Composition and More
When describing what elements contribute to producing an excellent photograph, making a list of such elements involves a large amount of subjectivity. After having looked at and thought about many thousands of pictures taken both by others and by myself, I’ve come to a number of conclusions about what I think gives a photograph visual appeal, what gives it a quality that draws the eye to it, and what makes the viewer’s eyes want to keep enjoying it over an extended period of time. While some may disagree with my subjective thoughts, my hope is that the thoughts that I am sharing here will provoke thought that might help some to improve the quality of their photography.
Today, we are very fortunate to have access to outstanding equipment capable of taking spectacular photographs. While there are many people who are using cameras and lenses costing many thousands of dollars, using expensive and technologically advanced equipment does not guarantee excellent results. While using expensive equipment certainly does make it easier to take a photograph that is sharply focused and properly exposed, if such technically good photographs do not have other qualities, they are still no more than snapshots. Take a visit to any of the major internet photography presentation boards. Every day, you will find new pictures posted. Some of them are examples of excellent photography. Many, however, are only snapshots that happen to have been taken with very good equipment. In the following paragraphs, I will try to explain some of the elements that, when present in a wildlife photograph, lead me to want to look at, linger over, and enjoy that photograph.
A critical element that can either make or destroy the visual appeal of a photograph is the composition of that photograph. A major factor that will often cause me immediately to want to move on after a brief glance at a photograph is when the photographer chooses to crop the photo too tightly and when a very narrow field of view is used. Often, after spending many thousands of dollars on a long lens, photographers fall in love with extreme close up shots. While we are thrilled by the detail that those shots can show, unless they have something else going for them, those tight shots can become very boring. After a while, regardless of the species of the bird/animal, they all start to look the same. While those tight shots might please the photographer taking them and might also appeal to other photographers, they are rarely the kind of shots that appeal to others. They are neither the kinds of shots that people want to linger over, nor are they the kinds of shots that people want to hang on their walls. When you visit the galleries of successful wildlife photographers whose pictures sell for many hundreds or thousands of dollars, those tight shots are rarely going to be seen. One of the biggest steps that I’ve taken in recent years in an effort to improve my photography has been my effort to shoot somewhat wider and to try to incorporate more background into my shots. While I still often fall back into the old habits of shooting as tight as possible, I am trying to be constantly thinking of ways to be able to shoot wider, and doing so has forced me to be much more creative in my shooting than I otherwise would be. More thoughts about this element of composition can be found in the separate article that I have written and titled “How Much Focal Length Do I Need?”
Another major element related to composition involves where the subject is placed in the frame. Many subscribe to what is called the rule of thirds. According to the rule of thirds, the strongest visual element of the photo should be placed about one third of the way from the top or bottom and one third of the way from the left edge or right edge of the photograph. While the rule of thirds is a good general guide, I don’t consider it to be an absolute. If I find some other compelling reason for composing the photograph otherwise, I will follow it. If I have no other compelling reason for how to compose the shot, I will often fall back on the rule of thirds. There are generally at least a couple of other factors that are more important to me when I am deciding what composition to use. I will always leave a significant amount of space in the direction toward which the bird/animal is looking. Doing so stirs the imagination of the viewer to wonder at what the subject is looking and what might be just beyond the edge of the frame. Similarly, for a flying bird/moving animal, I will always try to leave a generous amount of space in the direction of movement between the animal and the edge of the frame. Also, for me, not leaving sufficient headroom above the subject causes me to react negatively to a picture.
On a related matter, I choose to use shots where the bird/animal is moving toward the camera and only occasionally moving latterly with respect to the camera. Often, visually appealing shots are ones where the subject is moving toward the camera at a 45 degree angle. In no case will I ever use shots where the subject is moving away or looking away from the camera even to the slightest extent. I consider those shots to be ultimate examples of snapshots, and they immediately go into the trash.
Use of depth of field can be an important element that can draw the eye of the viewer to the portions of a frame to which the photographer wants the eye of the viewer to be drawn. Often, if multiple subjects are in the frame, increasing depth of field may be necessary to keep those multiple subjects all in focus. On the other hand, using a wider aperture and decreasing depth of field can help to draw the eye to toward, for example, the head of the bird/animal. Depth of field can also be decreased by decreasing the distance between the camera and subject. Additionally, distracting backgrounds can be blurred with shallow depth of field by using wider apertures and/or increasing the distance between the subject and the background.
For me, another important factor that influences my reaction to a photograph is the perspective from which the photograph was taken. Most often, the pictures that have the greatest visual appeal are those for which the picture was taken at eye level to the subject. While it is not always possible to actually be at eye level to the subject, there are means available to create the illusion of being at eye level even when it is not possible to shoot from eye level. For example, when shooting a bird roosting in a tree well above the level of the photographer, using good timing and waiting for the bird to be leaning forward and looking downward can create the illusion of being at eye level even though the photographer was well below eye level of the bird.
Good use of light is a major element in determining the quality of all types of photography, and it is especially important for wildlife photography. If the light is not good, it is very rare that I will even bother to try to take pictures. When there is bad light, I’m happy just to sit back and enjoy what I’m seeing. Even when there is good light, however, there is no guarantee that photographs taken in that light are going to have visual appeal for me. I want that light either to be hitting the subject fully or, at least, to be fully hitting the face and, especially, the eye of the subject. If there are shadows over the face or eye of the subject, those are more shots that go directly into the trash. While it is not always possible to control the light, when and where we shoot can increase our chances of having the light hit the subject in the way we want it to do so. Shooting shortly after sunrise or shortly before sunset not only gives light that is less harsh, but, also, the lower angle of the sun during those times means that there will be fewer shadows over the face and eyes of the subject. Additionally, I try to be constantly aware of where the light is coming from relative to me and the subject. If I cannot get into a position which puts the light behind me when I’m facing the subject, I will rarely bother to take any pictures because I know that I will not be happy with the results.
I prefaced the ideas that I have shared in this article by saying that thoughts regarding what makes an excellent photograph is often subjective. While some may disagree with what I believe are the elements present in excellent photographs, I truly believe that a common factor that separates those whose photography develops to a level of excellence from those whose photography plateaus at a snapshot level is that those whose photography does advance are those who give considerable thought to their photography and to what they think are the elements that give a photograph visual appeal. My hope is that what I have written will motivate some to take the time to do that kind of thinking.