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Types of Wildlife Photographs

There are many types of wildlife images to consider, from the more static environmental portraits to frame-filling, in-your-face portraits. Some images capture your subject’s behavior and convey action. Over time, you will develop your own personal style of photography and seek out the type of wildlife opportunities that suit your style. The lens you use (see Chapter 2, “Camera Settings and Shooting Techniques”) plays a big part in the types of wildlife photographs you make. How close you are able to legally and comfortably approach your subject also impacts the type of image you capture. The location and season (see Chapter 5, “Location, Location, Location”) you choose contributes to the types of behavior you are able to photograph, as does your proficiency with your camera.

Environmental Portraits

Environmental portraits include your subject in its surroundings, adding a storytelling element to your photographs. Images that show habitat provide additional information about the life of your subject and its habitat to those who view them. Additionally, they add a sense of scale between the subject and its world. You may find that your preferred style of photography leans towards including more of the environment, or you might be constrained to capture the overall scene due to the lack of extreme focal length (400–600mm). The same elements that go into making a great landscape image also make great environmental portraits—from lens selection to composition to depth of field. While photographing a Harbor seal in Alaska, I used a mid-range aperture to increase the depth of field, showing more detail in the background yet still keeping it slightly out of focus so that it complements the seal rather than competing with it for your attention (Figure 4.6).

Figure 4.6

Figure 4.6 Including the background in this scene of a Harbor seal adds a sense of place to the image.

Full-body Portraits

Whereas environmental portraits provide a sense of place, a full-body portrait doesn’t include as much of the surroundings, drawing your total attention to the subject. A tight composition allows you to notice greater details of your subject, such as the shape and size of the flippers on this Harbor seal (Figure 4.7) or the sausage shape of its body and the unique, identifying pattern that adorns it, making it unique from any other seal. I tend to use a fairly shallow depth of field when making full-body portraits to minimize any background distractions.

Figure 4.7

Figure 4.7 As you move in tighter to a full-body portrait, the environment becomes less prominent. The sense of place is not as strong.

Frame-filling Portraits

Moving in even tighter, cropping out most of the body, and focusing on your subject’s face brings you closer to feeling that eye-to-eye, soul-to-soul connection (Figure 4.8) with your subject. You can make out the texture of the Harbor seal’s fur, the length of its whiskers, the way its mouth turns up at the corners giving it an endearing expression, and the deep, liquid black of its eyes. Being able to move in tighter and see such up-close details brings you closer to your subject (literally and figuratively). There’s something about a bold, frame-filling, in-your-face image that can’t help but draw you in.

Figure 4.8

Figure 4.8 In a frame-filling portrait, little to no background is included in the frame.


A simple gesture brings your subject to life, making your portraits more dynamic. Gesture can convey curiosity, as in this image of a juvenile Roseate Spoonbill with its head tilted, leg raised, and poised to take that next step (Figure 4.9) as it pauses to look at me photographing it. Being prepared and on the alert while observing wildlife increases the odds of your capturing a fleeting moment.

Figure 4.9

Figure 4.9 A juvenile Roseate Spoonbill keeps a watchful eye on me as it passes by.

Gesture is attitude; it can exhibit playful and loving behavior (Figure 4.10) or show aggression (Figure 4.11). There can be no question what certain gestures mean. Or, can there? The Mexican ground squirrel in Figure 4.12 isn’t really sticking its tongue out at me; it came to the water to drink and uses its tongue to lap up the water. Knowing animal behavior, I didn’t quit shooting when it lifted its head from the pond. Most mammals will give you some tongue action when they’re drinking water, and you are more likely to capture bathing birds at the same water source.

Figure 4.10

Figure 4.10 Two coyotes nuzzling each other in a display of affection.

Figure 4.11

Figure 4.11 A coyote baring its teeth as another coyote approaches. The tail between the legs is a sign of submission.

Figure 4.12

Figure 4.12 The tongue makes all the difference between a basic portrait and one with gesture.

Capture Behavior

I like to photograph portraits as much as the next person, but to really get a sense of your subject, try to capture behavior shots that tell more about its personality and life. Behavior encompasses basically everything your subject does, from eating to sleeping, courting, mating, raising its young, and so on. The more you know your subject and its behavior, the greater the chances of success at capturing a decisive moment. I had mere seconds when a Horned Puffin landed on a rock ledge briefly with its beak filled with fish for its young before disappearing into a crevice in the rock where it nests (Figure 4.13).

Figure 4.13

Figure 4.13 Anticipating that the puffin would land on the rock before disappearing into its nest, I was able to fire off six frames before it was gone.

Behavior is passed down from one generation to another. I spent an enjoyable afternoon with an American Oystercatcher and its chick one day in Florida photographing the parent teaching its young how to catch oysters. The parent would catch one, remove the shell, and then drop it back in the surf near its baby. The baby would then grab the oyster as if it had found it (Figure 4.14). Everything the adult oystercatcher did, the youngster would imitate. The experience provided hours of entertainment and great photographs. At one point the mom flapped her wings to rid herself of extra moisture; I aimed and fired, capturing the moment (Figure 4.15). And just as she finished, I turned to see the chick doing the same thing (Figure 4.16).

Figure 4.14

Figure 4.14 A mother oystercatcher teaching her chick to hunt for oysters in the surf in Florida.

Figure 4.15

Figure 4.15 A fast shutter speed stops the spray of water in midair as an oystercatcher does a wing flap.

Figure 4.16

Figure 4.16 Learning from its mother through imitation, a juvenile oystercatcher sees its mother do a wing flap and does the same.

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