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Creating Intimate Wildlife Photographs

Wildlife Photography Tips from BenQ AQCOLOR Ambassador Joshua Holko

Joshua Holko

One of the easiest things you can do too dramatically improve your wildlife photography is to get down low. It is worth emphasising the importance of this advice as getting down low allows the photographer to connect with the subject and create a far more intimate photograph than one taken at the average human standing height. When you get down low (to eye level) with the wildlife you have a much better chance to connect with your subject and to create a photograph that tells the viewer much more about the life of the critter and the environment in which it lives. Many banal wildlife images could easily have been improved if the photographer had made the effort to get down to the perspective of the subject. Getting down low is not always the answer of course. There are occasions when raising the perspective is the preferred approach and these instances should be relatively obvious.

The example below illustrates the importance of getting down low and connecting with your subject in wildlife photography. ‘Connecting with the subject’ is something professional portrait and street photographers often talk about and with good reason. When you connect with your subject you have a far better chance to successfully capture their character and personality. You are going to create a photograph that tells the viewer something about the subject and perhaps gives an insight into who they are. Connecting with a subject does not always mean you have to make eye contact either. Connecting in this case simply means you are shooting the subject in a manner in which you are trying to tell their story. When it comes to telling the story of wildlife my personal preference is often to shoot landscape photographs that include wildlife rather than head and shoulder portraits.

Photographs that include the animal in the landscape tell the viewer something about the environment in which the animal lives and helps place the critter in context. In this example I am including a photograph that is more portrait orientated to better illustrate the importance of perspective. I photographed this wild Wolf in no-mans land on the border between Finland and Russia in late Autumn. This wolf showed no fear whatsoever of the small photo blind in which I was lying and approached quite close. The opportunity to create a great photograph was a combination of being in the right place at the right time, but just as important as actually being there was getting down low. In this instance I got down as low as I possibly could by lying on the ground and waited until such time as the wolf and I made eye contact before I pressed the shutter and took the photograph. The result is an intimate and personal photograph that speaks volumes about the environment in which the animal lives and how it perceives its surroundings. The viewer perceives the Autumn grasses and surroundings from the perspective of the wolf which helps connect the viewer with the subject. In this instance, eye contact with the wolf helps draw the viewer into the photograph and emphasises the connection with the subject. This is also a great example of knowing when it is ok to break the rules and place the subject centre of frame on the vertical axis.

I want to emphasise that getting down low and connecting with your subject starts long before you arrive on the scene and take a photograph. You have to consider the location you are going to be shooting from and how this relates to where your subject might be when you press the shutter. And of course you have to take into account the all important background amongst a myriad of other technical, aesthetic and compositional concerns and challenges. Some forward planning and pre-visualisation can go a long way when you are planning your next wildlife photography sojourn. Give serious consideration to the places you will be able to take photographs from and the opportunities that location will provide you. It could well be the difference between an outstanding wildlife image and just another snapshot. Before I set up my camera in my chosen shooting position I always take the opportunity to walk and explore the area. I am looking for ideal backgrounds and compositional elements that will help me improve my photographs. Even just a few minutes spent considering where you photograph from will make all the difference to the final images.

When I am editing my photographs back in the studio and reviewing the images I shot on my BenQ SW321 Adobe RGB monitor what I am looking for is those photographs that immediately grab me with their emotional content. Inevitably, these are the photographs that were captured at eye level, where the animal is in their environment doing something interesting. I look for images with strong eye contact and that convey a sense of movement. With photography being a still medium we have to impart the feeling and sense of movement in a single shot and this is accomplished in this example through leg and paw position. We know the wolf is moving toward the photographer from the slightly raised front paw. This is a subliminal feeling we may not even consciously be aware of, but it makes all the difference to the final photograph. Without the paw being raised the image would take on a more static feeling.

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When you are out on your next wildlife shoot try and remember these principles: 

  1. Try and get down as low as possible to eye level with the animal
  2. Consider the background behind the animal. Background selection is as important as the subject. Spend a few minutes exploring the area you plan to photograph and choose your shooting position carefully.
  3. Use high speed motor drive to capture the ideal leg and paw position. 4. Have fun. Being out in the wilderness photographing wildlife is one of the great joys of Nature photography.

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