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Beginner's Guide To Nature Photography: Composition

by © Cub Kahn


This is an excerpt from the "Beginner's Guide To Nature Photography" book by Cub Kahn.
Thanks to Amherst Media for allowing to present it in our library. To read the rest of the book, you are welcome to buy it directly from Amazon.com.

CLARIFY YOUR MESSAGE

Photos communicate. Good nature photos communicate well! Photographic Composition refers to the arrangement of visual elements in a photo. As a photographer, you use lines, shapes, colors, tones, patterns, textures, balance, symmetry, depth, perspective, scale, and lighting to bring your images to life. But to consider the interplay of all of these visual elements in every photo is daunting. A more practical approach to nature photo composition is to look through your viewfinder and ask yourself two questions. (You probably shouldn't ask these questions out loud, or else nearby people and animals will wonder why you are talking to yourself.

 1. What is the message of this photo?
 2. What is the best way to communicate that message?

Nature photos are successful when the message is clear. When the photographer's message is garbled, ambiguous, weak or obscured by distracting visual elements in the composition, the photo is not a keeper. Nature photos that convey a powerful message compel the viewer to take a second look in order to soak in the beauty and meaning of the image.

Photos capture moods, transmit information, and tell stories. As you compose each scene in your viewfinder, consciously identify the message you hope to communicate. (Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove; OR; January; 28-200mm zoom set at 200mm: Fujichrome- Provia 100F, 1/2 sec. @ f/16)

KEEP IT SIMPLE

The single best watchword to keep in mind as you compose photos is simplicity. Instead of trying to squeeze lots of subjects into a photo-a flock of geese, a wildflower meadow, a spectacular sunset and dear Aunt Thelma standing on her head-aiming for simplicity is often the best strategy. Interestingly, some professional nature photographers actually take a "subtractive" approach to composition rather than an "additive" approach; instead of dwelling on what they can add to the composition, they focus on what can be removed in order to strengthen the composition.

In many cases, a poor composition can be turned into a good composition by fine-tuning through the viewfinder; that is, by moving the camera slightly left, right, up or down with simplicity as a goal. Compositions suffer when your message is diluted by unwanted visual distractions. Avoid visual clutter and your compositions will sing!

Simplify! Once you settle on a photo subject and roughly line it up in your viewfinder, move your camera left, right, up and down to see if you can improve the composition. This photo distills a craggy landscape into three zones: blue sky, gray rock and dark shadows. (Rocky Mountain National Park, CO; 28-70mm zoom; Kodachrome 25)

BE PATIENT

Good photo composition takes time; great photo composition cakes even more time. Nature photos composed in ten seconds or less usually bear little resemblance to those composed in ten minutes or more. There arc occasions in wildlife photography when you must rapidly point and shoot or else you will miss the opportunity altogether, but many nature photo subjects change very slowly. When you slow down to meticulously compose photos, the rewards may include a wonderful meditative experience along with vast improvement in your photos. How much better would your nature photos be if you spent at least ten minutes composing each one?!?

FILL THE FRAME

Just as a landscape painter would not leave a portion of the canvas totally blank, you should not ignore any portion of the scene that you frame in your viewfinder. Make the best use of the entire "canvas" of each photo. When you look through the viewfinder, think of it as a rectangular picture frame; as you compose, make use of all the available space. Fill the frame!

You can significantly strengthen many compositions by zooming in as much as your lenses allow or, if possible, getting closer to your subject. Photographic compositions are weakened when important subject matter is too small to see.

CONSIDER VERTICALS

The length of a frame of 35mm film is 50% greater than its width, so every photo is markedly rectangular, not square. Most people have a pronounced tendency to take far more horizontal photos than verticals. But many landscapes have strong vertical elements such as trees, mountains and water talk. Also, depending on your perspective even horizontal landscape features can appear vertical. If you arc standing high on a bridge and looking up a river, the river will appear as a vertical element in your photo. And in close-up photography, the stem of a wildflower or a blade of grass can be a strong vertical element.

Consider whether a vertical or a horizontal composition will be most attractive in each situation. You can enliven your nature photography if you consciously take more verticals!

FIND LINES

You see lines almost anywhere you point your camera. How can you use these lines to enhance your photos? Three elements to look to in your photo compositions are diagonal lines, leading lines and curved lines. Judicious placement of these lines can create memorable images. Horizontal and vertical lines in photos often frame the scene or create visual boundaries within the image. Horizontal and vertical lines characteristically have a static appearance in nature photos, whereas diagonal lines frequently arc where the action is. Diagonals are dynamic!

One type or diagonal line is known as a "leading line," A leading line may extend from the proximity of any of the four corners of a photo toward the middle of the image or toward a significant feature in the image. You can find many leading lines in the landscape such as riverbanks, borders between field and forest, and fallen trees. A leading line often enhances a photo because it leads the viewer's eve into the picture; it visually links the foreground and background, creating continuity and an added element of depth.

Curved lines add aesthetic appeal to nature photos. In particular, S-curves frequently appear beautiful to the eye. S-curves in nature include winding rivers, curled tree branches, sinuous vines, swirling clouds, and slithering snakes

These photos illustrate the option of horizontal or vertical composition that you face in every photographic situation. Which one do you prefer? Notice how the graceful S-curve of the river draws you into the scene. (Rocky Mountain National Part, CO; September; 28mm lens; Fujichrome 100)

PLACE SUBJECTS OFF-CENTER

Many people routinely compose photos with the main subject in the middle of the image. This approach produces a lot of photos that look rather static as if they were studio portraits. You can often produce a more interesting image by placing the main subject somewhere other than the center of the image. All easy way to keep this in mind is to use "the rule of thirds." Imagine the scene in your viewfinder is divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically. To visualize this, pretend that a tic-tac-toe grid has been superimposed on the scene. Now compose the image so that the main subject of the photo is located approximately at one of the intersections of these imaginary "thirds" lines.

For instance, if a deer is the main subject of your photo, you might compose the image so that the deer is one-third of the way up from the bottom of the image and one-third of the way across from the left side of the image. You may also want to place prominent horizontal or vertical lines-such as the horizon or a large tree trunk - approximately one-third of the way from one of the four edges of the image. The objective of this rule is to diversity your compositions by consciously positioning your photo subjects away from the center.

The rule of thirds is a simple guideline to encourage you to position important photographic subjects, such as the crescent moon in this image, away from the center of the composition to heighten visual appeal. (Winema National Forest, OR; July, 75-300mm zoom; Fujichrome Sensia 100)



Published with the permission of Amherst Media. All images and text are copyright © by Cub Kahn.
No use of these materials shall be permitted except through the prior written authorization
and permission of Amherst Media.

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