird incredible.

Amazonian Motmot, Barranquero, Parque del Cafe, Colombia

Rule 4: Get Down (or Up) to Their Level

Parents soon learn that the photos they take of their children look quite different when they move the camera down to the level of their kids. Good family photographers know the secret, too. Again, wildlife photography is no different. I see too many photographers with their expensive tripods raised up to their eye level trying to photograph ground animals from the human level. Sure, it’s comfortable to stand their and click the shutter and move around on your $1,000 tripod with the gimbal head, but I’m going to drop down and get the money shot.

Rule 4: Shoot 36 to Get 1 Keeper

For those who remember actually film with 36 exposures on a roll, you already know this one. For the rest of you, understand that people, like animals, have the micro-expressions and micro-movements that require lots of photos to get really good results. Don’t just randomly shoot and hope something comes out, but set your camera to high speed, take 1–2 second bursts, and you’ll see that out of every group you’ll have at least one that works.

Blue Gray Tanager, Parque del Cafe, Colombia

Rule 5: Learn About Your Subject

When you get a job to make a corporate headshot, you don’t just show up and press the shutter. You get the bio or do the quick interview to get to know the subject, and shoot accordingly. The best portraits have been made in context of the subject, and have had lasting effect. The same is true in wildlife photography. There are photographers that are experts in people, but that’s just one species. Wildlife photographers have to be experts in every animal they encounter, making biologists the best photographers in this genre. Study up and learn the behavior, the background, and habits. After all, there’s no interview in the field with a wild animal.

Rule 6: Get Close but not Too Close

I think at this point you’ve noticed a connection between wildlife and people portraits. You need to be close, sometimes right up in their face, but never too close. The gold standard in human portraits is the 85mm, because it doesn’t distort, and you can maintain a comfortable distance from your subject while still being able to move around. In wildlife photography we don’t have that luxury. The subject is usually pretty uncomfortable with people getting too close, and sometimes you don’t want to get too close. Planning for this is complicated, that’s why wildlife images are almost always cropped, taken on a zoom lens, or both. As photographers, we have three zooms, the lens, our feet, and the crop tool. If you can get close, great. If not, zoom in. If that still doesn’t work, crop heavily.

Rule 7: Get the Best Equipment you Can

This one is most controversial, but the one that I think holds true. When you are doing a human portrait, you can usually control the environment. The lighting, the setting, the focus, and other factors that make a great shot can be worked carefully with a people portrait. In wildlife photography, those luxuries are out the window. You need the highest resolution camera body, fastest shutter speed, longest lens, and a steady shooting platform to get the best shots. Buy the best equipment you can afford, then rent the rest. I spent years on a cheap system and got some really good photos, seemingly at random, but the majority of the incredible compositions were lost to crappy equipment. Gear isn’t everything, but it helps.

Rule 8: Be a Hunter — Shoot and Capture

The human instinct to hunt is an ever-present genetic trait we won’t soon get away from. I’m not a hunter, some are, but there’s something about getting out into nature, stalking a creature, holding up a long, black device with a trigger and pulling it. My trigger is the camera shutter, and I can tell you that my most memorable moments were capturing an animal, after shooting it, but on the camera. The biggest advantage here is that I can shoot the animal several times and still lives for another day.

Rule 9: Respect the Natural World

Portrait photographers have a responsibility to respect the privacy and personal space of their subjects. There are boundaries. It’s no different on the outside, when dealing with nature. I’ve contracted guides before in certain sensitive habitats, and in other places gone solo. Do your homework before chasing down that rare mammal or bird species. You may be trampling over protected or sensitive habitat. Politics commonly influences whether or not areas receive protection, so just because it may not be marked, it isn’t necessarily safe to enter. Google is your friend. Use it.

Rule 10: Ignore all the Rules and Have Fun

Wildlife photography is awesome. It’s rewarding when you can really appreciate a creature in its own habitat. Whether it’s traveling to the other side of the world or just shooting through the window in your backyard, photographing animals force you to slow down and study the subject, briefly getting into the mind of another species. Regardless of your religious views, it’s usually a spiritual experience. It also lowers your blood pressure! Enjoy nature and get out!

Although I’m not the top wildlife photographer around, I know a thing or two about wildlife photography. Here we’ll explore the parallels of how wildlife portraits and people portraits collide. Surprisingly, the two seemingly distinctly different genres of photography are almost identical.

Like human portraits, wildlife photography captures the personality and “humanity” of the animal world. We like to assign human traits to animals, anthropomorphism, and photography is no different. Since the beginning of photography (beginning of time with art), photographers have captured shots of animals, pets, insects, and nature’s creatures in human-like settings where they are doing things that we relate to. Just remember the weasel on the back of the bird shot that stunned the world!

Rule 1: Eyes in Focus

Just like in human portraits, the eyes are the window to the soul. We relate to the animal world by looking into the eyes. The eyes must be visible and in sharp focus to get the best out of wildlife photography. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and this one is no different. Some of the best wildlife photos are silhouettes, or closeups of the details of the skin, feathers, or scales. But, in general, if the face is visible, and the eyes are out of focus the photo goes in the trash bin.

Vermilion Flycatcher, Parque del Cafe, Colombia

Although I’m not the top wildlife photographer around, I know a thing or two about wildlife photography. Here we’ll explore the parallels of how wildlife portraits and people portraits collide. Surprisingly, the two seemingly distinctly different genres of photography are almost identical.

