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Wildlife Photography: How to Take Great Photos of Animals

Expansive landscapes, vibrant coats of fur, and animals resting in their natural habitat all lend to a visually striking composition.

Wildlife photography is a particularly captivating genre because it allows viewers to be transported to a beautiful space they might not otherwise see, whether it’s a wild safari or a glacial spot. 

However, it’s these harsh environmental conditions and the unpredictability of wildlife that make photographing animals difficult. It’s hard enough to manage a clear image, and even harder to take innovative photographs.

Jason Clendenen first began wildlife photography in Eastern Cameroon while working as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and he has since been photographing various safari landscapes in Africa for five years.

Take a look at some of his wildlife photos and find out more about his time-tested techniques.

Be patient

African lion chases prey

Avoid poses; only photographing animals standing still removes the naturalistic element that is unique to animal photography. Keep in mind that, even when avoiding poses, you still need to be patient. 

This beautiful shot of a lion beginning his chase required Clendenen to lie in wait for two hours.

You’ll definitely need more than one try, but don’t overdo it by snapping too many photographs in succession. Instead, pay attention to the way the animals move so you can predict their behavior. Once you know what you want to see and when it might happen, then snap away.

The results of patience are a naturalistic, unposed feel despite all the time it took. The composition contains quadrants of sky, field, and water, and three different animal species are captured mid-motion. This innovative photograph makes use of natural light instead of using flash. It makes for a well-balanced and seemingly candid shot.

Lighting technique – dappled lighting

African cheetah in bushes

Lighting is, of course, one of the most basic principles of photography. The best time of day for photos without flash is the golden hour, about 1 hour after sunrise and 1 hour before sunset, when the sunlight is not harsh enough to create overexposure.

In addition to light source, another more advanced technique is to pay attention to sources of light interference.

This photograph makes use of tall grasses and branches obscuring the leopard’s body to create a subtle, dappled effect. The monochromatic colors create a nuanced, lush palette.

Fill the Frame

close up teal and yellow peacock

An animal looking into the camera is a classic shot, since it creates the sense of the creature staring right back at the viewer for an emotionally visceral effect. To achieve this, fill the frame with a single subject.

The peacock serves as a particularly dramatic subject, since its bright colors and feathery details are already a lot to look at. 

No distractions exist here, and the viewer can concentrate solely on the many textures and colors of the peacock. Jeweled greens, bright yellows, a scalloped body, and crosshatched feathers together make a detailed close shot. 

Another detail that helps create the drama in this photograph is the use of shapes and symmetry. Many of the shapes are oval and/or angular. The peacock’s head, which faces the camera, seems to be drawing closer to the viewer because of its pointy beak.

Focus on the Eyes

close up on white horse with blue eye

Similar to the technique of filling the frame, focusing on the eyes creates an emotional connection between the viewer of the photograph and the wild animal in the photograph.

To achieve this effect, make sure the eyes are in focus. Using a large aperture will help focus on the eyes by leaving other parts of the photography out of focus.

The visually striking quality of this photograph also derives from color consideration. Wild animals with a lighter fur coat are better for this photography technique because there are fewer distractions from the emphasized detail.

The presence of white in the background and foreground help draw attention to the vibrant, blue eye and the elegant eyelashes above and beneath it.

Background – make it clean, and not distracting

exotic bird perches on branch

The photograph of the bird has an impressionistic or abstract quality, thanks to a shallow depth of field that leads to a blurred effect in the background.

By using selective focus, a photographer shows a wild animal subject in front of a painterly color palette instead of an animal lost in an indistinguishable landscape of bushes.

Smaller animals are best for this wildlife photography technique, since they occupy less space in a photograph. As a result, there is high contrast between the foreground and the background.

This technique allows for a more artistic interpretation of reality. Choose natural imagery with plenty of colors that will help create a watercolor-esque effect.

Show the environment, give a sense of place

African giraffe grazes in desert

An environmental shot maximizes the amount of wildlife landscape the photographer can show. In this photograph, various points of the safari scenery appear in various areas of the frame.

Sharply defined grass in the front fades into a paler yellow, and behind silhouetted trees lie earthy tones of greenery and sky. Notice the diverse range of textures in the photograph – a hazy sky and a stark giraffe.

In addition to showing the environment, this photograph shows a single subject. This gives a sense of place, since the giraffe looking over its surroundings connotes a sense of grandeur.

Use a Telephoto Lens

close up on black ape

A telephoto lens, which has a longer focal length than the average lens, brings the photographer in close and intimate with the subject. This kind of lens is particularly useful in photographing wild animals that are dangerous or easily spooked.

By keeping yourself at a distance, you can capture these unpredictable animals on camera with the same level of detail as a slower, friendlier animal.

Close up shots like this help create a sense of drama, adding an emotive quality to the wildlife animals’ faces – in every wrinkle, tuft of fur, and glimmer of light.

Enjoyed these beautiful photographs? Browse more of Jason Clendenen’s photography and purchase prints in various formats, including metal wall hangings, fridge magnets, paper prints, desk panels, and digital downloads. Contact him for more information.

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