What Makes a Good Wildlife Portrait?

What makes a good wildlife portrait? The most important thing in wildlife photography is to shoot what you feel.

It's about more than just capturing a slice of time and sharing what a scene or subject looked like at the time.  It's about inviting the viewer of your image to get lost in the frame and allow their imagination to transport them to that moment in time.

Now I've never been a fan of boxing images into a category such as Animalscapes, Animal Interaction or Animal Portraits as I feel that these categories stunts free, creative thinking and makes us want to force whatever we see in our viewfinders into a specific box and it's something I never do when I photograph for myself.

However, there are most definitely times when there is great value to thinking in these terms and to shoot for a specific category or type of image.  It is something that I push photographers on my safaris to do, this approach can be especially useful when you are still new to wildlife photography or you hit one of those inevitable ruts when it just feels like nothing really works and your images all start looking the same.

So with that said let's take a look at what makes a good wildlife portrait.

If you look at the definition of a portrait in photography it is often said that it's an image in which the subject's head, shoulders and upper body fills the largest part of the frame.  That's all fine and well and probably a good, solid place to start from but doesn't it sound just a bit boring?

The best description I've seen is this:

A portrait is a photograph of a person - or in our case a wildlife subject - in which the face and its expression is predominant.

I like that because it allows you, as the photographer, to not just fill the frame with a subject but to rather go after the expression and emotion of the moment and that is what we should all be going for.

So, for the purpose of this post and the three examples below let's use that as the guideline for creating an animal portrait.

Let the face and expression be the most dominant part of the frame.

What Makes a Good Wildlife Portrait?

This is a straight forward example and a very easy type of portrait to create as the lion's face fills the frame.

Does this work according to our definition of face and expression domination the frame?


What Makes a Good Wildlife Portrait?

Pulled back and not quite as tight as the previous example this image is still about the lion's face and expression.

There is nothing that fights for visual attention in the frame and the viewer of this image will no doubt get pulled back to the face and eyes again and again.

Successful portrait?

Yeah, I'd like to think so.

What Makes a Good Wildlife Portrait?

Ok, so what about this one?

To me the expression on the lion's face is a very strong focal point in the frame and one I keep on coming back to every time I look at the image.  Surely, based on our definition, this means it's a good animal portrait?

Do you think the animal's face and expression is predominant in the frame?  Is it an animal portrait?  Or do you think that this is now too much of a wide shot and the subject's face doesn't matter anymore?  Is it an animal in environment image rather than a portrait?

It's these type of questions that makes me dislike the categorizing of images.

In the field this kind of thinking will make you look at and photograph a scene in a very boring and non-creative way.  In a predictable way.

Thinking like this will make you miss out on that wonderful grey area in between these predefined categories where there is a lot of photographic magic waiting for us.

A lot of people like to overthink these kind of things and then spend hours in online forums criticizing other people's images based on their categorized view of creativity and composition in wildlife photography.

Do not get stuck in this kind of behavior as it will do nothing to feed your creativity or make your photography any better.  On the contrary, I know of too many people who have lost their passion for wildlife photography or feel dejected after going down this rabbit hole.  Don't.

If you really really have to keep whatever categories you feel you need to in the back of your mind, do it but don't let them cloud your photographic judgement.  I will keep pushing my workshop attendees to think like this to help their overall creative process and then I will help them to see the bigger picture and move away from this type of thinking.

Shoot what you see and shoot what you feel regardless of where it fits in.

The only three questions you have to ask yourself is this:

  1. Is this a successful image?
  2. Does it show my viewer what I wanted to show them?
  3. Does it make them feel what I wanted them to feel?

If you can answer yes to those questions it really doesn't matter what category of image you are dealing with.

Until next time,


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