Making wildlife photography intimate

Andrew Beck Andrew 8 Comments

Last week I wrote about how I felt that the world of macro photography was so much more intimate than wildlife photography. It’s safe to say that when it comes to proximity to our subjects these two genres are worlds apart from one another.

By sheer virtue of the fact that macro photography requires one to be very close to the subject, it is in essence more intimate. I finished off the post asking how we could make wildlife photography with its big lenses and often dangerous subject matter more intimate and didn’t get as many responses as I had hoped.

Perhaps people disagreed with my feelings that wildlife photography wasn’t intimate, regardless, here are my thoughts

Eliminate Barriers

Wildlife is wild and can be quite dangerous. Most of the time when we are out on a photographic safari we will be in a vehicle with varying degrees of cover. In east Africa most of the vehicle are modified landcruisers with a pop-top roof and additional windows on the side of the vehicle. In southern African safari destinations such as Botswana and South Africa the vehicles are slightly different (especially at private game lodges and concessions) and tend to be a bit more open – either with or without a canopy.

Either way, you are pretty much vehicle bound and this often means that you are limited as to how close you can get to your subject and the degree to which you can explore different angles and compositions. Most of the private game lodges, concessions and areas that we operate in allow off-road driving which means that we can get a bit more intimate in terms of getting closer and parking the vehicle in the best possible position.

Get low

Another down side to being vehicle bound is that you are almost always positioned higher than your subject. Often images taken from the back row of a game drive vehicle give a feeling of “man over beast” and suggest that our subjects are inferior. These types of images are common and do nothing to enhance the natural beauty or nature of these magnificent creatures.

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Get down low and show your subject at eye level and you now tell a completely different story. Sometimes we get lucky and our subject will perch on an elevated feature in the landscape but this is rare.

Making Wildlife Photography Intimate Andrew

Again, when operating in a private lodge or concession there tends to be a bit more flexibility and you may be able to alight from the vehicle to get down low but this should always be done with express permission from your guide. Don’t forget to try and get low for some of the other subjects and opportunities you might have – it may not be the eye level lion portrait you so badly want to capture but it still adds a lot more to the story and is often not that difficult or dangerous to do.

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Being on foot in the bush as with our Mana Pools and Pafuri Walking Trail photo safaris has its own challenges but makes getting down low that much easier.

Mana Pools, South Luangwa, Wild Eye, Marlon du Toit

Of course one of  the best ways to get down low is in a sunken hide (as we do in our Madikwe Wildlife Photography Workshop) where not only are you at ground level, but there is nothing in-between you and your subject. Rather than peering through a glass pane you are literally inches away from your subjects and can hear the gravel crunch beneath there feet as they move, hear the water dripping from their mouth as they drink and smell them as they brush past the front of your lens.

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Hides like this really do make photographing wildlife that much more intimate. You are up close and personal, with no barriers and more often than not, below eye level.

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Another way to get down low is by means of being on a boat with low gunwales. The opportunities for capturing compelling images of wildlife from a low angle are almost unlimited on something like our Chobe Photo safari.

Andrew Beck Wild Eye Chobe Photo Safari-2

Know your subject

This is one of the variables that the Wild Eye team really do like to push in wildlife photography and is one of the reasons that Penny has written her Field Guides Association os South Africa (FGASA) exam recently. When you understand your subject you are able to devleop an intimate connection to them through understanding and predicting their behaviour. This can be something as simple as position your vehicle at the edge of a game path which a leopard is clearly moving along or as sometimes happens, position your vehicle at a feature in the landscape that you, through your understanding of animal behaviour, feel that your subject will move to.

A classic example of this was two years ago when our team visited Marlon at Singita and followed a female leopard and her youngster into an open clearing. The two played around in the Euclea trees before rolling around in the grass and eventually moving in a definite direction. I distinctly remember Gerry, myself and Marlon instantly turning our attention away from the pair and looking into the distance in the direction that they were moving. Almost at the exact moment we said to each-other “lets go and sit at that fallen Marula Tree”.

