Tips for Wildlife Photographers: #4 "Composition"

31st August 2016

I offer plenty of advice to my guests when we are on safari especially at the beginning of the trip and when we are approaching something exciting. I often mention an ISO that I think will give a fast enough shutter speed, or I suggest a shutter speed itself. I also suggest over- and under-exposure adjustments if I think they are needed.

But I don't often make suggestions about composition. This is intentional, since I love reviewing guests' photos and seeing how differently they have all interpreted the same sightings and situations. I suppose that my decision of where to park the vehicle for each sighting dictates - to some extent - the composition that guests can employ. But I usually park a little further back to start with - which allows animals to settle in our presence - and this gives guests a chance to compose from further away, or zoom in with long lenses.

Occasionally, guests will ask me for some pointers on composition. The short answer is that if it is visually appealing, then take the shot! But of course, "visually appealing" means different things to different people. So I often run through several of the "accepted" composition techniques which are commonly used.

Certainly the best known composition technique is the Rule of Thirds. This involves dividing your frame into 9 equal rectangles, and placing the points of interest on the intersection of the 4 dividing lines. This image goes some way towards that goal, with the elephants on the lower left intersection, the river bank marking the lower third of the image, and the intruding steep bank forming the right-hand third.

Leading lines are also a well-known compositional element, perhaps more common in landscape photography. Here, the horizontal branch leads the eye towards the leopard, and continues afterwards. It is also helpful that I was at eye level with the subject when I took the shot.

When and where to leave "negative space" is much-discussed by wildlife photographers. Space around your subject gives the creature's surroundings a chance to show, and also indicates the size of the habitat in which they live. In this case, the habitat is not visible - because it's dark! - so the negative space in front of the cat just leaves the viewer wondering what the leopard was watching.

In this case, the negative space is crucial to the image. The elephant is dwarfed by the enormous river-bed...and elephants are rarely dwarfed by anything! Giving the elephant space to walk into further shows his movement across the water.

At this point, I thought I would throw in something that doesn't work....or not for me at least! This is more of an abstract of a buffalo cow with a trio of oxpeckers resting on her back. The "rules" of composition are roughly followed, and there is even a strong line between the buffalo's eye and the birds (along the neck) but the image just doesn't seem to work. What do you think?!

A classic leading line. Without the row of trees to draw you in, the tiny impalas in the distance would certainly be lost to the eye. The key with a successful image is that your eyes are kept interested; here the bold trees grab the viewer, but when the eyes discover the impalas, they start to find more detail in the trees behind.

A successful rule of thirds image, which is improved by the strong side-light coming from the cat's left. This brings definition to her muscles and muzzle.

I took this image because of the leading line in the shot. The hippo pathway in the bottom of the gully - along with the banks which lead the eye through the image - force the viewer to wonder what the hippo will find around the corner!

This is an example of using a natural frame to bring interest to a small subject. Three baboons sit in the shade of overhanging trees, which form a pleasing arch. Without the arch, the image would be simply some primates which are too far away to identify!

Here I combined a leading line with a frame in the form of a tree. The strong trunk shape takes your eye up and over, before returning your gaze to the impala. This kind of composition is also what could be called an animalscape....a shot of a subject far away, taken with a long lens to compress the scene. The habitat in Luangwa lends itself well to animalscapes so I often work on them with guests.

As I mentioned at the start, these composition ideas are only suggestions. I would encourage all photographers to trial your own methods and see what works. Don't be put off by what others think and work to develop your own style. However, based on studies of how a viewer's eye looks at an image, it is known that certain composition methods are pleasing to the human eyes and brain. But there may also be others that have not yet been discovered!

[I should add that for this blog post, I have found images of mine that conform to the guidelines that I am suggesting. This is not to say that all my images do, or that all of yours should too!]

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