In the Field

Wildlife Photography Composition

wildlife photography composition

As with any genre of photography, composing the shot before you actually take it is an important skill to learn, and it’s one that takes study and ongoing practice. With wildlife photography, however, sometimes one only has a matter of seconds to compose and capture an image. Developing and exercising what’s known as compositional awareness is a critical skill for success. Compositional awareness begins with first being attentive to the basics of photography composition in general, such optimal lighting, a good background and foreground, having a sense of aspect ratio, and utilizing the rule of thirds. One should also pay attention to the depth of field, the possible angles you could utilize for the shot, the horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines that other objects in the frame can create, and to especially be aware of the overall sense of visual flow.

When discerning a potential composition, ask yourself, “What is it that will initially draw the viewer into my photograph? Are there distractions that interrupt the flow? What’s the story, emotion, or the message I’m trying to convey? What unseen conceptual effect do you wish to create? Etc.” Being well aware of all these elements before you press the shutter release will greatly improve your skill and the overall quality of your work as a photographer.

wildlife photography composition tips
Exercising compositional awareness and sizing up the potential of a scene before your photoshoot will greatly improve the quality of your work.

While being attentive to this concept of compositional awareness, let’s walk through the actual process of composing a wildlife image. First, before you even leave the house, spend some time jotting down a list of specific images you’d like to capture, such as certain poses or behaviors, and keep that list with you in the field for reference. Conscious, prior preparation will greatly help you focus more intently while on your photo-shoot and help you to react much faster when the magic happens, as you’ll know ahead of time exactly what you’re looking for.

Secondly, when you arrive at your shooting location, make it a top priority to immediately pick out features in the landscape that would make great compositional elements for a potential photograph. Be attentive to what the light is doing now, and also what it will be doing in the immediate future. Pay attention to possible changes in the weather, which can also be a fantastic compositional element. Run through any and all possible scenarios of what may happen on your shoot, and be ready to capture those scenarios at a moment’s notice.

Additionally, try to create movement, personality, intimacy, and other characteristics by means of how you set up for and compose a shot before an animal even shows up on the scene. Have your camera and tripod at the ready, facing in the right direction, at the right height, pre-focused on the exact area you intend to photograph the animal. And, when your subject does make an appearance, try to get in sync with its movements, anticipating what it will do, where it will go, etc. Get in the animal’s mind, so to speak. Strive to develop an instinct about what’s going to happen, and get ready to capture it all with your camera.

This is where quality time spent just watching and studying wildlife in their natural habitat really pays off, as you’ll be able to anticipate what an animal is going to do before they do, giving you those critical last few moments of preparation for the shot. The more familiar you get with the physicality and behavior of your intended subject, the more you’ll be able to consciously capture that perfect image, instead of just firing away and hoping that maybe one or two of your images will be a keeper.

wildlife photography composition tips
Get as familiar as you can with your subject before a photo-shoot. Quality time spent watching and studying wildlife will pay off big!

As an example, the Kodiak brown bear image above is one that I waited for days to capture. That huge boulder in the photo was right along an actively used bear trail which I thought was a great compositional element. I wanted so desperately to get a photo of a big bear up on top of it, looking around like the king of the mountain, but neither the bear nor Mother Nature was cooperating. Many times when the bear came by the lighting was totally wrong. And, almost every day when that same bear came wandering up and down the trail, he would always go around the boulder, instead of over it.

I’d been mentally preparing myself for the perfect scenario to photograph that bear, planning out the exact composition I wanted to put together well before it actually happened…if it was to happen at all. Thankfully, it finally did! On a bright, sunny, late afternoon, that bear came by for his usual inspection. Upon noticing him while he was still far away, I got ready for the shot, knowing exactly the route he was traveling. As he got closer, I ran through my compositional checklist, hoping that today would be the day he cooperated. As he closed in on the boulder, he paused, looked it up and down, and then hopped up on top of it for the perfect shot! It was as if he could read my mind. He stood there on top the boulder for a few minutes, looked around, hit some great poses, and then went on his way.

 

Composition Styles: Inclusion and Isolation

When thinking about possible wildlife photography compositions, try to think in terms of two polar opposites: inclusion and isolation. Let’s first talk about inclusion. Watching wildlife peacefully enjoying their home is an emotionally stirring sight to behold, as we humans also strive for such moments of tranquility. Many animals live in incredibly beautiful places! Their habitat can be filled with snowcapped mountain peaks, bountiful rivers, lush forests, grassy meadows and a variety of other stunning landscape features. Using your finely-tuned sense of compositional awareness, make it a point to include as many of those attractive features of a wild animal’s habit in your composition as you can. Again, if possible, spend some time preparing for and composing potential shots long before an animal is even on the scene. This conscious, prior preparation will pay off big when the magic happens.

wildlife photography composition tips
A bull elk in the mountains! A nice example of an “inclusion” composition.

On the other side of the compositional spectrum are images of isolation. Sometimes a particular location where wildlife live might not be so ideal or scenic. Perhaps the area is not conducive to good lighting, or the landscape is rather barren or featureless. In such circumstances, it’s beneficial to focus on capturing more isolated images of animals. Think of it as wildlife portrait photography. Try to capture the definitive character of the animal with little emphasis on the background.

wildlife photography composition tips
An example of a more “isolated” composition of a bull elk.

