Composition: An Introduction

One might think that when photographing nature, especially wildlife, you need to take what you get in terms of composition. But nature photography requires pleasing the eye of the beholder. You look for compositions that give your images balance, repetitive patterns, and details that bring the images to life.
I once got some good advice from a friend who was an artist and saw me agonizing over a selection of images. I could not make up my mind which image I should choose to fulfill a request from an editor. The images were slides stored in a sheet that held twenty images. As I sat there wondering, he said, “turn the sheet upside down.” He explained that good art is good art whether it is right side up or upside down. He told me to turn the slides upside down and choose the one that looked best in that position. I did what was suggested and it worked.

There are many rules of composition and you don't need to know them all, but following a few simple guidelines will improve your photography. Remembering that there are exceptions and that rules are meant to be broken, here are a few methods to help you create beautiful photographs rather than photographs of something beautiful.


If at all possible, put yourself in a place that will give you the best chances for a nicely composed photo. Pay attention to the direction of the light, the time of day, and habits of the subject you want to photograph. Being in the right place at the right time is not normally a stroke of luck. Ask yourself if the place is somewhere photographed better with morning or afternoon light. Look around and make sure there are no power lines or other unsightly debris in the area. Look at your setting and decide where you want to stand.

Wildlife always looks better if you photograph it at eye level, not your eye level, but the eye level of your subject. When you see documentaries of filmmakers of wildlife, the cameraman often stands in ponds or hangs from a tree. The act of getting down on your belly may make the difference between a snapshot and a powerful photo. You balance the desire to make good photos with the issue of the safety of you and your camera. A camera does not make you invincible. When you can, lying on the ground or moving to higher ground can add power to your images. Don't be afraid to get a little dirty to get better results; however, don't be so involved in your photography that you put yourself in danger.

Look carefully at what you see in the viewfinder. When we get excited, we forget about everything except what excited us. Once, while I was working on whale-watching boats off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, regular customers sometimes brought photos they had taken on previous trips and told me that even though they were pleased with their results, they had remembered the whale looking much closer than what the photos showed. They were right. That is what they remembered, but it is not what they saw. We have 35mm eyes and telephoto brains. When photographing the whales, the guests were excited and not paying attention to how much of the frame the whale filled. They were looking at the whale, not the photo. Their brains isolated the whale from the rest of the scene so their memory was of the whale, not the whale with water around it. If you take a moment to look at everything you can see in the viewfinder, you will see what the camera sees. It takes some effort at first, but if you practice this soon it will become second nature.

A common mistake people make is putting the subject directly in the center of the frame. It is human nature to do so and many cameras auto-focus at the dead center of the frame. Having a subject dead center lessens the impact and gives an insignificant feeling to the photo. Most SLRs allow you to choose were in the frame the camera will focus. If your camera only focuses in the center, all it takes to override this is slightly depressing your shutter release button when you are pointed at the area of the frame you want to focus on. Then, as you continue to depress the shutter, move the camera slightly to create a more pleasing composition.

To help you decide where in the frame to put your subject, there is a simple rule of composition called “The Rule of Thirds.” It is easy to use. Look into your camera and think of an imaginary tick-tack-toe board on your viewfinder. This divides your frame into nine equally separated parts, three horizontally and vertically. The lines also intersect at four points in the frame. These points are called “power points” and are generally considered the place in the frame with the most impact, visually speaking. You should try to place your subject on one of the power points. If your subject is looking to the left, put it on one of the right power points; if it is looking to the right, put it on one of the left power points. This gives the viewer of the photo room for their eyes to roam and is more natural to the human eye.

You notice that none of the lines dissect the frame directly in the center; this is important. A horizon is any separating line that dominates the photo. This could be where land is separated from the sky or a river runs through a landscape; it can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal. You never want the line of a horizon to run directly in the center of the frame. Doing so cuts the image in half and gives the impression that two images were place together. By placing your horizon nearer one of the imaginary lines, either one-third from the bottom or one third from the top of the frame, your photo is more pleasing to the eye. It may take time, but at the expense of beating this to death a little practice will make it become second nature.

Be aware of details that add interest to your images: behavior, interaction, animation, and humor. Human qualities enhance photography. The look of innocence in a young animal and the humor of cubs playing add to the wonder of photos. One of the reasons to know as much about your subject as possible is to be able to put their natural behavior into your images.

If you want to improve the look of your photos, you might consider taking an art class. Good art is good art anywhere, as a painting, sculpture, or photography. Knowing the principles of good composition will improve your photography and open your eyes to new ideas.

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