The value of composition guidelines in nature photography can be a controversial subject. Some feel that trying to remember and apply guidelines stifles their creativity and hinders their photographic experience. Conversely, there are others who follow every guideline and end up making the same photos as everyone else.
Composition guidelines, which I like to call design practices, exist to aid us in the design of our photographs. I think of them as tools and not guidelines. They originate from different arts, people, places, times, and ideas and they are used by visual artists spanning many mediums.
Following are some common design practices which have been adopted by nature and wildlife photographers over the years and around the world. Bear in mind it is not an exhaustive list, and these interpretations may be different from what you understand them to be. Some have been in use for hundreds of years and some have only recently been put into practice.
1. Centering the subject
Centering a subject, or group of prominent objects in the frame gives the image a “showcase-style” composition. With this kind of composition the main subject is unmistakable and becomes the star of the show. Another guideline where centering is concerned is that most subjects that look good in a vertical format can usually be centered, as the photograph of the Red Fox illustrates.
There are many instances when centering a main subject is appropriate but more often than not in nature photography, artists strive to create something a little more interesting than a centrally framed point-and-shoot image. In addition, centering a small subject can result in what is negatively referred to as a bulls-eye composition. In this composition there are no interesting spacing or balancing techniques employed. Unless the main subject is special enough to warrant this kind of spotlight composition, this placement can result in a dull and uninteresting design, robbing the scene of uniqueness and impact.
This type of composition is not always bad, however, and often photographs are specifically designed with a bulls-eye composition, such as in images featuring radial balance like flower close ups.
2. People in Nature
When including people in a nature photo, be aware that they will always become a main focal point. Because we recognize the human element as something familiar, our own shapes, our eyes will always find and return to human figures in nature.
The image of the famous Maroon Bells (left) has me very small in the frame. Regardless of my size and the magnificence of the Bells, the eye always returns to my figure.
Deciding on the size of the human element to be included in the frame is a critical design decision. The bigger they are the more attention they will demand. It needs to be decided if you want a nature photo with people in it, or a people photo with nature in it.
3. Using side light and gradients
Side lighting, on most objects, reveals depth by rendering the light in a gradient from bright on one side to dark on the other. Sidelight is often used to reveal contours, shapes, forms and depth.
The speed of the gradient is determined by the number of steps from light to dark. The smoothness of the gradient depends on the texture of the object. Smooth surfaces like plastic can create almost imperceptible gradations. The intensity of the gradient is determined by the values of bright and dark.
Exposing details in a range of values this way gives the textures a realistic three dimensional look which can enhance the viewing experience by letting the viewer know how the object might feel.
4. Choose color to create mood
In the field it is wise to remember that humans tend to associate colors with emotions or moods. For example, pastels can make most us think of innocence and youth. Reds and yellows are warm, bright and festive while blues and purples are cool, calming and relaxing. These associations can be used by the photographer to help create or influence the mood in the image. They can even be used to extract a desired emotional response from the viewer.
It should be remembered that all humans do not associate colors with emotions in the same way. They can be different depending on cultures, time periods, religions and geographic locales to name a few. In the flower image, the color of the flower, its shape and its position in the frame were all carefully planned to create a cheery, festive and inviting photograph.
To explain: oranges and reds are known to excite and arouse so I chose this flower over an adjacent purple flower of the same species. The star burst shape creates a certain erupting or bursting energy that I was after, and the color harmony between the orange and green hues create an overall warm palette. These features all work together to make my visual statement very effectively. If the flower were of a cooler hue, blue or violet for example, the feeling of the image would be different.
5. Use angles to alter sense of height and connection
A trick we can use to make our subjects appear taller or shorter is to photograph them from a low or high angle, respectively. Using angles creatively is also a great way to add interest to a straight scene or portrait, or of a static subject such as a statue that cannot move or pose.
In the image of the Key Deer fawn on the left, I chose a very low ‘worm’s eye’ view of the animal. This does two things 1) lets me know what the animal is eating so it is informative, and 2) this low angle creates great eye contact and a personal connection with the animal. This can result in a more intimate viewing experience.
Following are a few other ways to use interesting or creative angles:
Angles are used to create a connection and eye-contact with an animal. For example, getting onto the ground with an alligator can create more of a personal viewing experience than would a direct overhead view.
6. Animals should face or move toward the camera
This is a flexible guideline used in wildlife photography and is practiced by photographers to ensure a certain degree of interest and personal connection with the animal. If there is eye contact or the promise of eye contact with the animal, the degree of interest goes up. If we get to look at the back of a head, we are more likely to move on to the next photo faster.
Unless there is a reason to photograph an animal looking away from us, such as to tell a story, capture an anatomical feature or inform the viewer what the subject might be looking at, it’s a good idea to have the animal face the camera for interest and connection.
7. Subject placement and Rule-of-Thirds grid
Evenly dividing your photograph into three rows and three columns creates The Rule-of-Thirds grid. There will be four points at which the lines intersect and these intersections are called Power Points.
