The species and populations of large mammals occur differently in every country and region of the world. A photographer living in Alaska might choose bears as a subject, someone living in the UK might choose deer, and a resident of Kenya or Tanzania has the opportunity to photograph the so-called Big Five. The details of how such animals are photographed vary somewhat, but the basic principles remain the same.
All large mammals are potentially dangerous if only by virtue of their physical size and mass. Some are more aggressive than others, but all are protective of their young just like human beings. Don't forget that humans are also large mammals!
Perhaps the first consideration when setting out to photograph such animals should consequently be how to approach them safely. The universal answer to this question is of course to do whatever is required with real knowledge of the species concerned and, if necessary, in the company of an expert guide or game warden.
Seasonal timing is an important consideration. The breeding season for a particular species obviously presents opportunities to capture courtship and mating habits, and to include young animals and their associated behaviours in images. Beware, however, of ever getting in to a situation where the adult animals regard your presence as a threat, or of allowing yourself to be caught between adults and their young. Some large mammals may become particularly and suddenly aggressive in such circumstances.
While it is often not too difficult to capture an image of a large mammal with a telephoto lens, it can be much more challenging to create an interesting and worthwhile picture. Even a lion lying asleep in the shade does not make a very eye-catching image. To obtain the best opportunities it is necessary to incorporate compositional balance, environmental elements, background, some sort of story or interesting behaviour, facial expressions, and of course excellent light. Timing, and capturing the moment, is an important factor in success.
Compositional balance is impossible to define in a few sentences and has to be learned with experience. However, it is broadly the process of arranging the elements of an image in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Picture elements typically include dominant shapes, colours, lines and textures as well as shadows, the background, implied lines etc. An implied line may be introduced by nothing more than the direction in which an animal is looking across the frame.
Incorporating environmental elements helps to inform the viewer about the circumstances in which the animal subject lives. Africa's big cats are generally seen in the wide-open plains of the Serengeti or some comparable habitat. Without elements of the environment, the viewer may wonder whether the animal might have been photographed in a zoo.
The background can be used to indicate the type of habitat in which the animal was encountered, but other foreground and middleground elements are equally useful. A busy background detracts from the impact of the subject animal and may distract the eye to some object elsewhere in an image. Try to position the camera in a way that avoids background distractions and also use wide apertures to throw objects behind the animal out of focus. Alternatively wait for the animal to move to a new location where a better background is available.
Elements of characteristic, or unique, behaviour are an essential ingredient of all good pictures of large mammals. The animal must be engaged in doing something even if the action is as simple as yawning or turning the head in response to some disturbance. Better still, capture a lion pursuing of killing its prey, or a cheetah sprinting after an unfortunate gazelle. Elephants might be captured in the process of drinking or pulling vegetation from trees, and a deer is probably best photographed running, leaping or at least with its head raised and an alert expression on the face.
Incorporating a simple story in to an image is not always easy but good opportunities do occur. An animal may have reason to discipline or control its young, and may consequently be captured with a paw raised or perhaps picking the youngster up in its mouth. Young animals may also be seen pestering their parents for food or attention. With sufficient patience, an alert photographer should be able to capture such moments. Photographing animals is a slow business, and many hours, days or weeks are often invested in obtaining the highest-quality images. Animal action can take place very quickly and certainly never waits for a photographer to change lenses or exposure settings!
As with photographs of people, the facial expressions of animals can change ordinary shots into special images. Animals have emotional responses to situations in the same way as humans. They get irritated by the antics of their offspring, they get bored and consequently yawn, and they experience moments of joy as they play. Try to incorporate expressions in images because they help to explain to the viewer the situation in which the animal finds itself.
Every genre of photography is dependent to some extent upon the quality of the light, and animal photography is no exception. At midday the light can be harsh and flat, and many animals tend to be at their least active. The best times of the day to work are the early morning and late afternoon when the subjects are not only more active but also bathed in softer and warmer light.