Creating Intimate Wildlife Photographs

One of the easiest things you can do to dramatically improve your wildlife photography is to get down low. Chris Gamel who was a participant on my photography expedition to Antarctica last November touched on this briefly with his ‘Alter the Perspective‘ tip in his guest post here on my blog a week or so ago. 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.

I am including an example below that illustrate the importance of getting down low and connecting with your subject in wildlife photography. I want to place particular emphasis on ‘connecting with the subject’ as this 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 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 Polar Bear at 80º North of Svalbard at the edge of the permanent pack ice. This bear showed no fear whatsoever of the small ship (with only twelve photographers aboard) I was travelling on and approached within just a few feet of us. 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 and waited until such time as the bear 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 sea ice and surroundings from the perspective of the bear which helps connect the viewer with the subject. In this instance, eye contact with the bear helps draw the viewer into the photograph and emphasises the connection with the subject.

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 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. Your chance to get down low and connect with wildlife could be more than hampered by a poor choice of vessel or vehicle. Large cruise ships with hundreds of people and big buses that place the photographer high up are not ideal shooting platforms if you want to get down to eye level with your subject. Be it an African Big Cat Safari or an expedition to Photograph Polar Bears take a moment and find out what your real options are for connecting with your subject. It could well be the difference between an outstanding wildlife image and just another snapshot.

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