Expressive Images…Luck or Preparation?

It would be hard to find a better expression on the face of an elk than the one that Marsha Hobert captured here. This is an image that has something to say, and we can clearly “read” it. Expressive images like this one, pull the viewer right into the photograph. We may not be Dr. Doolittle talking to the animals, but in a photograph like this, the animal is definitely talking to us.

There isn’t really any way to tell you how to capture animal expressions because there’s an element of luck involved, but being prepared and knowing the rules of good portrait photography are the starting point. I like that quote about luck. Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

So how to prepare?

First off, if we are intent on capturing great expressions, we need to move in as close to our subject as possible. You can try for expression with a cell phone or a point-and-shoot, but the real ticket is going to be an SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera mounted with a long lens.

But not too long. Long lenses are terrific at bringing the subject up close and personal, but they are heavy and hard to hold perfectly still. That means there will be a bit of vibration that will transfer onto the file. So don’t go too long. Try using a 135 mm fixed focal length lens, or a zoom lens set at about that range and see what you can capture.

Ok. What else? We’re using a relatively long lens (which means camera shake which means we have to set a fast shutter speed to stop the movement from the camera shake) plus we are photographing a moving animal (ok, maybe not actively moving, but it’s breathing right?) so we are going to set our shutter speed to at least 1/250th of a second. 1/400th of a second if there is enough light.

In choosing our shutter speed, we notice that the higher we set the shutter, the lower the aperture number the camera’s computer will choose to balance the exposure. (Shutter speed and aperture, which controls depth of field, are inversely related.) Ok. To review, we’re using a shutter speed of at least 1/250th of a second, which will give us a narrow depth of field which means not much background in the image. That’s good because we want the background blurred so all the emphasis is on the face in front of the lens.

So now we are ready to focus on the expressions of the animal we are trying to capture. Here’s where the creative fun begins and the luck kicks in. Take these two images of an Anhinga I took in Everglades National Park.

Canon 60 D, 1/250th of a second at f 5.6, 135 mm lens.

I had everything right in terms of the settings, but until the luck of the stars aligned when  the bird turned his head in my direction, I couldn’t capture an image that was ‘talking’ to me.

Once you have the camera settings down, you’ll need a bit of luck and a lot of patience to start a conversation.

Go on…you can do this… and before long the animals will be talking to you!

Good shooting!


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