My name is Suzanne Renfrow, and I’m obsessed with wildlife photography.
I’ve been shooting wildlife with a DSLR for only a couple of years, I have no formal photographic training, and I have mid-range equipment. However, there are certain techniques and tips that I’ve learned that can help any wildlife photographer to take their images to a higher level. I’d like to share that information with the photographers in this group through a series of posts to this blog.
My goal is to keep the advice practical and easy-to-understand, without a lot of technical information to bog you down. It’s assumed that you are reasonably familiar with your camera settings, and general photographic concepts. Since this is a blog, and not a book, I’ll try to keep my posts concise, but will include examples that will help you to visualize the points I’m trying to convey. You will be getting to view a lot of my images that I learned from (meaning, I’m glad I didn’t send them to the recycle bin after downloading them, but that’s really where they belong :)).
If you need more explanation of a term or concept, the internet is an endless source of additional information.
I hope you enjoy the series!
Las Vegas, NV
You can have good lighting, good focus, good shutter speed, sharpness, and low noise in your images, but without a good composition, the image will look “snapshot-ish.” And we didn’t buy our big, fancy DSLRs to take wildlife snapshots, right?
In simplest terms, composition is the arrangement of elements in a photograph, and serves as the foundation for the image. Inclusion of these elements in a photo, and their location in it, can help to engage a viewer by “telling” him or her about the image without the use of words. For example, in wildlife photography, the composition conveys where the subject was located and what was it doing when the photo was taken. A “good” composition serves to make an image artistically appealing, sometimes dramatically so!
To follow will be some tips and techniques that will help the photographer create compelling compositions, and make wildlife images go from “snapshot-ish” to stunning!
Taking the shot
- Focus should be sharpest on the eye (unless you are highlighting a different body part of course).
- Your subject’s face should be visible and un-obscured — especially the eye!
- Taking a shot with the subject’s back to you usually is not as appealing as with the subject in a different “pose”.
- Pay attention to the background and avoid shooting in front of anything that interferes with the subject – is there a branch behind a bird’s head that will make it look like it is “growing” out of the bird’s head, for example?
- Most animals are not flattered when shot face-on, with the except of owls and a few other animals. This is due to the feature compression that happens to long beaks, snouts, etc.
Q. Consider the following image of a Cooper’s Hawk. Do you see the problem(s) with this composition?
A. The hawk is shot face-on, which gives the beak a flattened and shortened, “squishy” appearance. Also, it looks like there is a branch running through its head.
- Subject separation from background is often desirable in order to add dimension to the image, especially when the subject is of a similar color, etc., as the background. If the subject and background look too similar, the viewer may have to search for the subject, and/or the image will look somewhat flat. Be mindful of depth-of-field and consider using a bigger aperture — this can be particularly helpful when there are a lot of distracting elements (trees, fences, etc.) behind your subject.
Here the deer’s head almost blends into the trees in the background since it is a similar shape and color. While this was shot at f6.3, the effect would have been much worse if a smaller aperture had been used. So the solution for this example would have been to perhaps wait until the deer moved forward a few feet, better isolating the subject from the background.
- Consider the vantage point of the shot — can you get higher, lower, or find another more interesting perspective from which to take the shot?
Don’t you think the image on the right – shot nearly eye-level with the frog – is more appealing than the image on the left?
- Scale is not, in my opinion, a huge consideration in wildlife photography, as most people are aware of how small an ant is, and how large an elephant is, without having to include a point of reference. However, the photographer may include emphasis of the subject’s size (or lack of it) by clever use of composition.
- Consider the number of subjects in frame — odd numbers are generally more interesting, but use even numbers when that is part of the story (a pair of doves preening each other, for instance).
- Try not to cut off body parts in the shot!
- Feet are most commonly cut off — shift your focus point upward as you compose your shot to make sure you don’t cut feet off.
- Wings tend to get cut off when using a prime lens on a close-flying bird, where you don’t have the ability to zoom out — however this may be used artistically to highlight certain features of an animal.
- While it can be useful and visually appealing to place your subject over a vertical/horizontal imaginary intersection point using the “Rule of 1/3s”, it can be difficult to judge where that is at the time the shot is taken (unless your camera has a “grid” feature that can be enabled); you can more precisely position your subject in post, so I wouldn’t worry too much about getting it perfect in-camera. Just try to take different shots of your subject so you will have more of a choice of compositions in post. After a while, you will get a pretty good feel for what will and won’t work.
- In most cases, leave space in front of the animal in the direction in which the animal is looking, regardless of the direction the body is pointing. This serves to give the animal “room to move” in an image and depicts the suggestion of motion.
- If an animal being pursued by an attacker, however, and looking back, the animal will continue to move forward and so cropping to show the interaction between the subject and the attacker would probably be what you would want to emphasize.
Below is an example of poor use of space in a crop — I wanted to show the quail with his little finch buddies in the background, but the crop just doesn’t work because there isn’t enough space in front of the quail.
The image above shows a better example of a crop: The quail is placed on a “Rules of 1/3s” intersection point, and I’ve given him “room to move.”
- Consider “framing” your subject with surrounding elements in the scene, such as tree branches, for a different perspective.
Praire dog “framed” between two rails of a fence.
- Consider taking a shot in portrait, landscape, or another orientation at the time of the shot, in order to eliminate distractions from the subject, add creativity to the shot, etc.
- Leave space around the edges of your shot so you may try different crops (standard print ratios, for example) later.
After you take the shot
Sometimes, you will discover something in your shot that will otherwise spoil a great image!
- Learning to use the clone stamp and/or healing tools in your post-processing software can remove many a distraction (dust spots or a photo-bomber for instance). It is also helpful to be able to remove distracting “pokies” (branches and the like) from the edge of an otherwise-perfect image.
- Cropping an image may be used to increase artistic appeal, or to eliminate distractions that are not beneficial.
- Some words of warning: Be careful not to crop in too far, however, as this can result in a loss of detail. Sometimes it’s best to view your subject by showing it in the environment in which shot!
- Cropping: Try different crops – you may find that experimenting with crops will yield some results that you could not imagine at the time that the shot was taken. The most typical types of crops are portrait and landscape mode. A square crop can work well when you want to highlight just the subject.
- Note that most cameras’ SOOC shots will not be the same ratio as standard print sizes (5×7, 8×10, 11×14, etc.). If you plan to make a print of the image, be very mindful of the standard image ratios that your printer offers as you take and process your image. There is little worse than having an image composed perfectly to your liking, and then having to chop off part of it in order to have it meet your printer’s size requirements.
It’s your turn!
With the above tips in mind, go back over some of your previous shots and critique them with “new eyes” to see if you can identify anything you could have done differently in order to improve the composition of the shot.
Practice applying different crops to your existing shots~
- Practice placement of your subject in the image so that it is a) centered or b) placed according to the Rule of 3rds.
- Try the following crops to see which is more pleasing: Portrait, Landscape, Square, or ?
- Crop your animal shots to give them “room to move” and see if the image “feels” better to you.
The next time you are in the field, apply some of these composition tips and I think you’ll be pleased with how they can improve your shots.
Now get out there and shoot!