Wildlife Portraits are the easiest wildlife images to capture – Right?

Well technically this may be true, but what really distinguishes your wildlife portrait from just a snapshot of a wild animal?

What can you do to really make your wildlife portraits stand out?

When photographing wildlife portraits, it is important to consider how you are going to frame that particular subject. This is definitely easier with a zoom lens as you can try different compositions.

The easiest way is to make a shot list (mental or written). For portraits the 3 things that you want to consider are:

Medium Close Up/Full Body Portrait. A classic portrait where the entire animal fills up the frame. The common mistake here is that the tip of the tail or a wing could be cut off by mistake.

Close Up/Head Shot. If you want to crop the subject, do it intentionally. The Head shot usually just features the head and shoulder. This showcases detailed expressions and emotions.

Extreme Close Up. Use to express a specific detail in the subject. It can add interest and mystery to the image.

The advantage of having a shot list is that it makes you think about how you can make the most of the subject that you are photographing and the type of portrait that you want to create.

What makes a good wildlife portrait?

An impacting portrait aims to draw people’s attention straight to the animal in the image, so they feel that they are in your shoes looking at it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t

It is not easy to create good portraits that make the viewer go “Wow”

The Power of the Eyes

If you look at a portrait of an animal, it is likely to have a catchlight in the eye. This is that small, white light in the black pupil caused by reflected light. This tiny feature can create a huge amount of impact by bringing “life” to the image.

It is not easy to do as you cannot move the sun or the subject, but as long as the animal is not in shade then you should see a catchlight appear.


Creating eye contact with wildlife in your photo instantly grabs the viewer’s attention. It is sometimes hard to do, but if you sit quietly and wait patiently that is usually enough to get the animal to look in your direction without causing any distress.

Eye Level

Getting onto the same eye level as your subject really adds to an image. Even if it’s just a couple of feet lower, the difference can be huge. It changes the sense of perspective.

Humans are much taller than a huge number of animals, so it often involves getting down on the ground. Don’t be afraid to get muddy, as the results will be worth it. If you need to, lay flat on your stomach, even if you’re in a muddy field. Clothes can be washed, and you want to ensure you maximise the impact of your photo.

Getting down to the eye level of your subject helps put you in their world and get their perspective on things. Suddenly things don’t look so small anymore.

When you’re photographing wildlife from above, the background will usually be the ground or plants immediately behind the subject. This makes it hard to get that nice out of focus background because it’s just too close to the subject.

But, when you get down to eye level, the background will usually be something far away, making it much easier to get a good blurred, out of focus background.

Below are 2 different images of puffins. Both taken in the same sequence on the Isle of Lunga. Both images have been taken using the same settings, but the difference is pronounced. Just by the angle of view.

The above image was taken from a kneeling position. Just slightly above eye level to the puffin. This angle is able to show some of the bluebells and a bit more detail.

The above image was taken from a laying down position. At eye level to the puffin. This angle meant that the grass was in front of the puffin and as I was low down the bluebells are thrown out of focus .

Quite often, wildlife photography is done in reserves or national parks, where getting down from the vehicle is not allowed. So what can you do in such scenarios? This is where your field-craft comes in handy. Know your subject and you will be able to predict its movement.

For example, take a scenario where you have a big cat walking on a road. You could either stop where you are and fire-off a few shots. OR you could take a moment to evaluate the animal’s potential path and wait at a location where the road is slightly lower than where you are currently situated. A lower elevation for the vehicle would ensure a better connection with the subject when it walks towards you.

In safari vehicles if you shoot from the windows, you are getting closer to eye level than from the pop-up roof, however it is possible to get images that deceive the viewer that you are at eye level from both vantage points. A good guide can position the vehicle in such a way that you appear to be at eye level, using a telephoto lens compresses the perspective even further and creates the illusion of being at eye level.

This image looks like I was at eye level. But the reality is that the vehicle was on the road and the leopard cub was on the top of a grassy hill. The vehicle was lower than the grass verge, putting the camera at eye level.

Shooting Below Eye Level

Getting low down and below the subject’s eye level causes you to angle the camera lens upwards, allowing you to emphasize the subjects size and convey a sense of majesty. Some subjects, especially powerful creatures such as elephants, horses and stags, almost demand this kind of emphasis in portrait style shots. They are impressive mammals, and your photos should convey that fact.

Shooting Above Eye Level

When you shoot from an elevated position above your subject, the lens is angled downwards. This conveys a subject’s insignificance or vulnerability. This kind of shot could include things from newly hatched birds or newborn animals as they are small and helpless. It also works well with endangered species.


The excitement of getting your subject in frame and focus can often stop you from seeing the bigger picture and noticing interesting objects and interaction to include in the final image. In a portrait, the subject doesn’t have to be facing the camera. It can be interacting with an object or with another animal. A Lioness looking at a cub adds interest and interaction. A squirrel smelling a fern leaf, It adds something different and draws the viewer in to the portrait.

Capturing Character

This can be hard to achieve. The real secret to create impact in your images is to show the character they capture. Most species have been photographed again and again, but the best photos show off the “personality” of an animal.

This may sound difficult to achieve, but animals and birds can occasionally seem to show different expressions. With practice and learning behavioural traits, you will begin to know exactly when to press the shutter to freeze that moment in time.

That’s key, to make somebody say “wow”. If you are showing someone your photos and they say something as simple as “it looks like it is waving”, then you know that you’ve succeeded in capturing its character.

This otter was dragging itself through the kelp. After they do this they tend to stretch out their front paws. This image was captured just as the otter raised it’s paw, It makes it appear like the otter is waving. I spent around an hour with this otter. It was actually so relaxed it fell asleep in the kelp in front of me and I captured a lot of images over that period. This was one of the last images in the sequence and it looked like it was waving me goodbye. To have this time one on one with a wild animal and to feel trusted enough to be part of their world is an amazing experience.

Capturing Detail in Portraits

Wildlife Portraits don’t have to be the full animal as discussed previously. It is probably not really applicable in this section. However, birds and animals are full of interesting shapes, patterns and textures, the same principles already discussed on the previous pages can still be applied.

When photographing portraits. Consider your shot list and look for areas of detail and interest. It can help you tell a story of the subject or add interest to your portfolio.

Background in Wildlife Portraits

Background is important in wildlife photography. Especially in portraits. In my blog on Understanding Angles of Light in Photography I spoke a lot about light and how it can impact your subject, this is very important. In addition, trying to shoot at eye level adds interest and draws the viewer in. Both of these things can be achieved by adjusting your position to take this into consideration.  The final element that has to be considered carefully is the background. Ideally you want an uncluttered neutral background to make the subject pop.

The 2 images below were taken on the same hide on the same day, but from different seats, one provided a background of green grass and the other provided a background of neutral browns which was the bracken.

Being aware of backgrounds can add to the image and draw the viewer in.

By using these simple things as a guide, and making just a few small adjustments. You will transform your wildlife portraits from uninspiring snapshots to dramatic eye catching images, full of character and life.

If you have enjoyed reading this then why not read my post on overcoming being stuck in a rut with your wildlife photography

If you are interested in learning more about creativity in wildlife photography why not join me on one of my Glasgow based wildlife photography workshops

Or better still join me on one of my wildlife photography tours where we really delve in to the details of portraits in wildlife photography.



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