How to Photograph a Lion Portrait

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry Leave a Comment

When you head out on a photographic safari to Africa you are more than likely going to be spending quite  bit of time with lions.

Now unless you are very lucky, or if you have a lot of patience, a lot of this time spent will be with lions laying around not doing too much.  I am told by some that apparently it is more exciting to watch paint dry than to sit with lions waiting for something to happen but I still believe there is value to having patience.

By sitting with your subject, watching them, understanding them and respecting them you will be in a much better position to capture emotive, striking images.  Wildlife photography is about more than just getting the shot.  It’s also about experiencing and appreciating nature.

So, on a recent photo trip to the Madikwe Game Reserve we spent one afternoon with a pride of lions.  Initially they were not doing much – basically just sitting around with the occasional yawn –  but instead of leaving and looking for something a little more exciting we decided to hang around and shoot some lion portraits.

Now I have been told by some wildlife photographers that once you have a good lion portrait then that’s it.  Done.  Don’t have to worry about photographing another one.

To me those are the words of someone who does not appreciate, understand and respect their subject.  I could then just as well say that once you have a nice portrait image of your best friend you don’t have to worry about photographing them again.

When photographing humans we keep on trying again and again in order to get everything just right.   The better side.  The chin a bit higher.  The eye more open.  And the list goes on.

The same thing goes when shooting portraits of wildlife subjects so let’s have a look at a few lion portraits of the same lion, in the same sighting, shot with the same settings.

What comes to mind when you look at this image?

Do you see this as a proud, magnificent animal or do you see a lioness who is kinda looking at you thinking – what?

You would normally get this kind of look from a lion when they have been sleeping, or just staring off into the distance, and then you start approaching or make a strange sound of sorts.  To me the connection between the lioness and the viewer is not the kind I necessarily like to see in an image as the look is due to something that you did or a sound you made.

Can’t you almost see her slight annoyance?

 Same question.  What do you think, what do you feel, when looking at this image?

Proud animal?  Annoyed?  Slightly tense?

This ‘look’ happened when one of the other vehicles in our sighting started moving around to leave but came just a little bit close to her.  She is keeping a close eye on the potential threat and you can see in her face that she is not 100% comfortable with the situation.

The next step from here, which in this case did not happen, would be where she pulls her ears flat, pulls the neck slightly in and then, normally, she would get the hell out of there.

There seems to be a lot of images of lions and leopards doing the rounds where it is quite obvious that the animal is about two seconds from running away.  Yeah, it’s nice to try and get closer to your subject but do you really want to photograph a portrait where it looks like the stressed animal is about to run away?

You see, lions specifically have a huge amount of facial expressions and the more time you spent with the, and photographing them, the more you will notice them.

It is when you start seeing the subtle differences that the portraits you take of them will go from good to great.

Now, isn’t this how you would like to portray a lioness.

Proud, almost defiant, with no apparent influence from the people or vehicles around her.

At this point she was staring off into the distance which made for a perfect portrait.

Can you see the different moods in the images?  Can you see how the smallest tilt of the head can make a huge difference in how you ultimately portray your wildlife subject.

I still believe, that if you spend your time to get to know and appreciate your subject that it will shine through in your images.

When you are next out photographing portraits of wild animals slow down.  Take your time to look for moods.  Take time to look for emotions.  I think the most important thing in wildlife photography is to create image stat portray the natural world – naturally!

Even a slight nervous glance at the camera or some or other human distraction can impact an image and remove that natural splendor we all set out to capture.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this one and hopefully see some of your wildlife portraits on the Wild Eye Gallery or Wild Eye Facebook page.

Until next time.

Gerry van der Walt

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Comments 0

  1. Tristan Longo

    As soon as I come home tonight, I’ll post some 🙂 I like to spend hours with lion’s pride such a magical moment, specially when you can hold your eyes in their magnificent amber eyes, this always gives me goose bumps…

  2. Karen Gautet

    According to what you’ve been told, i think that many wildlife photographers have only the name of photograher that would suit to them. If for them, one portrait and ‘it is done” or spending hours with lions is boring, then to me they have nothing to do with wildlife!!!

  3. Lex Rock Heemstra

    Could not agree more with you Gerry. Spending time and taking time is what it is all about. Of course, who you are with can also have a huge impact. I prefer going on my own since my time is my own. No inputs with bored people who want to chase everything in one day.  I once took three and half hours to take a shot of two Zebra fighting. There were two acacia trees that formed a natural arch. It was mating season and I knew the males would rear up against one another. So I sat in my Kombi, a door mounted tripod and an old 500mm lens with huge lens hood. It looked like a stovepipe. I got my shot eventually and it was worth the wait. What helped me pass the time was the amount of cars that would come to a stop, switch off he engine and then look all over into the bush. Eventually they would start up, slowly move next to me and ask “Where are the Lions”. The responses I got when I just told them there weren’t any and I was just taking shots of Zebra, ranged from a shake of the head to some real vulgar language being thrown at me. But it helped pass the time. 

    1. Gerry van der Walt

      Great story Lex.  There is something special about taking your time, waiting for it and then getting the shot.  And it is most definitely worth the want – regardless of the comments, looks or abuse from others. 🙂

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