10 Uncommon Photography Composition Tips

Candice Gaukel Andrews May 21, 2015 16
This photo exemplifies good composition: the background complements an off-center subject, with whom we have eye contact. ©Patrick J. Endres

This photo exhibits excellent composition: the background complements an off-center subject, with which we have eye contact. ©Patrick J. Endres

Most people who appreciate the beauty and restorative benefits of nature eventually pick up a camera at some point or other in their lives. Whether it’s a way to record a favorite travel moment, a stunning landscape or the spotting of a particular species of wildlife, taking photos can help you share your experiences with friends and family members or become a hobby you enjoy for the technical skills you gain.

While I don’t consider myself a professional photographer by any means, I do enjoy photography as an aid to storytelling. And, I like to choose photography tours when I do have the opportunity to travel.

Over the years, I’ve picked up a few tips from some of the best nature photographers around. Whether I’ve traveled with them, worked with them on a project or interviewed them for an article, I never tire of picking their brains to learn how to make the pictures I take just a little bit better.

Enter “photography tips” into a Google search, and you’ll get hundreds of thousands of results. Common tips include advice such as “fill the frame,” “get eye level” or “use leading lines.” Below, however, I’ve gathered together 10 of what I think are some lesser-known tips from three pros that just might help you improve your images of nature.

Tips 1–3 from professional photographer Patrick J. Endres, Alaska Photo Graphics:

1. Go for the light. People often think that good quality photos are the result of expensive equipment. The key to good photographs, however, is not higher megapixel counts or the most costly image-stabilization lenses. It’s all about light.

Professional photographer Patrick J. Endres says that if possible, scout the area where you’ll be shooting ahead of time and know its lighting conditions: when, where and how the morning and evening light and shadows fall. Then plan to be there when the light is just right for the photo you want to take.

Get familiar with the lighting conditions in the places where you want to shoot ahead of time. ©Eric Rock

Get familiar with the lighting conditions in the places where you want to shoot ahead of time. ©Eric Rock

2. Experiment and broaden. When shooting wildlife, a telephoto lens can help you capture a close-up shot of an animal’s face or the detail in a feather. But while such photos are captivating, don’t forget to back off once in a while to take an image of the animal in its environment, too. Context can say a lot. Step back and look around. Attempt to place wildlife in a space, in time and place. Include some of the environment to help tell the story of where this particular individual lives.

Photographing an animal in its natural habitat can convey an additional and different story than a close-up shot. ©Eric Rock

Photographing an animal in its natural habitat can convey an additional and different story than a close-up shot. ©Eric Rock

3. A compelling foreground brings wide-angle landscapes to life. When taking photos with your wide-angle lens, Patrick suggests that you:

  • survey the area and look for a foreground that is uncluttered,
  • find a diagonal line to include in your foreground and
  • get low, if necessary.
Interesting foreground elements can be used to lead the eye deep into the image. ©Bob Leggett

Interesting foreground elements can be used to lead the eye deep into the image. ©Bob Leggett

Tips 4–9 from professional photographer Rick Sammon, Rick Sammon Photography:

4. Eye contact with the subject can have an impact on the viewer. Rick Sammon says that if you look at Old Masters’ paintings, you’ll notice that in many of them the subjects are looking directly at the viewer. Whether you’re shooting people or wildlife, use this technique in your own photos to make them more engaging.

We are naturally drawn into images by direct eye contact, whether the subject is human or …©Patrick J. Endres

We are naturally drawn into images by direct eye contact, whether the subject is human or …©Patrick J. Endres

… whether that connection is made through the eyes of an animal. ©Bob Leggett

… whether that connection is made through the eyes of an animal. ©Bob Leggett

5. Covet the contours. This one is quite simple but effective: contours are pretty and make for attractive photographs.

Contours are visually pleasing and deliberately and powerfully draw the eye through a photograph. ©Bob Leggett

Contours are visually pleasing and deliberately and powerfully draw the eye through a photograph. ©Bob Leggett

6. Beware the background. Rick warns that it’s not enough to just concentrate on your subject; you have to look at what’s happening in the background, too. The background can make or break a shot. Basically, it should be there to enhance the subject. Focus and brightness are of the utmost importance, as well as separation between the background and the subject.

If the background is part of the story you’re trying to tell with the photo, changing your position is often enough to replace a cluttered one with one that attractively complements your subject. If the background isn’t part of your story, suppress it by using a wide aperture to throw it out of focus.

The background you choose can greatly enhance your photos; degree of focus, brightness and the separation between the subject and the background are important considerations. ©Patrick J. Endres

The background you choose can greatly enhance your photos; degree of focus, brightness and the separation between the subject and the background are important considerations. ©Patrick J. Endres

7. Negative space can be nice. Negative space is defined as the empty or open space around an object. In other words, it is the breathing room around a subject that helps determine how appealing that subject looks. When photographing moving subjects, Rick recommends leaving space into which a subject can “move.”

It is in photography as it is in life: wild animals require breathing room (known in the design world as “negative space”). ©Eric Rock

It is in photography as it is in life: wild animals require breathing room (known in the design world as “negative space”). ©Eric Rock

8. Dead center is deadly. When you’re first learning about photography, it’s tempting to put whatever you’re shooting smack-dab in the center of the frame. But, cautions Rick, that forces the viewer’s eye to get stuck on the subject, producing a static, boring picture. In contrast, when the subject is off-center, the viewer’s eye looks around the frame to see what else is in the image area.

