Free Content • Emotive Wildlife Photography

Wildlife guide and professional photographer Keith Connelly discusses a variety of ways to create emotive wildlife pictures with deep connection

Speaking as a human being, I think it would be fair to say that as a species we are generally a rather feely bunch. When we hear a great piece of music, smell an aroma that is reminiscent of a memory, or more especially when we see things of beauty, drama, composition and colour, it often promotes an emotive response. We feel excited, enthralled, impassioned and, if we have succeeded as photographers, hopefully thoughtfulness.

As a wildlife photographer, I have long been fascinated with the relationship between both emotion that is on display in front of the lens and the way in which that emotion that is conveyed from behind it. I have always felt that my biggest goal in creating wildlife imagery is to make whoever happens across my work feel something when they view it. To find their own meaning in my images or, even better, to have a sense of what it is I was trying to convey through the image.

Emotive Wildlife Photography
Lens recommendation • Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 IF EX DG HSM

Creating emotive imagery
So how do we go about creating emotive imagery? First and foremost is discovering what invokes your greatest emotive response and, for me, that is wildlife in all of its wonderful forms. Then you’ve got to go out there and photograph it over and over and over again. I really believe that if there is no deep connection between the photographer and their subject it makes it incredibly difficult for any emotion to be conveyed to the viewer.
I love the quote from Ansel Adams that puts it so succinctly, “A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” Here are a few things that I focus on while in the eld, looking to create emotive imagery.

Animal interaction: Knowing your subject

Before becoming a photographer, I spent most of my career as a wildlife guide in some of South Africa’s most famous game reserves. My years entertaining guests around resides and drinking copious amount of gin and tonic had a very clear benefit: the understanding of animal behavior, a critical element in seeking out and predicting emotive situations, and that benefit was worth all the toil with the gin and tonic.

Watching a leopard move through the bush, knowing that it will seek out scent posts on trees, allows you to position for a glance that can be composed in an emotive way. A sleeping pride of lions that begin to yawn or urinate may well lead to some ritual head rubbing that can provide some wonderful opportunities to capture that emotion, especially when there are young cubs around. Seek out interactions with animals and their babies, as young ones will often head to their mother for safety and reassurance. Often, when viewing the big cats, the cubs will not stray far from the adults, often heading back for a bout of rolling or wrestling.

Emotive Wildlife Photography
Lens recommendation • Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S

Find and spend time with elephants
The emotional nature of elephants is well known of course, which must be why they are my favorite animal to while away time with. Apart from the very clear therapeutic aspect of time spent with elephants, they also offer endless opportunities for capturing emotive situations. How you compose and interpret that emotion is completely up to you, all you need is one herd of elephants, patience, good light, a good lens and a large memory card, then you are good to go.

This image is a firm favorite of mine. As emotive as this looks, in fact this mother and calf are just slurping water from the same hole. However, I feel it really captures what I most love about elephants; their tactile, loving nature and the close bonds that exist between a mother and calf. Once again, it really is just about combination of elephants, great light, and some self-imposed emotion that makes this image a special one for me. Their strong bonds and affinity for family is always available to capture and explore.

Another great tip is to seek out young bulls. This tip does however, come with a caveat, I have always had a very firm idea that influencing animal behavior in any way for the sake of capturing an image is a “no-no,” but when it comes to young elephant bulls... well, they often have other ideas. Young bulls are often rather full of gusto and always ready to put on a show and, as long as you don’t do anything to incite these reactions, they can offer some great emotive photo opportunities.

Emotive Wildlife Photography
Lens recommendation • Sigma APO 300-800mm F5.6 EX DG HSM

One of my favorite techniques in creating emotive images is the use of backlighting. Backlighting really does set the human eye ablaze. It offers the photographer the chance to capture more non-emotive scenes and create images that have the viewer feeling intrigue, excitement, and a great deal more. A real benefit of backlighting is allowing your images to tell their own story with no explanation necessary. It allows the viewers to make their own stories about the content, behavior, and nature of the image. Creating any form of intrigue can only be an advantage if you are hoping for the viewer to have an emotional reaction to your images.

Emotive Wildlife Photography
Lens recommendation • Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | S

It is useful to note that dust and a low-level sun greatly adds to the atmosphere of these types of images. An additional advantage is that finding almost any subject at the right time (and with the right position) can really result in deep and emotive imagery. In wildlife photography this is a huge asset, as we all know leopards with cuddling cubs are not often found behind every bush.

Emotive Wildlife Photography
Lens recommendation • Sigma APO 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM

Eye contact
When someone looking at an image is struck by big bright eyes staring right back at them, they are immediately engaged with that image. Having eye contact in wildlife photography is such a key element in bringing your viewer into the image. Having an animal walking straight towards you, or having an animal stare straight down the elements of your outlandish 800mm lens, has such an intoxicating effect and it’s a sure fire way to lift your image to another level.

