Shooting animal portraits presents its own set of challenges. Aditya Nair tells you how can rise above them and come back with stunning pictures.
This article was originally published in September 2010.
Like humans, animals have unique features and characteristics that distinguish them from each other. Some have big noses or ears and some have long tongues. Some are very furry and some have bodies that are smooth as velvet. A good animal portrait, just like a human portrait, highlights those unique characteristics and offers a glimpse into their nature.
Identifying That Special Something
As with any kind of photography, when you are shooting animal portraits you need to take a moment to consider what you are looking for. Ask yourself “What about this particular animal interests you? What are you looking to showcase in your photograph?” Whether it is the antlers of a deer, the long neck of a giraffe, the webbed feet of a duck, the stripes and spots on different cats or the scaly body of a fish… unique characteristics make a good point of focus for your photography.
Remember: Animals Will Not Pose
You might be able to train your pet dog or cat, but you can never ask a wild animal to pose and say ‘cheese’. If it is an animal used to human presence, talking and gesturing might give you a blank expression or elicit a weird reaction from them. But if it is animal you cannot approach, you will simply need to wait for the right pose. Understanding and anticipating its behaviour is one way to make things easy. But otherwise, patience is the answer. However, under no circumstances should you provoke an animal to get them to look in a direction you want by making funny sounds or throwing things in their direction as it can disturb them, or even harm you.
Not Always the Perfect Specimens
Needless to say, animals will not be groomed, powdered and well-attired. In fact, it is their raw appeal that makes them so beautiful. Features like large or dark eyes, vibrant colours, or the texture of their fur contribute to their appearance. Animals in the wild look and behave differently from those in captivity. The telltale scars, the musculature, and the most delicate details are more beautiful in the wild. As a photographer, you can seek to highlight their beauty in the most aesthetic way possible.
Making Them the Center of Attention
To make your subject the main focus of attention in your picture, exclude any of the unnecessary elements that may distract the viewer. Just like you would portray a human subject, you need to highlight their best features. In the field, you will not have much time to release the shutter. While a human subject will give you time to compose your frame, you need to think and act quickly in the wild. The easiest way to exclude unnecessary distractions is to zoom in close to the subject and have it fill the frame. It also allows the viewer to see details that would otherwise not be visible. With animals that are small, you could include some of the surroundings and then creatively crop the image later. To keep the animal as the center of attention, you can also manually set a larger aperture. This will blur away the background and foreground completely, limiting the area in sharp focus to just a small part of the animal.
It is in the Eyes
Similar to a human portrait, the eyes of your subject need to be really sharp. The eyes are the most compelling part of any image and even the slightest of blurs can ruin a great shot. However, while you can ask a human to be still or stay steady, you have no control over animals or their movements. Thus, it is always advisable to use a faster shutterspeed. Follow the subject through your camera’s viewfinder, always keeping the subject in sharp focus. At just the right moment, release the shutter to get a perfectly sharp shot.
Coming or Going?
Using space well is essential to good portraiture, especially when there is some sort of action involved. For example, if your subject is a tiger, it is better to make it appear as if it is walking into the frame rather than walking out of it. Similarly, it is better to have animals looking into the frame rather than out of it. On the other hand, photographic rules are meant to be broken, if there is a good enough reason to do so. In some instances, animals moving out of the frame can make a better shot. As the photographer, you can decide what works best for your portrait.
Get Down and Dirty
Usually, we take pictures by holding the camera to our eyes. Humans are taller than most animals. This difference in height is noticeable in photographs, sometimes even when you are taking pictures of animals at a distance with telephoto lenses. As with humans, photographing an animal at their eye level creates a sense of closeness between it and the viewer. If the animal is looking towards the camera, the eyes will rivet the viewer. This might mean getting down on your knees or lying on the ground to get a good shot. You can break the rules here too! You can shoot a tall or large animal like an elephant or giraffe from a low angle to exaggerate their height or to frame it against the sky. Similarly, you can experiment with a normal or a wide-angle lens to enhance the feeling of space or to include some of the landscape.
A Distinctly Humorous Side
Animals can have very human-like expressions, postures and mannerisms. Some animals also do hilarious things from time to time. Some animals look confused or can seem to be smiling or gnashing their teeth at you. Others can yawn or look sleepy, bored, or pleased. Yet others will stick their tongue out at you. Be on the lookout for animals making funny gesture or expressions. Using the burst mode function of your camera will enable you to capture multiple shots from which you can pick and choose later. It will also allow you to freeze sudden movement spontaneously.
Another Kind of Human Portrait
Treat animal portraits like you would a portrait of a human being. Aspire to photograph the perfect posture, moment, expression and mood. Look for a play of light and shadows, and compose your frame with care. Animals portraits are lot of fun to shoot. While we enjoy making pictures of them, let us not forget that human beings are a part of the animal world too. They form a part of our ecosystem and we need to be in harmony with them in order to survive on our planet. So while we have fun with animal portraiture, let us always treat them with the respect they deserve.