Ramblings and Photographic Composition for a Wildlife Photographer Part 1

March 10, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Once again I am sat all in camouflage on the bank of a river but this time it is the river Dart on Dartmoor in Devon and I have been here for about two hours. I’ve been listening to and watching Great Tits, Blue Tits, Blackbirds, Goldcrests, Kingfishers, Dunnocks, Wrens and Robins. I wish I could sing as well as my namesake then I might be able to make a bit of money to retire early. For the last twenty minutes I have been watching a Dipper preening itself on a boulder in the river and yet I have not taken a single photo. The reason for this is that my Canon 500mm F4 lens closest focusing distance is 450mm and the dipper is about 300mm away, very frustrating this wildlife photography game, I wish I had brought my extension tubes with me which would allow me to focus nearer. I am hoping that once it has finished preening then it will fly slightly further away so I can get some photos of it. I can also see two Grey Wagtails flying around further down river, too far to get a decent photo of them unless I want a dot! Lenses, wildlife photographers always want a bigger one; then again maybe it’s not just wildlife photographers that want bigger ones!!!


I’ve had a couple of days off this week to really get going with the cutting back of the trees on my land (Nature reserve). I have cut most of the branches back between the paddock and the wood to make the land into a scrubby area for raptors. I say most because I have left a couple of really nice looking mossy branches for them to perch on (with luck) and me to get photos of, if and when, they do. Whilst I was working at the far end of the land I saw 5 Jays flying around at the other end, once again watching wildlife with no camera. Then again if I had my camera with me I would not get much work done. Hopefully there will be plenty of wildlife photography done when the work is finished. Enough rambling let’s start the real topic of this, and the next few week’s blog, Photographic Composition for a Wildlife Photographer.


In some of my nature / wildlife photography books it states that there are “laws” of composition. Let me assure you that there are no laws only rules and these rules can be either bent or broken but the rules of composition are a good guide. Because there are rules and they do not have to be adhered to and every image is the photographer’s own making, composition in my mind, is one of the hardest things to learn in image making (photography).

What is composition? “The harmonious arrangement of the shapes, in a work of art, in relation to each other”. In other words it means placing the objects, shapes, in an image in an orderly fashion and making sure the image is balanced. It also helps you recreate your 3D view in a 2D medium, your photograph. For wildlife photographers you need to know about composition so that it becomes intuitive.  For basics think about the image before you press the shutter release.


When an artist starts a painting he / she starts with an empty canvas and only paints on the canvas what he or she wants in the painting, they also paint and use the colours they want rather than what they see. So artists add to their painting to achieve the image they want. Photographers on the other hand have to eliminate things from what they see, to achieve what they want in an image. Photographers have to really concentrate on what they are photographing to try and achieve the same effect; the biggest help I can give you here is slow down during your image taking. There are ways that this can be accomplished without reverting to Photoshop or Lightroom and cloning things out. One way is to really look at and study what you are photographing through the viewfinder or live view screen and checking everything, including the corners, is how you want it. This is a bit hard for wildlife photographers because they do not have the time. The wildlife is there one second, a bit of action, and then gone the next. But if you know about composition, especially the rules, you can pre-empt a good composition. What I do is know the kind of photo I’m after, know the rules of composition and use an autofocus point that will lead you to a good composition. Obviously this can change depending on what the wildlife is doing and where it appears. Unless the light is dull I always us an autofocus point that is out with the circle in the centre of the autofocus grid as this usually helps with composition by taking the focal point away from the centre of the image. Camera manufacturers don’t help us with this because they always put the best autofocus point, in other words the most sensitive focus point, in the centre. I also shoot slightly wider so that I can crop slightly during my post processing although sometimes this cannot be achieved. Some people say that you should get the image right in camera but this is not always possible for wildlife photographers as the action happens so quickly. Another way to help your composition is by selecting the right lens to use to include everything you want in the image, feet, wings, tail, ears etc., maybe by using a lens with a wider field of view or by being further away from your subject. Then again if you want to exclude some objects you could use a lens with a narrow field of view or move closer to your subject. Yet another way is by using the correct depth of field to achieve it. A lot of wildlife photographers use this method because they want you, the viewer, to look at a certain subject or focal point within the image so they have the focal point sharp and the rest of the image, foreground and background, out of focus. (This also helps to give the impression of a 3D image). Making people look at a position in an image you want them to, by guiding them visually, is what composition is all about. It's arranging all the elements in your image in an orderly fashion so that viewers look at what you want them to. It guides the eye around the image to settle on an area you want the viewer to look at.

So, what are these rules?

The rule of Thirds.

Using Negative Space.

Using Leading Lines.

Placement of the Horizon.

The rule of Odds.

Using Colour.



Perspective, scale and size of subject.





Over the next few weeks I will be talking about the above rules in my blog. There are others but I feel for wildlife photographers the composition rules above are ones that are needed. Having said that if there is only one you want to know and understand then the rule of thirds is the one. Knowing and understanding just this one rule will improve your wildlife photography but knowing and understanding all the others will take your wildlife photography to the higher echelons. It looks like a lot of hard work but the rewards are worth it.


Till then to end on a different note the dipper has taken off and flown out of sight down river so it looks like I’ll be here for a few more hours.

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