How to Create a Wildlife Photography Portfolio

wildlife photography portfolio pine marten

What do we mean by creating a wildlife photography portfolio? If you look up the definition of a portfolio, it is described as a collection of drawings (or in this case, photos) that represent an artist’s work.

This could be interpreted in several ways, but to many wildlife photographers, this means building up a series of images of a particular species.

fox photograph in field

There are a couple of reasons as to why this should be considered by anyone interested in photographing wildlife.

The first reason has to do with the joys of spending prolonged, quality time with a species and getting to know their behavior.

Being fascinated by animals from an early age – long before I developed an interest in photography – building a portfolio of a specific species was something that appealed to me as a way to document my love for that particular animal.

The second reason is an extension of the first.

mountain hare in snow photograph
The mountain hare above is symbolic of extreme weather endurance. They cope with the worst of Scottish winters. This photo was taken during strong winds, causing snow spindrift as the hare ran down the hill.

Creating a portfolio enables you as a photographer to show others just how much you understand not only your camera and how to take a wide variety of images, but more importantly, how much you understand the life cycle and behavior of your subject.

Ultimately, if you repeat this ‘formula’ for multiple species, over time your portfolio will expand to cover a wide variety of wildlife, and you will be able to collate a selection of your strongest images.

Find what gives you a spark

The first thing to consider when building a photography portfolio is to decide what you’re going to focus on. Ask yourself: when it comes to wildlife, what gives you a spark? What makes you want to get up in the morning (sometimes very early!) and head out with your camera?

rim lighting wildlife photography

You’ll need to be passionate about the animal to want to spend the amount of time with them required to build a portfolio of images.

Focusing on a particular species is what does this for me, and I like to immerse myself in spending as much time as possible learning and understanding their behavior. I recommend this as one of the best ways to build a strong portfolio.

Better still, if you can find a species that is local to you, then you’re reducing the amount of time (and money) you would otherwise use to travel, and instead, you can put that time towards photography.

Through doing this, you’ll inevitably start to develop your own style of photography.

Read more: 7 Advanced Techniques to Improve Your Wildlife Photos

Understanding fieldcraft

Any wildlife photographer will tell you that understanding a species and developing your fieldcraft is the most important element of your photographic process.

You can know as much as there is to know about your camera and what settings to use, but unless you know how to use fieldcraft appropriately and ethically, you just won’t be able to build a successful portfolio.

creat crested grebe courtship
The Great crested grebe courtship usually starts in February, which is when the photo above was taken.

Fieldcraft obviously depends on the species you’re focusing on, but there are common elements worth mentioning here.

Read more: 6 Tips for Better Fieldcraft in Wildlife Photography

Understand natural history

The first element is to understand the life cycle of your species.

great crested grebe photography
I spent a whole spring watching this pair and was rewarded with images of them feeding their young in April.

From a photography point of view, this means:

  • What time of day/night they are most active
  • What their preferred habitat is
  • What the best time of year is to see them (though remember that this may vary depending on the photos you want; e.g., courtship behavior compared to raising their young)

Learn great fieldcraft

Once you’ve got a good understanding of this, your next step is to understand how to get close enough to photograph animals in an ethical way.

Spend a lot of time reading about a species, whether via online resources or species guidebooks, watching experienced photographers on YouTube giving hints and tips, and most importantly, spend time watching your subject from afar.

Another good way to improve your knowledge is to attend a one-to-one workshop with a photographer who already knows a lot about the fieldcraft for that species.

photography portfolio tips

Even if you don’t come away with many/any images of the animal, learn as much as you can from them.

You can then put that experience into your project, and you’ll gain real satisfaction in doing it yourself.

The key takeaway is to truly understand your subject. Do this, and you’ll be in a much better position to anticipate their behavior and be in the right place at the right time.

Read more: Photographing a Species In-depth

Find access

The final step is then making sure you’ve got the relevant access required to get to where your subject is.

In its easiest form, you might have public/permitted footpaths; I use the OSMaps app, which I would recommend. Or, you might need to speak to a local landowner to gain permission.

As an example, I spend a lot of time photographing brown hares. I’m fortunate to have a healthy population on my doorstep, and there are plenty of public and permitted footpaths to enable me to watch them.

how to build a photography portfolio

In late winter/early spring, I spend as much time as possible watching via binoculars to see where they come and go. From there, I can see where the common routes they use to move around intersect with public footpaths that I can use.

Even still, I’ve gotten to know the local dog walkers and, importantly, the gamekeeper. I message the latter every time I go out looking for hares. This stops people from thinking I’m up to no good.

The key point here is I regularly spend as much time watching hares as I do photographing them. In fact, I probably spend more time watching!

As we all know, the moments of actual wildlife photography are usually quick and fleeting, so the more time you can invest in understanding your subject, the better prepared you’ll be when the moment happens.

