Low Key Wildlife Portraits – Some Of My Favourites

August 24, 2015  •  2 Comments


For four or five years now, in between more conventional photography, I’ve been working on a sideline project of “low key wildlife portraits“. It’s still an ongoing project, but I thought I’d share a selection of what I have so far, together in one blog post.

A couple of years ago, I wrote an introduction to the project, and outlined the process involved, so I’m not going to go into that again too much here. In brief terms, it’s a style of portraiture, inspired by conventional low light portrait photography and painting, achieved in my case through a combination of in-camera and Lightroom processing techniques. I’d love to be able to photograph animals like this in proper studio conditions, but for now I work only with natural light.

When I first started this I hadn’t really seen anyone doing the same, but as time has gone on I’ve seen more and more of them around. Seeing quite a few others trying it, with mixed success, does make me wonder if mine actually work or not either. I think the reality is that probably some of mine work well, and some don’t. It’s always hard putting experimental pictures out there, and on the whole people are too kind to tell you when they don’t work, so I have to rely on my own judgement. I also worry that even if mine do work, they’re tarred with the same brush as all the similar ones around which don’t. I guess the positive is that it makes me more critical of my choices, and more picky about only releasing the best ones online, to keep my standard as high as possible.

Over time, I’m trying to refine my choice of subjects, and I’m hoping to one day curate them into a definitive named collection in the future. I’m doing fewer of them as time goes on, but hopefully improving the standard of them too. I’ve questioned whether to stop doing them altogether, as there are loads of others out there doing the same now. But I like doing them and I think I’m improving at it too, so I’ll continue as long as that’s the case.



A cow stands staring at the viewer, in a dark studio-lit portrait.Low Key CattleLow-key studio-style portrait of a horned cow.

These cows make for fascinating portrait subjects, because of the way they will stand and stare. They're inquisitive animals, and that long stare is inviting and engaging.

Taken in the New Forest, Hampshire, UK.

A dark and moody photo of a moose in the black.Low Key Moose PortraitI've always like moose, and I think their strange proportions lend themselves very well to photography.
Ever since
I encountered moose in the wild, in Canada, I've been keen to try a close-up, which I didn't have the nerve for in the wild. So I took this opportunity to take this low-key portrait photo with the safety of a fence between us.

Fine Art Nature Photography, Captive Subject, UK.

A highland cattle cow in low light, on black.Lowlight Highland CattleHighland cattle, photographed in a strong low sunset light, and presented in low-key portrait style.

A pelican in black and white, shot low-key on a black backgroundPelican On BlackThis is a resident pelican, at St James's Park, London, underexposed using dramatic low-key light.

Fine Art Nature Photography, London, England.

Bengal Tiger yawning, in black and white.Bengal Tiger - YawnPortrait of a yawning Bengal Tiger, in black & white.
I do love the colour of tigers, but I think this is more effective in monochrome, presented in low-key on the black background.

Black & White Nature Photography, captive, UK.

Abstract view of a zebra, from above.Low Key Zebra - Birds Eye ViewI love playing with light & shade and abstract lines, so zebras are really a perfect subject. But they're also popular with other photographers, for the same reason. But - of all the many popular zebra abstracts around, I've never seen anything like this before. I took it standing on a bridge, as the zebra passed beneath me, and it's quite an original perspective.

Abstract nature photography. Taken in captivity.

Cheetah - Lowlight PortraitCheetah - Lowlight PortraitAnother in a series of "low-key" wildlife portraits, of nature in low light. See more about this personal project in my blog post here.
This cheetah was sitting in front of a shady nook, licking her lips after feeding.

I took the photo in captivity, here in the UK.

Low-key side angle profile portrait of a Bengal tiger, on a black background.Bengal Tiger - ProfileAsia's greatest predator, the Bengal tiger.
I took this with the low-key processing treatment in mind, and I'm very happy with the result. The abstract quality of the stripes, and the fading amber-to-white are very effective on the dark background. This is a favourite of my recent portraits.

Nature Photography, captive, UK.

low-key photo of a red deer on a black backgroundRed Deer - On BlackThis is an original photo of a red deer stag in low-light, edited on to black in post-production.

Fine Art Nature Photography. Woburn, Bedfordshire, UK.

Jaguar Yawn on a black backgroundJaguar YawnThis huge jaguar shows it's jaws, in this low-light portrait on black.
Captive subject, UK.

Spoonbill on a black backgroundSpoonbill on BlackSpoonbill photographed against a black background, in a low-key style.
Captive subject. UK.

Leopard walking towards the camera out of the blackLeopard in the DarkLow-light portrait of a leopard.

Side-on portrait on a bald eagle in studio-lit conditions.Bald Eagle - Black, White, and YellowI think Bald Eagle's are such fantastic birds. They're so huge, you can really read a lot into their faces. They're particularly effective for this kind of abstract photography, and simplifying the colours here, help really emphasise the key features of the head.

Fine Art Nature Photography, captive, UK.

Grizzly bear, back-lit by the sun.Rim-lit Bear PortraitThis is a favourite style of mine. I really like to capture nature lit this way. It takes some planning, and some fortune to get right, but when it comes off, it creates some really striking images.
I wasn't able to get any photos this close-up of the wild grizzly bears I saw in BC, but seeing some rescued bears in captivity gave me the opportunity to get more creative with this low-key, back-lit style.

Nature Photography, Captive Subject, British Columbia, Canada.

Low key portrait of a male lionLow Key Lion PortraitLarge male lion, photographed against a dark background, in a traditional low-key portrait style.
Captive subject, UK.



I don’t post all my photos to this website, but I’m an active user on Flickr, and these are some photos I’ve posted there…


Update: Since I wrote this blog post, I’ve created a collection of low key portraits here on my website.

Post by George Wheelhouse, 2015.




Michelle Coyle(non-registered)
Your pics are amazing, thanks for sharing.
Your unique style shows the wildlife in such a special way. They are truly stunning.
A big thanks for giving us aspiring photographers an insight into how to achieve such beautiful results.
Awesome work! Keep it up. Fstoppers introduced me to your work. Love your low and high key photographs of wildlife.
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