The-Rule-of-Thirds composition guideline suggests that placing a main focal point on or near one of these points, or on one of the grid lines, will help to produce a visually pleasing, spatially interesting and balanced photograph. It ensures weight or visual focus in one area, with ample space between it and its nearest edges, while the object is balanced by empty or negative space, or other subject matter, in the remaining area of the photo.
In the case when there is no single main focal point, objects can be placed along one of the lines of the grid to create the same sense of organization, balance and spatial interest as the power-point placement technique. There are situations, as with some abstracts, vertical portraits, showcase and bulls-eye compositions, to name just a few, that this guideline is appropriately ignored. The key to employing this guideline is knowing when and when not to use it.
8. Achieving balance
Structurally balancing a composition refers to the arranging of the elements, be them tangible or intangible, in a way that distributes their visual weight throughout the photograph so that no one area appears visually heavier than another, leaving the composition imbalanced.
The purpose for visually balancing an image is usually to avoid an uncomfortable, awkward or ‘unfinished’ look in the image. We all know how it feels to be in balance — everything on the left is the same on the right and it feels right to be in balance. This same sense of ‘rightness’ is translated by our viewers when evaluating the balance in an image. Given this, often the goal is to create an imbalanced feeling in the image as when the idea is to purposefully throw-off the viewer’s sense of stability in order to create tension or some other effect. This is easily done using angles and interesting perspectives.
9. Creating color harmony
There are colors that look good together; colors that contrast and complement one another and colors that can effect one another positively and negatively.
Some groups of these colors have been given labels and are referred to as color schemes. These include: pastels; complementary colors; contrasting colors; flesh tones; monochromatic; neutrals; cool hues; warm hues; holiday, religious or cultural associated colors and analogous hues, to name just a few. A harmonious color palette is comprised of hues that complement one another and look good together. An image with these kinds of colors has a color scheme that can be considered harmonious.
Learning how colors react to one another and how a viewer reacts to color is accomplished with experience and/or study of color theory. Studying the colors in your favorite photographs is a practical and very effective way to study and understand color theory as it applies specifically to photographic images.
It should be noted that harmony in color is not always the goal of the photographer. Often color is used to shock, enlighten, disgust, instill excitement, happiness or sadness, force our attention to an area, highlight an object, and … the list is endless. Color is a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled designer and can be used to extract whatever reaction he or she is capable of producing.
10.Using backlight to reveal translucence
In the same vein as revealing textures using side light, backlighting can be used to exploit translucence in our subjects. Such subjects can include feathers, fur, plants, leaves, clouds, flower petals, insect wings, and any other surface that allows light through.
11. Allow the subject room to move
When photographing wildlife, it’s often a good idea to leave ample space around your subject to allow it ‘room to move’ and avoid having it look stuffed into the frame. It is more comfortable for the eye and avoids an awkward and cramped look. With animals leave enough space around the subject to achieve this while giving an idea of its activity or habitat.
The habitat of our living subjects can provide attractive and interesting clues about its life and behavior such as how it lives, eats and reproduces. While close-up portraits are nice and usually visually pleasing, including meaningful habitat that tells a story can make for a rich, educational and visually appealing photograph.
12. Use curves to add beauty and grace
Curved lines can lend a sense of beauty, grace and elegance to an image. They can be powerful design elements. In the photo on the left, though it was an aerial photo made from a helicopter and not a planned composition, I was fortunate to capture the large, graceful curve. It adds a bit of ‘nice’ to a rather unsightly photograph.
13. Use straight lines to guide the eye
Lines can act as tiny highways inside our photographs, taking the eye from one area to the next. The longer and straighter the line, the faster the eye moves. Care should be used when composing with long straight lines as they may cause the eye to pass over some areas of the composition, compromising a thoughtfully designed piece.
Using lines, points and shapes as guides is a basic but important part of the composing process. In the layers composition on the left, the eye is swept sharply from left to right because of the dark, prominent and straight bottom layer. There is not much going on in the background, so a repeating straight line was used back there to break up the uninteresting textures and shapes.
14. Use natural frames when possible
Often things like overhanging trees, logs, rocks and other objects can be used as natural frames in our images. This effect can be particularly striking, depending on the treatment of the border material.
In the photo on the left, the dark reflection was used to frame the top of the photograph. A simple, basic and effective design choice. The darkness of the natural border keeps the eye down in the main area of interest. In addition, its vertical lines point to the main subject and help to keep the eye from exiting the frame via the top frame.
15. Move beyond the guidelines
The beauty of understanding composition guidelines is that when you want to experiment and try something new, if you build on solid, proven guidelines, success is already on your side. After awhile you will be able to pass beyond the compositionally sound but nothing special photographs that everyone else is making and create images that nobody has ever seen. Those are the kinds of images that make people take notice; regardless of your specialty
Copyright Gloria Hopkins, All Rights Reserved