Portraits by Another Name

Every time you take a picture of an animal, that’s not all you’re doing. You’re making a portrait.

I think this is something that most photographers don’t realize when they’re starting out. At first, it’s a WIN just to have an image of a wild animal that’s in any way sharp. Later the successes are when the animal is doing something interesting, or in a good looking environment. The thing to remember is: whether you’re photographing a cat or a person, the same basic rules apply. This is not some generic “critter” you’re capturing, it’s one very specific animal.  Therefore, much “wildlife photography” is actually portraiture.

Because of that, a whole other set of rules also applies:

If the eyes are sharp, the image will read as “sharp”. This may not be intuitive and I think it had never occurred to me until someone explained the mechanism. When looking at a photograph of any creature, the first place you look is the eyes.  It’s an instinctive action; you’re not thinking about doing it at all. Yet you are. And that is why if the eyes are in focus, you will perceive the image to be in focus. It’s that simple. So when you’re shooting, that should be what you’re looking for.



Catchlights! Catchlights are especially powerful when the subject is not looking at you. For those of you new to that term, the catchlight is the little white reflection on the surface of the eye, shown below on Mr Arctic Fox. This provides the “spark” that the viewer is looking for, and makes the eyes look ‘alive’ regardless of where they’re attention is focused.



Always weight your compositions so that there is extra space in the direction the animal is looking and/or moving. This is so subtle that most people don’t even notice when you’ve done it, but it really helps allow a viewer to feel comfortable in that image. It can be hard to train yourself to do this. It’s most important in very close up shots but it can be valuable to think about using this all the time; having an image that has extra space to one side allows you more choices in cropping later should you have not noticed something in the corner that needs to be cut out. The first example below is pretty subtle, it’s more obvious in the bottom image.



A portrait is about capturing personality as much as it is about conveying what someone looks like. Therefore, some random fur seal is not as compelling as “Badass Fur Seal” whose look and posture convey all that he’s about.

fur seal

Editing basics: Giving a sense of place using scale

I realize that with my first post on editing basics I might have in fact gone a little too advanced. There are a few things going on in that image that I totally glossed over without mention, the most noticeable one being the use of scale.

One of the things people find difficult when photographing the great outdoors is conveying the sense of place in their images. “Sense of place” can be a bit squishy, but the essence of it is: what does it actually feel like to be there?

For example, I think this image gives a clear sense of “cold”, even though it was not really that cold at all at the time (about freezing). However, pictures of Antarctica are supposed to read as “cold” – it helps make the scene seem real and is more transporting than an image that is less evocative.

Brr, cold!

Part of it has to do with all the brash ice that the ship has cut a path through, part of it has to do with the fact that all the ice has a definitive blue cast, which reads as “cold” (the same way a sunset of yellows and oranges reads as “warm”).

Other things that help give an image a sense of place is scale. Using people is a great way to do this, but its important to understand a few things: plopping a person in front of something does not in itself convey scale. Using our innate understanding of the basic “person size” does. So don’t worry about having to make your traveling companion get into all your pictures, use the people who are already there:

Image on the left: random people. On the right: people giving scale

Image on the left: random people. On the right: people giving scale

Making people small and the landscape (or the building) large makes it really easy for people to understand what it’s like to be there. By the same token, to show how small and intimate a scene is, the subject should take up a good portion of the image, with just a bit of scene around it to give context, like you see below:

Large cat in a small cemetery

Large cat in a small cemetery

Or like this — the addition of the house makes the volcano look massive and imposing. Without that house you simply have no way of really getting that.

Iceland. Eyjafjallajokull.

Tiny house, big volcano

When you want to convey the scope of something, that is the time to bring out the really wide angle lens. But be careful — a 10-36 mm super wide angle also has the effect of “pushing” everything away from the viewer, and the elements that you think are anchoring the scene may be rendered too small to function that way, like here:

Whoops, everything is waaaay over there

Whoops, everything is waaaay over there

Done correctly though, a wide angle lens can make a landscape seem larger and more grand than it appears to the naked eye:

Black sand that goes on forever

Black sand that goes on forever


By the same token, if you want to accentuate how tall something is, shoot it vertically but make sure that there is something in the frame to give that height come context. Shout-out to hikers who wear brightly colored rain jackets, it really helps make them pop:

Iceland. Skogafoss.

Tiny hikers, big waterfall

So that hopefully helps explain some of what was going on in that image… play around with it. I think sometimes I go a bit overboard with the “tiny people big landscape” theme — at least I did in Iceland. At the time however it seemed like the only way to convey the vast emptiness and open spaces of it.

Editing Basics: what does this image need?

Brunnich's Guillemot colony at Alkefjellet, Svalbard, Norway

Brunnich’s Guillemot colony at Alkefjellet, Svalbard, Norway

I’ve been looking at pictures the better part of my life. I began serious photography when I was 16, later studied it in college, then worked for years as a photo researcher for a top adventure photographer and then at a photo agency that specialized in travel imagery. I’ve seen millions of images, and spent an awful lot of time thinking about why some pictures “work” and others don’t. So much time in fact, that it’s usually just an automatic process that happens in the background, one I’ve pretty much ceased thinking about consciously.

But I do remember when I was starting out spending hours and hours looking  at images (my own and other people’s) trying to figure out what was missing, what would make the image come together. It might seem like an utterly precious navel-gazing exercise, but if you want to become a better photographer, it’s absolutely essential.

So when you’re looking at your images, there are a few things you need to ask yourself:

  • What is the image about?
  • Does it convey that?
  • Are there too many distractions?
  • Does it have all the details it needs?

There is more of course, but I’ll leave that for a later post.

Let’s break down this image and think about these questions one by one.

What’s the image about?

This is a bird colony on a high cliff in Svalbard, Norway. So, it’s about birds. But more specifically, it’s about thousands of birds. So the picture needs to show a — forgive my language– shit-ton of birds. I have several images from this location that show a million blobs in the sky, the trick was finding one where some of the birds in the background actually have a distinctive bird shape so that it would instantly read as “bird” not “blob on lens”.


Does it convey that?

I think so… I chose this image specifically due to the numbers of birds in the sky, and if you look more closely at the cliff you can see bunches of birds there crowded on the ledges. It helps that the rocks are a brownish color and not dark gray – if they were gray it would be almost impossible to make out the birds nesting there.

Does it have too many distractions?

This image is very slightly cropped from the original.  I had a bit too much water in the foreground and I felt that it was causing the composition to seem imbalanced. There are lots of ways to think about composition, but controlling how viewers move their eyes through the image is a useful one. Changing the internal dynamics of the picture changes that. You can do this by either framing carefully when making the image, cropping it later, or a combination of both. I generally shoot very tightly, because I learned how to photograph shooting slides. When shooting slide film, what you see is what you get. Any branch or out of focus rock is there and you cannot get rid of it later, so you learn how to see those things in the frame and recompose the image until they’re no longer there. I personally think its a good exercise to do this all the time, to spend one quick moment running your eye along the edges of the frame to look for anything distracting and recompose if possible to remove it. You don’t want to have to spend hours later cropping everything you shoot, and it’s a good way to train your eye to see these things more clearly.

Does it have enough detail?

I chose this picture over others simply due to the photo-bombing guillemot on the foreground. It was just chance that I captured that, but that is one of the reasons I snap a dozen (thirteen to be precise) images in this kind of situation; hoping for that kind of luck. The zodiacs are there to give the image a sense of scale, and the yellow and red parkas also help liven up the image.



If you want to read more about photography and learn about pre-visualizing how images will look, read Galen Rowell’s excellent book, “Galen Rowell’s Vision: The Art of Adventure Photography