Move Past The Wildlife Portrait

Outdoor Photography

I got into photography back in the film days. The frame per second rate was much slower and the cost per picture was much higher. With regards to slide film, I still remember pressing the shutter and saying “50 cents” with each click. When motor drives were introduced, my mind worked like a calculator converting each burst into dollars. Thankfully, the frame rate was slow. While many great action shots were created and became treasures, what was also cherished was a great headshot in early or late light. They were so prized, they were once known as the trophy shot. To simply get close to a wild animal at sunrise or sunset and fill the frame with a portrait was revered.

Game farms were introduced and the trophy shot became easier to acquire. Because so many photographers flocked to these locations, the animals became recognizable. This made getting the headshot of a wild animal all the more motivating. With the advent of digital photography and fast lenses, the wildlife portrait in good light image has become more ordinary. They still pack drama, but they’re common. In order to market your wildlife shots or successfully compete in photography competitions, you need wildlife images that show action, a new twist, dramatic lighting or rarely seen behavior.

Wildlife Portrait With Action

Wildlife portrait with action

The shot of the male lion with the floppy tongue goes beyond the standard wildlife portrait on two counts. For one, the background harmonizes with the subject because it’s out of focus and the colors work in harmony. Secondly, the action is peak and the color of the mouth and tongue are vivid. The viewer’s attention goes right to the tongue, which has a texture that’s unique to the rest of the photo.

Wildlife Portrait With Interaction

In the portrait of the giraffe with two oxpeckers, the background is clean, it doesn’t compete for attention with the main subjects, the oxpeckers are in different wing positions and it clearly shows the symbiotic relationship that exists. The light falls on the birds and giraffe’s face but not the neck. This is good as the eye always goes to the brighter areas, so the neck becomes a secondary subject in the photo and doesn’t compete with the face.

Portrait With Behavior

Wildlife portrait with behavior

It was still early morning when this reddish egret morph was hunting in the lagoon. Since I’ve photographed him a number of times in the past, I wanted to concentrate on getting a very tight headshot of the eye and beak. When he hunted and came up with a fish, I zoomed to a wider setting to capture the action. The icing on the cake came when he flared his primary head and neck feathers and dangled the fish all within seconds.

Portrait With Humor

A photo captures a slice of time. When that exact moment has the subject make a funny face, turn an awkward glance or interact in a humorous way, it brings a smile to the viewer’s face. Set your drive to high-speed continuous and let it rip. You never know what you’ll capture, but when you look down at the LCD and a huge smile crosses your face, you’ll know it was worth it.

Portrait With Tight Crop

Wildlife portrait with tight crop

In the photo of the elephant, I took the title of this week’s tip to the extreme and brought it to the literal. The very tight crop moves past the wildlife portrait and gets into the abstract. I placed the eye in the rule of thirds and played up the texture of the face to fill the rest of the frame. If the standard headshot these days has become cliched, get in very close to bring it to the extreme. Concentrate on the details, but still incorporate all other photographic guidelines of composition and light.

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

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