Before I begin, let me make it clear that I do not write this post as a professional photographer. In fact quite far from it. I have had a deep interest in photography for the last couple of years and enjoy it as a hobby more than anything. The points I discuss are therefore reflections from my short two-year experience in taking photographs here at Londolozi.
In the modern digital era, photography is one of the many crafts that have grown and developed at an exceptional rate. Just a couple of decades ago, it was the norm to capture your photos on film. Then you had to go through the process of getting the film developed before you could see if you were able to capture that perfect moment, sometimes only weeks later. Whilst one cannot deny the incredible level of skill and experience required to create an exceptional photo under these conditions, the times have changed. Photography itself has advanced to a higher level. New technologies have opened new doors for those involved, and competition in this field is rampant.
While a new skill set is required to capture good photos in the digital era, it is a lot more accessible nowadays. With this in mind, the standard of what can be considered a good or great photograph is now higher. Despite this increased competition, I believe that photography, at its core, is still as dependant on composition as it was fifty years ago. The perfect image requires a delicate mixture of colours, textures and patterns that are bound together in a composed frame, allowing the subject to express a story and evoke an emotion, memory, or feeling in the viewer.
It goes without saying that in order to produce a great photograph, the photographer has to master the technical aspects. This can be challenging when it comes to wildlife photography as things can happen very quickly, sometimes unexpectedly, and under challenging conditions from bad lighting to rain. Nobody gets it right all the time, but practicing with your camera, being quick with the settings, and knowing its capabilities are all non-negotiable in getting a great shot.
What can often help in these situations is knowing – or at least having a good idea – what will happen next. This is where time and experience spent in the wilderness helps a lot. Small cues give hints to the future behaviour of the animals, enabling us to position ourselves in the best place, adjust our settings and test them before the moment has even happened, and capturing what appears to be the unexpected.
These are not necessarily easy shots to get. Over and above the technical capabilities and preparation required there is a lot of luck involved. The luxury of these ‘unexpected’ photographs though is that, more often than not, the subject is doing all the work in evoking that desired emotion in the viewer. However, we spend 90% of our time simply taking photos of animals as they go about their day-to-day activities. Very seldom do they alone provide that ‘complete’ moment.
The challenge in photography is using the subject, in its environment, to evoke a certain emotion. In researching a few things for this post, I found an article by Richard Flack, a phenomenal bird photographer who I have followed for some years now. He highlights four key aspects to consider when looking to capture a great wildlife photo which I’ll discuss below.
Wildlife Photography: Light
Light is a constant tool for photographers and is quite possibly the largest determinant in setting the mood for the frame. This is the main reason we look to photograph animals in the ‘golden hours’ around dusk and dawn; when the subject may be bathed in a soft yellowish glow, creating a sense of warmth and beauty in the image. Or the deep blue skies that linger during the twilight before sunrise and after sunset, leaving the image with an eerie, dark atmosphere.
It isn’t just the colour of light we work with; the angle is just as important. A backlit subject often gives a sense of drama and majesty while a side-lit subject gives it more of a sense of mystery. Light can be a photographer’s greatest tool and, if used correctly, can make a good photo a great one.
Wildlife Photography: Perspective
The perspective sets the scene in which the story of the image unfolds. In this, the photographer can be quite interpretive of the scene and look for unusual and unique ways to present the subject. An image captured at eye-level is often what appeals most to the viewer; a true sense of engagement between the viewer and the subject. However, with something like drone photography becoming more popular, the birds-eye view perspective has also gained huge traction. The trick is look for something unique and appealing that compliments the scene.
Photographers are then faced with the choice of how much of the frame should the subject occupy? Will the subject be small and far away with a large scenic component to the photograph, or will it be a close-up shot with your subject filling the frame, engaging the viewer in the story that the animal’s face and eyes can tell? The element of perspective in a photographer’s portfolio can truly set them apart from the rest and it is an area in which there is great opportunity to try something different.
Wildlife Photography: Patterns and Textures
Patterns and textures go hand-in-hand with perspective for me. The natural world is full of vibrant colours, quirky patterns, and interesting textures. The trick for us as photographers is to incorporate that effectively into our work in order to enhance our images. The rough skin of an elephant’s backside, the deep purple-red of a Kigelia africana flower, high wispy clouds, or the natural frame in the branches of a tree, all draw the viewer in and contribute to the story that an image can tell.
Other than the patterns and textures that are found in nature, we also have the ability to create certain elements using the camera and its settings. A slow shutter speed can be used to produce motion blur or a long exposure to create a lighting trail, for example. This again is where knowing your camera and equipment is important, not to mention putting in a bit of practice. If mastered, the details of colour, patterns and textures in a photograph can grip the viewer more than any other element, leaving them to explore the image for longer, in all its detail.
Light, perspective, patterns, and textures are all elements of a photograph that need to be considered when planning and taking a photo. However, there are certain scenarios that a photographer must be aware of; moments where subjects present themselves in all their glory. This leads to the final element…
Wildlife Photography: Moments of Pure Beauty, Intimacy, or Vulnerability
While on safari we are treated to some spectacular scenarios that take our breath away. Using a combination of the above elements, a photographer can successfully capture a frame that illustrates the rawness of nature -ultimately giving the image that ‘wow’ factor which often stems directly from the viewer building a sense of connection with the subject and being able to relate to that animal at that moment. It’s the vulnerability seen in a drinking impala, the intimacy of a playful moment between a mother leopard and her cub, or the sheer beauty and wonder of an elephant bull walking through an open clearing that creates these magic moments.