Wildlife Photography Pro Tip: How to Select your Best Images

The importance of careful image selection is a greatly underestimated task in any situation where you’re photographing the same subject for more than just a couple of photos.

On a wildlife photography safari or expedition, it’s often the case that you’ll get to spend several minutes photographing a single animal, which can lead to a huge number of similar images. Being able to narrow that selection to the very best ones, before you begin your edit, is a skill that’s not often talked about.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at a series of images from a trip to photograph coastal black bears in British Columbia. All of the photos in this article were taken in the span of just 12 minutes, during a single encounter with a bear. I’ll show you the images I chose as my final “selects” to edit, and I’ll show you the similar ones that didn’t quite cut it. We’ll discuss why one similar image is better than another, and by the end of it, you’ll have some great ideas of what to look out for, both in the field while you’re shooting, and also at your computer after a trip.

Step 1: Editing Through the Viewfinder

My selection and editing process actually begins before I take a single photo. I have a good idea of what will make a strong wildlife photo and don’t like to waste time and hard drive space taking photos that I know won’t make the final cut. Generally speaking, I can break these shots down into three categories: Behaviour, character and biological detail. In almost every case, a strong wildlife photo is going to depict one of these three things.

Behavioural Photos

Behavioural photo is a broad category. It includes things like eating, hunting, sleeping, taking care of the young, and travelling through environments that are specific to that particular animal. Strong photos within this category should clearly depict part of that animal’s behaviour in a single frame. It’s important to remember that the viewer of the image doesn’t have the benefit of having watched this animal for several minutes as you have. Clarity of the story within one frame is very important.

Character Photos

Character photos are harder to define in words, but they usually jump out at me when I’m looking through my viewfinder. These are images that can somehow give you a sense of an animal’s character and nature. Sometimes these images make you smile, sometimes they make you laugh and sometimes, as a viewer, they can scare you when you imagine being in the photographer’s position.

There can be overlap between the behaviour and character photos, but sometimes there can be character photos that don’t show specific behaviours. For example, when an animal makes eye contact with you, or at least your lens, there is a brief moment there that can usually yield great photos. In fact, it’s one of the very best times to take the shot.

The image might not depict a specific behaviour that I listed in the previous section, but the look on their face can give you a sense of their character and nature. Are they accepting of your presence? Are they agitated or angry? Maybe they just look sleepy! When an animal gives a look that reveals some sense of how it might be feeling, people will generally connect better with a photo of that moment.

In some cases, we might be wrong about our interpretation of that look, but that won’t affect how people view the image. For example, it’s possible to get an image of an animal that looks confused or sad, but in fact, they might not be feeling those things at all. Nonetheless, people love to anthropomorphize animals and images that enable that will always be popular.

Biological Detail

This is definitely a less common category than the previous two. Photos that fall into this category are usually close-up photos of animal details, macro photos and slightly more abstract images that use defining features, patterns or the form of an animal in a visually compelling composition.

Think of an abstract image of zebra stripes or a close-up image of a bear’s claws for example. What’s different about this category of wildlife image is that it’s usually less of a waiting game than the previous two. Instead, you can seek out the specific photo that you have in mind. Since close-up details are lacking in context, images like this rely more heavily on the elements of a strong composition to lift it to the realms of a truly great image.

Sticking with the bear claw example, you would have to make a conscious decision to shoot with a much longer lens (because you’re probably not going to want to get closer), and then that means tracking the bear’s foot until you have the perfect light and composition. Whilst you do this, you’re essentially ignoring all the possibilities for photos in the previous two categories because you would be shooting a shot that’s far too tight. So, photos in this category can be great, but they usually aren’t chance photos that just happen right before your lens. Instead, they require some careful forethought.

Less Isn’t More, but It Can Make You Better

During a wildlife encounter, most of my time is spent carefully watching the animal through my viewfinder, searching for those moments that we have just discussed. When they happen, I press the shutter button and get what I need. If you keep these three image categories in mind while you shoot, it will help to make sure that you don’t take ten thousand photos just to get the three or four that actually matter.

This has two major benefits: Firstly, you take fewer photos and that makes managing and storing the files much easier. Secondly, it means that you have a much greater chance that your camera’s buffer won’t be full at the perfect moment to take the shot. If you constantly take the “spray and pray” approach to wildlife photography, you might find that your camera stutters and misses the best shot while it’s writing images to the card from a full buffer. If you use a camera that shoots 10+ fps or has huge file sizes, this can definitely happen!

