Wildlife Photography “Beyond the Perfect Portrait”

by D. Robert Franz | November 13, 2015

Copyright D. Robert FranzFor many aspiring wildlife photographers, capturing beautiful portraits of their favorite birds or animals in the wild is often their primary goal. This is certainly an understandable and a worthwhile endeavor. When I began photographing wildlife over thirty years ago, I was inspired by the striking wildlife photos of Leonard Lee Rue III and Erwin Bauer. I carefully studied how they used the light, controlled backgrounds, and placed their subjects in the frame to create pleasing wildlife portraits. I pursued the perfect wildlife portrait relentlessly and over time accumulated a large collection of. As time passed I became less and less satisfied with my wildlife photography. I desired more evocative images with impact. I felt as though I really needed to elevate my images to a higher level. I will discuss some of the methods I’ve used to achieve that goal and continue in my evolution as a wildlife photographer.

Alaskan brown bear - Copyright D. Robert Franz

The Charging Brown Bear
It would be hard to imagine action more extreme than an Alaskan brown bear charging directly at you. Here the impact of the image is obvious. I was kneeling to get the low level to make the image even more dramatic. I was also utilizing my camera’s ability to autofocus accurately and to fire at 10 frames per second allowing me capture the peak of action. Not to worry this male bear was actually fleeing a larger more dominant bear that was approaching.

A sure way to take your photography to a new level is to capture your subject in action and intense subject action can lead to a once-in-a-lifetime photo. Capturing extreme subject action in still photography has never been easier. Most camera systems now have excellent autofocus capabilities which allow you to acquire focus of moving subjects. Modern digital cameras can now effectively utilize a higher ISO which allows you the ability to use high shutter speeds that were never before possible. Many cameras have frame rates of ten to twelve frames per second. This gives you the ability to capture peak dramatic moments. Control of your shutter speed allows you to depict motion in a number of ways. Using a slower shutter speed can give your subject a bit of movement which helps depict motion whereas a high shutter speed will freeze everything. When the action starts, fire away.

Brown bear splashing in river - Copyright D. Robert Franz

Brown Bear Splashing in River
This is another example of some extreme action. The Alaskan brown bear was chasing salmon in the river and everything came together for this image. We had great light at a good angle. The high shutter speed and fast frame rate helped me capture this dramatic moment.

Mousing red fox - Copyright D. Robert Franz

Mousing Red Fox
This photo is a combination of several of my points. The obvious one is capturing extreme action. This beautiful red fox was mousing during winter in the interior of Yellowstone National Park. I was ready to capture the action when it happened. The fox was at the apex of his jump in this image. I was also out photographing in extreme conditions for this image. A temperature of -30 degrees F is challenging for both the photographer and the equipment. The colder the weather the more active predators like this red fox are.

Dramatic weather also can lead to dramatic images. Falling snow, rain, fog, and even wind-driven sand can add interest to a wildlife image. Many photographers tend to avoid photographing in extreme conditions, so when you capture images in such conditions they will be unique and that is highly desirable. Photographing wildlife when snow is falling is perhaps my favorite adverse environmental condition to work in. Dressing yourself as well as your cameras for the conditions allow you to work comfortably. There are some technical difficulties to overcome when the snow is falling. Autofocus becomes difficult. The heavier the snowfall the more likely the camera will attempt to focus on the falling snowflakes rather than your subject. I use a combination of autofocus and manual override of focus to achieve good results. Your camera will have a tendency to underexpose images during snowy conditions, so using manual exposure or dialing in a plus compensation during auto exposure is required.

Bull elk in snow - Copyright D. Robert Franz

Bull Elk in Snow
A great example of extreme weather adding tremendous visual interest to the image. Heavy falling snow creates so much drama to this photo of a bugling bull elk during autumn in Yellowstone National Park.

