Knowing what is in and around your frame

Johan van Zyl Johan Leave a Comment

It often happens that we put so much emphasis on the technical stuff, the camera, the lens, shutter speeds, ISO’s, Apertures that we forget about what is actually happening in the frame.

I suppose this could also come down to evolving as a photographer.

When we start we shoot on P mode (Professional right?) No Program Mode.

We then think this is a easy game, you just point at your subject and fire away.  You can see its a Lion, so its a good photo.  We have no idea about shutter speeds or apertures or anything like that.  We got a photo of a Lion and it is AMAZING!

We then explore the world of photography.  We read blogs, magazines, we look at other people’s work and we then wonder “How on earth did they do that??”

At this point you either join a Digital Photography Course, or you play with camera in hand, figuring out how everything works and what results you get.  Things make more sense now and your images are improving the more you photograph, but after a trip you are trying to filter through a million and one images because you didn’t want to miss the shot.

Naturally the more you go on safari and the more varied your portfolio becomes, the less you “overshoot” a scene and the more selective and creative you become.  You start looking for specific moments and movements.  This is the part that makes one of the biggest differences in people’s photography I believe and the part that I really enjoy passing onto my clients.


Look what has been presented to you and look for any possible distractions.  This could be a branch in the way, including bright sky that doesn’t really add to your frame, trying to include too much of the scene.  Most of the time, simpler is better.

Look for possible distracting elements, like this branch going across the face of the Leopard.  By changing position if possible, this can be avoided.

Branches can often add to an image, especially when photographing naturally secretive animals like Leopard.  By selecting a shallow depth of field and keeping the focal point on the Leopard’s eyes, it will blur the leaves in front of the Leopard, whilst keeping the subjects eyes in focus.

When an animal is moving, wait for certain moments that show that movement like a paw lifted up, a tail flicking up, an intent stare.  Once you look for these moments, you will not only save yourself some time by not having to go through a million images, but you will also leave with better wildlife images.

Exactly the same scene, taken a split second from each other.  In the first image the Leopard almost feels off balance, about to fall over.  By looking at the frame and waiting for the Leopard to lift it’s paw, your are now creating an image that indicates movement.


Knowing what is happening outside of your frame could also help you capture a particular moment.  When photographing predators, if there are potential prey species close by, one might get a very intent stare by the predator.  If birds are flying over, there is a very good chance that Lions, Leopard and even Cheetahs might glance up to look at them.

Young Elephant Bulls will often shake their heads when at a water points and there are some water birds present.  These are all things that one learns by spending time in the field, and I believe, is where a good photographic guide becomes very valuable.

More often than not, Leopard will pause for a brief second, planning their best route down the tree.

After hearing a flock of Hadeda Ibis and seeing that they were going to fly over us, we focussed on the Male Lion, knowing there is a good chance that he would look up to see what was making the noise.

To sum it up, yes, understand the basic technical aspects of wildlife photography, but pay very close attention to your subject and the surroundings of your scene.


About the Author

Johan van Zyl


The opportunity of visiting some of the wildest, undisturbed areas and sharing my passion for wildlife, conservation and photography with like minded people is a privilege that I am forever grateful.

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