Photography Tips #3: Understanding Composition Basics

Because photography is an art form, it is objective; a photograph that appeals to one person may not do so for another. However, there are certain guidelines to follow (I say guidelines rather than rules as they work most of the time, not every time) that will go a long way to making your photo leap out of a page or screen that much more.
Without even worrying what your subject is or even what it is doing, by simply placing it at the right point in the frame, you can add immeasurably to the photograph’s visual appeal. How all the elements of a photograph come together (namely subject, foreground and background) is known as a photograph’s composition.

Although there are multiple compositional tools to make your subject stand out, we’ll stick to a few of the more simple ones for now.

Rule of Thirds

Unless the actual scene or subject being photographed is symmetrical, the human eye finds far more visual pleasure in the subject being placed off-centre­. More specifically, along one of four lines, and even more specifically, at the points where those lines meet.

If you draw two imaginary and evenly-spaced vertical lines and two horizontal lines across your photograph, you will have effectively sub-divided it into vertical and horizontal thirds.

The four points at which these lines intersect are known as the power points, and placing your subject on anyone of them will give the photograph more impact.

Having said this, the choice of which line and/or power-point to place your subject on is all-important. The general idea, particularly with wildlife, is you want an animal looking or moving into the frame. It should have space to move into, or at least the suggestion of space.
If it is walking from left to right, place it on the left-hand vertical line. It will thus have two thirds of the frame to move into. And likewise, if it is moving from right to left, place it on the right-hand line.
Getting more specific with close-ups, if you have zoomed into an animal’s eye and it is looking up and to the left, place it on the bottom right power point. This gives it space to look up and across into.
You never want an animal looking like it is squashed up against the edge of the frame. As mentioned earlier, these aren’t hard and fast rules, but if you stick to the basic theory, 90% of the time you will improve your photo.

If you want to emphasise the sky, place the horizon along the lower third line. If you want to emphasis ether foreground and the sky is secondary, place the horizon on the upper line.

In the below photo, although the rule of thirds was not employed, you can understand the basic principle; the sky is emphasised by placing the horizon as low down in the photo as possible.

A prominent tree should line up on one of the vertical thirds, rather than center frame. By simply playing around with this composition when cropping a photo digitally, whilst adhering to the rule of thirds, you will see exactly which position comes across as strongest.

Leading Lines

By using simple methods a photographer can easily direct a viewer’s eye where to look in the frame. Leading lines help to do this, so it is important to look out for them when composing a photograph. A band of rocks, a herd of antelope walking in single file, clouds photographed with a wide-angle lens…

Notice how in the picture above the lines of the subway tunnel are directing the viewer’s eye towards the people in the background.
One sees a similar effect in the photo below of an airstrip in Kenya’s Maasai Mara; the sweeping lines of the clouds guide one’s eye down to the solo tree on the grassland.

Natural Framing

Achieving a natural frame for a wildlife subject can be tricky, especially as it is very much habitat dependent. This isn’t something you should be looking for with each shot, but something you should simply have in your arsenal, so that you know what to look for when the opportunity arises.

An elephant calf within its own herd and framed by other elephants’ legs; a leopard in a thicket framed by the trees; there are multiple opportunities in nature to achieve some sort of natural frame, and the more unusual the better, as it will add more impact to your photograph.

Ultimately in wildlife photography, you should aim to get as much as you can right in camera, ie. when the shot was actually taken. This will greatly reduce the amount of post-processing you need to do afterwards, composition adjustments included.

The more you head out actively looking for leading lines, natural framing, and placing your subject using the rule of thirds and their power-points, the more your photographs will have immediate visual impact.

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