When I look back at my journey as a wildlife photographer especially as I scroll through my images on my editing screen a few things become apparent. Firstly, most of my pictures were either action or close up portrait, and secondly, the editing was awful.
Okay, maybe I am oversimplifying, but my point remains the same, little creative effort went into those images.
Wildlife photography, in my opinion, is one of the most challenging genres, why? We are reliant on all the elements that make a successful wildlife photograph. Timing, place, light, and subject matter are generally all unknowns for a wildlife photographer on safari.
That’s why we wildlife photographers on safari head straight for the waterhole especially in the dry season as that is the best place to capture wildlife action photography. But what do we do when all is quiet at the waterhole, and there is no action to photograph. How do we create a compelling photograph? The most important thing to remember is that we are crafting a picture.
We all know that a successful photograph needs a good composition. Some rules and guides can help you create an image. But it is your “vision” that will make it unique and compelling. That is what we all want from our photography no matter what genre — to stand out from the crowd to be different and for people to recognize our style.
Firstly I will talk about the guides and rules that are important in creating a composition. Then I will discuss how you can improve your “vision”, your unique way of seeing.
There are numerous rules of compositions that can aid you to be more creative with your photographs. I have often heard, and I am sure you have too, that “there are no rules in photography,” or “learn the rules and forget them.” There may be some merit in these statements, I will leave that discussion to others, but for me and my photographic journey, increasing knowledge of my craft every day has helped me make better photographs. I want to discuss just a few rules, guides, and tips that I use most when out photographing.
Negative space is one of my favorite rules of composition. I place the subject in the frame using either the golden ratio or rule of thirds; mostly I go with what feels right. Remember rules are only guides. For “negative space” to work in a composition, it is essential that there are no distracting elements within the scene.
This kind of image works best with a solitary subject with a clean background in an open space. I try and not include clouds as this will give the image a different feel and distract from the subject. Negative space creates a sense of calm and allows the image to breathe.
Shape, lines, form, and textures are essential elements of successful landscape black and white photograph. But we can make beautiful compositions in nature photography with these elements too.
Look for interesting patterns in clouds and include them with your wildlife subjects. Clouds give you shapes and textures which create a sense of depth, a three-dimensional feel.
An essential tip to creating a unique image is your viewpoint or angle of view. Always try and vary your perspective, go low, go high, if you are using a wide angle lens, tilt your camera and get exaggerated sky, adding impact to your photograph.
Lines create feelings within us; vertical lines give a sense of power; horizontal lines suggest a feeling of calm; diagonal lines a sense of movement; soft curved lines, which is probably the best known and used in photography, create gentle and soothing feelings.
The “background” of a photograph is not a “compositional rule”, but it is undoubtedly one of the most critical elements within a successful photograph.
A busy background is very distracting and will take the viewers eye away from the subject of the image and create a visual sense of unease.
Street photographers have favorite locations with beautiful backgrounds, and they wait till a subject walks pass and then press the shutter and create a photograph.
We can do the same with wildlife photography although it can be a lot more difficult to achieve.
In my last article, I talked about a recent safari. I had never been to this location before, and upon my arrival, I notice the distant mountains were magnificent, and immediately I set about finding a waterhole with the mountains as a backdrop and then it was a matter of waiting. Elephants arrived, within a few minutes, the elephants began their usual ritual of bonding. I press the shutter capturing an intimate moment between elephants with a beautiful backdrop to complete a compelling composition.
Another useful and effective backdrop is to use the “subject” as a background, for example, photographing a young animal against the side of its parent, zebras are the most common ones that come to mind.
When you find the backdrop for an image, be it beautiful mountains or something uniform, you can then go about creating a series of pictures with different animals or the same animal in various poses.
Rules of symmetry and rhythm are two essential guides that will help you become more creative in your photography. Symmetry is achieved when one side mirrors or balances with the other. Best-known use of symmetry in nature photography is the reflection.
In the image below with elephants on the horizon, I tried to create balance and symmetry with the elephants at either end. I included the clouds for shape, form, and texture this adds a sense of depth, the line created by the horizon gives a feeling of calm.
When photographing try and include as many compositional elements as you can to create an engaging photograph.
Using patterns in your photographs help create rhythm. Patterns appear everywhere in nature, try and photograph a pattern that has a repeated shape as in the image below of lines in the dunes, these repeated patterns will add rhythm that the viewer will easily follow. In this image, I used a low angle of view and tilted the wide angle lens to create diagonal lines and exaggerated the stormy sky which adds mood.
Framing your subject is a very nice way to lead the viewers to your subject, in wildlife especially with adults and young, the young will always try and shelter underneath the parents for protection, giving us opportunities to use the adults as frames as we focus on the young.
Depth of field is another useful aid to isolate your subject from a distracting background. I love to use DOF with the rule of rhythm, finding similar subjects as in the image below of the baby zebra, I focused wide open on the foals eye creating a pleasing blur of the stripes in the foreground, which form a pattern and sense of rhythm.
The Rule of Odds is not a well-known rule of composition and one that I struggle to accomplish in my wildlife photography. The theory behind the rule of odds is that the viewer’s eyes are drawn to photographs with odd numbers, and within the odd numbers the eye will be drawn to the subject in the center. It sounds easy enough, but in practice it’s not so, or at least for me.
I have only managed to capture one photograph that I am happy with, the lion and zebra image below, for balance I have cropped the image to square with the horizon in the middle. The three subjects, the two zebras and lion accomplish not just the rule of odds, but the rule of balance and symmetry too. The dust gives a sense of action and movement and creates a mood within the image.
Color theory is an essential part of a successful color image, as I tend to favor black and white photos over color images, this something that I want to learn about in more depth. What is color theory? You are using specific colors in a way that are harmonious. My favorite one I love to use for wildlife photography is using complementary colors — shades of cool blues and warm/orange tones, which are opposite on the color wheel.
I have briefly explained some of my favorite rules of composition which will help you in the “Art Of Seeing.” But the most critical part of creating or crafting a compelling photograph is your vision — that is what is going to separate your portfolio from somebody else. We can all learn to know and understand the rules of compositions. But how can you create that unique vision, the “x” factor, in your work? The only person that can do this is you!
Every time you look or scroll through your images, be your own harshest critic. I have heard photographers say they are unable to choose their best photo. If you are not able to recognize your best image, how are you going to know an excellent compositional photograph in the field?
Be selective in what you photograph. Do not shoot for the sake of shooting. A feeling should overcome you, an inner voice shouting at you. Then ask yourself what is it that draws to you this scene? How can you successfully capture this feeling? What kind of mood or emotion do you want to create in this photograph? Then shoot the subject from every angle possible, use different focal lengths, different shutter speeds, and remember to check your frame, what you leave out is just as important as what you leave in.
There is nothing as frustrating getting home, downloading your images, and wishing that you had shot the subject with a different lens, aperture, or angle. Cover all the bases when you come across a subject that connects with you. And remember to try and convey that connection, mood or feeling as you edit the image. Your images must connect on an emotional level with the viewer.
When I photograph it is a balance between my mind and heart; my brain looks after the technicals while my heart looks after the emotion within the photograph. Too much of one will leave an emotionless image or a poorly executed image. To sum up, I think the words from one of my favorite songs, “Reverence” by Faithless:
“You don’t need eyes to see… you need vision.”
About the author: Peter Delaney is an award-winning wildlife, architecture, and landscape photographer based in George, South Africa. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website, fine art site, Facebook, Twitter, 500px, and Instagram. This article was also published here.