Drawing in the viewer
Of all the portraits I have taken (animal portraits have been my favourite genre for a long time), I find the most satisfying ones are of those that people ask questions of, not in so much of the pictures themselves, but of the subjects in them. It’s when I find they want to know more about the animals and when they do ask, I know I’ve hit the right buttons with those pictures. I rarely know the answers, but for me, the point is that they were drawn in enough to ask. For me, it’s the best response to a portrait, and it should be the highest accolade for any wildlife photographer.
A portrait may be one or the other, or an amalgamation of two things: an aesthetically pleasing illustrative record of the subject, or a picture that makes you ask questions of the subject within. Amalgamate both and you have the ultimate animal portrait.
Satisfying to any photographer is an aesthetically perfect picture of any subject before the camera, be that an elephant, lion, bear, fox, blackbird, beetle, or anything else you care to name. As perfect it may undoubtedly be for all its aesthetics, it really is only the first step. A well-taken portrait, however, with all its ideals in place, just wants to make you want to know more about the subject. Just by looking, and with no other cues, you find yourself asking without really expecting answers: what is she thinking, or where has he been? What kind of life has he led? If you find the subject intriguing, even more than the aesthetics of the picture itself, then the portrait succeeds.
Clues to visual cues
I have yet to photograph a bear so if one was to appear before me now I doubt that I would know enough about it to anticipate a good portrait. Well, not in terms of any telltale nuances that might indicate its next move anyway. I’d have less chance of seizing an optimum portrait than of anyone with me who’s photographed bears before.
But I’d like to think I’ve seen enough big cats now to recognise any clue that might indicate to me what it’s going to do for me next, a cue so I can ready my camera for when it might provide me with any particular look. Three yawns and you know he’s about to walk, and sometimes there’s a little clue in there, which tells me he might be about to look right at me.
In 2016, I will photograph bears for the first time but I’m not sure if I’ll get ideal portraits first time out, because I don’t know what they’re going to do and I also don’t know anything about their character first hand. Maybe on round two I might pick up a few cues, but if I’m honest then I don’t really expect to know enough until rounds three or four at the soonest, if I ever get that far. That’s what happened with me with lions anyway; it wasn’t until round three that the results I was seeking started to come in. I’ve always said to my guests on safari: it’s during the second and third and maybe fourth times with the same subjects that you find your photography improves the most due to the cues you get to recognise.
Intrigue & curiosity
Just as wedding or portrait photographers do, knowing and meeting the subject beforehand is to their great advantage. Reading and research helps only a little, you really need to be there with your subjects. This is why so many photographers who consistently return the results, they’ve more or less specialized – and you’ll find the most successful portraits are from those photographers who’ve specialized. A portrait need not present itself as the de rigueur ‘head-shoulders-eyes form’ either. So long as something of its character is conveyed, or that you believe there is enough intrigue for people to ask questions of it, then it still qualifies as a portrait.
If the picture appeals compositionally, tonally and aesthetically, and you find that there is little curiosity from the viewer about the subject, then it succeeds as a picture. But if the subject itself appeals predominately over the picture, where it has intrigue and asks questions of the viewer, then it becomes a successful portrait.
To me that’s what defines and separates a successful wildlife portrait from a successful wildlife picture. Both are good in their own entities. But ultimately, they are better amalgamated as one.