Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Private Guide

What Makes a Good Wildlife Portrait?

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry 4 Comments

The most important thing in wildlife photography is to shoot what you feel.

It’s about more than just capturing a slice of time and sharing what a scene or subject looked like at the time.  It’s about inviting the reader of your image to get lost in the frame and allow their imagination to transport them to that moment in time.

Now I’ve never been a fan of boxing images into a category such as Animalscapes, Animal Interaction or Animal Portraits as I feel that these categories stunts free, creative thinking and makes us want to force whatever we see in our viewfinders into a specific box and it’s something I never do when I photograph for myself.

However, there are most definitely times when there is great value to thinking in these terms and to shoot for a specific category or type of image.  It is something that I push photographers on my workshops to do during certain exercises and this approach can be especially useful when you are still new to wildlife photography or you hit one of those inevitable ruts when it just feels like nothing really works and your images all start looking the same.

So with that said let’s take a look at what makes a good wildlife portrait.

If you look at the definition of a portrait in photography it is often said that it’s an image in which the subjects head, shoulders and upper body fills the largest part of the frame.  That’s all fine and well and probably a good, solid place to start from but doesn’t it sound just a bit boring?

The best description I’ve seen is this.

A portrait is a photograph of a person – or in our case an a wildlife subject – in which the face and its expression is predominant.

I like that because it allows you, as the photographer, to not just fill the frame with a subject but to rather go after the expression and emotion of the moment and that is what we should all be going for.

So, for the purposes of this post and the three examples below let’s use that as the guideline for creating an animal portrait.

Let the face and expression be the most dominant part of the frame. (And yes, those of you that know me and have traveled with me knows that I really wanted to go down the road of ‘visual mass’ right there but will save it for another time.)

Portrait 1

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Private Guide

This is a straight forward example and a very easy type of portrait to create as the lion’s face fills the frame.  Even if this cat was less awake you would still not have the choice but to look at his face.

Does this work according to our definition of face and expression domination the frame?

Absolutely!

Portrait 2

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Private Guide

Pulled back and not quite as tight as the previous example this image is still about the lion’s face and expression.

There is nothing that fights for visual attention in the frame and the viewer of this image will no doubt get pulled back to the face and eyes again and again.

Successful portrait?

Yeah, I’d like to think so.

Example 3

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Private Guide

Ok, so what about this one?

To me the expression on the lion’s face is a very strong focal point in the frame and one I keep on coming back to every time I look at the image.  Surely, based on our definition, this means it’s a good animal portrait?

Do you think the animal’s face and expression is predominant in the frame?  Is it an animal portrait?  Or do you think that this is now too much of a wide shot and the subject’s face doesn’t matter anymore?  Is it an animal in environment image rather than a portrait?

It’s these type of questions that makes me dislike the categorising of images.

In the field this kind of thinking will make you look at and photograph a scene in a very boring and non-creative way.  In a predicable way.

Thinking like this will make you miss out on that wonderful grey area in between these predefined categories where there is a lot of photographic magic waiting for us.

A lot of people like to overthink these kind of things and then spend hours in online forums criticising other people’s images based on their categorised view of creativity and composition in wildlife photography.

Do not get stuck in this kind of behaviour as it will do nothing to feed your creativity or make your photography any better.  On the contrary, I know of too many people who have lost their passion for wildlife photography or feel dejected after going down this rabbit hole.  Don’t.

If you really really have to keep whatever categories you feel you need to in the back of your mind do it but don’t let them cloud your photographic judgement.  I will keep pushing my workshop attendees to think like this to help their overall creative process and then I will help them to see the bigger picture and move away from this type of thinking.

Shoot what you see and shoot what you feel regardless of where it fits in.

The only three questions you have to ask yourself is this:

  1. Is this a successful image?
  2. Does it show my viewer what I wanted to show them?
  3. Does it make them feel what I wanted them to feel?

If you can answer yes to those questions it really doesn’t matter what category of image you are dealing with.

Until next time,

Gerry

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About the Author

Gerry van der Walt

I am a private and specialist photographic safari guide, public speaker, co founder of Wild Eye and wildlife photographer. Visit my website at www.gerryvanderwalt.com or follow my journey on Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and Periscope.  I look forward to changing the way you see the world! Have you checked out The Wildlife Photography Podcast?

Comments 4

  1. lynn emery

    Agree totally!!! I have several images of scarface one of which has been cropped close to include only his lower face…sounds weird I know…but for me it works and shows how majestic he is…..I have it framed at 50inches and its magical!!..Like you say its not just about taking a picture of a lion its about the atmosphere and ‘personality’ of the animal 🙂

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  2. Phil Abraham

    Though provoking article Gerry 👍🏻
    Infind I have an internal conversation running when I make this kind of image. Using the 3 images as an example …..” Is the picture of ‘the’ lion or ‘a’ lion.” Top two certainly ‘the’. The third could be either depending on the intent …. Lion x , an element of their dally life ( as part of a presentation, for example), or a broader view of savannah life. Reference the three questions, that is a tricky one … the first two you have full control of all aspects and should always be able to answer ‘yes’ or hit the delete button in the editing process. The third question is , to a greater extent, out of your control and would be heavily influenced by the viewers experience, knowledge and beliefs. There will , at one extreme, be people who have seen ‘Scarface’ and view him , not just as a recognisable male but, with that strange need to anthropomorphise every animal ( thanks Pixar😜) , almost as a friend or family member. Others , at the other extreme, with maybe little or no Africa/ big cat experience , or even a negative cat experience such as an attack , may read our carfully crafted image in an entirly different, and unexpected , way ….. But now we stray into the murky waters of semiotics…….l

    A great thought provoker Gerry, Thanks

  3. Pingback: Be Inspired By: Animal Portraits - Wild Eye

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