Four Ways to Compose Wildlife Images for Maximum Impact

Four Ways to Compose Wildlife Images for Maximum Impact

It's very difficult to stand out from the crowd as a wildlife photographer. It's a genre where one can go overboard with creative editing quite quickly. Many would say not to get creative with wildlife editing at all — that wildlife imagery should be an accurate representation of the animal and its environment. So, how does one create an image that stands out from the crowd? 

Wildlife photography is a numbers game. It requires passion, skill, a serious amount of perseverance, and a bit of luck. When we do find ourselves in the right position at the right time, our reflexes must be fast — if we don't nail the shot within a few seconds, the moment is gone forever. This is where knowing your camera settings and functions inside and out is imperative. But after building up and strengthening our technical know-how, we then need to use those honed reflexes to our advantage. It is only when our settings become second nature that we can start to truly express ourselves. So, how does a wildlife photographer express themselves?

Wildlife photographers cannot use gels, bounce cards, or 10-stop ND filters; we need to solely rely on the fundamentals of the craft in order to create images that stand out: light, shadow, color, contrast. Once you understand these, knowledge of your subject is integral to being able to put yourself in the right place. If you don't know the basic behavioral qualities of an animal that you wish to photograph, you may as well stay inside. There is a lot of trial and error to begin with, but this is where perseverance really pays off. After these fundamentals, we need to understand how to arrange them within the frame, how to compose them. I hope the next few paragraphs will guide you in the right direction.

Isolation is Evocative

One of the most effective ways to create visual impact is to isolate the subject from its surroundings, and there are a few ways that this can be achieved.

Silhouette

silhouette of an African hornbill bird against a yellow and orange sunset

Yellow-billed hornbill against an African sky.
Technical: Canon 6D at f/4, ISO 250, 1/3200 sec, 300mm.

Who doesn't love a good silhouette? It's bold and graphic — the extremes of contrast being played against each other have a way of imprinting on the mind. The obvious outline of an animal forces our brain to fill in the blanks. Our acquired knowledge is harvested by firing synapses. But is the image that manifests in our head accurate, or does the mind romanticize, as it so often does? I would argue that it is our job to create awe in others, so maybe giving people a romantic view of nature is an effective way of getting people to engage with it.

Anti-Silhouette 

African flycatcher perched on a branch against a dark background

Ashey flycatcher against a dark background.
Technical: Canon 6D Mark II at f/6.3, ISO 640, 1/640 sec, 600mm

Nothing makes an animal pop like putting it in front of a much darker background. For birds especially, it is important to have them lit nearly straight on, because direct sunlight will reveal all the glorious texture of a bird's feathers that ambient light or side light can't. And because of the nature of many bird species, they will often perch at the edge of a hedge or low canopy, thus providing a perfect opportunity for a lovely dark background. This isn't gospel though, as the variation in tone and color on some birds can be so extreme that direct light might cause some parts to become overexposed or underexposed (clipping). Again, this is where your research comes into play.

Depth of Field and Foreground

wading bird on the sandy coast at low tide during sunrise

Eurasian curlew in the morning light, with exposed seaweed in the foreground.
Technical: Canon 6D Mark II at f/8, ISO 1250, 1/1000 sec, 600mm.

One of my favorite ways to simplify a scene and isolate my subject is to use a shallow depth of field while overemphasizing the foreground. It doesn't just make the animal stand out, but can add a sense of place for the viewer. In my shot of the Curlew above, I used the seaweed in front of me while focusing on the bird. The close proximity of the the brown seaweed — indicative of a wading bird's habitat — caused it to be extremely out of focus. Looking at it now, I could have possibly given it a little more texture by narrowing my aperture — increasing f-stop and thus, increasing my depth of field —  as I find it is maybe a tad muddy looking. If I had not used this method, the bird would be lost among all the scattered pieces of seaweed, pebbles, and specular highlights on the water. This, of course, can be done in other habitats, for instance, a grassy field or sand dunes.

Color Contrast

Grey African bird perched on a branch against a green background

Grey Go Away Bird against a lush green background.
Technical: Canon 6D at f/5.6, ISO 320, 1/400 sec, 200mm.

This is perhaps the most instantaneously eye-catching method on the list. Using color to create contrast, as opposed to just highlights and shadows, has great potential for eliciting a "wow!" from the viewer. Color affects our mood in subtle ways, so understanding complementary and contrasting colors and how they interact with each other can elevate a good image to a great image. Just imagine the Grey Go Away Bird above in a brown bush. Yes, it might still be a pleasant image to look at, with the browns playing off of the grey, but the verdant green adds life to the image, makes it feel more invigorating. Using a relatively shallow depth of field with a distant background helps to isolate the bird even further.

Experiment

Take what you've learned from this to go out to experiment with different backgrounds and foregrounds. You don't even need to have an animal in the frame; just focus on a branch using shallow depth of field to see how the backgrounds turn out. Try varying distances between the subject of focus and the background. Do the same with foregrounds. My advice would be to also try foregrounds with flowers in them. Those little out of focus flowers can add nice splashes of color, making for a more dynamic image, but be careful not to distract from your subject. Like with the seaweed and the curlew, choosing the right foreground — with species of plants common to the animal's habitat — can really help to tell a story. Those extra details can make for special images.

Did you find these tips helpful? Do you have any examples of your own work that you would like to share? Please let us know in the comments below.   

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3 Comments

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

Could have been titled "basic subject-emphasizing tools".

EL PIC's picture

If you wear a costume suit of the animal you are shooting .. like the zebra .. they will look at you in a weird way.
Caution : Do not do this in mating season unless you are real kinky.