What makes a good image? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,
but there are some definite guidelines that I can offer on composition,
which can help you produce pictures that are more pleasing to
the eye and have more impact.
Through a few sample images, I hope to demonstrate a few right
and wrongs in each case.
This is vitally important. If you shoot looking down on your
subject, be it an animal or bird or whatever, you will make it
look as though you have dominance over it - and it looks less
significant. If you want to portray a sense of vulnerability,
then that is fine, but more often than not, we are trying to do
the opposite and make our subject look important or dramatic.
The best way to achieve this is to get down to the eye level
of your subject. Let's take a look at some pictures of deer. The
first one is of a Muntjak - it is walking along, minding it's
own business, but looking pretty dull. Not going to win any competitions
is it ?- It could justifiably be called a snapshot. But what is
wrong with it? - It is exposed OK, and is pretty sharp, it is
in reasonable light -its just bland.
Now look at the next image of a red deer female. It is not doing
very much either - just standing there - but the image has a certain
tension about it and is far more satisfying - but why ?
The main reason that it works, is because the viewpoint is much
better - we are down at deer level, and looking it straight in
the eye - as opposed to shooting down at it from the back of a
jeep (like the muntjak). We feel less like a meer observer, and
more like we are actually there with the deer, and we are interacting
with it . Has it seen us, is it going to approach us, or attack
us or take flight? What is that crow in the background - is it
going to land on the deer?
Another reason it works, is the background is blurred and smooth,
which makes a nice backdrop to the deer and doesn't compete with
it. Photographers call this "bokeh" - a japanese word
which implies a semi-defocussed background.This was achieved by
shooting with a wide aperture, by using a telephoto lens, and
also happened because the subject is much closer to the camera
than the background is behind it.
The muntjak has been taken with little thought to aperture, and
the grass is in focus in front and behind the deer. If you leave
your camera on programme mode - then this is probably what it
will produce - good shutter speed and too great a depth-of-field.
Much better to shoot in aperture priority mode (AV) and choose
your aperture. You should be the boss, not the camera.
There are still some things right about the muntjak image though.
Firstly - the subject is all in the frame, (no legs or tail chopped-off)
and also the surroundings are not too distracting to the eye.
Another good thing, is I have allowed more space in front of the
animal - for it to "walk into" and this always looks
Just changing your position (viewpoint) by a tiny amount can
make a big difference. So often I see photographers standing up
with their tripods, looking down on their subject, and I think
- if only you would crouch down - or sometimes lie on the ground
(nobody said you were going to stay clean doing this) it would
make such a difference. It's only a bit of mud - and it washes
By just moving inches to either side it is possible to get a
distraction - such as a telegraph pole in the background to move
out of the frame.
Finally, before we leave the deer, look again at the red deer
- her head is the focal point of the image - and I have placed
it at a "rule of thirds" position, I will come back
to rule of thirds in a minute.
By shooting with a wide-angle lens and shooting up between the
bars of the field gate, I have captured an unusual viewpoint of
this bull. The backlight and starburst of light adds more interest,
but it is the unexpected and imposing viewpoint that makes this
2. The importance of eyes
Whether you are photographing people or animals - like this Red-fronted
brown lemur in Madagascar, it is the eyes that carry expression
and emotion - and it is these that communicate with us.
It is therefore vital that the eyes are sharp in the picture.
In the image of the lemur, virtually only the eyes are
sharp - even the tip of the nose is starting to blur, but it doesn't
matter - eyes are king! I have also placed the eyes bang smack
in the centre of the frame to draw maximum attention to them.
The problem is, the eyes do not always coincide with the centre
of the frame - where the auto focus is designed to lock on - fortunately
there are two good ways around dealing with an off-centre subject:
If you are hand-holding and shooting in "single shot"
mode (as opposed to AI servo where the camera continually refocuses
according to where you point it) the camera will lock focus, beep
and hold that point of focus all the time you half-depress the
shutter. So focus on the eyes, and continuing to hold the button
down half way, recompose the shot and finally take the picture.
This is called AF lock - and is very useful.
The other way (which I use when shooting in AI servo or on a
fixed tripod) is to move the selected auto focus point to correspond
with the eyes rather than whatever is in the centre of the subject.
3. The rule of thirds
You will probably have come across this concept before. What
it means is if you divide an image up into three even segments
- left to right and again up and down, to make the image look
like a game of noughts and crosses, there will be four intersections
formed. For some reason these intersections make really good places
to put important compositional items in the frame.
Here is an image of a nuthatch coming down a branch. Notice that
the eye (eye is king remember) has been placed at one of these
intersections - so the compost ion seems "balanced"
I'm not suggesting that you should slavishly follow the rule
of thirds - but until you really understand what you are doing
with composition, you could do a lot worse.
Look at the red deer image again - the head/eyes are on a thirds
point. Even though some of the body had to be cropped out as we
were close-in - it doesn't matter as your eyes are drawn to the
focal point of the image.