There is so much more to capturing an iconic wildlife photograph than just pointing at your chosen subject and clicking that round button at the front. Thanks to advances in digital photography, there’s a lot of room for error and one has the ability to fix a lot of mistakes in post processing. That said, there’s no forgiveness for missing the pivotal moment, that moment that makes the viewer stop and go…”Wow”.
Wildlife photography is without a doubt one of the toughest photographic artforms. We photograph a subject that simply does not give a hoot about us, and it will go about its daily ritual regardless of whether it walks into the single piece of golden sunlight, or climbs up the trunk of that dark wooded Ebony. That single amazing photograph we all wish to take is not due to the animal always doing something out of the ordinary. It is simply a part of its daily ritual, just a part of its instinctive behaviour. Mating, hunting, fighting and socializing all have this trait in common. It is how easily you as the photographer can see this and then ready yourself in order to photograph it that makes the difference. You then have to ask yourself the following question; “In my quest for the ultimate wildlife photographs, would it not perhaps help to understand my subject better?” The answer is a resounding “YES!!”
As a wildlife guide that spends almost ten months of the year on a game viewer introducing guests to Africa and its beauty, I absolutely have to understand the animals I am working with. This understanding has helped me so much in terms of photography because it is almost possible to preempt an animals movements or thought patterns before they do it, giving you a second or two to get ready for the moment. Let me give you a few examples…
When a lioness peers into the distance in a relaxed manner there will be some photographic potential. But what makes that image stand out from the rest? Keep watching her and what is happening around her. A slight change in wind direction might have her sniffing the air. This will cause her to lift her strong head giving you a beautiful profile as she sniffs the air for signs of potential out-of-sight prey. Perhaps she spots something on the horizon. Often a lioness will lift her large muzzle slightly and tilt her head back giving you a strong portrait, eyes wide open and whiskers pronounced.
Waiting for these moments give your image a story; it brings them to life and draws the viewer in. There are many more examples to mention. Leopards have stunning facial features. When their whiskers and ears are perked up and those eyes are wide and open you cannot go wrong, it adds so much to your photograph. An elephant standing tall and shot from a lower angle to emphasize its size always tells a great story of strength. An intimate moment between mother and offspring is always precious. Being ready for the action when animals hunt is extremely difficult but being at the right and place and time is far too often written down to sheer luck. If you understand how leopards, lions or cheetahs hunt you can often position yourself right in the frame of action.
The moral of the story is to learn more about the animals you love to photograph. You can read books, watch wildlife documentaries or simply page through your favorite magazines or photographers profiles. Keep on learning and observing. Think carefully about what it is you want to capture. There’s a story to be told, all you need to do is to find it and capture it.
Marlon du Toit