12 Ways to Evoke Emotion in Your Wildlife Photos
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
These words are especially true in recent years. The moment we open our eyes each morning, we have so much to catch up with: the messages we haven’t replied to in Whatsapp, WeChat, Twitter, Snapchat and Gmail; the birthday wishes, wedding or new-born baby congratulations we haven’t typed in Facebook; the alerts from social media feeds; the latest viral videos; the profiles we haven’t swiped through on Tinder…
Just typing those made me suffocate. And I haven’t even touched on online games.
If your photo cannot grab the viewer’s attention within a second and give them a memorable feeling, your photo will disappear in a sea of information overload like the other millions of photos that pop up everyday on your phone. The good thing is people still love wildlife photos. The sense that these nature events actually happened and are real, among a world of fabricated and manipulated data, gives people hope.
It is particularly important to be ethical with our wildlife photography, to ensure that the photos you take truly reflect natural events without manipulating an animal’s behaviour. Otherwise, this last frontier of ‘truthful’ wildlife photography will be lost forever. So now, how can we evoke emotion in our wildlife photos?
#1 Minimise Distractions
First, you need to minimise distraction in your photos. Unless you have captured a photo of a weasel hugging a woodpecker in midair, most of the time you cannot get away with below-par image quality. The four main distractions that can kill an image are: having a bad background, wrong lighting, bad viewpoint and heavy digital noise.
Light is very important in a photo. Pay attention to the time of the day and where the light is coming from. There is no good or bad light, but you need to master the light to enhance your photos for the mood you want to convey. You have to be clear about your choice: front lighting, backlighting, side lighting, spot lighting, silhouette… whatever it is. Just ensure that the highlights and shadows in your photo are properly exposed.
Further Reading: “Master Backlighting in Wildlife Photography“
#2 Capture Something Unexpected
In the book “Made to Stick”, the authors investigated why some of the folklores or stories lasted thousands of years. One of the key ingredients is “unexpectedness” – it’s an element that makes us sit up and pay attention.
Arguably the most famous photos of 2015, Martin Le-May captured a weasel clinging to the back of a green woodpecker that took flight. Another series of images by Phoo Chan captured interactions between a raven and a bald eagle.
These pictures made us dream. Who doesn’t want to hitch a ride and fly away from reality? If you are able to capture a moment shared by two different species, then you have probably struck gold. It’s capturing something unexpected like this, and consequently rare, that will set a photo apart from others.
#3 Big vs. Small
The contrast between big and small always captures attention. It could be through minimalist wildlife photography, such as a red fox walking in a snow field, or two animals with drastically different sizes, such as a mother grizzly bear with her cubs. It gives the viewer a perspective to compare the size difference in an otherwise flat 2D-frame. It works like magic.
#4 Dark vs. Light
Sometimes less is more, and the more negative space in an image, the better. In the world of predator and prey, darkness always draws immense suspense. If you can make a subject appear out of the blackness, perhaps using natural light to ‘spotlight’ the animal, then you are onto a winner.
This barn owl photo was taken when the first ray of light in the morning appeared against a relatively dark background in Central California.
At the opposite end of the day, this photo of a wild bobcat was taken in Yellowstone National Park as the last ray of light disappeared at sunset.
#5 Complimentary Colours
Try to look for complimentary colours in the natural environment. Not only do we automatically pay attention to a spotlight in darkness, but we also are guided by colour palettes. Van Gogh is a master of the use of complimentary colours in his painting to lead the viewer’s eye to a point of interest. You can read more about how Van Gogh uses colour to his advantage in this article. For colour theory from a photographer’s point of view, there is an interesting article online by Ted Gore.
The use of complimentary colour in wildlife photography has not been discussed very much, but I believe it has tremendous potential… even though finding complimentary colour in a split second is extremely challenging, if not at times impossible.
#6 Side Lighting
Side light always conveys suspense and muscularity. In Hollywood movies, front soft lighting is used mostly for female characters to show their beauty and smooth skin tone, whilst harsh side lighting is used for male characters to show their form and power. It invokes fear. Side lighting can drastically change the mood of an image when you want to convey anger and danger.
Since we are talking about natural light here, to achieve proper side lighting may involve moving yourself to a spot where the relative angle between the light source, yourself and the animal is 90°.
#7 Using Perspective
Ever felt that urgency and rush when an animal is walking towards you? You can translate that into your photos. Try to get as low as possible in such situation so the animals look larger than life. It puts the viewer in your shoes and makes them wonder what happened next. Were you in danger whilst taking the image? Did the animal in question notice you? When your photos can stop the viewer for a second and make them think, then it is a success.
However, this kind of shot has to be made with full consideration of ethics and respect for the animal in question. I usually use a long telephoto lens to give animals enough space and not to disturb them. Sometimes they are not really walking towards me, and in the case of bears then maybe they are just looking for a salmon that happens to be in my direction.
#8 Interactions Between Animals
Try to capture the moments when two or more animals fight or play with each other. When animals are interacting with each other, they are the most at ease with your presence, as they are carrying on as usual. Those moments are magical because the ‘spirit’ or the ‘soul’ of an animal can really show. When these mountain goat kids were playing with each other, I felt a sense of joy from watching them. When the brown bears were fighting with each other for a salmon, it was life and death. It felt as if time had frozen. If you can capture such moment, the audience will feel it too.
#9 Partially Obscured Scenes
When an animal disappears into the bush or deep branches, my friends usually sigh in disappointment while I jump up for joy. The foreground element that blocks the view of an animal can work wonders, as long as you can focus on the eyes of the subject peeking at you. Even better is when you find the animals in mist, fog, dust, behind splash of water; anything that hides part of the animal and allows for the viewer’s imagination to kick in. The more it hides, the more powerful it is.
Further Reading: “Choosing the Best Foreground and Background“
#10 Powerful Compositions
Don’t underestimate the power of imagination when viewing a photograph. Sometimes by using composition creatively, such as having part of the animal outside the frame, it may look as if the animal is walking into the frame. Therefore, we let the imagination of the viewer extend beyond the borders of the frame.
The choices we make in life allow us to become who we are. I always believe our empathy is born with us, and through these choices we make, we learn more about ourselves and it awakens our empathy within.
Even though wild animals experience different kinds of struggles, with empathy we can relate. We are all alike sharing this planet for a short period of time. Let’s forget fame, ego, fortune, and society’s expectations of us for a second.
This red fox in Yellowstone had to look for food in the snow in a windy day. Documenting the plight of an animal in a photo evokes feelings in the viewer, drawing on their empathy for the individual in the image.
#12 Parental Interactions
The circle of life is cruel and unavoidable, but the love between mother and baby makes life tolerable. Capturing such moment is challenging and every component in the picture has to work. The distractions as mentioned earlier in this article can ruin the picture because they detract from the mood you are trying to build.
Often, it works best when the background is completely blurry – achieving a pleasing bokeh – and when the light is the warmest. One good tip is to wait for the moment right before feeding, when the young animal is looking at their mother with anticipation. For this coastal brown bear picture, I chose to shoot it with more landscape to show the struggle of a bear family surviving in the wilderness.
For this Gentoo penguin shot, I spent several days waiting for a clean background and warm light; for a moment when the bills of the mother and chick aligned.
So there we have it – some of my tips and examples of how we can evoke emotion in our wildlife photos. It’s definitely worth a shot, but don’t try only to replicate my examples, because ultimately wildlife photography is a creative art that should express what you feel and changes with every scenario. The above methods can act as a tool for you to help express yourself in the language of photography.
Don’t forget, people will only remember how you make them feel.