Photographic Composition Part 2

March 16, 2016  •  1 Comment

Once again I am sat all in camouflage on the bank of the river Dart on Dartmoor in Devon and I have been here for only a few minutes. I’ve been watching and photographing Grey Wagtails. Right beside me is a Wren “jack hammering” out its song, so loud for a little bird and above is a Robin singing away. Whilst walking to the river bank I had a Mole run over my wellie which is a first for me. They are funny little creatures; blind and with two massive hands to move earth which they do quite easily. A lot of people will have seen dead ones or their earth mounds, a real annoyance for gardeners, but not many will have seen a live mole. This one was scurrying around on the grass and then dived into a hole. I have been out with my camera a few days this week and I seem to be getting rather a lot of Dunnocks singing on tops of hedges. I don’t mind as it just shows that Spring is in the air.


When I went to my land (Nature reserve) the other day there was a Blue pickup parked just down from it. It had a metal cab covering the back which contained 2 lurchers and about 4 terriers. I got out of my car to see if the owner was about and there were 2 scruffy males walking on the footpath in the field next to mine. I wondered what they were up to and I will have to keep an eye out! I might be adding 2 + 2 and coming up with 5 but my intuition is rarely wrong except when dealing with women and then I’m never right!!!!!


This week’s topic is Composition part 2.

The rules of composition.


The rule of Thirds.

The first is the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds basically puts the subject away from the centre of the image. If you imagine a “tic tac toe” board or a “noughts and crosses” game you draw four lines, two across and two down, dividing the image into 9 equal parts. The subject should be placed along one of these lines, thirds, or on, or at least near, to the intersection point of these lines. It does not matter if the subject is on one, two or three of the intersection points. The main idea is that the third of the image which holds the subject is balanced by the other two thirds which hold items of less interest. A lot of cameras nowadays come with a grid that can be switched on either in the viewfinder or on the live view screen and this can help with composition whilst taking the image. If your camera does not have this function then look at the autofocus points and pick one that is close enough to one of the intersection points and use this. It can also be done in post processing. If you use Lightroom go into the Develop module on a PC, sorry I do not know what it is on a Mac, press “R” and the Grid Overlay will pop up in your viewing screen. Each time you press “O” you will rotate through several grid overlays that will help you with composition but if you notice most will take the subject, the focal point, away from the centre. You have Thirds, Diagonal, Triangle, Golden Ratio and Golden Spiral in version 5. If you examine a lot of rectangular photos most of them will obey this rule because it gives the image a bit of dynamism and if the subject was placed in the middle then it appears static and boring. The main reason is that you are giving the viewer the licence to travel around your photo rather than just look in the centre of it and this makes it more appealing. Just because most of them take the subject away from the centre does not mean they are right for every photo.


Using Negative Space.


What is negative space? Well negative space is the space around the subject, the focal point; in your image therefore the subject is positive space. So take an image of a bird on a branch with blue sky surrounding it. The bird is positive space and all the rest is negative space. Please just don’t think that the emptiness of the sky is negative space because even if you took an image of a deer in the woods; the deer would be positive space and the woods negative space. I like to include a lot of negative space in my images because it shows the habitat the wildlife resides in, it creates balance and is visually pleasing for the viewer. It could also show scale and the isolation of the subject. Think about an image that contains a polar bear on a sheet of ice, about 5 to 10% of the image, as a small positive space and a lot of sea as negative space; this shows a really good story as people know how big a polar bear is. Now think of an image with just a close up of the polar bear which is nearly touching the sides of the photo appearing to be hemmed in. Although the second one might be a really good image I know which one I like. The way I create negative space is by not getting too close to my subject this also keeps the subject more relaxed. Do not be afraid of creating an image with a very small amount of positive space and a large amount of negative. Have a look at my Cover photo on Facebook I, and a lot of other people, love that photo and yet the Barn Owl only holds a small amount of positive space

Using Leading Lines.

The use of leading lines in an image can be used to point the viewer’s eye to the subject of your photograph. These lines can be straight, diagonal, wavy, or any variation as long as the line is assumed. In wildlife photography you can use anything as a line a branch, shadow, fence, signpost, plant etc. which would point to your subject. Just make sure you concentrate when including leading lines because they could lead the viewer’s eye out of the image or away from the subject.


Placement of the Horizon.

The placement of the horizon sounds like it should be for Landscape photographers but it can affect wildlife photographers. Think about an image of the African savanna with all the wildlife spreading out or think about an image of silhouetted red deer on a hill with a glorious sunset behind it. The rule of thirds helps with this rule as placement of the horizon on one of the thirds line is usually more interesting than placing it in the middle of the image. Take the red deer example above; if the horizon was in the middle the bottom half of the image would be black in shadow therefore placing the horizon on the bottom third line you will include more of that glorious sunset sky. This does not mean it has to go on one of the lines as placement of the horizon either even higher or lower can lead to an image that has far more effect of what you are trying to achieve.


The rule of Odds.

The rule of odds is another strange rule for wildlife photographers on first glance. The rule states that odd numbers of subjects are more aesthetically pleasing then even ones. So throw away all your photos of a bird feeding another one or two birds fighting or even two animals mating because according to this rule they need an onlooker or a voyeur in the case of my last example. (I jest of course) Odd numbers do make a stronger composition so when you can; try to include an odd number of subjects but if you can’t then what can wildlife photographers do? Well we can try to include another component within the image for example a tree, bush, branch, leaf etc. This will make up an invisible triangle, which is more pleasing then a square or a rectangle, between the component and the two subjects e.g. have 2 lions mating and a tree.


Next week I will be continuing with the rules of composition.


Any comments welcome please click on the "leave a comment" link above or "add comment" link below.


C raig Mac Innes(non-registered)
Great blog Robin and thank you for taking the time and trouble to publish it...couple of things...I agree with go with your instinct in the case of the guys with the dogs! And secondly, your thoughts on negative space are very close to mine...when I started taking photos of wildlife my goal was to get as close as possible...fill the frame with the subject, show all the detail in all its glory...and there is a place for those kind of images no doubt about it, but how many ID/guidebook type images do we need? There are literally hundreds of thousands of these competent, technically brilliant images out there already...what I love to see are images of the animal in context...I want to see the river Dart when you're taking photos of the creatures which live there...I've never seen the Dart, I'm not familiar with the surroundings so for me it only adds to the context and interest of the image. Sometimes I feel we can be a bit shy about publishing shots of wildlife which don't show every feather or detail for fear that we get negative comment about not showing the wildlife in sufficient detail...I know I was wary of that when I started but now I follow my own gut more and try to show more context in my photos.
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