Resist the urge to put your subject in the center of the frame. ©Patrick J. Endres

Resist the urge to put your subject in the center of the frame. ©Patrick J. Endres

9. Horizon line laws. When you have an interesting foreground, Rick proposes placing the horizon line near the top of the frame and vice versa.

However, when you are photographing a beautiful reflection, try placing the horizon line dead center in the frame—which is against most rules of composition (as in tip No. 8!).

Here’s the “vice versa” (see text above): when you have an interesting background, place the horizon line near the bottom of the frame. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Here’s the “vice versa” (see text above): when you have an interesting background, place the horizon line near the bottom of the frame. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Tip 10 from Natural Habitat Adventures Photo Expedition Leader Eric Rock:

10. Eric Rock’s rule of thirds. The well-known photography “rule of thirds” could be called the Golden Rule of composition. The basic principle is this: imagine breaking an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that you have nine parts. Studies have shown that people’s eyes automatically go to one of the intersection points in this grid, rather than the center of the shot. So, if you place your subject (or points of interest) in these intersections or along any of these lines, your image becomes more balanced and will enable a viewer to interact with it more naturally.

Eric Rock’s rule of thirds has a bit of a twist: he claims that you’ll finally get the shot you want the third time something passes you by!

A “rule of thirds” with a twist: you’ll probably get the perfect shot the third time something runs by you. ©Eric Rock

A different “rule of thirds”: you’ll probably get your best shot the third time something runs by you. ©Eric Rock

Bonus tip (no. 11) from me:

11. You only have to please yourself. Sometimes when I’m out in the field and a wild polar bear or spectacular mountain range is right in front of me, I feel so awed and overwhelmed that I just pick up my camera and shoot. And I shoot a lot. I forget every tip I ever heard. And in the middle of all that mad clicking, every now and then, I get an image that I’m happy with.

And that’s good enough for me.

Sometimes, I break all the rules and wind up with an image I’m happy with. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Sometimes, I break all the rules and wind up with an image I’m happy with. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

 

16 Comments »

  1. John@Digital signature June 19, 2015 at 3:16 am - Reply

    The plain background in this composition ensures nothing distracts from the subject. Photography is a two-dimensional medium, we have to choose our composition carefully to convey the sense of depth that was present in the actual scene. You can create depth in a photo by including objects in the foreground, middle ground and background.

  2. Michael Gregory May 31, 2015 at 12:42 pm - Reply

    Informative and concise – Thank you!

  3. Caroline Martin May 29, 2015 at 11:24 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing these great tips and the photos which go with them. Breath-taking!

  4. Thomas Sawyer May 26, 2015 at 4:35 am - Reply

    Bonus tip #11-that’s for me!

  5. Angela P. Schapiro May 26, 2015 at 4:34 am - Reply

    My tip is: when you arrive at your location don’t immediately shoot what is in front of you. Take the time to look all around you. The best shot could well be behind you.

  6. Eusebio Manuel Pecurto May 25, 2015 at 6:01 am - Reply

    good article

  7. Wally Elton May 24, 2015 at 4:21 pm - Reply

    Very interesting. One “rule” I have had to learn after switching to digital after decades of using film is to shoot a lot. No need to conserve or worry about wasting film!

  8. Anne Harrison May 24, 2015 at 12:45 pm - Reply

    Excellent summary and pointers.

  9. Jessica Klein May 24, 2015 at 12:41 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the interesting tips. I was intrigued by number two about broadening the composition. I often find myself drawn to close up and detailed composition. The image you chose showed the impact of including an animals environment. I found number four engaging as well. The sense of connection with the subject was powerful.

  10. Mark Stadsklev May 24, 2015 at 7:34 am - Reply

    A nice concise review.
    My “uncommon” tip is here.
    http://www.artwithinnature.com/blog/2015/5/think-before-you-shoot

  11. John Sanders May 23, 2015 at 1:54 pm - Reply

    Great tips, I do a lot of outdoor photography as a Naturalist/Outdoor Educator. Most of my photos are from areas around the Central Coast of California.

  12. Judith Doyle May 22, 2015 at 3:38 pm - Reply

    Interesting extension to the usual rules of “fill the frame” and “rule of thirds”.
    I like your last tip best, Candice, because it speaks to someone like me — a writer first, a photographer second. I love photography, though, and it is SO essential with travelwriting. Taking LOTS of shots to get a few that satisfy, often works for me.

  13. Ray May 22, 2015 at 1:14 pm - Reply

    Candice:

    enjoyed reading those Photography Tips – very similar to the Free Ebook I give away to my students:
    “top Ten Tips : Landscapes”
    if interested, it’s at http://www.hotpixels.co.nz

    Cheers

    Ray Salisbury
    Hot Pixels Photography

  14. JoAnne May 22, 2015 at 8:09 am - Reply

    Thanks Candice! The bonus tip was my favorite!

  15. Travis May 21, 2015 at 8:34 am - Reply

    This is awesome.

  16. Mary May 21, 2015 at 7:07 am - Reply

    Excellent tips! … and excellent examples. Many thanks.

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