In nature, subjects are rarely neat and ordered, presenting photographers with a major challenge in the field of composition. In the second and final part of his "Compositions in Nature" series, Michael Snedic looks at different technques to help you make better composition in macro, landscape and wildlife photography.
DIFFERENT FOCAL LENGTHS It can be a revelation to new photographers when they see how different two images can look taken at the same location but at different focal lengths. If you’re an SLR camera user and you own a number of lenses with different focal lengths, try setting up in front of a landscape and shooting it with different lenses. Even a small change in focal length can make a huge difference. In cases where you’re using a lens with a variable focal length (like an 18-200mm or 28-300mm) all you need to do is zoom in or out to create different compositions. The same applies for ‘point-and-shoot’ camera users. Experimenting in this way can be an eye-opener. There may be that one particular focal length which works better for you, that you would never have known about had you not experimented a bit. Zooming in tighter on an image can also be used to eliminate unwanted features in an image. Rather than cropping later and losing valuable pixels, zooming in with a lens is akin to cropping, but doing so ‘in-camera’ and without any loss of image quality. Sometimes there are visible features around the edge of an image which simply don’t work. By zooming in, the offending distraction can often be removed there and then. Easy!
This image of Cradle Mountain in Tasmania at first light was composed with lichen-covered rocks in the foreground to give the scene some foreground interest and shot with a wide-angle lens.
AVOID THE MIDDLE If you locate your subject in the middle of an image, the composition will look static and staged. In reality most people position the subject in the middle of the frame without thinking about it! For a sunset, try composing the image so the sun is right or left of centre, or intersecting a ‘thirds’ line (remember the ‘noughts and crosses’ grid). If you’re shooting a flower or similar subject, the same applies.
For a landscape, try composing the image with the horizon above or below the centre of the image. ALL ABOUT BALANCE When composing a photo ‘balance’ plays a crucial part in making it interesting. A balanced image is one which naturally looks pleasing, and one to which the viewer’s eye will automatically gravitate. It just looks ‘right’. When you’re photographing birds, think about trying to create a mirrored image. If the situation allows, wait for the right moment when the birds are facing each other. Then compose the shot in such a way that the birds are each taking up equal space in the image. The end result can be quite effective. For a single wildlife species, balancing the image can be very important. Always leave room within the frame in the direction in which the animal faces. If it’s too close to the edge of the frame towards which it’s facing, it can look like it’s squashed or cramped. Also, by leaving space in the direction an animal is facing, it can create a sense of mystery. By leaving something to the viewer’s imagination, the image becomes more powerful and interesting. Another very important aspect of wildlife composition is to make sure you don’t point your camera directly up at a bird. If the bird is sitting on top of a tall tree, the aspect of the bird will be more pleasing if you move further back to take the shot. Similarly, don’t focus directly above, or over an animal. Looking straight down onto an animal’s back just doesn’t look good. If at all possible, get as close to eye-level with your subject as you can. This may even mean squatting down low, lying on the ground or climbing up a nearby hill to achieve better eye-to-eye composition.
This Red-tailed Tropicbird on Norfolk Island was hovering in the wind, giving time to compose the image. There is also plenty of room in front of the bird.
HORIZONTAL OR VERTICAL? It’s important to think about how you’ll compose an image – vertically (the so-called ‘portrait’ format) or horizontally (a ‘landscape’ format). It might seem a logical choice, and often that’s the case. A tall flower standing upright fits far better when it’s framed as a portrait-style image, as does a wide landscape into a landscape format. Sometimes, though, it’s good to try both. A photo of a tall subject like a Great Egret, zoomed in and taken in portrait format, can look striking. This same image can also be taken by zooming right out (or using a wider lens), where the bird is only a small part of a larger landscape. Both images work in their own way, but they’re viewed completely differently. Another example can be in framing a tall rock formation as part of a landscape composition, where the rock formation is the main part of the image. By zooming out, getting further back or using a wider lens, the rock becomes a small part of a much larger landscape. Many beginner photographers don’t shoot vertical images at all. Mostly, it just hasn’t entered their minds to angle the camera in a different way! When I suggest it, there’s often some resistance, but most people soon realise the benefits. In some cases composing an image vertically won’t work because parts of the subject won’t fit into the frame. In cases like this, try zooming out and changing to a horizontal. Horizontal images are often recommended for moving subjects, so the subject has somewhere to go. A bird flying towards the right will be better photographed horizontally, with the bird composed more on the left-hand side of the image rather than on the right. It leaves the bird somewhere to go. An image shot horizontally also conveys a sense of expanse or a large space, whereas an image photographed vertically can emphasise height – for example with trees, or when you’re looking down a path.
Using a flash created a black background for this photo of a Graceful Tree Frog in North Queensland.
CHANGING YOUR APERTURE You can make an image look totally different by using a wider or narrower aperture. An image of an animal taken at f/16 or f/22 will reveal the lizard, and the background, being in focus. This can be effective, but sometimes the result will be that the animal is ‘lost’ in the background. If that same image is taken using an aperture of f/2.8 or f/4, then the animal will still be in focus, but the background will be blurred. As a result the subject will appear to ‘pop’ out of the image. Depending on the subject, the image with the shallower depth-of-field (ie; a smaller number, or larger-sized aperture) may be more pleasing to the eye. By separating the subject from the background there won’t be any features to fight with the subject itself. I hope these tips and techniques help you achieve better composition in your nature images. But as always, it’s important to keep practising. Remember, “Practice makes perfect!”