Paw, Tail, Ears, Eyes.
That’s it. The Magic Formula.
When photographing big cats – but not just them, not by any means – there are a few boxes to tick to really make the photo pop. We talked about eye glint last week, which was obviously fairly specific, but now we’re zooming out a bit more and looking at the whole animal, and more specifically as it’s walking.
That is the key word here: “walking”. Some of these pointers apply in other situations, but all four are only really applicable when the animal is walking and its full body is visible.
Now, I only learnt this whole quadfecta (whats one up from a trifecta?) late in the game, but it makes so much more sense now why some photos are more eye-catching than others.
Have a look at this picture of an Ntsevu lioness:
Her expression is fairly intent (she was staring at an Nyala bull on the bank of the Sand river directly behind our vehicle), and it’s hard to tear your eyes away. But WHY is it an appealing photo?
Let’s go through it according to the formula:
Eyes: Both open. Pupils Visible. Eye glint.
Ears: Both pointed forward. Crucial.
Paw: Raised, implying movement and therefore heightening the sense of anticipation in the photo.
Tail: Visible, ideally in mid-flick or movement.
It’s tricky to get all four lined up at the same time, but that’s exactly why it’s so much harder to capture a truly eye-catching image.
The following photo of the Ntsevu lionesses walking down a road illustrates it nicely:
The first lioness ticks the boxes, in almost exactly the same way as the first photo, she’s just looking to the side a bit more rather than at the camera.
As one goes back down the line however, the lionesses don’t quite make the cut. The second one is almost there, but her right ear is twisted slightly backwards, so we have to be brutal and disqualify her.
The third female has her ears back, her eyes closed and her tail isn’t visible, so she’s a massive sub-par for the course.
It’s the same for this leopard photo:
Ear twisted, tail hidden and paws still on the ground (pretty much). Plus she was close to the vehicle and I was therefore shooting down, which reduces the impact of the picture. It’s still a photo of a leopard, which is always lovely to capture, but it’s a long way from being anything great.
Technological advancements like big lenses and remote triggers can help massively when it comes to wildlife photography, as in the case of the photo of the Nkoveni female above, but there’s always a fair amount of luck involved. She too has her tail out, ears forward, eyes open and paw raised in this photo, but it was the only one of about 30 rapid-fire pics that made the cut. In the rest she was either blinking, swivelling an ear, hiding her tail or a combination of the above.
We can’t make an animal do what we want, but just remember the above four things to look for when photographing wildlife on the move; put your camera on high frame-rate and take a few more pictures and hope for the best.
And when browsing through your images in Lightroom after the event, you’ll know which ones to look for…