Exceptional light leads to exceptional images. The old adage of keeping the light source over your shoulder for a good photograph, while applicable in certain situations, is quite limiting. Most often now I try to capitalize on dramatic or unusual lighting situations. Today’s cameras allow me to get out earlier, stay out later, and even photograph at night. Side lighting, backlighting, spotlighting, and silhouettes are also great lighting techniques that help make your images stand out. The ability of today’s cameras to pull detail out of shadowed areas of an image while maintaining correct exposure on the highlights opens up many possibilities as well. With the advancements made in flash photography and the availability of infrared camera traps, never before seen behaviors and habits of nocturnal wildlife is another new and exciting genre of wildlife photography.

Bald eagle at sunset - Copyright D. Robert Franz

Bald Eagle at Sunset
Nothing can do more to enhance your wildlife image than exceptional lighting. Here, we have a bald eagle flying in front of a spectacular sunset; it’s hard to go wrong in a situation like this.

Spectacular surroundings will lead to spectacular images. Early in my career I used to adhere to the axiom of “less is more” in wildlife photography. I tried to isolate my subject from any distracting elements. While this is still a great approach for the perfect portrait, I now find myself searching for a great animalscape. When you strategically compose wildlife in an already fine landscape image you create an image that will stand the test of time. These days I never go into the field without a second camera with a shorter lens attached, such as a 70–200mm, slung over my shoulder. You don’t want to miss a chance to capture a memorable animalscape as they don’t come around often.

Bear at Mt. Illiamna - Copyright D. Robert Franz

Bear with Mt. Illiamna
The towering volcano Mt. Illiamna along the shores of Cooke Inlet in Lake Clark National Park is a very strong element for landscape photography. Add an Alaskan brown bear to the composition and you can’t go wrong. Having my 70–200mm handy allowed me to capture this image.

Mountain lion in Yellowstone National Park - Copyright D. Robert Franz

Mountain Lion
This image of a mountain lion in Yellowstone National Park is a good example of an exceptional location and habitat adding much interest to a wildlife image. These basalt cliffs which feature columnar jointing are an iconic feature in the park. Add a rarely seen animal to the scene and you’ve created something exceptional.

Alaskan brown bear in sandstorm - Copyright D. Robert Franz

Alaskan Brown Bear in Sandstorm
Extreme conditions on steroids. During one of my bear tours a couple years ago in Lake Clark National Park a terrible storm moved in. Hurricane force winds and driving rain made photography nearly impossible. Later in the day the rain subsided but the winds continued. I could see several bears on the beach at the mouth of the creek. I suggested to the group that we may get some unique imagery in these extreme conditions. We spent several hours photographing the bears in some of the most unpleasant situations I’ve endured but came away with some amazing photographs. The group grudgingly admitted it was worth the effort. Dressing properly and covering the cameras and lenses allowed us to do this.

Whitetail buck in teasel - Copyright D. Robert Franz

Whitetail Buck in Teasel
This is a fine example of using exceptional habitat to make your standard wildlife image more appealing. The graphic nature of the teasel patch which hides most of this fine whitetail buck adds visual interest to the overall composition.

Remember, always be looking for exceptional light and be ready for action. When it occurs, take advantage of it. When the weather turns bad, wildlife photography can be good. Break out your camera and make the best of it. Find landscapes with wildlife in the scene to create memorable images. With this methodical approach to wildlife photography you can take your imagery to a new level.

About the Author

D. Robert Franz has been a professional nature and wildlife photographer for over 25 years. With degrees in wildlife management and geology, he has extensive knowledge of the natural world. During his productive career he's published over ten-thousand images and nearly two-hundred magazine covers. In 2007 Digital Photography Magazine proclaimed Robert as one the world's best wildlife photographers. Having a long standing love for the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, Robert and his wife Lorri moved to Cody, Wyoming in 2003. For more information on his photo tours and nature photography visit www.franzfoto.com.

2 thoughts on “Wildlife Photography “Beyond the Perfect Portrait”

  1. My favorite is ” Bull Elk in Snow”. A fantastic photograph, tops in my estimation. Happy New year to you and may you continue your wonderful work.