Techniques

5 Big Tips to Add Impact and Variety to Your Wildlife Images

by Piper Mackay | November 28, 2012

© Piper MackayWildlife photography can be very exciting. With your adrenaline running on overdrive, it is easy for photographers to get caught up in the action of the moment and just snap away without giving too much thought to our photography. Despite how spectacular the events you witnessed may have been, the images you’ve captured just don’t seem to share the impact of the moment as you experienced it. By thinking a bit about the aesthetics of your images while shooting in the field, you can create images that better capture and share some of nature’s most incredible events.

Here, I’ll use a series of images of wildebeest, a fairly boring animal that is rather drab in color, to illustrate just how light, mood, and motion can bring powerful visual impact to your images. This first image shows the simplicity of the antelope.

Wildebeest © Piper Mackay

Plan to go at the best time

Many species migrate or give birth at particular time in a particular location. Plan your trip around these extraordinary events. These images were photographed during the annual wildebeest migration crossing the Mara River in Kenya. It has been said to be the greatest wildlife show on earth. The mass of the animals and the dust kicking up gives big impact to this image. Large numbers of any species will add impact. Don’t forget the vertical shots!

Mara River crossing in Kenya © Piper Mackay

Wildebeest crossing © Piper Mackay

Backlighting and side lighting

It is natural to want the beautiful golden light on a wildlife subject as you see in the first photograph, but more dramatic can be adding backlighting or side lighting shown in the image below it. Take the safe shot and then get creative. Backlighting works great on wildebeest beards, as it can create some rim lighting that illuminates the edge of your subject.

Wildebeest with backlighting © Piper Mackay

Wildebeest profile with backlighting accent © Piper Mackay

Look for moody elements such as dust and fog

Dust and fog look great with backlighting or side lighting. Backlighting will generally create a silhouette so I often prefer to use side lighting in these situations. As sunlight filters thought the elements suspended in the air, it provides a dramatic light that still shows off the details of your subject.

Dust and fog set the mood © Piper Mackay

Add motion to your image with a pan blur

In the first image you can see the animals are in motion; notice I have a little backlighting going for added impact. However, by panning with the animals to create a blur in the background it shows a more dramatic sense of speed and motion. To shoot a pan blur you need to slow down your shutter speed, 1/60-1/30 generally works, depending on the speed of your subject. You need to focus on the eye or shoulder of your subject and track your subject at the same speed while holding down the shutter. This takes a lot of practice and often results in hundreds of deleted images, but when you get one that works it is very exciting. I recommend practicing this at home or wherever you can so when the opportunity arises you are ready.

Wildebeest pan blur © Piper Mackay

Wildebeest and calf running with pan blur © Piper Mackay

Here is another set of images to show the impact and difference between a fast shutter speed stopping the action and a pan blur to show motion. Notice in the second image the front wildebeest are in focus while the rest of the images has a slight blur giving the viewer a more powerful sense of motion.

Motion and action wildlife photography © Piper Mackay

Wildebeest in motion © Piper Mackay

Slow down your shutter speed

Stopping the action of animals running through water with a high shutter speed makes a dramatic image, but slowing down the shutter speed will add a different impact and variety to the story. Different from a pan blur, here you hold the camera still and slow down the shutter letting the moving element create the effect of motion. Moving elements, such as splashing or flowing water or tall grass or the branches of a tree blowing in the wind make great settings for such images. In the first image my shutter speed was very high to stop the action and the explosion of water. In the second I showed down the shutter to create a different mood and show the spray of the water. In the third I slowed down the shutter just a little more to really show the blast of the water.

Water splashing © Piper Mackay

Wildebeest water action © Piper Mackay

Wildlife photography comes to life with action © Piper Mackay

These simple tips will not only add impact and variety to your images but will make them stand out in the sea of hundreds and thousands of images that may already exist of the same subject. Give these techniques a try. I think you’ll like them!

About the Author

Piper Mackay is a freelance cultural documentary and wildlife photographer. Her work is heavily concentrated on the African continent, a land she fell in love with when she first touched foot on its rich red soil. Her passion for the natural world has grown into a lifelong commitment to inspire others to explore, respect and preserve the beauty of our fragile planet.

Her work is licensed through Getty Images. Her images have been displayed at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington DC, The Museum of History and industry in Seattle Washington, The Art Wolfe gallery, as well as local galleries in the Los Angeles area. Featured articles of her work have been displayed in major publications such as Rangefinder, Nature Photographer, and Selamta, as well as several regional publications. Her images have graced the pages of National Geographic, Nature's Best, WWF calendars, and many other publications. She also leads tours to Africa. To see more of her work, please visit her website at www.pipermackayphotography.com.

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