Animal photography is a favorite pastime of many photographers, both amateur and professional. Whether it be a family pet, livestock such as horses, tiny insects, brightly feathered birds, or wild animals such as deer, the basics of animal photography are universal across subject animal type.
Whether you are shooting a domestic or wild animal, safety must be your first concern. Not just your safety, but that of the animal as well. When working with domestic animals, be sure to never put them in harm’s way. Also, even domestic animals can become dangerous when frightened. Flashes and loud shutters can startle even the tamest of animal at times. When working with wild animals you must always remember that getting too close to the animal not only endangers you, it risks the animal as well. Many species will abandon homes and offspring if bothered too much. Certain species are also protected from intrusion by law. When in doubt, check with local wildlife authorities.
Fill the Frame but Give Them Room to Breathe
With the exception of expansive portraits (where the landscape is as much the subject as the animal), filling the frame is important in animal photography. Many of the animals we photograph are smaller than humans. To see detail of the animal they need to be large in the frame. However, remember to leave some room in front of the face. As we learn in studying action photography, this is prevents viewer from feeling the animal is “boxed in.”
Treat it Like a Human Portrait
You may have heard the saying “animals are people too.” When it comes to photography, that statement is very true. The best way to get a great animal photograph is to treat it like a person in terms of lighting and composition. I am certainly not suggesting you expect the animal to act like a person but you should strive to photograph the animal like you would a person. Watch body position, shadow locations, and composition in frame just like you would with a human subject.
The Eyes Have It
Eyes are where human beings tend to make the most connection with another living creature. Eyes can convey every emotion and the presence of intelligence. Make sure that the animal’s eyes are in sharp focus to maximize impact. Also, when shooting a partial body portrait – try to position the eyes at an intersection point using the rule of thirds.
Behavior Shots Are Powerful
While animal portraits can often be amazing, behavior shots can take the breath away. Just like we use props and posing in human portraiture, catching an animal in the middle of an activity or interacting with its surroundings can create a powerful image.
Just like human photography, animal photography can be ruined by a bad background. Litter, roads, and other manmade objects often detract from animal photographs. While carefully selecting shooting angles and locations can help with these issues, shallow depth of field is your most powerful weapon in avoiding bad backgrounds.