Wildlife Photography or Animal Portraits?

Zoos are excellent places to make animal portraits, if your heart can stand it.

Generally speaking, wildlife photos work best when they capture an animal doing something. Anyone can take a picture of a bird perched on a wire, but a patient, experienced photographer captures images of the bird landing on the wire, or mating in mid-air, or hunting or building a nest. However, I’m just a backyard photographer who occasionally gets to visit a National Park or the local zoo, and I don’t have to impress a magazine or stock editor with images illustrative of animal behavior. I have the luxury of attempting animal portraits now and then.

The zoo also provides a color palette you won't always get in your backyard. The diffusion effect results from shooting through cage wires.

Of course, there's a whole world of activity in your friendly neighborhood lantana. One famous photographer claimed that as a youth, he spent the entire summer traveling with his camera, and got almost halfway across his backyard.

Interesting light and a compelling subject can overcome a multitude of sins, such as the soft focus caused by shooting at an angle through thick, dirty plexiglass. Technical flaws notwithstanding, this is one of my favorite images.

Animal portraits require great patience, because you cannot direct the models, and you can only control the background to the extent you can reposition yourself. As with any portrait, finding or creating the right light for the subject can make or break the shot. The first ape image was shot in bright sunlight with strong fill flash, whereas the second ape image was natural light streaming through trees. The bird was in the open shade of its cage, whereas the moth was in bright afternoon sun. Four lighting scenarios, and four very different looks.

And, as we find with many people portraits, technical excellence does not always carry the day. The moody lighting and plaintive expression of the ape in the blurry picture get me every time.


Filed under Lighting, Nature Photography, Portraiture, Professional vs. Amateur

2 responses to “Wildlife Photography or Animal Portraits?

  1. I think wildlife photography is much more interesting. In animal portraits, you usually only see the head and not much of the environment around them. In Wildlife Photography you are able to see the whole subject, and the environment they are in.

  2. I don’t see a clear distinction between “wildlife images” and “Animal Portraits.” In fact portraits are just another aspect of wildlife photography and they are just as valid and as action or behavioral photographs. Knowledge of animal portraiture is a critical to anyone who wants to be an adavnced wildlife photographer.

    As you say in your blog “Animal portraits require great patience” and I will add “knowledge of the animals you are shooting“. You may be correct in saying that anyone can take a picture of a bird on a wire but taking a picture and creating a compelling or artistic photograph are two different things. We all know that anyone can take a picture of another person but it takes a knowledgeable portrait photographer to take that photograph to a higher level. The same can be said for wildlife photographers. An experienced wildlife photographer using light and composition can make a portrait of an animal into a work of art.

    Like any form of photography, Wildlife Photography works best when you are able to capture a compelling or interesting image of your subject. It does not matter if you are shooting action or if your subject is displaying a particular behavior or even if your subject is static (a portrait) it is still wildlife photography.

    Even captive animals (that are not normally keep as pets or livestock) fit the category of wildlife photography. Responsible photographers and publications should note when a photographed animal is captive, but a tiger is still a tiger even in captivity. A well executed photograph captured in a zoo is no less valid as a “wildlife photograph” then the same shot taken in the wild.

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