I frequently encounter new photographers who will say that they can’t get any practice because they don’t have anyone to photograph. I suspect most of us can remember that feeling – not everyone has built up the confidence to ask somebody to sit for them. If this is the case then there are a couple of things we can do. We can attend training seminars and workshops where models will be provided, so that we can practice whilst gaining guidance at the same time **. The drawback is that good quality training isn’t cheap and we also have to factor in the time away from our usual job. I have friends who have practised on human dummies (I’m talking about plastic models rather like those in shop windows). This can be a very good way of practising lighting techniques on something which isn’t going to move as you work. However lighting is but one facet of portraiture – and we need to consider aspects such as the shape of our subject, size, hair texture, personality, posing, narrative, timing, and environment. In other words, there is no substitute for live models. And if you can’t find, or don’t want to find human beings, then go for an animal instead. Approach your animal photography just as you would approach your human photography (obviously you can’t necessarily communicate with an animal, particularly a wild one, but you do have the benefit of knowing they will not answer back either).
I shoot tons of animals, so much so that I have a separate site dedicated to them: Pet and Animal Photography West Sussex. I will also say that animal photography and specifically animal portraiture is incredibly demanding and challenging. If you can get to grips with animals then I think it’s fair to say that your human portraiture will improve as a result.
If you don’t have access to your own pets, or the pets of friends, it’s not that hard to go out and find animals of some sort. In my opinion birds make excellent subjects for portraits, they have a wide repertoire of movements and postures and can assume very different shapes as a result, particularly regarding head carriage and mood. Waterbirds are perhaps the easiest to work with because they’re quite big and if you go to a nature reserve they’re usually accustomed to people. As always, work through a checklist – you need the right kind of light first and foremost. Harsh overhead sun is horrible so ideally you need to get your subject into open shade with the light coming at them from the front or just off to the side. If it’s late in the day, backlighting can be lovely.
Next, you need to look at the environment, particularly the background. This needs to be pleasing and complimentary to the subject, free from unnecessary clutter and distractions (in other words, not the car park or the main road). Then you need to frame your subject to show their relationship to the environment – you can zoom in tight for a classic head and shoulders portrait, you can go for a full body shot with your subject relatively small within your composition, and the environment assumes more importance. If you fancy a classic studio style photograph like the one above, the background you choose will need to be much darker than your subject, or of a uniform colour which can be darkened down during post production. Remember that your camera’s digital sensor doesn’t see things the way the human eye does – the light falloff is much more rapid than you might think – look up the inverse square law because this can be really useful at times.
Decide what you want your subject to be doing when you photograph him or her – I think birds look great in profile or 3/4 view. Otherwise, you might choose to capture the characteristics of that species.
Patience is key – wait until your subject does something interesting, or presents well for the camera. With animals it helps to use burst mode, and remember to aim your focus point at the eye nearest to the camera. Remember that the focal length of the lens you use, combined with how close you are to your subject, and your chosen aperture, will influence depth of field. I wouldn’t entertain photographing animals at very wide apertures if I’m close to them using a telephoto lens, because too much of them will be out of focus and this simply doesn’t work with most creatures. Even at F5 .6 on my Micro 4/3 cameras, the depth of field can be too shallow at times if I’m using one of my long zooms.
So if you’re starting to explore portraiture but you don’t feel ready to tackle human beings, there are plenty of other things just waiting for you to show up with your camera. Wild animals are best photographed from a safe distance, so as not to startle them, therefore a lens with an equivalent focal length of anything from 200mm upwards will be ideal. In this instance I was using the Pana 100-300 (which on my Micro 4/3 bodies will give me a field of view equivalent to 200 to 600mm in 35mm terms).
** If you’re a beginner or an amateur wanting to improve, we do offer training. This is currently on a 1:1 or 1:2 basis. The feedback I’ve received seems to suggest that beginners and improvers can be daunted by structured group tuition therefore my training is designed to be relaxed and fairly informal. Please feel free to get in touch if you want to have a chat about the ways you can improve your photography. In the meantime, take a look at this amazing competition from Olympus, where you’ll have the chance to win some fabulous camera kit and one-to-one tuition from your chosen mentor (as you can see I’m heading up the animal photography department): Olympus Proteges.