Ophrys Photography

Wildlife photography by John Devries, Kent UK. Inspirational images from nature.
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Tips and tutorials - composition 1

Wildlife and nature photography hints and tips

Composition - part 1

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.

1. Viewpoint

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.

Tips and tutorials - composition 2

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 ?

Tips and tutorials - composition 3

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 more natural.

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 out !

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 image.

Tips and tutorials - composition 4

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.

Tips and tutorials - composition 5

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" and works.

Tips and tutorials - composition 6

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.





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