6 Tips for Capturing Character and Personality in Wildlife Photography

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If you want to take your wildlife photography to the next level, then you need to look at capturing the character and personality of an animal. This makes for a much more appealing image, rather than simply a bird on a stick. A photo always needs to tell a story, but I think many photographers don’t realize that this applies to wildlife photography too.

Even though we can’t directly relate to most wild animals, it is still possible to document a story through a single image, or a sequence of images.

Tufted Capuchin

Tufted Capuchin

Without anthropomorphising animals, many do have their own personalities. I am doubtful this applies to something like an ant, but mammals in particular can be observed to have particular traits and habits. Some may be bold and investigate new things, whereas others may retreat and shy away from disturbances. This can be seen as the animal’s personality, and it is up to us as wildlife photographers to capture this on camera.

It’s definitely not easy though, as stills photography captures one moment in time and freezes it forever. Working with video makes it far easier to convey character, but it’s not impossible to do it in a single frame. Here are some tips to help you get character in your wildlife photography.

#1 – Behaviour

As a zoologist, I am fascinated by animal behaviour. Some behaviours we see as normal and predictable, whereas others shock and surprise us. Did you know that fish swallow small stones to aid digestion?

It’s capturing these interesting behaviours on camera that properly conveys the essence of a particular species. When you’re behind the camera, it’s easy to stare through the viewfinder and get tunnel vision. But if you step back and study an animal, reading up about it beforehand, you’ll learn what you need to look out for. Many animals have giveaway moves that warn you of an impending display – which is the case with great skuas, a seabird found in the northern hemisphere.

great skua

Great Skua, photographed in Scotland (Stercorarius skua)

In this particular case, the skua was preening its feathers continuously. This is a typical thing for birds to do before flapping their wings or displaying. It’s almost like a big stretch and yawn. I waited patiently for 15 minutes while the bird preened, knowing that I would probably be rewarded with such a display afterwards (image above).

Confrontations between two animals are commonplace. If you see one animal, even if it’s of a different species, approaching another, then chances are you’ll see some sort of interaction. Take these white-tailed eagles, for example. I was pretty sure that they’d both have a disagreement over who had rights to the tasty fish laying on the ice. With my focus nailed, I kept the shutter half-pressed and fired as soon as they lifted their wings.

white tailed eagles

White-tailed Eagles, photographed in Hungary.

#2 – Humour

While animals won’t inherently try to be funny, they often do things that make us chuckle. These are usually opportunistic photos that you can’t prepare for, but being poised and ready at all moments is key to capturing them.

When I lead workshops, one of the main things I try to get my clients to realize is that as soon as you drop your camera down, you’re risking missing the shot. If your subject is in front of you, then you’ve done the hard bit of waiting for an appearance – keep your eye to the viewfinder and remain at the ready, almost like a sniper training his eye on a target.

red squirrel

Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), photographed in England.

A quick scratch from a squirrel lasting just a couple of seconds was possible to catch on camera, because I was already following its progress along the branch through the viewfinder.

Red deer

A red deer stag in the Scottish Highlands.

I had been looking to capture a stag peering through the trees, and while this wasn’t my intended outcome, I couldn’t help but click away when this stag stuck its tongue out round the tree. It’s little things like this that bring a smile to the viewer, and bring in personality and character to your wildlife photos. Although they make some chuckle more than others…

atlantic seals

#3 – Tight in the Frame

All the images I’ve shared so far in this article are fairly tight in the frame. This is a particularly useful composition technique you can use to bring the focus solely to the animal. The bokeh also helps, isolating the subject against the background – this is done using a wide aperture (and subsequently a shallow depth of field), most often successfully with a telephoto lens.

red squirrel

Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris).

When the attention of the viewer is trained on the animal alone, without distracting background elements to tear the eye away, then they feel more interacted with the animal in the image. It perhaps sounds a little cliché, but it is true. In this image of a squirrel, you can see that eye contact, along with a catchlight in the eye, really makes the photo pop.

When doing tight compositions like this, be careful not to chop limbs off half way down their length. It’s all or nothing, I always say!

#4 – Family Ties

If there’s anything humans can relate to with animals, it’s the bond between parents and offspring. Not all animals care for their young, of course, but those that do can be seen to care and work endlessly to raise their young. Take these two gannets – a male and a female – courting to reaffirm their bond each time the other returns to the nest from gathering fish.

gannet

Northern gannets (Morris bassanus).

If you can capture the parents feeding their young, even better. It doesn’t have to be a feeding behaviour though, and in particular playful shots between a family will give your shots the aww factor. Obviously, you have to be in the right place at the right time, and these particular kinds of shots require a lot of dedication and time to achieve, due to their rare nature.

barn swallow

Barn swallows feeding fledglings in British countryside.

#5 Try Something Different

Experimenting is something you’ve probably been told to do again and again – but it works. I am a particular fan of the high-key style of photography for wildlife, isolating the subject against the background by blowing out the highlights in an image. This mountain hare was grooming its fur, but as it bowed its head it looked rather solemn. The white background makes it almost look like a painting, and personally I think this is a rather intimate portrait.

Mountain Hare

Be prepared to step outside your comfort zone. That is where the photos are, that set you apart from the endless bird on a stick shots we see day to day. At first it’ll probably all go wrong, but that’s okay! You know all those rules you’ve been told? Rule of thirds, golden triangle, etc., break them, and see what happens.

#6 – Light

Ooh, it’s that scary unknown again. Light. It’s a maker or breaker for photography, and that doesn’t change when you step into nature photography either. Backlighting is particularly effective for conveying mystery and magic in an image. I used this to my advantage when photographing Peruvian spider monkeys – a primate that is unfortunately on the endangered list. Even so, the backlighting breaking through the rainforest canopy makes this image appear magical.

A backlit Peruvian spider monkey in the Amazon Rainforest in Manu, Peru.

A backlit Peruvian spider monkey in the Amazon Rainforest in Manu, Peru.

If you see interesting light like this, then be careful about your exposure. It’s important not to blow the highlights rim-lighting the animal, while at the same time keeping the individual exposed properly too. But when it works, it really works.

I feel that to end an article about character and personality, it is only right to use primates as an example. We can really relate to them, more than any other animal, due to our close relations. They’re curious, intelligent, and a clear example of an animal capable of emotions.

A male and female black-faced spider monkey stick together in the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest. These two individuals are displaying courting behaviour.

A male and female black-faced spider monkey stick together in the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest. These two individuals are displaying courting behaviour.

So keep clicking the shutter each time something of interest happens. Don’t wait and savour space on your memory card, because you might just miss something amazing.

This week we are doing a series of articles to help you do better nature photography. See previous articles here:

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Will Nicholls is a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from the UK. He has won multiple awards for his work, including the title of Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2009. Will runs a blog for nature photographers, Nature TTL, which provides tutorials and inspirational articles to readers. He also has a free eBook available called 10 Top Tips to Instantly Improve Your Nature Photos.

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  • OldPom

    The papal ‘bless you my son’ from a yellow crested cockatoo in a gum tree . Or maybe ‘get lost!’

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