Photography Composition – The Basics


One of the more popular topics during my wildlife and nature photography workshops is talking about photography composition. While I am not one for having a lot of rules about my photography, it is important to know a few basics. Then you are free to take your own artistic license with your photography compositions. In this tutorial we’ll look at some of the fundamental “rules” like the rule of thirds that will help you improve your wildlife photography.

Photography Composition – The Rule of Thirds

I am sure most of you already know this one, but read on if for nothing else than to humor me… This is the rule where you imagine or place a large tic tac toe board on your image and you position the key element of the image at one of the 4 intersections or focal points. Many cameras have the grid built in to the viewfinder to help you when you are in the field.  Alternatively, most editing software also will provide a grid to help do this quickly. I actually prefer the second approach, to crop it myself later. It’s hard enough to get the coyote in the frame let alone put the cross hairs on his eyeball. Shoot big in the field and crop it correctly at home. I think there is a t-shirt in that someplace. Here is my original image of a coyote in a spring meadow. The good news is the subject is entering the frame, nice low eye level perspective, it’s in focus and it looks like a coyote and not a dog. You can probably also feel it is somehow off and that is because the balance is wrong and your brain is trying to get a grip on that. The Rule of Thirds to the rescue. click on any image to embiggen
Photography Composition - Rule of Thirds Original Coyote Image photographed by Jeff Wendorff

Original Image

I’ve added the red dots to the Lightroom crop tool screen capture to help see the grid. The red dots show where you want to put the most important element or the main focus of the image. In this case we want to use the coyote’s left eye.
Photography Composition - Rule of Thirds Grid applied to image, photography by Jeff Wendorff

Image with the Rule of Thirds Grid

With the help of the grid, I’ve very quickly cropped my image and have the focus of the image right where it belongs, on the left eye.
Photography Composition - Image Correctly Cropped with Rule of Thirds Grid photograph by Jeff Wendorff

Image Correctly Cropped with Rule of Thirds Grid

This image illustrates how wrong the image is if you would have used the top right cross hair vs the top left.
Photography Compostion - Rule of Thirds Incorrectly Applied photograph by Jeff Wendorff

Rule of Thirds Incorrectly Applied

Here is the final image after correctly applying the rule of thirds making sure that the subject is entering the image.
Photography Composition - Rule of thirds applied forcing the subject in the frame, photographed by Jeff Wendorff

Final Crop of the Image

Photography Composition – Point of View

This is a hugely important rule and one that should rarely be broken especially in wildlife photography. You want the viewer to enter the animals world and you cannot get that by looking down on the subject, you have to get down to their level…shoot ‘em in the eye so to speak. Your tripod legs lower as well as extend and the same applies to your knees. So get low.
Photography Composition - example of bad point of view, looking down on the subject

Poor Perspective – Looking down at the fox.

You should feel a lot more engaged with the fox in this image than the previous. Here you are at eye level and a participating observer in the foxes world.
Photography Composition - Eye level example drawing you in photographed by Jeff Wendorff

Good Point of View – Eye Level

This is a good time to talk a little about pose or expression. It is just as important with your wildlife images as it is with your people pictures. Perhaps even more so! There is nothing worse than having your wolf image confused with a domestic dog. They can look very dog like if you are not watching their expression.
Photography Composition - bad wild animal expression photographed by Jeff Wendorff

This expression says, dog!

Photography Composition - Good wild animal expression photographed by Jeff Wendorff

This expression says, Wolf!

Photography Composition – Rules About Body Parts

The Eyes

  • At least one eye visible. Butt shots are occasionally amusing, but not that much.
  • Eyes must be in focus, there is no room for anything other than tack sharp eye(s).
  • Bonus points for looking directly at you.
Hot Tip – I prefer all predators looking straight at the camera. You can really feel their presence when they are looking at you.
Photography Composition - Animal looking straight at photographer, image by Jeff Wendorff

No doubt that this animal is a predator.

The Ears

  • Ears should be upright and forward.
  • Make sure ear tufts are included.
  • Ears should be in focus

Body Parts

  • All of the animals legs should be in the frame
  • All of the animals feet should be in the frame
  • All of the animals tail should be in the frame

Odds and Ends

  • No blinking eyes
  • No tongue sticking out
  • The face should be in focus from the tip of the nose to the ears

Photography Composition – The Background

This is really the most difficult part of composition and ranks as one of the most important aspects of a successful image. You have to have a nice background to have a top tier image. Photographing running wildlife in the jungle does make this a bit more of a challenge for the wildlife shooter versus the landscape shooter. That is one reason why I think a stunning wildlife shot is more difficult than a stunning landscape. That mountain is not going anywhere! In an ideal image you would have a creamy smooth background free of any distracting elements. These distractions could be branches, buildings, posts, bright lights, UFOs or other hand of man things. So well this picture is rather dreadful! I think we can all agree that the background is not acceptable!
Photography Composition - Example of a badly composed background by Jeff Wendorff

Very busy, cluttered awful background

Much nicer, far more pleasing background. In this image the subject is clearly the cheetah and not the background.
Photography Composition - Example of a well composed background by Jeff Wendorff

Nice smooth non-distracting background

It is far easier said than done, but there are some tricks you can use to get that creamy background. Set your F-Stop wisely. F22 will keep almost all of the background in focus and F2.8 with it’s very shallow depth of field will blur most of the background. Just be careful at F2.8 that you have enough of the subject in focus. Remember the rule that at least the whole face has to be in focus. On a long nose animal such as a fox or a wolf you may not be able to shoot at less than F5.6. Be wary of bright spots in the background in particular around the edge of the image. If there is anything in the image that is brighter than the subject it is going to be a problem. Your viewers eye is automatically going to go to the brightest spot in the image and that probably isn’t what you wanted to have happen.
Photography Composition - Bright spots on the edge are bad, photograph by Jeff Wendorff

Bright sky on the edge is distracting

Photography Composition - Without bright spots on the edge, photograph by Jeff Wendorff

No bright spots to distract your viewpoint.

Background Summary

  • Look at the background before you shoot to see if there is anything obnoxious in your view
  • Remember to look from multiple angles and heights.
  • Set your camera for the best f-stop for the subject and the background
  • Look at all of the edges in your viewfinder to make sure there aren’t any bright spots

A Background Exception

Rules are meant to be bent if not broken is a great way to think of these rules and sometimes you may want to show the background. If you can justify why you included it, It was probably OK to do so. I kept this image and in fact I like this image despite the quite messy background. The reason I like it is the way that it shows the bobcat in it’s environment. It really shows the way the he blends in with nature. It’s easy to see how you could walk right by one in the wild without noticing.
Photography Composition - Messy background effectively shows cat in environment photograph by Jeff Wendorff

Messy background but still effective

Photography Composition

I hope these images have helped you understand some of the basic principles of photography composition.  It’s just a starting point so stay tuned for more tutorials! I spend a lot of time teaching photography composition during my wildlife and nature photography workshops. it is a great way to increase your skills and add some great shots to your photography portfolio. I have workshops for a wide variety of photographers and you can learn more about that at my Wildlife Photography Workshops website. If you would like to have a printed copy of this tutorial that contains more details and quite a few more images it is available on the MagCloud printing website. It’s also available for digital download for your home computer or iPad.  
Photography Composition - The Basics

By Jeff Wendorff in Photography Tutorials

12 pages, published 8/10/2013

Learn about some of the basic principles of composition that will help you improve your wildlife photography.

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