Monday, 17 January 2011

Technical tip #2 - Composition

After a week of poor weather and a dose of man 'flu there are no new images from me this week. Instead I thought I would share a few thoughts on composition.

The importance of composition

As photographers we want to create images that not only please us but please other people - be it a 'thumbs up' on a web site gallery, acceptance for publication or even someone purchasing one of our photographs. Just to be clear, composition is all about getting it right in camera and, whilst I'm competent enough in Photoshop to perform any number of manipulations I'd much rather not have the bother. Image processing in Photoshop for me is all about enhancing my images rather than fixing them. I've got to a point now where I rarely do any more that levels (possibly curves), cropping and a hint of sharpening - life's too short to be spending large portions of it at the computer.


Composition is as important in photography as exposure and focusing - get all three right and you'll have great images - and it starts before we even leave the house. Below is a kind of mental checklist that I use when planning a bird photography trip.

  • What is my target species and/or location?
  • What is the wind speed and direction? Birds will always take off into the wind and prefer to feed facing into the wind. For example, if the wind is in my face and I'm are trying to photograph waders I may struggle to get anything other than rear-end shots
  • What is the best time of day to go in terms of lighting? Sitting in the Scott hide at Dungeness RSPB first thing in the morning will be straight into the sun, with reflections off the water to contend with too
  • What are the tide times? If I go to a pool near the coast whilst the tide is fully out will the birds be out on the mudflats too? Just before and after high tide will be good times if I want to capture birds in flight as they move from the mud flats to fresh water pools
  • If I am photographing birds in a semi-controlled environment (e.g. back garden) have I done the best to arrange any feeders/perches in their optimal configuration/orientation?
One of the key elements of composition that is often ignored when starting out is backgrounds. There may be times when we want to show the animal in its natural environment or we may wish to fully isolate it as a portrait with a totally diffuse background - or maybe somewhere in between.

In its natural environment, surrounded by grasses and semi-diffuse buttercups, the hare, side on munching on grass [Elmley RSPB taken from car window]
Red-backed shrike (juv) with fully diffuse background  - a portrait of the species. Note the complementary colour of the background too (natural shingle). [Dungeness RSPB]

With the effective depth of field being determined by the lens focal length, aperture and focal distance, we have some level of control as to the degree of focus we have in our backgrounds. We often shoot at wide apertures, say f/4 to f/8 which help to isolate our subject but if we can increase the distance between our subject and the background we can take it further out of focus and leave it more diffuse. This is typically achieved by taking a lower position with your camera as shown in the diagram below.

By shooting from a lower standpoint - camera height [2] - the background will be further from the subject and will be further out of focus and hence appear more diffuse in the image
This american red squirrel photographed by Martin Washford is a excellent example of taking a low standpoint. The background is beautifully diffuse and also, just as importantly, we feel that we are not 'looking down' at the subject but are at its level and in its world.
Getting at eye level with this fox gives a real empathy with the subject [photographed by Martin Washford on a site he was landscaping]
Of course, if you are in a hide or shooting from the car window then you may not be able to get any lower. This is why I prefer not to photography from hides, instead, taking my chances crouching behind bushes or prone on the ground with a beanbag as support.

Ideally you should avoid bright highlights in your image backgrounds as these are very distracting - they should be natural and complementary. Often by moving a few metres from one side or the other it is possible to take a bright reflection out of the background and replace it with a dark, complementary one.

By ensuring a small bush was behind this reed bunting there are no distracting highlights [Oare Marshes]

Typically we shoot with the sun at our backs or from the side but there are occasions when backlit subjects, with the correct exposure, can give something a little different.

Female kestrel with low light from behind and to the right gives a nice fringing to the feathers below the beak [Oare Marshes]

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