 

Extreme Close-ups

 Extreme close-up photography are those more isolated images taken to, well, the extreme! Over the years when I’ve shared extreme close-up images of bears, such as the ones featured below, the reaction is always much the same. People think I’m totally insane and that I’m about to die! It’s certainly true, close-up images of bears and other potentially dangerous animals can cause instant reactions of terror, as being seemingly that close to such a creature is indeed a tremendously foreboding experience! Such photos can be perceived as an unwelcome intrusion into an animal’s personal space, almost as if one is crossing a sacred barrier, looking into and capturing the animal’s very soul! The intimacy of such in-your-face images is no doubt very provocative in many ways.

wildlife photography composition tips
In reality, extreme close-up images are not always as “extreme” or “close-up” as they may seem.

While extreme, close-up images can seem both frightening and disrespectfully close to many viewers, the reality, however, is something quite different. Truth be told, in most of my close-up photos, I was so far away that the bear had no idea I was photographing it. This is a topic I’ve written extensively on and done many videos about, and it’s also why I start every bear video I do with a word of caution about the VITAL IMPORTANCE of safely and respectfully capturing images of bears. When photographing potentially dangerous animals one must always use a zoom lens of significant power, maintain a safe distance, and make it a point to have a natural or man-made barrier between oneself and the animal. Precautions such as these are an absolute necessity in keeping both you and the animals safe and comfortable.

Keep in mind though, extreme close-up images of bears and other potentially dangerous animals don’t necessarily have to invoke a sense of fear, and really, they shouldn’t. Most of the close-ups I try to capture are of the different physical features of the animal, such as facial characteristics and things that most people simply never get a good look at. Close-up photography can be used to capture the beautiful, expressiveness of animals instead of the ferocious beast within. No matter the case though, an important practice to get in the habit of when displaying your close-up work is to let people know that you got those images in a safe, respectful manner. Unfortunately, there have been cases of not-so-experienced photographers getting mauled or even killed by trying to photograph dangerous animals in an inappropriate manner and at way too close of a distance.

 

Action Shots

Another compositional style to implement in your wildlife photography work is that of action shots. Many wild animals can tend to appear rather lazy much of time in their natural habitats and that’s because they do all they can to preserve their hard-earned calories which they need for survival and don’t waste their precious energy reserves needlessly. However, many of those same animals that appear slow and lazy can move lightning fast when they need to or want to!

For example, bears are often seen casually lumbering about to and fro, sitting around in the tall grass doing nothing, or even sleeping away much of the day. However, they can also run in a dead sprint up to 35 miles per hour, and even higher! They can chase down and tackle animals like caribou with the tenacity of an NFL superstar! When startled or threatened, they can violently lash out in an instant, like a savage uppercut from Mike Tyson! Capturing the fast-paced action and behavior of any wild animal is incredibly exciting and can produce awesome photos!

A Kodiak bear charging a pool of salmon
A bear charging a pool of salmon makes for great wildlife action photos!

When shooting action shots of wildlife, it helps to wear the hat of a sports photographer…creatively and technically speaking. There are some basic shooting principles to apply that one should be aware of. First and foremost, as with most all of your wildlife photography efforts, one will need a good long lens and the ability to stay in the moment and shoot fast. A 300 mm lens is a good place to start, but naturally, an even larger one will get you in much closer to the action. And, to stay in the action as much as possible, try to avoid “chimping” when you’re engaged in any kind of fast-moving photo shoot. If you are unfamiliar with the term “chimping,” it refers to the constant looking down at the LCD screen on your camera to examine an image after each shot you take. Doing so will be a major distraction and will quite possibly result in missing out on some rare opportunities. There’s plenty of time later to have a good, long look at all your photos when you get home, so make it a point to stay alert and focused on shooting.

As with all your photography efforts, making it a point to experiment ahead of time with your particular camera gear is the most productive way to find out what exact settings will work the best for you when shooting fast wildlife action. But as a rule of thumb, the faster the action, the faster your camera settings will need to be, which translates into high ISO and fast shutter speeds. How fast? If your images are coming out blurry and dull, crank up the ISO and shutter speed settings all the more until you get the results you are looking for. On the other hand though, sometimes a blurred effect is desirable to express fast motion. In that case, cut your shutter speed in half, or perhaps even more, to create a “blurred motion” image. Again, experimentation and further study with your particular camera and lenses will help prepare you to make the most of your time in the field.

Another important point to consider with photographing high energy wildlife action is to pay extra attention to how you compose, frame, and later crop the shot. Strive to create a sense of motion, atmosphere, and energy by giving your primary subject room enough to carry out the action they are performing. For example, if you are shooting a bear charging after some fish, frame (or later crop) the shot so your audience can get a good look at the bear, as well as the area that contains his immediate target. Pull your viewer into the image with a good sense of visual flow. Action wildlife photography is not just about getting great high-intensity shots though. There’s a lot of slower moving drama, both before and after those fast-moving sequences, which a good photographer should seek out just as much as those high energy moments.

So to quickly wrap things up, implementing these various compositional styles with your wildlife photography effort will add variety to the images you capture of your subjects, as well as give you some compositional and creative goals before you even get out on a photo shoot.

To see more photos, check out the video version of this blog article. Click here for Part 1 and click here for Part 2.

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