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Composition in Nature Photography

the Elements of a Photograph -- Part II by Gloria Hopkins, 2003

If a photographer asked you to explain composition as it relates to photography, do you know what you would say? If your answer would be "I'm not 100% certain" or "I don't know enough to explain it" don't fret, you are in very good company. Aside from mastering exposure, composition is one of the most difficult parts of photography for many to learn, and with this series I hope to take some of the mystery out of it for you.

Composition in Nature Photography

In photography, composition refers to the structure, organization, and visual characteristics of the elements in your photograph. Compositions can be complex, powerful, boring, moody, uplifting, and a plethora of other adjectives. When you hear photographers refer to the composition of a photograph, likely they are talking about things like subject placement, lighting, color, lines, space, balance, and more.

A Marriage of Crafts: My photographic learning curve has the benefit of 3O years of experience designing and painting wildlife art. In order to best reach my viewers I have spent my lifetime studying the compositions of paintings, photography, graphic art and works of countless other visual mediums.

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Evaluating my first serious bird prints three years ago confirmed something that I have suspected about photography for many years. Photography, like many other visual arts, is a marriage of two separate crafts: image design and execution. In life you can't have a long, fulfilling marriage if one of the spouses is not involved or only weakly participates. The same is true of photography. In order to consistently create technically perfect, visually pleasing images, I feel that both sides of photography need to be understood. Take a look at some of your favorite shots; I would be willing to bet that many of them have a good balance of technical strength and effectiveness in composition and design.

Composition Guidelines: Tools, not Rules: The value of guidelines in some photographic discussions can be a controversial topic. There are some who feel that trying to remember and apply rules stifles their creativity and hinders their photographic experience. There are others who follow every rule imaginable, never experiment, and create photographs that look like 95% of the photographs out there: compositionally sound but nothing special. Composition can be so distant a concept to some that they avoid learning it altogether or worse, dismiss it as nonsense, taking refuge behind artistic license and creativity.

Composition guidelines are not our enemies but exist to help us. I think of them as tools and not rules. They originate from different arts, people, places, times, and ideas. Some common guidelines for nature and wildlife photographers include:

  • Don't center your subject unless doing so strengthens the image;
  • Arrange your scene so objects in the image guide the viewer's eye around the image. This gives you a small measure of control over how your work is viewed; and
  • Shoot in sidelight to reveal the texture of your subjects and add a 3D feel.

Experiment, have fun, and play with the guidelines! You may do something so innovative that you create a new guideline and retire an old one. Whatever you do, treat composition guidelines as what they are: tools and not rules.

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Moving 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. You can pass beyond those "compositionally sound but nothing special" photographs that everyone else is making and create images that nobody has ever seen. Images that nobody has ever seen but that are compositionally solid and technically perfect. Those are the kinds of images that make people stand up and take notice; regardless of your specialty. Push the boundaries of technique and creativity in your photography and start creating images instead of recording nature. If I had a digital camera and no cost of processing, there would be no stopping me.

The Elements of a Photograph

In the first article we discussed the importance of being able to identify the various elements of a composition so you can see how they work together to create a whole image. In the remainder of the series we examine these elements in detail, starting with light.

Light Light can speak for us. It can suggest things like time of day, mood, and it can even tell stories. It can also do practical things like guide the eye around an image, reveal hidden textures, act as the main subject of the image, or help to emphasize a subject. In order to do these things, a photographer should have a good understanding of light, its properties and how it is rendered on their chosen capture medium.

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The Color of Light: To reach us, light waves of color must travel from the sun and through our atmosphere, which acts as a filter. Because of the curvature of the earth, at sunup and sundown, these light waves must travel through more of our atmosphere than they would if coming from directly overhead at midday. As these light waves swim through our thick atmosphere, the shorter wavelengths on the cool end of the spectrum get lost in atmospheric dust and water and cannot reach us. This leaves the longer, warmer waves of light to penetrate our atmosphere and illuminate our subjects.

As the sun climbs higher into the sky, it shines more directly through our atmosphere, allowing the shorter, cooler wavelengths to reach us, better balancing the color of the light. On a clear day when the sun is directly overhead, it should exhibit no color when cast onto a white surface.

Because many nature photographers prefer the rich, warm colors of early and late light, they will wait until the time is just right to make their magic.

Reflected Light: A well-known fact about light is that light colors reflect light, and dark colors absorb light. A great illustration of this fact is a soaring bald eagle in a beach environment. Because dark feathers absorb light, if the bird is flying over dark blue water, the detail in the dark underside of the bird can be difficult to see unless the bird banks into the sun. We can solve this problem by using flash as fill or rely on light reflected from the water to light the underside of the bird.

Imagine that same bird flying over brightly lit white sand. The light will be reflected, or bounced, back up to the bird, softly illuminating its underside. The degree of brightness depends on the intensity of the sun and how close the bird is to the sand.

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Indirect Light and Partial Light: Indirect light is light that has been obstructed by clouds, fog, heavy rain, snow, smoke, mist, and other atmospheric particles. This light is usually soft and diffused, minimizing or completely eliminating dark shadows. Many landscape and flower photographers shoot on overcast days as the colors appear more saturated and harsh shadows are kept to a minimum.

