Ideas for Composition in
Nature Photography

Text and photos by Jon Hill, May 2004
Return to Articles Page

You've probably heard that people use one side of their brain more than the other and that one side is more artistic while the other is more analytical or technical. Photography can be challenging for either type of person, because it requires both types of thinking. I am more technically-minded, but as a grow older I find myself appreciating the artistic more and more, perhaps because it is a challenge for me personally to express ideas artistically.

Fortunately, great minds in the past have thought analytically about art and have summarized some ideas that can help the techies move toward making art that others will appreciate. This article will draw on those ideas, add some of my own thoughts, and give examples of photos that illustrate some of these so-called "rules of composition". If you practice these, they will become second-nature and you will have acquired an "eye" for good composition.

1) Look for new points of view. Many eye-catching photos are made when someone sees something in a way most people do not. Most people do not look up at flowers. Most people do not look down on clouds. Most people do not look at an elephant face from 3 feet away. Wide-angle and telephoto lenses can help photographers alter perspective and apparent points of view. That shot of the elephant can be made much more safely from 30 feet using a good telephoto, and still alter the point of view enough to be eye-catching. The other way to alter point of view is to move the camera. Lie down on the ground. Climb a mountain, or even just climb your car. Look at things in new ways.

2) Simplify. Often the most effective images have only a few elements. Put too much in your photo and viewers aren't sure what you are try to convey or even what your picture's main subject is.

3) Don't center your subject. There is an idea called the "Rule of Thirds". It says that important parts of a painting or photograph should fall along imaginary lines that divide the image into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Placing important objects at the intersections of these lines is good too. Horizons, natural lines, important points (like eyes), and main subjects all will benefit from being put in these locations. If you have a hard time remembering to do this when taking the photograph, you can still practice doing it afterward. Crop your photos (either using a computer, by trimming your prints with scissors, or masking parts of your slides) and see the improvement. Below is a photo that I took , trying to put the cacti on rules of thirds, but the main subject is the mockingbird, so I think the cropped version that enlarges the bird and puts it off-center is better.

4) Try to show depth. Photographs are 2-dimensional representations of 3-dimensional objects. Many of my favorite photos convey a sense of depth well. There are a few ways to try to acheive this illusion in a 2-D piece of art.

- Selective focus. Show out of focus foreground and/or background items with your main subject sharp. This is great for photos of individual flowers and animals. Putting the backgorund out of focus conveys depth and simplifies your photo so the subject stands out. To acheive this, you need a wide aperture, i.e. low f-number.





- Converging lines. Try to show lines that converge and join in the distance, like two banks of a river. People know that river banks are more or less parallel to each other so if they see them converging, their brains automatically assume great distance. This affect can be acheived with tree trunks, beaches, the glint of sunlight on water, and many other linear features.

- Boldly include foreground and distant objects. I like this technique in landscapes. This technique is sometimes easier to accomplish with the camera held vertically. To acheive this with both close and distant subjects in sharp focus, you need a small aperture setting (high f-number) and often the aid of a tripod.

5) Look for repeating patterns. Even in nature, you can find these. Drawing attention to patterns makes people see things they might not have noticed before. Even better, if you can show a pattern and an interruption of it, then you can draw special attention to the interruption.




6) Try to include curves, diagonals, and triangles. These contrast against the overall shape of the photograph (typically rectangular or square and level to the world) and can get someone to look at your photograph twice.




7) Show symmetry. Most people do not see nature as having much order, but more random. Letting them see that symmetry exists in nature can make your photograph more interesting because of the revelation the viewer has. Good examples of symmetry can be seen in reflections and leaf patterns.




8) Frame your subject. Put your subject in its surroundings. Choose other objects that lead the eye to the main subject.






9) Try to show motion. Of course this is easier with a video-camera, but that's the point. If you can show motion in a motionless form, then people are fascinated by it. It's like you have frozen time. Sometimes this is best shown by showing something the viewer knows is moving in sharp focus, with time seemingly suspended. The new cinematic techniques shown in the Matrix movies are so successful because they freeze motion in a way people have never seen. Sometimes the best way to show motion is with "motion blur", either of the main subject (by holding the camera still and slowing the shutter speed) or of the background (by panning with the subject and using a slow shutter speed.) The first way is easier. Panning takes practice and even the best practitioners throw out most of their panning shots.




10) Use contrast effectively. Show your light-toned subject on a dark background. Show your dark subject on a light background. Look at the well-lit and silhouetted sides of things. These so-called "High Key - Low Key" techniques are well-known in all areas of photography but especially portraiture. They can be applied very effectively in nature photography, but of all these rules, this is the one I break most often. I often like to show my subject blending with their surrounding in terms of tone and/or color, using selective focus to make them stand out. Finding contrasts in color while keeping overall light/dark contrast low can also be effective. The sunrise uses light/dark contrast while the honeycreeper below uses color and focus contrasts.


Final Thoughts:
A common theme in all of these ideas for compostion is this: Show people what they haven't seen before. This means you have to see differently than you have seen before too. This means you have to see experimentally. That is a big part of the fun and addiction of making photographs. Also remember these are just ideas. Many great photographs break these rules blatantly, and sometimes that is the point. Use these ideas until they are natural for you, then stop actively thinking about them and let your trained eye make the decisions for you.


All images in this site are copyrighted. Do not copy or use without permission.