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Wild Portraits, Taking Portraits of Wildlife

Portraits of Wild Animals
Portraits of Wild Animals
Steve Leach

I often get asked about taking photos of nature that are more like portraits of the bird or animal than a behavior shot. How do you get them to pose for you is the first question and most frequently asked, In jest I normally tell them "I just ask them". Now it is well known I talk to the subjects, Be those models or birds. It seems to help me more than it does either of those.

Even an ugly bird makes a good portrait
Steve Leach

So how do you take a Portrait of a Wild Animal or Bird? First lets discuss some basics.

  • It's not luck
  • The same rules apply to a bird photo that apply to a person photo
  • Background, background and background.
  • Live for the light,
  • Be very patient and study the subjects behavior.

Ok, lets start.

It is not luck, unless you subscribe to the theory that luck is when opportunity meets preparation. You must be smart on how you approach wildlife. You move slowly, you wear drab colors and many times you must be very low or hidden as you approach. Never chase them, but instead anticipate where they will be and get there first. That is being prepared when the opportunity arises.

The basic rules for taking a people portrait apply to a wild portrait. Good face angle, head angle, engaged eyes, flattering natural light and get close. You can get some interesting poses this way such as this one of a Flamingo or this one of an Anhinga.

Backgrounds are the most mixed up part of a wild portrait. You are focused on getting the bird into position, waiting for it to show up, move into the right pose and then you get home and realize that there is a stick coming out of its head or some messy branches, horizons or technically junk is distracting. If you notice in the examples of the Flamingo and Anhinga the background is very plain, free of obstructions or distracting elements. This goes towards your preparation and luck.

Living for the light. You will hear many photographers talk about chasing the light. What this may mean is getting up well before dawn, hiking in the dark and being at your location well before dawn. Those first minutes and if you are lucky hours of light provide the best warm tones, shadows and overall quality for your shots, Same holds true with sunset, but my personal issue there is that normally the activity of the subjects are different, the light is fading and before you know it you are stuck out somewhere in the dark. Get the sun behind you. Position yourself so its shining on your subjects face, not their back but on your back.

Last is patience. It can be very frustrating waiting for the perfect pose where the light is right, background is good and they are giving you that money pose. Wait for it though. your lens will reflect like a mirror many times, They can see themselves I am totally convinced of it without any scientific evidence. You are going to waste lots of disk space here, but still shoot in RAW format, fire away as fast as your shutter will allow as they move around. This Monkey with its baby were very shy, even though it was at a zoo. It took over 30 minutes to get this shot, but it was worth it.

Bottom line is know your subjects, know the conditions around you. Get into the right place at the right time and be ready. The opportunities will come.

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