Of course, it’s still possible to take a bad photo of any of these perfect moments. You still need to remember all your technical skills with the camera to get a sharp and properly exposed shot, as well as general guidelines for creating a compelling image.

Once the shutter starts clicking, a lot of people get so fixated on keeping the AF points on the subject, or keeping it within the frame, that it can be hard to remember all the other things we have mentioned. Bringing all of this together in the field and slowing down the shooting process will really simplify your final selection process.

Lighting Considerations

Aside from the hunt for those three types of images that we have discussed, the other thing that I’m always considering is the lighting on the subject and the environment. Strong sunlight can create harsh shadows that are very tricky to work with, and sometimes the light will fall on the background and not the animal, exceeding the dynamic range of the camera. If the light doesn’t fall within my own range of acceptability, I don’t bother taking a photo. Simple as that.

I know from experience that I’ll simply never look at, let alone bother to edit, any wildlife photos that have crappy light. On this point, your mileage may vary. I can appreciate that if you’re on a single day safari or something similar, then you might not want to go home with no photos at all, so you might shoot just to keep the photos as a memento of the day and not for portfolio usage.

Judge this one using your own circumstances, but be aware that in general, I find most people shoot far too much. When the light sucks, I would much rather put the camera down, pick up my binoculars and just take the scene in for my own enjoyment. I can use that time to study the behaviour of the animals more closely, and that helps inform my shot decisions in the future, as well as improving my ability to predict animal behaviour.

Step 2 – Editing After File Import

The bear encounter that we’re going to look at in this example lasted 12 minutes. In that 12 minutes, I only took 152 photos. Using something speedy like a Canon 1DX Mark III or a Nikon D6 then you’d blaze through 152 shots in just 12 seconds, so I was quite restrained with my shooting and stuck to the rules that I laid out earlier about editing in the moment, through the viewfinder.

First Pass – Basic Focus Check

The first thing I do is skim through the series of images and check for ones that are massively out of focus. It doesn’t matter how good your camera is, or how good you are for that matter, there will always be some images where the focus is just so far off that you can tell something isn’t right even before you zoom in on the photo.

This is often caused by focus hunting when the light levels are low or lacking in contrast, but can also be caused by shooting from an unpredictably moving platform. In the case of this encounter, I was shooting from a zodiac that was bobbing around in Pacific waters. The movement of the boat would often suddenly place my focus points on the foreground or background and cause me to collect a small number of totally out of focus images. These photos are easily spotted at 25% zoom, and I flag them right away for deletion.

Second Pass – Critical Focus/Sharpness Check

The next step is to look at your images at 100% and check to see whether your photos are critically sharp. If an animal’s eyes are in the shot, your goal should always be to put your plane of focus right through their eyes. When you’re shooting with a long focal length and a relatively small aperture, it’s going to be obvious where that plane of focus has fallen, once you zoom in to 100%.

Achieving critical focus can be tricky. Every wildlife photographer has memories of “the one that got away”, where everything in the shot was perfect, except the autofocus point fell on the animal’s nose and the eyes just weren’t sharp. It’s painful when that happens, but I can never be satisfied if the eyes aren’t sharp.

Why do the eyes matter so much, you might ask? Quite simply, we’re drawn to the areas of greatest sharpness in a photo. If you get people to look into the eyes then they will connect much better with the image and the animal within it. If your shot doesn’t include the eyes at all, then your goal is to make sure the focal plane has fallen on whatever part of the image you most want to draw people’s attention to.

The number of images that I cull from a selection at this point can be dependant on many factors. AF systems work better when there is more light, lenses focus faster and more accurately when they don’t have teleconverters on them, Dan works more accurately when he has had a coffee in the morning etc.

Removing images that aren’t critically sharp is a key part of the selection process, and aside from looking for the focal plane falling in the right place, at this point, I’m also removing images that aren’t sharp for other reasons. Usually, this will be caused by the sudden movements of the animal, or my own movement when I’m working with a shutter speed that is only borderline fast enough for the focal length I’m using.

Picking the Moments

After my two-pass focus check on this particular set of bear images, I probably culled about 20-30 photos from the 152 because the focus was either off, or the image was just generally not sharp enough. In my case, these soft images were mostly down to the movement of the boat that I was shooting from.

