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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
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
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;
Shoot in sidelight to reveal the texture of your subjects and add a 3D
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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