Eye Contact: The Art and Craft of the Wildlife Portrait


Our talk with Gillian Overholser began with the fox photograph, so that’s where we’ll start. 

Truth is, we’ve seen lots of fox photos, but this one was something special. Lighting, gesture, background, attitude—the photograph had it all. Then we found out it had even more. 

“There’s a story, too,” Gillian said when we praised the picture. For sure, there was, and she tells it best.

“I’m on a date, we’re driving to a restaurant, and I see a fox in a field across the road. I say, ‘You gotta stop—there’s a fox,’ and then I’m going across this meadow. There are rocks, I’m in high heels and I’m thinking I’m gonna break an ankle, but I keep going. The fox kinda scoots to where you see it in the picture, and then it proceeds to lie down—you’re seeing it sort of half down, half up. It was calm—I didn’t have to get too close, I had the 100-400mm on the camera—and it’s just kinda checking me out. The light was tricky—it was dappled, and that can be bad, so I was really surprised at what I got. It was all the Z 9—an awesome camera—and it was just one of those moments.”

On a date, with her Z 9 and 100-400mm lens right there with her? “I take it everywhere,” Gillian says. Well, sure, that’s what you do when you’re passionate about your photography and your camera’s awesome.

A Closer Look  

The fox photo should have been the immediate tip-off, but in fact it took a while to pin down what was so compelling about so many of Gillian’s wildlife photographs, but we finally got it: she doesn’t take wildlife photographs. What she does is make carefully considered environmental portraits of wildlife, portraits in which it often looks as though her subjects are posing for her and each detail is essential to the story. 

There are a couple of reasons for that. “At one time I was working creating photo-realistic, sepia-tone chalk on art-paper portraits of children,” she says. “They were miniatures, three or four inches square, and I was such a perfectionist I would spend hours getting every single detail absolutely perfect. That very tight, close look at all the small details is both a blessing and a curse, and it’s not a choice—it’s my temperament, and I think it's evident in my photographs.” 

Then there’s the essential element of a portrait. “I love eye contact,” she says, “and in wildlife photography that’s what thrills me the most—that, and the sense that I can pass that contact, that communication, on to the viewer.”

Along with the art—framing, composition, judgment of decisive moments, details to include, those to leave out—what we were also seeing in Gillian’s photographs was the craft that came from her decisions about the use of the incredible technology built into the camera.

“The camera’s absolutely important,” she says, “but you’re in charge; you have to decide what you want and how to get it.” Upon saying that, she quickly adds that her decisions aren’t hard and fast rules. “My overall feeling is that once you understand your gear and the basic principles, there is no right or wrong way to do it; there’s just what works for you. And even then it’s important to keep trying things, to keep experimenting.”

The camera’s absolutely important, but you’re in charge; you have to decide what you want and how to get it.

What Works

Gillian’s wildlife portraits don’t just happen. Patience, persistence and how she chooses to use her camera brings it all home. Here’s what works for her.

Aperture-Priority Exposure. She uses it almost all the time because background control is a prime concern. “I think people pay too little attention to backgrounds. There’s a sweet spot—you don’t want anything genuinely distracting, and then the question becomes, How can I have a background that adds rather than detracts? The answer to that can be different every time, and sometimes you don’t want any background at all; you want it to be all blur. Aperture-priority is how I learned to shoot, and I adapted it by tightly controlling ISO and shutter speed. Essentially I’m shooting manual, but aperture-priority is the first thing in my mind.”

Shutter Speed Sacrifice. “It’s uncommon among wildlife photographers, but ISO and aperture are my primary controls. I need the ISO low enough to get the details, and I need the aperture wide enough to get the background the way I want it. If I take a hundred pictures and only one comes out at those settings because I’m hand holding and the shutter speed’s too low, it’s worth it. I’d rather have the one decent picture.”

Highlight-Weighted Metering. “It’s in the Z 9, and my D500 had it as well. I’m someone who tries everything, and I do have a baseline for what I think the ideal photo settings are, and I’ll try that first, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll start moving everything around. But my ideal metering is absolutely highlight protection.” She’s found that by going for the best highlight exposure, she can make adjustments with shadow areas if need be in post production. “What highlight-weighted metering is doing is exposing for the hottest point in the picture, so what I end up with is a much more dramatic picture, usually because I’m getting beautiful detail in the highlighted area. What I know for sure is that my most interesting pictures have been taken with that metering method. It’s not a common option, but it works for me.” 

Confirmation Click. “Most people I know who shoot mirrorless are shooting silently. I’m not, because I want to have a concept of how much I’ve shot. I don’t create the look of a shutter because I don’t want to be distracted visually, but I need to hear that soft click I’ve set. It might be a small thing, but when you’re taking 20 frames per second and you’re excited about the subject, you don’t want to take a thousand pictures of the same thing, no matter how wonderful it is…and if it’s something sitting still, there’s no reason. So for me, the click is sort of a mental check.”

All of the above works because of digital technology. “You see what happens instantly, so you try, you view, you play with your settings and make changes if you need to. I’m a huge fan of trying new things.” 

Which includes rushing across a rock-strewn field in high heels to photograph a fox.  

Gillian’s website, at, features an extensive collection of nature and fine-art images.

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