Photographing wildlife by studying animal behaviour

If you’re checking out photographing wildlife, whether that’s wild animals or creatures closer to home, this guide from expert photographer Elliot Neep is for you.

From the huge open planes of the Mara Serengeti to the more humble fields on his south Oxfordshire doorstep, anywhere the area, Elliott Neep handles to catch the true spirit and character of every animal he photographs. It’s a notoriously tough task, so how does he do it? Elliott’s ability lies in the fact that he is as much a biologist as he is a professional photographer, using his understanding of animal behaviour to get the shots that count.
The side profile silhouettes of two cheetahs searching for prey in the distance

What are the benefits of studying animal behaviour for wildlife photographers?

‘ The more you can discover your topic, the more you can prepare for and anticipate the animal’s behaviour,’ discusses Elliott. ‘For me, photographing wildlife is everything about capturing those unique short lived moments– whether it is a mother and cub entering into frame to nuzzle, or the moment a bird of victim flies. If you can acknowledge the indications and body movement, you can shave important seconds off your reaction time and be ready for the minute.’
Photographing Wildlife - Lion roaring in black and white
Photographing Wildlife– Mature lion (Panthera leo nubica). One of two siblings, yawning in dawn sunlight, Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Photographing Wildlife– Practice makes best

It has actually taken Elliott many years to fine-tune his craft. He spent his formative years practicing his camera techniques on local plants, fungis, bugs and pond wildfowl, getting to know his cam inside and out so as not to miss out on a moment by messing with settings and controls.
Photographing wildlife - Grey squirrel perched on a bench staring straight at the camera
I desire the animal to look unwinded and natural for portraits, so I’m looking for eye contact, a raised paw as the animal walks, ears alert and forward.

A waiting video game

Elliott stresses that this design of photography takes time and dedication if you are to get the finest results. Or I’ll spend the whole summertime, from dawn to dusk, in a couple of fields coming across the very same roe deer and hares, learning their practices and favoured paths through the fields and hedgerows. If you simply stroll around the same spot too frequently, the wild animals will take evasive steps and alter their routines to avoid contact.’
Photographing Wildlife - A group of wildebeest standing still and appearing to be looking in the direction of the camera, a mound of rocks and trees behind them
While this might be easy when taking photos near to home, it is distinctly more difficult abroad, but Elliott states the very same concepts apply– you still need to spend more time really observing wildlife than taking photos of it.

Elliott is abroad a lot. He works as a guide for Oryx Photography ( a wildlife photography trip operator in South Africa), and so has been lucky enough to become knowledgeable about areas such as Kenya’s Masai Mara, Tanzania’s Serengeti, Rwanda, the tiger reserves in main and northern India, and the high Arctic and Antarctica. Each tour normally only lasts 10-14 days, but he is never lured to rapidly shoot whatever he sees.

‘ From my first-ever safari, where I shot more than 10,000 frames, I have now ended up being extremely selective and cherry-pick encounters with the best light or action series,’ states Elliott. ‘Now I might shoot fewer than a thousand frames with three camera bodies. Periodically, I will be single-minded and follow the very same pride or cheetah, but I rarely do this when I am leading a group as the majority of people are not prepared to wait around for hours, if not days, with the same animals.’
Photographing Wildlife - A male Lion rests on the grass
And yet if those touring professional photographers were willing to stick around, they would discover that this sluggish method is essential to getting the right composition to bring their wildlife pictures to life. At a fundamental level, Elliott’s composition method is a basic method refined during his years providing photographs for stock libraries.

He grew utilized to composing his images for copy space, with space above the head in vertical portraits and space on the side for the based on look into. This design, based on the guideline of thirds, is seen by lots of as rather dull, but Elliott states it is a beneficial foundation from which to be imaginative with how you shoot, so long as you have provided yourself adequate time to experiment.

‘ I press the limits of the rule of thirds, with structures such as a 90:10 split for landscapes and contextual images [animals in their environment] These images include just a strip of land at the bottom and a huge sky, or vice versa,’ he explains. ‘In contrast to this, when I’m sitting with a pride of lions or a herd of zebra, I search for tight compositions with my Nikkor 600mm f/4, picking out isolating abstractions or patterns and lines.’

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Elliott typically attains the latter by filling the frame with movement, utilizing sluggish shutter speeds on his Nikon D800 and D800E to blur the movement of running animals or flocks of birds. He likewise favours a breathtaking crop at 2:1 or 3:1, with the huge 36.3 MP file on the D800 offering him the image quality and size to crop to that letterbox design.
Photographing Wildlife - Brown hares stand face to face in a frosty field
Photographing Wildlife– Technique.

Elliott is not one to attempt all these methods in fast succession. I am highly selective, picking minutes that provide me the body position I want: far front foot raised in stride to open the chest, eye contact (down the lens or another animal in frame), ears forward, and so on.

I’ll attempt to place the automobile so I’m shooting into the light if possible, with a darker background so the raindrops stand out, and I use a slower shutter speed to blur the rain.’.

Photographing Wildlife– Shoot responsibly.

While Elliott enjoys to make do with less-than-ideal conditions, he will never keep shooting if the animals are at risk, or if it suggests interrupting them unnecessarily.

‘ Only recently, numerous newspapers recorded Richmond Park as a prime example where armies of professional photographers were disrupting the rut with little or no idea for the animals,’ describes Elliott.
Photographing Wildlife - Red deer foraging for sweet chestnuts
On safari, he is constantly evaluating the scene and behaviour of the animals as they react to his existence. ‘Once, an elephant I was riding on to get photos interrupted a mother tigress. I have actually never forgotten the feeling of pity and have made every effort to avoid making the exact same mistake again,’ confesses Elliott.

How do you photo wildlife morally?

I do utilize food to draw in particular wildlife subjects into variety of video cameras, whether they’re remote or in my hand,’ discusses Elliott. In some cases I’ll try to use naturally occurring food, so this frequently suggests scraping roadkill off the road to bring in foxes.’.

Using food to attract wild animals is one that divides individuals. Elliott is eager to explain that he only utilizes this technique with long-lasting jobs with a long lead-in and lead-out, using adequate food for the animals to be attracted to the vicinity, but not enough to create reliance.
Fox close-up
For Elliott, that close interaction is as rewarding as seeing the final photographs. ‘It’s an absolute opportunity to invest a lot time in the company of these wild animals,’ he states. It is this attitude that ensures he records not simply the look of the animals he photographs, however their spirit too.


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