Like human portraits, wildlife photography captures the personality and “humanity” of the animal world. We like to assign human traits to animals, anthropomorphism, and photography is no different. Since the beginning of photography (beginning of time with art), photographers have captured shots of animals, pets, insects, and nature’s creatures in human-like settings where they are doing things that we relate to. Just remember the weasel on the back of the bird shot that stunned the world!

Rule 1: Eyes in Focus

Just like in human portraits, the eyes are the window to the soul. We relate to the animal world by looking into the eyes. The eyes must be visible and in sharp focus to get the best out of wildlife photography. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and this one is no different. Some of the best wildlife photos are silhouettes, or closeups of the details of the skin, feathers, or scales. But, in general, if the face is visible, and the eyes are out of focus the photo goes in the trash bin.

Vermilion Flycatcher, Parque del Cafe, Colombia

Rule 2: Head Towards the Camera

This one is a little more flexible, but generally consistent with a great capture. The animal (or human) doesn’t have to be looking at the camera, or even have the complete head in the photo. A profile shot, even at exactly 90 degrees, degrades the user experience. The animal, human, or insect angled at one click closer than 90 degrees can improve the shot 1000%, giving the viewer the connection with the subject that makes a great photo.

Rule 3: Background Out of Focus

The magic of bokeh to isolate and focus your subject is one of the portrait photographer’s tricks that always rewards the viewer. Wildlife photography is no different. The problem is that those darn critters never sit still and won’t get into the studio without danger to self and others. The background is the 2nd most important part of the image, the 1st being the subject. Separating the subject from the background can make that lucky shot of the rare bird incredible.

 

Amazonian Motmot, Barranquero, Parque del Cafe, Colombia

Rule 4: Get Down (or Up) to Their Level

Parents soon learn that the photos they take of their children look quite different when they move the camera down to the level of their kids. Good family photographers know the secret, too. Again, wildlife photography is no different. I see too many photographers with their expensive tripods raised up to their eye level trying to photograph ground animals from the human level. Sure, it’s comfortable to stand their and click the shutter and move around on your $1,000 tripod with the gimbal head, but I’m going to drop down and get the money shot.

Rule 4: Shoot 36 to Get 1 Keeper

For those who remember actually film with 36 exposures on a roll, you already know this one. For the rest of you, understand that people, like animals, have the micro-expressions and micro-movements that require lots of photos to get really good results. Don’t just randomly shoot and hope something comes out, but set your camera to high speed, take 1–2 second bursts, and you’ll see that out of every group you’ll have at least one that works.

 

Blue Gray Tanager, Parque del Cafe, Colombia

Rule 5: Learn About Your Subject

When you get a job to make a corporate headshot, you don’t just show up and press the shutter. You get the bio or do the quick interview to get to know the subject, and shoot accordingly. The best portraits have been made in context of the subject, and have had lasting effect. The same is true in wildlife photography. There are photographers that are experts in people, but that’s just one species. Wildlife photographers have to be experts in every animal they encounter, making biologists the best photographers in this genre. Study up and learn the behavior, the background, and habits. After all, there’s no interview in the field with a wild animal.

Rule 6: Get Close but not Too Close

I think at this point you’ve noticed a connection between wildlife and people portraits. You need to be close, sometimes right up in their face, but never too close. The gold standard in human portraits is the 85mm, because it doesn’t distort, and you can maintain a comfortable distance from your subject while still being able to move around. In wildlife photography we don’t have that luxury. The subject is usually pretty uncomfortable with people getting too close, and sometimes you don’t want to get too close. Planning for this is complicated, that’s why wildlife images are almost always cropped, taken on a zoom lens, or both. As photographers, we have three zooms, the lens, our feet, and the crop tool. If you can get close, great. If not, zoom in. If that still doesn’t work, crop heavily.

Rule 7: Get the Best Equipment you Can

This one is most controversial, but the one that I think holds true. When you are doing a human portrait, you can usually control the environment. The lighting, the setting, the focus, and other factors that make a great shot can be worked carefully with a people portrait. In wildlife photography, those luxuries are out the window. You need the highest resolution camera body, fastest shutter speed, longest lens, and a steady shooting platform to get the best shots. Buy the best equipment you can afford, then rent the rest. I spent years on a cheap system and got some really good photos, seemingly at random, but the majority of the incredible compositions were lost to crappy equipment. Gear isn’t everything, but it helps.

Rule 8: Be a Hunter — Shoot and Capture

The human instinct to hunt is an ever-present genetic trait we won’t soon get away from. I’m not a hunter, some are, but there’s something about getting out into nature, stalking a creature, holding up a long, black device with a trigger and pulling it. My trigger is the camera shutter, and I can tell you that my most memorable moments were capturing an animal, after shooting it, but on the camera. The biggest advantage here is that I can shoot the animal several times and still lives for another day.

Rule 9: Respect the Natural World

Portrait photographers have a responsibility to respect the privacy and personal space of their subjects. There are boundaries. It’s no different on the outside, when dealing with nature. I’ve contracted guides before in certain sensitive habitats, and in other places gone solo. Do your homework before chasing down that rare mammal or bird species. You may be trampling over protected or sensitive habitat. Politics commonly influences whether or not areas receive protection, so just because it may not be marked, it isn’t necessarily safe to enter. Google is your friend. Use it.

Rule 10: Ignore all the Rules and Have Fun

Wildlife photography is awesome. It’s rewarding when you can really appreciate a creature in its own habitat. Whether it’s traveling to the other side of the world or just shooting through the window in your backyard, photographing animals force you to slow down and study the subject, briefly getting into the mind of another species. Regardless of your religious views, it’s usually a spiritual experience. It also lowers your blood pressure! Enjoy nature and get out!