The moment when a lovely languishing leopard stares at you, or an imposing male lion walks straight up towards you. Whether you are looking at the image ten years later or while you are making it, much like Kaa the Python from The Jungle Book, it completely hypnotizes you, pulling you right into the image, creating an immediate emotive response.

Monochrome: Liberally and often
I have a huge love for monochrome imagery, as many people do. Monochrome has the advantage of removing the distraction of colour from an image, allowing you to focus on the content, composition, subjects, tonality, and emotion present in that image.
When we look at a good monochrome image it draws us into the thought process and mind of the photographer in a much different way than with colour images. It enables us to push our creative boundaries in a myriad of different ways. It’s a deep, rich and alluring form of photography with many complexities and is one of the most emotive forms of photography out there. If you are looking to create emotive imagery, using monochrome is a great way to achieve that. However, it is essential to select images that will deliver results; a quality image with good composition, light, and subject matter. In addition, when you create the image it is essential to ensure the end result is deep, rich, ‘contrasty’ and conveys a definite story. When it comes to a monochrome background, seek out uncluttered backdrops. Distracting, busy backgrounds can completely ruin a monochrome image, whereas clean backgrounds that emphasize the subject often are the best candidates for monochrome conversion.

Emotive Wildlife Photography
Lens recommendation • Sigma APO 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM

In my experience the most important factor in creating compelling, rich and emotional monochrome is injecting something of yourself into your images. Put your perspective, emotion, and creativity into it, push the envelope and see where that creativity leads you. Start with a great raw product and work with it until you really feel something. When you achieve that, you are allowing the people that view your image the chance to explore their own feelings too about what it is they are seeing.

Go wider and seek out the drama
Changing your perspective and your viewpoint can have a dramatic emotive effect on your wildlife images. Many landscape images are shot at wider angles for a reason: it allows you, as the photographer, to explore the elements of the greater scene and bring them into your story to engage whoever is viewing your work.

Emotive Wildlife Photography
Lens recommendation • Sigma 12-24mm F4 DG HSM | Art

In wildlife photography, shooting wide has its challenges, as it requires you to get close to your subject, or change your point of view. The Sigma 12-24mm F4 DG HSM Art lens is ideal for wildlife wide angle. Shooting from underground hides can really maximise these opportunities without endangering your life, which I always find to be optimal.

If you consider the winning images in many of the biggest wildlife photo competitions over the last few years, many of these images have been taken at wider angles, incorporating more of the scene and environment around the animals. This, of course, is no fluke: your ability to tell story can be greatly enhanced by creating animalscapes – and, when creating emotion, there can be nothing more than effective than a really great story. The
use of gear like GoPros has given us more scope and many more opportunities to safely and creatively produce images of this nature. If you get the chance to try out new gear like this on location, give it a go. Wherever possible too, look at ways to create emotive stories and go wider. And lastly...

You create the narrative
The old cliché that the most important aspect of photography is the few inches positioned directly behind the camera could not hold truer. We are in control of the emotion we create. As I discussed at the beginning of this article, there are two kinds of emotion involved in the creation of these images. The emotion evident in front of the lens and, most importantly, the emotion that we create as the photographer behind the lens. So many of the images I have made that really mean something to me were created by the emotion I felt or wanted to communicate while looking at the image after having taken it.

Emotive Wildlife Photography
Lens recommendation • Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S

We need to consider ourselves storytellers. For your images to have real emotive impact they need to have a deeply personal narrative that sets your own soul on fire. Every one of us has all the creative license in the world to tell our own story.
I can say, without a doubt, that this image is the most personal and special image I have ever created. Throughout my career I have been deeply personally affected by the scourge of rhino poaching in Southern Africa. This image, to me, represents the struggle of these incredible creatures against the never-ending assault of man.

It is worth saying that in this image there is actually no real imminent threat to the rhinos. They simply just got spooked by a gust of wind, causing the behaviour
I captured. But, seeing this image on my computer afterwards, I felt that I really wanted to create a narrative to this image and use it as a metaphor for the rhinos’ current plight: a group of rhinos huddled together in their typical defensive formation, that has incidentally added to their poaching woes, all up against a storm brewing in the background.

This narrative was created after the fact, with the use of monochrome and some selective dodging and burning to produce an emotive message that I can only hope brings the viewer a little closer to the dangers faced by this species every day.

Photography is an incredibly powerful tool for creating emotion, and not only do I recommend it, I would encourage every wildlife photographer to go out there and create those images that speak to you. But most of all to go out there and tell your own story. Shoot what you love, love what you shoot!

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    Darren Colello on

    This was a fantastic article filled with helpful information and inspiring imagery! Special thanks to Keith and Wild Planet!

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