NEW Photo Masterclass part 3: Shoot wide or tight

Framing is a key skill for a wildlife photographer – it’s vital to know when to crop in tight, what to leave out and when to embrace your subject’s environment. Six pro photographers explain when to close in and when to be expansive.

Photo Masterclass part 3: Shoot wide or tight

Framing is a key skill for a wildlife photographer – it’s vital to know when to crop in tight, what to leave out and when to embrace your subject’s environment. Six pro photographers explain when to close in and when to be expansive.

Most photographers have an almost overwhelming urge to fill the frame with their subject. It’s understandable: if you’ve remortgaged the house to buy a really long lens, you want to get your money’s worth.

Besides, getting in close for truly intimate portraits is a sure way of grabbing the viewer’s attention.

But up close and personal is not the only option. Some of the most memorable and powerful wildlife images ever taken include large tracts of long grass, rocks, sky, reflections, waves or whatever else happened to be surrounding the animal at the time.

In fact, it doesn’t actually matter whether you get in really close or pull right back: there is potential for prize-winning shots either way.

The problem is that many pictures fall somewhere in between these two extremes, where the animal is small but not small enough or big but not big enough. They show a medium-sized blob bang in the middle of the frame that looks as if it were taken by accident.

So our aim this month is to avoid wildlife snapshots in this ‘no-man’s-land’. That means making conscious decisions – are we going to shoot wide or tight? – and then adjusting our composition to suit.



Emphasise environment

The expert: Andy Rouse is an award-winning writer, photographer and presenter. 

Pulling back is not an easy option for wildlife photographers. When the animal occupies a very small part of the frame, the trick is to use a clever combination of light and composition to make it draw your attention like a beacon.

That’s exactly what Andy has done under difficult conditions in Arctic Canada, with this stylish and striking image of a snowy owl at one with its environment. Notice how he has placed the owl in the top left-hand corner, rather than in the middle of the frame, to achieve a more comfortable balance.

There is astonishingly little in this picture and yet – because the owl isn’t so small that it gets lost altogether – Andy has captured the essence of the bird and a real sense of wilderness.

“Shooting animals in their environment,” he says, “is not a fall-back option for when you can’t get close enough to shoot frame-filling portraits. I was able to get surprisingly close to this snowy owl, but consciously went for something a little different.”


Crop close for intimacy

The expert: Suzi Eszterhas is an American photographer working mainly in Africa.

If ever a picture demanded the ‘shoot tight’ approach, this is it: a family of bat-eared foxes at the entrance to their den in the Masai Mara, Kenya. By removing everything but the most essential elements, Suzi has perfectly captured a delightfully tender scene.

She spent a total of three months sitting in her Jeep outside the den. “I didn’t take a single picture for at least two weeks,” she says, “because it took that long for the ‘batties’ to get used to me. I started a long distance away and inched a little bit closer every day.”

Suzi shot tight to create a real feeling of intimacy. “The only way to achieve this was to cut off most of the adult fox,” she explains, “to ensure that the viewer’s eye goes straight to the newborn pup and then moves to the watchful gaze of its father.”


Create a comfort zone

The expert: Chris Gomersall is best known for his photos of birds – he was formerly the staff photographer of the RSPB.

It is possible to shoot so tight that most of the animal disappears. But this only works if the cut-off points look intentional and natural: even extreme close-ups often need a little room to breathe around the edges.

Chris has captured a perfect moment with this intimate portrait of a common crane. Though most of his subject is out of sight, there is still sufficient space above and to the left of its head to make the picture feel ‘comfortable’.

“I wanted to get in really close to concentrate on the bird preening,” says Chris, “and that meant removing anything else that wasn’t relevant – I also cropped the image further after scanning the slide.

What’s left in the frame is absolutely essential to the main purpose of the picture.”


Best of both worlds

The expert: Mark Hamblin is a photographer based in Scotland.

It is sometimes possible to shoot both wide and tight to get entirely different images.

Mark ably demonstrates the potential with these two pictures of brown hares: the same species, but poles apart in style and approach.

“When you’re shooting animals in their environment,” he says, “the picture must convey a feeling of the relationship between the two. At the same time, you have to be careful not to lose the animal altogether: you need to use the light and the surroundings to make it really stand out. It’s not as simple as throwing on a wide-angle lens and hoping for the best.”

Composition is a little more straightforward for frame-filling portraits; here, though, it’s important to make your subject ‘pop’ by isolating it from the background, as Mark has done by getting down low and using a narrow depth of field.



Once you know the rules, bending them can result in an even better picture.


5 Leave room to breathe

The expert: Niall Benvie is a nature photographer based in Scotland, and is an organiser of the 2020VISION project.

Many successful wildlife photographers break the ‘shoot wide or tight’ rule by composing somewhere in the middle ground. But this only works if they understand the rules in the first place – otherwise, their subjects would be lost in that dreaded no-man’s-land; anyone looking at their pictures would assume that they simply couldn’t get close enough to fill the frame.

That’s certainly not the case with Niall, who took this evocative picture of a vocalising common gull early one morning in Norway.

“It’s important to look for elements that will positively add to a scene,” he says. “In this case, I didn’t want to zoom in too close because I felt it was important to leave plenty of space for the gull to call to the rest of the world.”

But of course what really lifts the picture to another level is the misty breath. Again, pulling back has given enough room for it to float across the frame.

Notice how the uncluttered background – and, in particular, the gorgeous backlighting – helps make the gull’s breath instantly visible.



Our pro photographers share their top tips to help you ensure that your compositions shine.

GO WIDE FIRST It’s a good idea to shoot animals in their environment first. Once you’re close enough to shoot frame-filling portraits, it’s surprisingly hard to pull back.

LEARN FROM THE BEST Study other people’s photographs of animals in their environment to work out why some feel more balanced and natural than others. In particular, look for the position of the main subject and the way lines can lead your eye in.

CROP CAREFULLY Be careful not to crop your subject in awkward places (don’t cut it off at the knee, for example).

LEAVE ROOM TO EDIT Consider shooting a little wider than you are likely to need and then crop later in the computer, when you have more time to choose the best composition.

AVOID UNWANTED EXTRAS Whether you’re shooting wide or tight, do a quick ‘border patrol’ (check around the frame for anything that shouldn’t be there).


TECH ZONE – Zoom lenses: your flexible friends

Zoom lenses enable you to switch from shooting wide to shooting tight in an instant, but cheaper zooms rarely have the optical quality of fixed focal-length lenses. As a general rule, the wider the zoom range the lower the image quality. 


Look out for Photo Masterclass part 4: How to harness available light to illuminate your images... coming soon!


Read previous Photo Masterclasses. 

View a sloth sanctuary photo gallery by Suzi Eszterhas. 

Find out more about Chris Gomersall's 2020VISION assignment to photograph farmland birds. 

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