What I’m left with at this point is several “moments” from within the encounter. These are the moments that jumped out at me during the 12 minutes with the bear, and within each of these moments, I captured several images. Many of the images are VERY similar, having been taken just a split-second apart from each other. A casual observer of one of these moments on my computer screen might conclude that I simply have 5 or 6 identical images, but in my experience, there is usually something, however tiny, that can make one image rise above the others. Sometimes you just have to look really carefully!

What I’m going to do now is to show you guys some of the images from these moments, and to discuss why it is that I chose one specific image from a series of very similar ones. I aim to get you thinking about the same kinds of things when you are performing your selections in the future, or perhaps it will even inspire you to go back to some photos from a previous encounter and make sure you haven’t missed something.

Image #1

Click to view larger, if the differences are not readily apparent.

This is a great behavioural photo of a coastal black bear because we can clearly see it tearing mussels off this log at low tide, which gives us some great insight into their diet, environment and behaviour. Can you spot why I chose the one on the right instead of the left, though?

In the image on the right, the bear has pulled the paw backwards a little more and it has caused the light to reflect of its claws in a different way to the left-hand image. The bear’s claws are much more prominently highlighted in the right-hand image, despite these two shots having been taken a fraction of a second apart.

The brighter claws create a much stronger contrast with the dark black fur, and since the eye is always drawn to contrast, this is helping to make a stronger image that really highlights how the bear is gathering his food, as well as highlighting a wonderful biological feature of this animal. I would be happy with the left-hand image, but the right-hand one is clearly better for this reason alone.

On top of that, in the right-hand image, there is clearly a mussel that is positioned perfectly between the bear’s claws. In the left-hand image, this isn’t quite as clear due to the angle of the mussel, and also that same difference in light angle.

Image #2

Click to view larger, if the differences are not readily apparent.

Ears pricked, happy-looking grin, this is a nice photo that shows some character. But why is one image clearly better than the other?

This one is very subtle, but then that’s what we’re talking about here! As with the previous image, a casual glance at the two would have most people saying that they’re the same shot, but actually the bear’s head is in a slightly different position between the two.

I chose the shot on the right-hand side because the clear outline of the bear’s snout was not interrupted by the light-coloured branch on the log in the background. Look again. You’ll see it now.

Contrast is playing an important part in this image because the bear’s snout is the part of the image I want to get people looking towards, and there’s a nice contrast created with the light fur on the snout and the black shadow under the log behind him. The helps to clearly outline the snout in an otherwise very busy background. In the image on the left, the light-coloured branch messes with this because the tone of the branch and the snout are quite similar.

On top of that, the branch and the snout are almost parallel in the right-hand image. Parallel lines are unnatural in nature, so this can also be something that grabs people’s attention. It’s subtle, but you should see that if you flick back and forth between the two shots then something will seem more comfortable and less cluttered about the bear’s snout and head in the image on the right.

As a rule, you should always try to avoid prominent background elements cutting right into your subject at the point where you want people to be looking. The classic example of this is taking a photo of someone in a street, only to realize later that there appears to be a lamppost sticking out of their head. As you can see in this example, though, it can still have an effect when things are much more subtle.

Image #3

Click to view larger, if the differences are not readily apparent.

This one is much more obvious, but I still wanted to include it because sometimes a side-by-side comparison really helps to underline just what a huge difference something can make. Clearly, the right-hand image is a better choice because you see the bear’s eyes. Look how much of a difference this makes to what is otherwise an identical image!

Image #4

Click to view larger, if the differences are not readily apparent.

The top photo preceded the bottom photo during the encounter. I started taking some shots at this point because I like how the bear was lying down amongst the mussels and rocks. He looked relaxed and the seaweed-covered log in the background was a nice addition to what I would call a horizontal environmental portrait.

In image #3 we saw what a difference it can make when you can see the animal’s eyes, and in image #4 we can see that it can make a further difference when their gaze falls on you. If the scene is right and the light is right, as it was in the first photo, I’ll take some shots, but I’m always hoping that the animal will eventually steal a glance directly at my lens for an even better connection.

Image #5

Click to view larger, if the differences are not readily apparent.

This one is simply another example of the difference it can make when the animal looks right at you. If I hadn’t got the image on the right, I’d still be pretty pleased with the one on the left, but the right-hand image is a clear winner in the shootout.

Image #6

Click to view larger, if the differences are not readily apparent.