We left the pair as they slowly continued in the direction of the Marula tree and quickly got ourselves into position. Predicting the movement of the animals gave us time to assess the light and position ourselves in what we felt would be the best position possible. All we needed was for them to actually make their way to the tree!

After briefly sniffing around a nearby thicket the pair did indeed make their way onto the fallen Marula, right where we wanted them to be.

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As a guide, I can tell you that there is nothing more rewarding than explaining to guests that we are briefly going to leave the animals to get into a better position ahead of them and actually having the animals do exactly what you had predicted. It may not happen all the tim but when it does, it is a great feeling.

Not only because the guests are in the perfect position, but because on some level you feel that you have connected with your subject. The moment is transformed form what would otherwise be purely observatory and reactive to a one which is intimate on a level far deeper than what most will ever be able to comprehend.

Understanding and being able to predict animal behaviour also translates into your images. You’ll be able to look for specific queues for behaviour that you may want to capture and with an understanding of the behaviour, will be able to place it in context. Subtle changes in body posture and ear positions alone can make or break an image.

Take a spotted hyena for example.

Always on the move, galloping along with that typical rocking motion and gait that allows them to cover massive distances…

Penny Robartes - Hyena Pan

Or a leopard which is by nature shy and illusive…

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Understanding the essence and nature of any subject on an intimate level helps you capture images which showcase the very nature of these magnificent creatures in a very powerful manner.

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About the Author

Andrew Beck

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Very few people can tell you what their passion in life is. Even fewer will be able to tell you that what they do for a living is in fact their passion. My love for the bush and conservation took me on journey which would not only allow me to explore the continent which fascinates me so much, but to share my passion for photography and conservation with others. Be sure to check out my my website and instagram account.

Comments 8

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      Andrew Beck

      Thanks Marna, I know we chatted about some of this during our time together last year, always good to keep reminding ourselves of this side of photography.

  1. DIANAH

    Thank you Andrew for these practical ideas to take more intimate wildlife photographs. Your passion for wildlife and photography shines through in your writing .

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  2. Martha Myers

    Andrew: I’ve been reflecting on this topic ever since you first raised it. What I most appreciated about your series of frog images was not only how close and low you were, but how much space you left around your subject. What a wee frog in a big world, I thought. From there, it was but a short leap to think that, from the inside out, we humans seem so large and important. But put some space around us, and we become no different from that frog. It’s that reaction which made the images intimate, for me. They were just up close enough to be[come] personal. And when reviewing my own work, I return most often to those images which captured an expression or an interaction which hit home, so to speak. The cautionary look one lion gave another at a kill brought back memories of our late and much beloved golden retriever, who did exactly the same thing. A sopping wet cheetah in the pouring rain took me back to those miserably cold and wet hiking trips I’ve taken. Telling intimate stories with macro photography pose special challenges because what’s personal and private to one viewer may not be to another. But if you sometimes shoot from the heart, you just might find an appreciative target. Thank you.

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      Andrew Beck

      Hi Martha

      Thank you so much for the kind words. I agree with you, what makes an intimate image is often very subjective and personal. I find it very difficult to detach the emotional side of an image (the events leading up to that moment, the finer details of the sighting, the environment etc etc) from the actual image itself. Capturing those little moments which translate from an image and resonate in our own personal lives is what its all about…

      Glad you enjoyed the series!

  3. Mark Booysen

    Great article Andrew – a MUST to remember …

    I think the greatest challenge for “amateurs” like me is to get out of the mind set of “A leopard !!!!” and pushing the shutter down as many times as possible, ignoring composition, lighting etc

    It is very easy to get caught up in the moment as we are constantly concerned that the animal might walk into bush etc never to reappear…

    I cannot wait to get back into the bush to put these valuable lessons into practice… thanks

    Thanks for an amazing website – I click on it everyday to check for updates!

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      Andrew Beck

      Hi Mark

      you are quite right, it is too easy to get carried away by the charismatic species and forget about the other opportunities that are on offer. I hope your next visit to the bush yields goo results!

      Thanks for the kind words and for taking the time to leave a comment.

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