Looking to take your wildlife photography to the next level? One easy way is to wait for your wildlife subjects to strike what I call "power poses." And I'm not talking about the self-improvement life hack made famous by a TED Talk in which people assume a "powerful" posture to improve confidence and assert dominance—although, it might be useful to think of wildlife power poses in this way, as assertive or dominating poses by your subjects can be visually engaging. But I'm also talking about poses that create powerful compositional shapes, or that show lively activity and imply energy and movement. These are the poses that will cause viewers to take notice of your wildlife photos.
The photo above of a bellowing hippo is a good example of a power pose. Not only is it a dominating posture that attracts attention, but the pose is also a good moment to capture as it helps tell an interesting story. The resulting V-shape created by the open mouth is also a dynamic compositional shape, making the visual design more interesting. A fast shutter speed of 1/250 of a second or higher is often necessary for tack-sharp captures of fleeting power pose moments. Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania. Canon 70D, Canon 200-400mm lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/320 second.
With birds, outstretched wings create an effective power pose, such as with this photo of a white pelican. The reflection of the pose and the colorful sunrise light help further enhance visual interest. Walvis Bay, Namibia. Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/500 second.
When working with orangutans in Indonesia, I spent a lot of time waiting for power poses as my subjects passed through the forest canopy above. For this photo, a female orangutan paused for a few minutes, hanging from a tree in this engaging power pose. It showcases her physical strength and colorful fur, and creates a dynamic triangle that becomes the prominent shape in my composition. Tanjung Puting National Park, Indonesia. Sony a7RIV, Tamron 50-400mm lens, ISO 3200, f/6.3, 1/250 second.
I'm always waiting for poses that create interesting shapes. For this image of an elephant at a waterhole, an s-curve shape arises from the slope of the elephant's back and head, its trunk, and the spray of water. Once again, I use the shape created by the power pose as the prominent shape in my composition. Etosha National Park, Namibia. Canon 5DII, Tamron 70-200mm lens, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/250 second.
With the photo above of a male gelada monkey from the highlands of Ethiopia, he struck a very dominant power pose when he stood up on his hind legs to survey the terrain around him. His posture is bold, confident, and assertive (he must have watched the TED Talk on power poses). The pose demands attention, and shows off his beautiful golden mane backlit by the rising sun. Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia. Canon 5DIV, Tamron 24-70mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/200 second, fill flash.
Sometimes, a diagonal tilt of the head is all that is needed to transform a normal pose into a power pose. The diagonal tilt makes the animal's posture more interesting, as with this photo of a polar bear cub. The pose conveys the cub's curiosity, helping to better tell its story. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, USA. Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm lens, ISO 500, f/4, 1/500 second.
Power poses can emerge when animals squawk, growl, roar, stand up in alertness, interact with other animals, or even just glare with intensity at the camera. Here are some more examples of power poses I have captured with a variety of wildlife subjects.
The concept of the power pose is very straightforward, and you shouldn't have much difficulty recognizing these poses when animals strike them in the wild. The trick is to be patient to wait for power poses, and to act quickly to make sure you capture them before the animal goes back to a less interesting posture.
Want to learn more about wildlife photography? Check out my video Wildlife Photography Tips: Kenya, which is available exclusively to PRO subscribers. A PRO membership takes a deeper look at how compelling photos are made, and unlocks access to this video as well as a number of my other courses and tutorials.