Read more: How to Find Locations for Wildlife Photography

Create a variety of images

So, you’ve found a species that you’re passionate about, you understand their behavior, you know the best areas to photograph them, and you have access to get to where they are. What’s next?

hare portrait photography

My first recommendation is to take photos that you enjoy taking. I’ve found close-up, portrait images work best on most social media platforms, and these can be particularly engaging to compose as you feel so close to the animal in your viewfinder!

But the key to a good portfolio is to ensure variety in your images. No one wants to look at the same style of image again and again. So, that means getting close-ups, action, behavior, and ‘small in the frame’ images.

Then you want to factor in different backgrounds, vegetation, sunrise, sunset, cloudy days, wet weather, and even snow (if you’re lucky to get a cold snap in the winter).

Having regular access to a species means you can try and test out different techniques. This is also where you can use your knowledge of your camera and different settings for different results to your advantage.

wildlife photography portfolio

Think about different compositions – if an animal is displaying lots of behavior or emotion, being close enough that you are able to emphasize it, this can work well (like in these hare photos).

I will highlight a few ideas now that I’ve used in the past and still use regularly to create a varied portfolio!

Read more: How to Take Impacting Portraits of Wildlife

Show the environment

If you can’t get close to your subject for whatever reason, use that to your advantage and compose the image to show the animal’s habitat.

Don’t be put off by the fact the animal looks very small on the back of the camera screen. When you look at it on the computer later, you’ll likely be pleased that you stepped back to give your subject some breathing room.

otter photo tips
As an example, this mother otter and her cub in Shetland were playing amongst the rocks. Initially, I wished I could have been closer, but there was no way for me to do so without disturbing them. So, I decided to compose the shot to show the rocky coastline as their home. It turned into one of my favorite photos of otters I’ve taken.

I find that some of the most powerful images can be those ‘environmental’ shots, with your wildlife species composed to be small in the frame.

brown hare photograph in spring
The image above was taken with a 500mm telephoto lens of a brown hare not far from home.

The opportunities for these images aren’t always there, but when they are, when you’re able to show the animal in its habitat, with some beautiful light or dramatic weather, then you’ve really got a chance to take your wildlife photography and portfolio to another level.

Read more: How to Photograph Animals in Their Habitat

Showcase movement

Use fast shutter speeds to freeze action. Shoot with a burst of frames to give yourself the best chance of catching the best moments.

If you can, shoot with your lens at the maximum aperture (like f/4 or f/2.8) to allow you to use higher shutter speeds and create engaging and compelling action shots of your wildlife species!

how to photograph spring hares
Throughout early spring, I spend as much time with my local hares as possible. My favorite method is to find areas where they regularly move from field to field and then lie in wait. I was lucky to have one such spot this spring where a young hare/leveret frequently visited. I was able to take a variety of images of him as he went about his business. Here is an image of that hare running at full speed towards me. A shutter speed of 1/1600 sec enabled me to freeze the action.

You may also want to show movement in some of your images by using slower shutter speeds.

Experimentation with this effect is key to creating your desired effect; it is ultimately a case of personal taste as to how much movement you’d like in the moment you’ve captured.

grey seal photography tips
I spent a couple of winters watching grey seals on the coast not too far from me. Having taken many of the standard, frame-filling portrait images, for the image below I used a slower 1/320 sec shutter speed of these grey seals fighting to show motion.

Read more: 7 Advanced Techniques to Improve Your Wildlife Photos

Use the Weather

Weather can provide excellent opportunities for adding drama and intrigue to your wildlife portfolio and can be the key to creating unique compositions.

wildlife photography portfolio
The above photo was taken during Storm Deirdre back in 2018. Severe winds whipped up the sand. Trying to get low-level images was difficult. As soon as I got level with the beach, the sand would whip into my face, and I got sand in my eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. I was more concerned with sand getting into the camera! Still, I was only there for the day. These seals have to endure whatever the weather throws at them day in, day out.

Don’t be put off by getting out and photographing in what we sometimes call ‘bad’ weather either.

Capturing your species in all conditions will allow for a range of images that tell the story of its life, in good or bad weather!

stag rut in snow photo
Heavy snow, while a challenge for a camera’s autofocus, can turn a mundane photo into something dramatic. The above photo, without the falling snow, would just be two stags having a ‘practice’ rut.

Weather can also offer another chance to capture movement in an image.

little owl photography wildlife photography portfolio
Back in January of this year, I noticed a pair of little owls nesting in a tree across the road from where I live. Fortunately, the landowner was fine with me setting up a hide in the corner of the field where the tree was. I then put some perches around, and after a few months, the owls started to use them. During a downpour on one day, I used a slower 1/250 sec shutter speed to show streaks of rain.

I also recommend experimenting with long exposure techniques in snow or rain for creative images.

Read more: How to Photograph Wildlife in Extreme Weather

Manipulate the light

You can use lighting to creatively manipulate your images in many ways. This will allow you to achieve a breadth of images of the same subject and can add different moods and effects to similar compositions.

Golden hour, or the first hour of sunrise/sunset, offers the opportunity to capture images in beautiful light. While it can be tiring getting up at the crack of dawn, you will be rewarded.

how to build a wildlife photography portfolio

Play with rim and backlighting, silhouettes, sun flares, and the like. While the intensity of this can be achieved in the editing process, I think it’s best to achieve this ‘in-camera’ using natural light at dawn and dusk to your advantage.

For example, as part of building a portfolio of grey seal images, on the better weather days, I found myself presented with a perfect opportunity to underexpose my image.

The background in the image below is a sandbank in shade. By underexposing, I rendered the seal as a black silhouette with only the rim-lighting of the setting sun showing the outline of the head and whiskers.

backlighting wildlife photography

Using flash creatively and with care and sensitivity to your subject can work well too.

Each autumn/winter, I visit a spot close to me for red squirrels. I set about trying some different images of the squirrels, which use stepping stones to cross a small stream in the middle of a small woodland.

It’s often very dark as not much light penetrates through the trees, so to freeze the action, I used a small burst of flash in the image below.

The settings on the camera were set to slightly underexpose the scene, and a slow shutter speed of 1/50 sec was needed, so the flash did the work on making sure the squirrel was sharp as it jumped.

remote trigger wildlife photography

If you’re lucky enough to have an animal close to fast-moving water, you can get creative using slow shutter speeds to show motion in water. The image below was taken in the same location as mentioned above.

I noticed that occasionally the squirrels would pause for a second when jumping onto this rock, just long enough to enable a shutter speed of 1/6 sec.

It took a few attempts to get the balance right between a slow shutter speed for the water and a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the squirrel, but eventually, it worked.

red squirrel photography

I used one off-camera flash to add sharpness too (flashes work at a much faster speed than your camera’s shutter speed, so it helps to increase sharpness – I recommend reading about multi-flash hummingbird photography to understand what I mean).

Read more: High-key Wildlife – How to Create a White Background

Try remote triggers

One of my favorite ways to diversify a portfolio of a species is to use remote/wireless triggers for wide-angle photography. When you do this, look for an interesting composition or an image that would work as a landscape photo on its own.

The complicated part is incorporating this with an animal.

You can pre-set your camera to expose for the ambient light and pre-focus the lens where you’re hoping the animal will come. Then retreat to your hide/somewhere out of sight and wait!

wildlife photography portfolio pine marten
I had some recent success with pine martens in the Scottish Highlands. I should note that I don’t live nearby but have made at least two or three trips a year for the last seven years to photograph them.

Using a wireless trigger (my favorite is from Camtraptions), you can then trigger the camera when the animal reaches the point you want it to.

There’s a lot of trial and error that goes into photos like these, but when it works, it can really add a different element to your portfolio.

Read more: How to Camera Trap Wildlife with a DSLR Camera

Choose your best images

At some point along your journey in building a portfolio, you may want to showcase your work, whether on social media, by building your website, exhibiting in a gallery, or in some other way.

At this stage, you’ll want to make sure you choose your best images.

It’s important to be strict with yourself here – it’s easy to become attached to an image because of the amount of work it may have required, but when assessing which images you will use in your portfolio, it pays to have variation.

how to make a wildlife photography portfolio

Only compile what you believe to be your best work; the portfolio you present should contain only your strongest images.

It’s also important to make sure that none of your images are too similar. A good way to think about it may be to imagine this set of images up on a wall. If any of them feel too similar to another or stand out as being of lower quality than the others, it’s best not to include them.

Show off your skills for diversity and creativity with the widest selection of images possible.

Read more: How to Choose Your Best Images After a Shoot

In conclusion

I hope this has given you some ideas on how to create a wildlife photography portfolio. My main piece of advice is to spend as much time as you possibly can focusing on a species that interests you.

That way, your portfolio of images will grow organically by you simply being in their presence and taking advantage of photo opportunities as they present themselves.

Personally, I find the challenge of creating new images of a species, ideally unique images, all part of the enjoyment of photography.

The sense of self-achievement, when all the planning, preparation, and patience come together, is fantastic, and the feeling will transform your photography to another level.

Many photographers spend a lifetime adding images to their wildlife photography portfolios. In fact, I’d always say a portfolio is never complete! There’s always a better shot out there!

Visit Alastair's website

Alastair Marsh is an award-winning photographer based in North Yorkshire. His photos have been featured in competitions and publications, including the British Photography Awards, British Wildlife Photography Awards, and Bird Photographer of the Year. He is passionate about wildlife photography, the natural world and conservation.

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