Saturday, 5 January 2013

How to: Compose a Great Wildlife Photograph

In this guide I want to consider some of the artistic elements of composition that go together in creating an outstanding photograph, and which will hopefully be of some use in your own photography. After all, your photos can be as technically perfect as you like, but if you can't create an interesting composition then you'll never have anything worth framing for your wall, selling to customers or winning awards.

As always, please click on each image to view them at full size.

Looking for more specifics? Check out my guides on "How to Photograph Birds in Flight and How to Take Photographs at Sea.

1. What is your subject?
This image of a diver inside a shipwreck provides not only the atmosphere of a dark wreck at depth, but also the abundance of life that utilise man-made structures underwater. 

You do have a subject, don't you? The subject of your photograph is essentially the part of the image that you want your viewers to focus on the most and which you want to tell them something about. There may be other elements in the image that add context or extra information, but they should never overwhelm the image to the point that the subject gets lost.

Think about what message you want to convey. Are you trying to tell a particular story? For example, is the subject exploited in some way? Do you want to show a particular behaviour? Do you want to show the animal in its habitat? Do you want the image to feel dynamic or still? Exciting or peaceful? How important is the environment around the subject? How are you going to grab the viewer's attention and keep it where you want it to be?

This shot is of a guillemot landing, but the other birds provide the context for the shot by showing that the bird is at a crowded breeding colony.

These shags in the rain show the importance of the habitat to the coastal birds.

How you answer those questions will have a direct bearing on how you will want to compose your image. Since this is something that for the most part has to be done in-camera when you take the shot, and not afterwards in post-processing, it is worth considering the kind of shots you want to come home with before you leave home.

Fortunately, there are a few tips and tricks which should help you go from taking snapshots to creating works of art, and I'd like to spend the rest of this article discussing some of the ones that are particularly relevant to wildlife and nature photography.

2. Choose your angle of view

Looking up to the gulls and maintaining eye contact makes them appear more intimidating than by shooting them from above or at eye-level.

The angle from which you shoot your image can be far more important than you might think as you can use it to define the fundamental relationship between the photographic subject and the viewer. We use phrases every day like 'looking up to' or 'looking down on' a person we respect or devalue respectively, and the same principles apply in photography. If you shoot downwards on your subject, you are putting the viewer in a position of dominance over it and diminishing the status of the subject; shooting upwards by contrast elevates the subject to the dominant position over the viewer. Both angles can be extremely effective and drastically alter the dynamic of the image. Most often however, wildlife photographers will aim to shoot at eye level with the subject, as this angle balances the relationship and puts the animal subject on an equal footing with the viewer. Since wildlife photography is often about sharing an intimate glimpse into the life of an animal, creating this sense of equality can be enormously powerful in creating a connection with the viewer, particularly where you have eye contact with the subject (but we'll come back to eyes a little later) and can get close to it.

TOP: Shooting upwards at my dog elevates him above the viewer and gives him an air of respectability he struggles to achieve in real life. MIDDLE: Shooting at eye level brings the viewer right into the action. BOTTOM: Shooting down on my dog elevates the viewer and gives the impression that we (in the dog's eyes at least) are in charge.

However, it's also worth considering how you can use your angle of view to create an interesting or novel perspective on the subject. As human beings, we see the world from about 1.5m above the ground. We are used to looking up at birds flying above us and looking down on a fish in a pond for example. Changing that perspective so we are either at eye-level with the subject or looking at it differently (e.g. looking down on a bird in flight or upwards at the fish) can create much more interesting and unusual images that will grab attention.

When was the last time you were eye to eye with a fish? Shooting from unusual angles can make your images that much more interesting.

Getting the angle you want might involve crawling on your belly through the mud to shoot upwards at your subject, or climbing a tree to shoot downwards at it, but the important thing is to think about it before you take the shot. Remember is that you're unlikely to arrive at a site and immediately happen to be standing at the best possible angle to capture your subject, so move around and experiment.

3. Positioning the subject in the frame

i. Rule of Thirds
Probably the most common composition rule that you hear about is the so-called 'rule of thirds'. I'm sure most of you will be familiar with it already, but it's essentially a simplification of the 'golden ratio' which was defined by the ancient Greeks which states that designs are more aesthetically pleasing if they are divided according to a ratio of 1 : 1.618 (approximately 3/8ths : 5/8ths, simplified to 1/3rd : 2/3rds). To apply the rule in photography, we take our image and divide it vertically and horizontally into thirds:

In this image, the plovers and their reflections align pretty well to the horizontal thirds of the image. By placing two birds and their reflections on the intersect points, we strengthen the composition even further.