In this photo, the bear is balancing on a log and reaching up to grab a barnacle-covered tree branch with his paw so that he can pull it towards his mouth. It’s a lovely behavioural moment that shows balance and dexterity, even with those big paws. The subtle difference here is that in the bottom photo you can easily see his claws wrapping around from the back of the branch. In the top photo, this isn’t visible and the fact that his paw is being used at all is somewhat unclear.

Having been there while this was happening I’m fully aware of what was going on here. The danger is that you can take it too much for granted that this is obvious to anyone else. What you always have to remember is that the viewer of your photos wasn’t there, and any additional clues you can give them as to why this is an interesting moment will benefit the overall strength of the image.

Again, this is a subtle difference, but I would never use this top image for anything, whereas the bottom one could easily make it into a story piece about the life of coastal black bears and their habitat.

Image #7

Click to view larger, if the differences are not readily apparent.

Now, I like a photo of a bear balancing on a log as much as the next guy. Especially when you can add some nice ripples and reflections into the foreground as well, but the shot on the right was a clear winner. This is actually the moment I was first able to grab my camera to start photographing this bear. I grabbed the first image as a “banker” because this is already an unusual scene, but after that, I waited for him to turn his head to the right.

To begin with, he looked left, and that didn’t work due to the angle of my boat, but eventually, he stole a quick right-hand glance and I made a couple of quick clicks on the shutter button. As you can see when you compare these side-by-side, seeing the head and the bear’s eyes make this a much stronger image and also adds some intrigue. I wonder what he’s looking at?

Comprehensive? Nope!

While editing photos from another bear encounter on this same trip I had a situation where a bear was sat motionless on a rock for nearly thirty seconds. As I sat there bobbing in my boat, I took several photos for fear that some might not be sharp due to the pronounced ocean motion.

Studying the images later on my computer, the only real difference was that the ripples in the water in front of the bear were different in each shot. In that case, I searched for the image where the water was smoothest and caused fewer bright, distracting highlight areas in the foreground. This just goes to show that the tiny differences can also appear in the foreground or the background of your image, not just on your subject.

As you can see, it would be impossible to write a tutorial like this and give a comprehensive list of all the possible differences that can elevate one image over another. But what I want you to take away from this exercise, is the fact that it is worth your time to study your images in this kind of detail when picking photos to edit from a wildlife encounter.

Photo of author

Dan Carr

Professional photographer based in Yukon, Canada, and founder of Shutter Muse. His editorial work has been featured in publications all over the world, and his commercial clients include brands such as Nike, Apple, Adobe and Red Bull.

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10 thoughts on “Wildlife Photography Pro Tip: How to Select your Best Images”

  1. Thank you posting the pictures and the composition lesson. The differences are subtle but those key elements make the images much stronger. How do you keep calm when you encounter these incredible subjects?

    Reply
    • I’m really glad you are able to appreciate the subtle improvements from these differences! How to keep calm? Honestly, I think it comes with time and practice. I have been doing this many years now 🙂

      Reply
  2. It is those small fine nuances that as you say make all the difference the ripples in the water the small branch interrupting the bear’s snout subtle like the claws under the branch. Thanks for the lesson.

    Reply
  3. Why I didn’t take your lesson a year ago? Now I have 1000s “beginner’s” photos of Patagonian and Antarctic fauna to delete. But you help me keep only these worth displaying.

    Reply
  4. Yes, there’s way too much focus in photography forums on the means rather than the ends, on technical rather than aesthetic quality.
    I’m looking for light, composition and moment.
    As a bird shooter, I do keep that shutter button down as things happen faster than I can see.

    Reply
  5. There are times I just watch the animal as the light or the area they are in will not produce a good photo. Sometimes if you wait, they will move and you get light, branches out of the way, etc. I enjoyed looking at your photos to see the small differences, some were easy to catch, others require a harder look.
    Thanks Tom

    Reply
  6. Hi Dan and thank you.
    I’m not a professional photographer but I’m glad to see that I think a lot like you do. I was able to guess why you chose a picture over the other. Comforting for myself since I tend to go with my gut feeling.
    I just went for 3 nights in the Khutzeymateen and the environment was very similar to the one above when you shot the black bears, except that I was shooting grizzlies instead.
    Not sure if you have been to the Khutzeymateen but I recommend it, even though it can be pricey.
    Thanks again,
    Stephan

    Reply

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