How to Take Portrait Pictures of Animals

You can create wonderful pictures of wild animals by zooming in and taking a portrait. Similar to a portrait of a person, you want the animal to be in sharp focus, against a background that is out of focus and doesn’t compete with your subject.

Creating a portrait of an animal requires patience and practice, just like any other form of photography. Here are some tips to get you pointed in the right direction.

  • Switch to Aperture Priority mode and choose a large aperture (small f-stop value). This gives you a shallow depth of field.

  • Use a long focal length and zoom in close. The focal length you use depends on your subject and how threatened the animal feels by your presence. If you’re serious about photographing portraits of small or reclusive animals, invest in a long lens with a focal length that is the 35mm equivalent of 400mm or longer. A good tele-extender (1.4X or 2X) gets you even closer.

  • Use the stealth techniques described in the preceding section when you set up the shot. Make sure the sun is at your back so the subject is not backlit.

  • Switch to spot metering mode and position the auto-focus point over a middle tone if the subject is backlit. Lock exposure on that point and compose your picture. You’ll blow out the highlights to pure white, but you’ll get your portrait. The alternative is to underexpose the image and create a silhouette portrait of your subject.

  • Focus on your subject’s eyes. If one eye is closer to the camera than the other (in other words, the animal is not facing you head-on), focus on the eye closest to the camera. When you shoot a portrait with a shallow depth of field, it’s important to have the eyes in sharp focus.

  • Choose the background carefully. You need a background that contrasts well with your subject’s colors. This may involve choosing a different vantage point.

  • Give your subject a place to look into if you photograph a profile of your subject.

  • Don’t center your subject. Place your subject to one side of the frame and use the slope of your subject’s neck to lead viewers into the picture.

  • Watch for hot spots or glare in the background that could divert your viewers’ attention from your subject. The human eye is drawn toward bright objects.

  • Take the picture from your subject’s level. If possible, position yourself eye to eye with your subject.

  • Make sure your shutter speed is at least 1/250 of a second. This will compensate for any motion caused by the wind. You may have to increase your ISO level to achieve this shutter speed on a dreary day.

  • Frame your subject, if possible. You can do this by including some out-of-focus objects in the background that are darker than your subject. Tree trunks make good frames.

  • Include some elements to place your subject. This gives your viewers a sense of location. For example, if you’re photographing a deer in the mountains, include some of the grass the animal feeds on and some of the rocks in the background. If possible, these elements should be reasonably sharp so the viewer can identify them.

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Sometimes a straight animal portrait isn’t possible. However, you can get interesting close-ups of animals feeding. If you see an animal feeding, be very quiet. Get as close as possible, zoom in, and then take the picture. This is another time when it’s important to include some of the background to give viewers visual clues to the animal’s location.

The preceding tips seem like a pretty difficult set of parameters to follow with every wildlife portrait you take. You won’t be able to achieve everything on the list, but if you do as many as you can, you exponentially increase your chances of getting a compelling image. The most important rule is to get your subject’s eyes in sharp focus.

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