Photo masterclass part 2: Mammal portraits

Mammal portraits are one of the trickier subjects for the wildlife photographer. But by knowing your subject intimately, using your imagination and employing our expert tips, you can improve your pictures dramatically.

How to take mammal portraits

In our second master class, we’re tackling mammal portraits – one of the trickier subjects for the amateur (and expert) wildlife photographer. But by knowing your subject intimately, using your imagination and employing our expert tips, you can improve your pictures dramatically.


It’s hard to estimate how many mammals have their portraits taken in a typical day. A lot. It’s easy to see why: there are literally thousands of potential subjects roaming every corner of the globe and, in theory at least, all they have to be doing is sitting or standing relatively still.

The concept is simple. So why do most mammal portraits have little or no impact? Even if they are technically perfect, they are rarely more than mere record shots that lack a sense of immediacy and intimacy and do little more than fill the frame.

The truth is that mammal portraiture is more challenging than it appears. Few forms of nature photography require more lateral and creative thinking, and an imaginative approach is essential to make a mammal portrait really eye-catching.

Just take a look at the work of a few top wildlife photographers to appreciate the infinite number of ways they tackle their subjects to produce images that really stand out.

The trick is to stop and think. By all means fire off a few pictures to get something ‘in the bag’, but every time you come across an animal posing perfectly for its portrait, let your imagination run wild. Ask yourself ‘What if I try this… or this… or this?’ and your work will improve overnight.

In this class, we’re investigating the key ingredients of a great mammal portrait. How do you capture the character or spirit of the subject? Where should the animal be positioned in the frame? We’ll be learning how to ‘see’ a great photograph (you can learn – you don’t need an artistic gift) and exploring ways of turning an otherwise ordinary snapshot into something much more compelling.



Frans Lanting’s illustrious career as a wildlife photographer spans more than two decades; he was named Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 1991. He tackles mammal portraits in many different ways: close-up and wide-angle, in good light and bad, and with or without eye contact. But he has two golden rules.

First, he stresses the importance of attitude. “We are primates and impatient by nature,” he says, “but the best advice I can give is to resist the temptation to move around too much. Pick a situation and stick with it.” Unlike many other photographers, when photographing mammals Frans likes to work out in the open – in full view of his subjects.

“Intimacy is a crucial ingredient in good mammal portraiture and it comes more easily if the animal knows you are there. It does, of course, have to be comfortable with your presence – and that takes time. I like to watch from a distance, observing an animal’s behaviour and gauging its mood before attempting to move closer. This helps me to predict its movements and gives me some insight into its personality.”

His second rule is to become familiar with your subject. “The best way to improve your photography is to pick a species and work with it until you feel you’ve exhausted all the possibilities. Over the years, I’ve photographed the same animals time and time again, yet I never feel as if I’ve ‘been there and done that’. There is always a new way of looking at a familiar subject,” he says as he prepares for another expedition to Africa, “and this challenge forces me to think more creatively.”


Frans Lanting’s top mammal portrait photography tips

  • Work your subject 
    With so many natural and photographic variables – from the quality of light and choice of lens to facial expressions and vantage points – the range of portrait picture-making opportunities is phenomenal. The longer you work with one subject, the wilder your imagination and the better the end result.
  • Be patient 
    Ultimately, a great mammal portrait is down to serendipity – one brief moment when all the key ingredients come together in a single shot. Taking time to observe and understand your subject makes it easier to predict such a defining moment. Resist the temptation to snap away and move on too quickly.


YOUR STEP BY STEP GUIDE: Mark Carwardine shows you how to apply the theory to get the perfect picture.

Focus on the eyes

  • The key point of focus in a mammal portrait should be the eyes. In most award-winning pictures they are pin sharp. Be careful to set your autofocus on the centre of the forehead and not the tip of the snout or beak or the eyes will be out of focus. Strong eye contact is by no means essential, but it can be more revealing and intimate and tends to evoke an immediate emotional response.
  • Place the eyes off-centre rather than in the middle of the frame for a more interesting composition, and experiment with different lighting conditions to give them energy and life.


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