Composition II: Composition in Nature Photography and the Elements of a Photograph
Text and Images © Copyright Gloria Hopkins
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.
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 include:
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.
|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 paper
All text and images © Copyright Gloria Hopkins, http://www.naturesglory.net/