In this Photographic Tip, I’d like to touch on a concept rather than a technical skill and by the title you may kind of get where I’m going with this. I’d like to discuss what I call “Dirty Portraits” in wildlife photography, and no we’re not talking about photographing mating animals here. 🙂 What I’m referring to are portraits of animals that are not 100% clean in the sense that there is some sort of obscurity in the image. Some of you reading this may think I’m being absurd or asking the question why. Why would anyone want an obscured portrait of an animal as opposed to a clean one? There is really only one reason: The Story.
There are thousands of images out there showing a perfectly clean portrait of a lion or leopard or cheetah etc. For all we know these images could’ve been taken in a zoo in the United States of America. There’s nothing in the image to tell us anything different.
Going wide and capturing the animal in its environment is one way of telling the story and showing the viewer that it is wild and free, but another is the dirty portrait. Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t bank the clean shots, of course by all means do so, but don’t neglect the story telling power of an unclean image, especially if the subject is by nature an elusive animal. I personally cannot get enough of dirty portraits. As a working Photographic Field Guide, I have accumulated thousands of images of almost every kind of animal and I regularly go through the data banks and delete anything that looks similar to something else, or doesn’t grab me visually. I have that luxury. Many avid safari goers may also have racked up wildlife images in the thousands, so what differentiates one leopard pic from the next? Ask yourself, do you really want or need hundreds of the same type of image? Food for thought…
I have attached here a few examples and I’ll give you a short background story of each one and explain why I think they are powerful images. On your next safari or outdoor adventure maybe give it a try…you may just end up with something completely different and something you really like.
1/640 sec @ f9; ISO 4000; 600mm
In this scene, the light was fading fast and visibility of the lionesses and their two cubs was extremely limited. When I arrived there wasn’t really even a photo to take as they were all “flat cats”. As luck would have it though, the cubs got active and I banked a couple of nice ‘clean’ photos, albeit at very high ISO settings, and then they went to suckle. I repositioned quickly and to my good fortune one of the cubs circled mom and back around to its sibling. As soon as it peered around the bush I took my opportunity, also getting mom and sibling in the background. Why I really like the image is because it shows the ‘shy’ nature of the young animals, even though they are anything but shy really, sharing an intimate moment with mom. A moment that we were lucky to witness. It lends to a sense of being let in on an incredible secret and to me it makes for a very special image.
1/1250 sec @ f7.1; ISO 2000; 410mm
This is a fairly recent image of one of the Charleston male lions and is already a firm favourite. The males were lying in an open area dotted with several small Magic Guarri bushes, but as the sun rose in the sky, one of the boys decided to move towards the shade. My vehicle was positioned to view both males, as they were lying apart from one another and I was stationed next to one of the several Guarri bushes. It wasn’t planned by any means, but the male approached my vehicle directly in order to get access to the shade of the bush and at my level of view I made sure to try aim through some of the branches to get that dirty look that I like. Well, it worked out better than I had hoped. The male actually stopped only a couple of meters from the vehicle on the other side of the bush and I was able to photograph him through a very small gap, but keeping some of the foliage in the frame. When he looked at me, it was done!
1/1250 sec @ f7.1; ISO 6400; 600mm
This scene was very difficult to say the least. The Little Bush female leopard had stashed a kill, and she and her cub were feeding on it on top of a termite mound in a very dense Tamboti Tree thicket. Visibility was less than rubbish actually and I repositioned every now and then to allow my guests to get whatever they could. A lot of them were complaining about not having a clean shot and I just said, how many clean shots do you want? Try something different. Another guide was with me here and he had the same opinion, so we helped the guests position and using a shallow depth of field, focus through the foliage and try get at least a portion of the animal sharp. Surprisingly to everyone there, they got some really nice stuff, as did I. We had to use very high ISO sensitivities, but at that time of day you get some really nice colours and still the images were sharp! Don’t be afraid of ISO! I managed to snap off a few images of the female and then her cub as it finished feeding and began to groom. I had a limited window which I used to the fullest and I walked away with a very nice image that tells the story perfectly. Leopards are elusive creatures, generally not liking being seen, especially with a cub and a kill. The fact that we have such great leopard viewing is just a bonus, but this image to me highlights their nature.
Until next time…stay focused!