If you look at award-winning wildlife photographs, what you’re going to see time and again is a “decisive moment” — a split second captured that highlights an animal’s behavior, whether it is feeding, grooming, family life, hunting, or anything that brings the subject away from being a portrait and toward being a real, living individual. It doesn’t have to be an epically dramatic scene; even simple behaviors like a beautiful stretch can go a long way in taking an image from ho-hum to ooh-ahh.
In the photograph above, photographer Michele Nespoli waited to click the shutter until the bird took a nice deep stretch of its wing and tail. The little songbird is not just a static subject sitting on a branch, but a unique bird in the middle of some morning yoga. The spread-out feathers create a beautiful texture and form that is unusual to see, and keeps us looking at the image longer than if it were simply perched bird in profile.
Wildlife photographer Mark Carwardine writes in Photo Masterclass that for great bird photography, “All the usual photographic ‘rules’ apply: focus on the eye, keep the background simple, and think about composition and light, for example – pictures of bird behaviour must have aesthetic appeal as well as interest value. But the most important ingredient is drama. This usually happens very quickly and is easy to miss.”
Knowing your subject well is key to predicting behavior and capturing that decisive moment — whether it is a behavior specific to that species like a certain courtship ritual, or nesting or hunting strategy, or if it is a behavior specific to that type of animal, like when a bird is about to take off into flight, when an elk is about to bugle, or when a lion cub is about to have an endearing interaction with a parent.
Ultimately, images that engage and hold viewers are images that have captured a behavior, a single moment that tells the story of that animal’s emotional state, or a moment of its daily life we might not typically get to witness. The secret to interesting images is something demonstrated in the photo here: wait for a behavior, and capture it at its height.