Beastly Headshots

Close-up portraits of animals take more than a long lens

Beastly-Headshots
Beastly-Headshots
*Male Lion, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania:* After checking the histogram, Morello decided to increase the exposure by +0.3 EV, which opened up the lion’s face. Nikon D200 with 500mm f/4D ED-IF AF-S Nikkor lens on a beanbag atop a safari vehicle. Exposure, 1/90 sec at f/8, ISO 200.

Capturing wildlife headshots -tight close-up portraits-may seem easy at first glance: Just get as close as possible with a big telephoto lens and take the picture.

That certainly works, if all you're hoping for is a simple snapshot. But to ensure that you get a powerful and inspiring image, a little more effort is involved.

Here are six essential tips to help you get an image with more impact.

KNOW YOUR SUBJECT - AND YOUR GEAR

Before you set out to photograph wildlife anywhere, whether simply in a nearby park or on a major photo trek abroad, using your camera should be second nature. Know how to change settings without having to stop and look-this can make the difference between an image captured and an image lost.

The photo of mountain gorillas (above) is a case in point. These animals live high in the mountains in Uganda's impenetrable forest. Getting to them often requires a long and difficult trek in very hot, humid, and sometimes rainy conditions. Once you find the gorillas, you'll have only one hour to spend with them. These primates move about as they wish, in and out of the dense bush, under constantly changing light. So, to photograph them, you need to travel as light as possible, and to be able to work fast in difficult conditions.

FIND THE RIGHT LIGHT

Photographically speaking, there is nothing better than good light, and the best is at sunrise and sunset. When the sun is low on the horizon, it creates long shadows, brings out texture, and casts a warm glow.

Of course, when you're dealing with wildlife, you can't always predict when your subjects will show up. When lighting is not optimal, I often use fill flash to bring up shadow detail or add catchlights to an animal's eyes. Note, though, that the use of flash is prohibited in some national parks-and even if it isn't, it may unduly disturb animals. Check the local regulations, and always use discretion.

FIND THE RIGHT LIGHT

Tight headshots mean long telephoto lenses. If you are photographing in a zoo or in a place where wildlife is close and tolerant (like the Galapagos Islands), a 300mm lens is often sufficient.

For most situations, however, a 500mm lens or longer is the standard. The long lens will isolate your subject and let you focus in on the expression of the animal.

Also get the fastest lens you can afford, so that you can work in low light or less then ideal conditions. Teleconverters are an inexpensive way to increase the focal length of your lens, but these will also dim your image-you lose a stop of light with a 1.4X converter, and 2 stops with a 2X.

Digital SLRs with sensors that are smaller than full-frame provide a real plus for wildlife photographers. With their lens factors, these cameras add to the focal length of your lens by essentially cropping the image recorded on the sensor. For instance, my 500mm f/4 lens becomes the equivalent of a 750mm f/4 when it's mounted on my Nikon D300, with its 1.5X lens factor.

This combination of reach and speed was critical for photographing the walrus in Spitsbergen (on the next page). Because of high winds and low light, I had to shoot at f/4 to get as fast a shutter speed as possible. With a 500mm lens, I had very little depth of field, so focusing precisely on the eye was critical. That's why I make about 80 percent of my images in manual focus.

For exposure, though, I always keep my cameras on aperture priority. Whenever possible I like to control my depth of field, which is especially important when using long lenses for animal portraits. As magnification increases, depth of field decreases, given the same aperture. This helps in blurring out a distracting background in an animal headshot, but you don't want a depth of field so shallow that you lose important detail in the animal's face. If your camera has a depth-of-field preview, use it-and pay attention to your focus point.

beastly-headshots-001
beastly-headshots-001
*Brown Bear, Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park, AK:* You can tell Morello was photographing for the magazine market—he waited to get the bear, fish, and river all in one image. Nikon D200 with a 500mm f/4D ED-IF AF-S Nikkor lens on a tripod. Exposure, f/8 at 1/250 sec, ISO 200.
beastly-headshots-002
beastly-headshots-002
*Male Lion, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania:* After checking the histogram, Morello decided to increase the exposure by +0.3 EV, which opened up the lion’s face. Nikon D200 with 500mm f/4D ED-IF AF-S Nikkor lens on a beanbag atop a safari vehicle. Exposure, 1/90 sec at f/8, ISO 200.Steven Morello
beastly-headshots-004
beastly-headshots-004
*Walrus, Spitsbergen, Norway:* When walrus haul out on top of each other, it’s hard to tell where one ends and the others begin. Morello used a supertele to isolate individuals from the group. Tripod-mounted Nikon D300 with 500mm f/4D ED-IF AF-S Nikkor lens. Exposure, 1/60 sec at f/4, ISO 200.Steven Morello
beastly-headshots-003
beastly-headshots-003
*Mountain Gorilla and Baby, Bwindi National Park, Uganda:* Morello had just seconds to react when this mother and baby poked out of the dense forest, only to be hidden back in the brush again moments later. Handheld Nikon D200 with 80–200mm f/2.8 ED AF Zoom-Nikkor lens. Exposure, 1/180 sec at f/5.6 through UV filter, ISO 400.Steven Morello
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