Partially obstructed light is referred to as dappled or partial light and usually involves some amount of shade. An example of dappled light would be sunlight streaming through the leaves of a tree, leaving spotted shadows on your subject. It is a good idea to evaluate the darkness of the shadows falling onto your subject to see if fill flash will save some detail in those areas. To do this, throw your entire scene out-of-focus using the focusing ring on your lens. This breaks your scene down to shapes, values, and hues for easy inspection.

Front Light: A good use for front lighting is when you have an image with a lot of color that doesn't rely on depth and texture. With front lighting the part of the subject to be photographed is facing the sun. If the light is bright, it can render your subjects flat and texture less in spite of exposure compensation efforts. Because front light creates few shadows on the subject, it's not very useful in creating a three-dimensional effect in your scene.

Sidelight: Side lighting is helpful in emphasizing the texture of an object. It creates shadows and depth and gives the viewer a good sense of what the object might feel like, further enhancing the viewing experience. It works great when you have objects of varying textures on different planes. When shooting in sidelight, use a lens hood to avoid stray light creeping into your image.

Backlight: Backlighting is often used to show a subject in a striking or unusual way. With backlighting the sun is behind your subject and whatever is translucent in your scene will glow in the backlighting.

When shooting backlit, exposure composition and/or the use of fill flash may be required to properly expose your subject. Protect your vision by not looking directly into a bright sun through your lens. Lens flare can be problematic so make sure to examine the highlights in your image carefully.

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Top Light: Many nature photographers will avoid shooting when the sun is directly overhead. The sun is usually at its brightest and as we discussed earlier, the light is its least colorful at this time. This angle could result in high contrast images with short, dark vertical shadows. It is wise to not rule out top light for all situations. There are times when it is useful such as when capturing abstract patterns and repetition in nature.

Artificial Light: When there is not enough sunlight to illuminate a subject or scene, photographers will often rely on flash to lend a hand. Flash can be used as main light, an additional source of light or as fill, which is referred to as "fill flash."

Using the flash as main light means that the majority of the scene is lit by the flash's burst of light. Fill flash is used to fill in shadows or areas that would be rendered too dark without additional light. Examples of using fill flash are: bringing details out of deep shadows, as a supplementary light source for dark objects in soft light, lighting the dark side of a backlit subject, and lighting the underside of a dark bird in flight. Some cameras will restrict the use of flash to the capabilities of the in-camera flash or, "pop up flash." For better control over flash output many photographers will invest in a separate, more sophisticated flash unit.

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Other Sources of Light: Some creative photographers use other sources of light to illuminate their subjects, such as: flashlights, candles, streetlights, firelight, and colored lights. I suggest reading a book on lighting for photography to see what options are available for nature photography and how they are safely used.

It is my great hope that you use this information as a base for your own exploration of composition and the aesthetics of nature photography. In the next article we examine the following: purpose of the image; format; subject placement and the Rule of Thirds; foregrounds, middle grounds and backgrounds; and, color. Until then, happy shooting!

I would like to thank Mark LaGrange for his assistance and adding his wonderfully creative insights to this part of the series.

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Image information:

Image 1: Waimanu Valley, Hawaii. Looking down at the valley floor of an enormous, waterfall-lined amphitheater on the Kohala coast of Hawaii. Canon EOS3, Canon 28-70, Sensia100+1, evaluative metering at -1/3

Image 2: Snow Goose, Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico. Canon EOS3, Canon 400 f/5.6, Provia100F +1, evaluative metering at -1/3

Image 3: Snow Goose, Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico. Canon EOS3, Canon 500 f/4.0IS, Provia100F +1, evaluative metering at -1/3

Image 4: Least Bittern, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, FL. Canon EOS3, Canon 400 f/5.6, Provia100F+1, evaluative metering at -0

Image 5: Feeding Great Egrets, Alligator Farm Zoological Park, St. Augustine, FL. Canon EOS3, Canon 500 f/4.5, Provia100F +1, evaluative metering at -1

Image 6: Immature Green Heron, Anhinga Trail, ENP. Canon EOS3, Canon 400 f/5.6, Provia100F +1, evaluative metering at -2/3

Image 7: Canon EOS1v and Mountain Bluebird, watercolor on paper

All text and images (©) Copyright Gloria Hopkins, www.naturesglory.net

Article created 2003

Readers' Comments

Add a comment

Manuel Rincon , April 04, 2003; 08:43 A.M.

Thank you for your explanation. It is very good one. I am not so sure to which extent photography follows different rules in composition than painting. Outside studios, composition is more difficult to plan in photography, but this is where the "artist" is and it does not make a big difference. As a painter, for me it is more difficult to solve a composition in 1 second (before the subject is gone) than in three hours at the atelier. I have always missed a composition forum in photo.net where we could submit pictures and discuss composition. I just throw the idea. Manuel.

Wayne Willis , April 10, 2003; 05:29 A.M.

hi this is a fantastic well written article. it answered alot of questions and hopefully i will apply those techniques to my work thanks a heap

richard harris , April 10, 2003; 06:02 A.M.

