Are your wildlife photos feeling a little bit uninspired? Animal subjects are often fascinating to observe and photograph, but if you want to create compelling wildlife images, it’s important to go beyond technical mastery and produce images that convey both the character and personality of the subject.
You might be a bit skeptical here, but most animals do have personalities. I am doubtful this applies to certain creatures (e.g., ants), but mammals in particular have traits and habits. Some may be bold and investigate new things, whereas others may retreat and shy away from disturbances. I encourage you to view this as the animal’s personality and use your wildlife photography skills to capture it on camera!
It’s definitely not easy to get this right, though. A still photo freezes a single moment in time, which means you need to work hard if you want to translate an animal’s personality into a single shot. In this article, I share six tips to help you out – and I also offer plenty of examples so you can see what I mean.
Ready to start creating animal photos with character? Let’s dive right in, starting with my first tip:
1. Show unique behaviors
As a zoologist, I am fascinated by animal behavior. Some of these behaviors seem predictable – foraging and hunting, for instance – whereas others can shock and surprise us. (Did you know that fish swallow small stones to aid digestion?)
It’s often by capturing these interesting behaviors that you can convey the essence of a particular species. If you can photograph a bird, a bear, or a monkey behaving as they do in nature, the resulting images can give the viewer a real sense of that animal’s personality.
But how do you capture these behaviors on camera? When you’re staring through the viewfinder, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and focus purely on creating a technically perfect shot of your wildlife subject. If you take a step back and study the animal, however, you may start to notice behavior patterns that you can photograph.
It also pays to read up about your target species ahead of time. If you know you’ll be photographing a certain type of fox, for example, see if you can find research online that discusses any unusual behaviors. You might also look for videos that show the fox in its natural habitat; these can help you get a sense of its behavior before ever encountering it.
Then, when you’re in the field, try to remain as alert and observant as possible. Many animals have giveaway moves that warn you of an impending display – such as great skuas, a seabird found in the Northern Hemisphere, which I photographed while stretching:
In this particular case, the skua was preening its feathers continuously. Birds often do this before flapping their wings or displaying, so I waited patiently for 15 minutes while the bird preened, knowing that I would probably be rewarded with a display afterward (and as you can see, I was!).
Confrontations between two animals are also commonplace and certainly worth photographing. If you see animals approaching one another (even if they’re two different species), chances are that you’ll see some sort of interaction.
Take the white-tailed eagles in the next image, for example. I was pretty sure they’d both have a disagreement over the tasty fish lying on the ice. I made sure to nail the focus in advance, then I kept the shutter half-pressed and fired as soon as they lifted their wings.
2. Capture humorous moments
While animals don’t try to be funny, they often do things that make us chuckle – and if you can capture the moment, the resulting images are often full of personality.
Unfortunately, these photos often can’t be predicted in advance. Instead, you need to know your camera well and remain poised and ready at all times.
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 already done the hard part (waiting for an appearance), so make sure you keep your eye on the viewfinder and remain at the ready, almost like a sniper training an eye on a target.
This next image, which features a scratching red squirrel, was only available for a moment. The squirrel lifted its leg, and I was able to fire my camera because I was already following its progress along the branch through the viewfinder.
Before capturing this next shot, I had been hoping to capture a stag peering through the trees. Then, when he stuck his tongue out, I couldn’t help but click away! I didn’t plan for it to happen, but it’s these little moments that bring a smile to the viewer and bring personality and character to your wildlife photos.
3. Fill the frame
Not all great wildlife photography features frame-filling compositions, but it’s a very effective way to bring the focus solely to the animal while also magnifying little details that add extra personality to the shot. If you look back at the photos displayed above, you’ll see that they all use the frame-filling technique, and it’s certainly an approach I encourage you to try.
Of course, as any wildlife photographer will know, filling the frame isn’t so easy. You need a long lens, and you also need to develop some stalking skills so you can get close without scaring the animals off. If you’re able to be patient and move toward your subjects slowly, it can make a huge difference!
It can also be helpful to create plenty of background bokeh (i.e., blur), which will isolate the subject and prevent the background from distracting the viewer. A long lens will increase the quality and intensity of the blur, but you’ll also need to use a wider aperture to really enhance the effect.
Ultimately, when the attention of the viewer is focused on the animal alone and there are zero distracting background elements tearing the eye away, there will be a deeper connection between the viewer and the animal. It perhaps sounds a little clichéd, but it really is true! In the above image of a squirrel, you can see that the eye contact – along with a catchlight in the eyes – really makes the shot pop, yet it’s the tighter composition and background blur that keeps your attention focused on the squirrel.
Pro tip: When doing tight compositions like this, be careful not to chop limbs off halfway. Either include the entire limb or crop it away entirely!
4. Show family ties
If there’s anything humans can relate to, it’s the bond that animal parents have with their offspring. Not all animals care for their young, but those that do can be seen caring and working endlessly to raise their children.
For example, look at how these two gannets reaffirm their bond each time the other returns to the nest after gathering fish:
If you can capture familial interactions like these, your photos will look interesting, unique, and heartwarming all at once. And if you can photograph parents feeding their young, even better:
It doesn’t have to be a feeding behavior, though! Playful shots that depict a wildlife family will also give your shots the aww factor. Obviously, you have to be in the right place at the right time, and these kinds of shots do require a lot of dedication and time to achieve, but they’re often worth the effort!
5. Try something different
As a photographer, how many times have you been told that you can improve your shots through experimentation? Yes, it’s oft-repeated advice, but it really, truly works, and I encourage you to get experimental and creative when approaching your wildlife photography.
You might try capturing wildlife with an all-black background, or you might use a remote control to capture close-ups using a wide-angle lens. You could use a slow shutter speed and a panning technique to convey motion, or you could shoot from an unusually low or high angle for a new perspective.
I myself am a fan of the high-key style of wildlife photography, where you isolate the subject against the background by blowing out the highlights in an image:
The mountain hare displayed above was grooming its fur, but when it bowed its head, it looked rather solemn. The white background makes the shot look painterly, and I personally think it’s a rather intimate portrait.
Be prepared to step outside your comfort zone. That’s how you’ll get the photos that set you apart from the endless bird-on-a-stick shots we see day after day. Things may go wrong at first, but that’s okay! Really challenge yourself to photograph creatively, and see what you can come up with.
6. Use light unconventionally
Light makes or breaks pretty much any form of photography, and wildlife photography is no exception. Most wildlife shooters like to use golden-hour front light (a common tip is to “point your shadow at the subject”), but while this can be effective, you can produce especially interesting shots by going against the grain.
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. The monkeys would have looked fine when front lit, but the backlight breaking through the rainforest canopy created a magical result:
You might also play with shade-sun combinations, where your subject is covered in shade but the background is lit by the sun. And test out some side lighting, too, which can give your images a wonderful sense of three-dimensionality.
One final tip: If you do use light in an unconventional way, be careful about your exposure. Backlight, for instance, can cause you to blow out the highlights around the animal, which is a big problem – so make sure you select your camera settings carefully. When it works, though, it really works!
Creating wildlife photos with character and personality: final words
Well, there you have it:
Six tips to capture plenty of character and personality in your wildlife shots. Hopefully, you now feel inspired to head out with your camera and create some unique images.
At the end of the day, I’d really just recommend that you keep clicking the shutter each time something of interest happens. Don’t wait and try to save space on your memory card. Otherwise, you might just miss something amazing!
Now over to you:
Do you have any tips for conveying character in wildlife photography that we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- 6 Tips for Capturing Character and Personality in Wildlife Photography
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES