Probably the 2 things that I have been taught more than anything else when photographing animals is that you need to make sure the eyes are sharp and that you need to try to capture some element of their character.
Many years ago on my first trip to South Africa I took what I though was a great photograph of a close up of a zebra, but when I looked at it later (this was in the days where I used film) it felt lifeless, cold. And it was all because the eyes were really dark and had no definition. On my second trip to South Africa, not long ago, it was really important to me to remedy this. Some friends had recently got themselves a gorgeous puppy so it was a perfect opportunity for a mutually beneficial situation – practice for me and some free photos for them. I had a couple of chances to photograph little Sophie so that I might practice exposure and learn the different focal point settings on the camera. I think that these opportunities really changed the quality of the animal portraits that I took such as my lion portrait.
The second thing I mentioned was about capturing the character of the animal, otherwise its really just a photo of another animal. More often than not it can be a fleeting moment, so you need to be ready, and willing to put in the time (be it effort or boredom!) to get what you want. I probably have 40 or 50 photographs of the lion mentioned above, but this one is my favourite, simply because you really get a sense that they spend a lot of time lying around resting, waiting (and putting up with game drivers observing them!). I have 2 other favourite photos, one I took of some zebra and another of a curious baboon. Both, in my opinion, feel like they have captured something of the animals’ personalities which makes such a difference.
Again, I would echo what a lot of people with a lot more experience than me say – be patient and really think about your photograph. The opportunity might not become immediately obvious to you. Conditions may change. You may need to come back several times.
In addition, something that I really think people should do more is look around. So often we are solely focused on that one shot. Absolutely! Get it right, try different perspectives, zoom in, zoom out. Make sure what you have in the frame is there for a reason. And be happy when you have that image you had envisaged. But it doesn’t always work out first time. The weather might be lousy, not enough light, too much light etc. So look around, look behind you, look up. I do quite a few long exposure shots, which gives me time to try to see the other opportunities.
Recently I was shooting a sunrise at Long Reef in Sydney. I had a little bit of an idea, but was not completely familiar with the location so it was more of a chance to have a look around. I wanted to capture the sunrise with some beautiful clouds, and have some foreground interest using some of the rocks. About 5 minutes before the sun came up all the clouds pushed out of the way, effectively ruining the idea. But lo and behold, behind me was the rock escarpment being beautifully lit up red from the morning sun. Not one of my greatest photos, and not one I intend to print, but it did open my eyes to possibilities that I had not otherwise considered, and I do intend going back sometime to try to shoot it again
Oh, and make sure you have a sturdy tripod, a remote release and some good wet weather gear!