As these light waves swim through our thick atmosphere, the shorter wavelengths on the cool end of the spectrum get lost in atmospheric dust and water and cannot reach us. This leaves the longer, warmer waves of light to penetrate our atmosphere and illuminate our subjects.

Without wishing to be too pedantic I don't think this is a true explanation of what happens to light in our atmosphere. My understanding is that the light is refracted by the the earth's atmosphere, which slightly separates the different wavelenghts (imagine light passing through a prism and creating a spectrum). When the sun is low the red light is directed down and the blue light is scattered upwards. This is also the reason that an eclipsed moon is pink, the only light that reaches it is red light refracted through our atmosphere.

Zapata Espinoza , April 17, 2003; 11:19 A.M.


Leif Rudd , April 21, 2003; 03:25 A.M.

richard: while refraction plays some minor part in making "sweet light", the large-scale color-warming of morning or evening light is primarily due to diffraction, where the shorter-wave light (on the blue end of the spectrum) is scattered randomly by smoke, dust, etc., whereas the longer-wave light (on the red end) is not as subject to this effect, and hence is more visible. if you would like to read more about this, here's one reference that covers it well, going into detail about the relationship particle size has to scattering.

Steven Ellison , April 22, 2003; 06:50 P.M.

I think if you use the word "pedantic" you need to get out more.

Gloria Hopkins , April 25, 2003; 08:19 A.M.

Thanks very much to all who took the time to read this part of the series! As always, I value your opinions and comments and I hope that you will share them with me in the next article.


Bob Atkins , May 26, 2003; 02:00 P.M.

The warmer light of dusk and dawn is caused neither by refraction nor by diffraction. It's the result of <em>scattering</em> of light both by dust particles in the atmosphere and the molecules of the atmosphere itself Rayleigh scattering from the molecules, Mie scattering from the dust). Blue light scatters more than red, so when the light has to travel though more atmosphere (as it does when the sun in low in the sky) more blue is scattered away and more red reaches the ground (or your eyes if you're looking at the sun).

This is also the reason the sky looks blue. What you are seeing is the blue light scattered by the atmosphere. The higher you go, the less atmosphere there is above you and the darker the sky becomes. Once you are above the atmosphere the sky is black.

Here ends physics 101 on why the sky is blue and why sunsets are red!

Kevin Matthews , June 14, 2003; 05:56 P.M.

The article doesn't say very much about composition. Why make composition the subject of the article and then talk mostly about light? Light is not composition. It would be more useful, for instance, for the author to explain the compositional choices she faced with the helicopter shot and include why this composition is more effective than other possibilities. It would also be good to show some photos with good technique and interesting lighting that failed from a compositional point of view.

tom kruise , September 05, 2003; 12:30 A.M.

In my opinion, rules or guidelines are accumulated wisdom. We could reinvent the wheels but since it has been around for thousands of years, there must be some truths in it:) composition guidelines are something that works on our visual interpretation of beauty.

For the waterfall shot, I didn't quite really figure out what it was initially. It appeared to me as some kind of macro shot of a plant or algae etc. You might have forgotten to add in something to help the viewers to visualise the scale.

Wieslaw Zdaniewski , January 16, 2007; 11:27 A.M.

I just quickly went through the text above and am not impressed. I know what composition is and how important it is. And agree with the comment above that lighting is not a composition.

I suggest that anybody interested in the subject, and the author of this text especially, should study the book 'Principles of Composition in Photography" by Andreas Feininger.

If you are interested in lighting, then there is another book by Feininger: 'Light and Lighting in Photography'. Both are outstanding, written with clarity and with excellent examples.

Why to publish confusing descriptions when excellent ones are already available?

Al Kukitz , March 05, 2008; 03:30 P.M.

White on Gold

The value of learning comes in the understanding that their is good, not so good & plainly bad information available to the inquisitive mind. Differences matter because comparison is one of the foundations of learning. That said, Gloria's intent, if it is weak or unsuitable, it serves three purposes: A Learning B Understanding C Comparison

Chris Koffend , October 07, 2013; 10:46 A.M.

In many ways I find photographs that follow the adhered to rules of composition are more apt to become boring (in the sense that they have become predictable.  I have found that photographs that have composition that ignore these rules are often much more dramatic and interesting.


As a musical comparison, I reference Dave Brubeck's Time Out album in which he produced music using very unusual time signatures - not "accepted" by musical rule norms.  Recorded in 1959, this album is till studied and sought after to this day due to its success in ignoring the "rules".  The brain is physiologically wired, and Brubeck's change in timing does not match the wired brain and as a result, actually produces physiologically measurable events in the brain unlike those of music performed with timing in an anticipated (ie. complying with the norms/rules) manner.  


Not following "rules of composition" in photography can easily have the same effects.  Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.  Is it good to know the "rules of composition"?  Yes, I think it is.  Is it good or necessary to always follow them?  No, I think not.  Personally, I find that not following them can result in very dramatic images, often standing out and creating responses that images that do follow the rules (as so many do) just can't due to their "commonality" or "predictability".


Sometimes it is good to give the brain what the brain does not expect.

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