According to the rule, if we place the subject (or other point of interest) onto one of those lines, we will achieve a more pleasing composition than if we place the subject more centrally in the frame or further towards the edges, with the strongest compositions being those where the subject (or point of interest) occurs at one of the four intersecting points.

There are plenty of situations where this rule doesn't apply of course, but it's a good one to start with. One of the things that new photographers often do is place the subject (or horizon if it's a landscape) centrally in the frame, which doesn't usually create a particularly interesting image, so simply remembering to offset the subject horizontally or vertically can very quickly improve your images and is easy to play around with by trying different crops in post-processing.

ii. Symmetry
So after just saying how boring images can be when the subject is placed centrally, there is an important exception, and this is where you have strong symmetry in a photograph. In these cases, offsetting your subject according to the rule of thirds would leave the image feeling unbalanced compared to a perfectly central alignment:

In images with strong symmetry, applying the rule of thirds will result in an unbalanced image so we place the subject as centrally as possible. However, the eyes still align with the upper vertical third of the image.

It is worth noting in the example above though that even though the image is central on the horizontal axis, the major points of interest, the eyes, still align vertically more or less according to the rule of thirds.

iii. Diagonals
One of the interesting things about the human brain is how much it likes diagonal lines and this can be a useful trick to exploit from time to time. For people who read left to right and top to bottom, the strongest diagonal line is the one which runs from bottom left to top right.

Diagonals often work very well with underwater subjects where we rarely expect straight lines.

Of course, this doesn't usually work so well for things that we expect to be horizontal or vertical (which is why squint horizons are so distracting in landscape images), but can be put to great use in situations where we don't have that expectation, like underwater for example.

iv. Give your subject space to move
Unless you need a particularly tight crop of your subject for some purpose (e.g. for an ID guide, or a portrait shot etc.), you can often get a better composition by giving the subject space to 'move' within the frame rather than trapping it inside a tight crop. Where you leave the space has important effects on how your image will feel to the viewer.

The top image feels more tense as there is empty space behind the bird, but nowhere for it to move to. The lower image by comparison gives more of a sense of expectation. 

Generally, if you give the subject a bit of negative space in front of it (either in the direction of travel if it's moving, or the direction in which it's facing or looking) you'll create a sense of expectation in the image, by giving the subject space to move forwards. If you place the negative space behind the subject though, you can create a feeling of tension in the image since the expectation is for something to fill the space behind the subject. The hint of an unknown threat can add an extra dynamic to your image.

3. Pay attention to the background
When you're busy focusing on taking the perfect shot of your subject, it can be incredibly easy to forget about the background, but it is nonetheless one of the most important parts of your composition by creating context for your subject or negative (empty) space around it, allowing it to stand out.

Distracting backgrounds will prevent the viewer from focusing on the important parts of the image by constantly pulling their attention away from the subject.

Generally, an uncluttered, simple background works best which you can achieve by shooting against a uniform background or by using a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus (bokeh). In the example above, the blue-green chromis on the left blend into the background, which contains lots of distracting dark patches and keeps dragging our attention away from the fish. The image on the right not keeps the background simple and allows us to look at the fish without having our eyes constantly pulled away.

4. Anchor Points
As your eye moves around photograph, it will (hopefully!) eventually settle onto an anchor point within the image (assuming the eye hasn't been led out of the frame and there aren't too many distracting elements). The anchor point should be the thing that we want the viewer to be drawn to and spend most of their time looking at, so it's important to understand a few of the properties that make a strong anchor point so you can create a powerful image that doesn't simply distract the viewer and draw attention elsewhere. Funnily enough, it turns out that our brains like looking at bright, shiny things!

The main things that tend to draw and anchor the eye are areas of:

i. Brightness
In this photograph, the bright reflection on the snorkeller's head draws the eye due to the contrast with the darkness of the rest of the image.

A flash of brightness somewhere in the image grabs our attention and pulls our gaze over to it. Watch out if you're shooting on bright days, or using a flash around reflective surfaces since you can end up with a sparkly, confusing image!

ii. Colour
The bright yellow of the gull's feet and bill immediately grab the viewer's attention and bring the focus to the bird's face and eyes, which is exactly where we want it to be.
A little splash of a contrasting or complementary colour can go a long way to drawing the eye. Yellows and reds are common warning colours in nature and we are naturally drawn to even small patches of them. While you might not be able to change the natural colours of your subject, you can often choose the setting to enhance or subdue them to achieve the effect you want.

iii. Sharpness
The sharpness of the Aristotle's Lantern in the mouth of the urchin draw the eye by being sharper than the rest of the animal. 

