Dramatic Wild Animal Portraits: Ken Drake's How To

by Jessica Gordon

August 07, 2014

Ten years ago, native Londoner Ken Drake—burned out from his software job—decided to take a few months off and focus on his photography hobby. At the time, he had two new kittens and practiced making portraits of them with his Canon 10D. Friends took notice, requesting portraits of their own pets, and soon Drake got hooked on photography. 

After relocating to Australia in 2008, Drake opened Zoo Studio in Brisbane and devoted himself full-time to animal photography. Now, 99 percent of his work comes from private portrait clients, with other work for charitable organizations. 

If Drake’s style looks familiar, it’s because he’s won multiple awards for his portraiture, including First, Second and Third places in the Pets/Animals category of the 16 x 20 Awards at WPPI 2014, and the Grand award in the Portrait Division. For the first time in Rangefinder, Drake explains in detail how he gets the shots that have earned him so many accolades.



All photos © Ken Drake

Charlie In Flight
“Like most Eclectus parrots, Charlie can be very cheeky. They’re easy to train, and they bond very closely with their owners. I had been shooting a lot of static portraits, but I wanted more movement. This little fellow was flying all over the studio! I only managed to get about three photos that were actually in focus, but of the three, two were award-winning. It won the PDN Faces Grand Prize for Animal Portraits in 2011, which was my first big competition win.”

Lighting and Setup: “This is a three-light setup and was one of the first sessions I did with the Paul C. Buff Einstein unit. Charlie is flying toward his mum, who I placed under a light with a reflector in order to get some backlight coming through Charlie’s feathers. The key light is up to camera right and high above him, with a Chimera small softbox mounted. A further light is to camera left, providing fill light to lift the shadows with another small Chimera softbox mounted.”

INGREDIENTS
Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: 24-70mm at 70mm (Drake manually focused to keep up with the flying bird)
Exposure: F/7.1 at 1/200
ISO: 200



Brooklyn Sits Pretty
“The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) brought in Brooklyn, the green tree frog, for its calendar coming out next year. The goal was to make him look engaging, since frogs are naturally really happy-looking fellows. He’s propped on a lightly-padded ottoman with fake leather that makes most animals feel comfortable, plus it gives a nice shine in photographs. To keep his interest, we had to feed him baby cockroaches, which was really gross. What makes Brooklyn interesting is that he’s lost a leg. RSPCA fixed him up after a bird attack and cleaned the wound. He’s now been released back into the wild. I tried to ensure there was enough light on his injured leg so you could see it, without it featuring too heavily. I think his expression is the focal point of this portrait—not his injury—so that’s where I have directed the viewers’ attention with the lighting.”

Lighting and Setup: “The key light on this shot is a small Chimera softbox to camera right, and a further small Chimera softbox above and to the rear left of Brooklyn. Precise placement was important in order to reduce his shiny hotspots (you have to keep the frogs moist, because if they dry out they can die). I was also really keen to keep as much texture on his bumpy skin on his throat and chest as possible.”

INGREDIENTS
Camera: Nikon D800
Lens: 105mm micro
Exposure: F/8 at 1/250
ISO: 200



Curious Luka
“Bats get a lot of bad press here in Australia, but the reality is that a lot of their natural habitat is being lost, so the RSPCA wanted to show the bats’ side of the story. This guy had been orphaned, and he was very trusting of his foster parent. (Whenever I’m photographing wildlife, I always make sure there’s an expert handler with me.)
“The RSPCA wanted him to look cute, but also to show that bats are beautiful, intelligent creatures. Luka was hanging upside-down, very interested in what I was doing. I was worried he was going to be nervous, but he wasn’t at all—most animals don’t get scared once they’ve had time to get socialized with humans. I made a squeaking noise and he tilted his head just like a puppy would. I hit the shutter and knew that was going to be the shot. This is one of my favorite photographs—bats are so engaging!”

Lighting and Setup: “I placed an extra small Chimera softbox to the right of the camera just higher than his head, and another just behind him and to the side to camera left. Luka was quite close to a black material background because I didn’t want the background 100 percent black for this shot—sometimes some light on the background can give the photo a bit more depth. I also worried that if he was too far into the middle of the room he might not feel so safe and secure. Exact light placement was quite tricky. His fur on his body was soaking up the light, but the skin on his wings was more reflective. Luka was hanging upside down—which meant that for light placement, up and down were reversed, but I knew in the final image I wanted him looking like he was standing because it makes it easier for the human brain to engage with him.”

INGREDIENTS
Camera: Nikon D800
Lens: 105mm macro
Exposure: F/8 at 1/250
ISO: 200

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