Finally, our eyes also focus naturally on the things we look at, bringing them into sharp relief and throwing peripheral areas out of focus. When we look at a photograph, the focal point has already been determined by the photographer for us, and so our eyes are drawn to that area of sharpness. Sharpness can only be properly achieved by getting your focus right in-camera when you take the shot, to make sure your focal point is absolutely accurate to get the best results. That means that if you want the subject's eye to be sharp, you set your focus on the eye. Not the face, the eye.

Eyes: A special case

A Japanese macaque relaxing while being groomed (Edinburgh Zoo). 

A final, and particularly important anchor point in wildlife or portrait photography are the eyes. Our brains love to look at eyes and will be naturally drawn to anything that looks like one, so some of the most striking photographs are those in which all the elements of the composition draw the viewer in to anchor on the subject's piercing gaze. If that eye is a contrasting colour to the rest of the image, perfectly sharp and bright (usually highlighted with a 'catchlight') then so much the better.

5. Leading Lines
Leading lines are simply the lines within the frame that lead the eye through an image before it (hopefully) settles onto an 'anchor point'. If used correctly, these lines should keep the eye within the frame and draw it to the main point of interest in your shot (either the subject or an interesting part of the subject, for example its eye, or perspective lines which draw the eye right into the image).

The two leading lines in this image draw the eye to the subject (the urchin).

In the photograph of the diver and the urchin, there are two main leading lines - the first is the diagonal line of stone leading us up to the urchin and the second is the beam of light provided by the diver on the left. Even though the torch itself is the brightest point in the image, the two leading lines form an arrow which point us to the true subject of the shot.

Many leading lines arise naturally through the shape of the animal itself and all the photographer has to do is frame the subject well and avoid adding distractions.

With closer-shot portrait shots, you probably don't need to worry too much about setting up the leading lines yourself as the limbs of the animal tend to lead back to the head and face normally anyway. If you're shooting an animal without these obvious features though (e.g. many invertebrates or whales & dolphins) it's worth considering how best to frame the shot beforehand.

If you have lots of lines leading in lots of different directions through your image, the eye gets drawn off in lots of different directions (or worse, out of the frame entirely) and is never allowed to settle on the real point of interest you are trying to share with the viewer. Usually, if your background is described as 'distracting' it's due to the presence of leading lines which keep pulling the eye away from the subject.

The direction of leading lines can also have an effect on the mood of the image. If you predominantly have horizontal lines running through your image then it tends to produce a sense of calm within the shot, whereas vertical lines are more dynamic and can create more of a sense of tension.

Eyes: That special case again
Leading lines don't always have to be actual lines in your image and in fact one of the most powerful leading lines you can make use of are eye-lines. Psychologically speaking, our brains are programmed to home in on eyes more than anything else, and we will follow the gaze of a person or animal to see what they are looking at. So, if your subject is looking elsewhere in the frame, the viewer's eye will follow that gaze to wherever it leads. Hopefully it's looking at something interesting and doesn't just draw us out of the frame!

This image works because the eyelines of the birds hold our view in the important part of the shot.

In the above example, the image works because even though the adult gannet's gaze is not directly leading back to the chick's eye, its eyeline is still intercepted by the chick's beak which draws us to its eye. Following the chick's eyeline, we then arrive back at the parent's eye ready to follow the loop around again. Even though our eye doesn't really settle, our focus is held in the important part of the image.

This image fails because the fish's eyeline leads us straight out the frame.

By contrast, the grey moray image fails because (besides not being a very good photo in the first place), the subject is looking to the bottom left of the image. Because there's nothing there to catch our gaze as we follow the eyeline, we end up being led straight out of the frame, which is no good at all.

7. Bring it all together
If you've got this far, congratulations! As you've probably realised by now, none of these 'rules' are particularly useful on their own and need to be brought together in order to create truly stunning images. If you can bring all the above elements together into a single image, then you're probably looking at something very special!

8. Examine other images to see what works and why
Finally, if you're struggling for inspiration or want to get some new ideas on different ways to shoot, it is always worth checking out the winners galleries for the big photographic competitions, like some of these:

National Geographic: Photography
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Online Gallery
British Wildlife Photography Awards: Gallery

Do you have any other tips or tricks that you use when composing images or have images of your own that you would like some advice on? Why not share them here or in my facebook group?