How to build a Photography Composition around your Subject
When I’m teaching, I get more questions about nature photography composition than just about any other subject. But most of the time, my students don’t realize they are asking about photography composition. They often assume that following the Rules of Composition will make a photo more appealing. Knowing the rules is certainly important. However, photography is an art form. And just like any other art form, simply following the rules is not enough to create visual impact with your nature photography.
You need to find the beauty in the scene before you and present it in your own way. The best way to do this is to build a photo around your nature photography subject. Creating a visual impact with your nature photography requires you to choose your subject. Using compositional elements in the scene complements your subject. Here are some examples of compositional elements that you can use to make your subject stand out.
Natural Leading Lines
When I am planning a nature photography composition, I constantly think about leading the eye. How can I make sure that my viewer is noticing the most important elements in my image? How can I keep my viewer’s eye from jumping around in the frame.
Leading lines might be the most obvious compositional element to lead the eye – and you shouldn’t ignore them. I am always looking for leading lines to help point my viewers in the right direction. Leading lines in nature can be created by number of different elements. In the example above I used slow shutter speed and flow of the water to capture the leading lines to lead the viewer through the photo.
Photography Composition with Selective Focus
This certainly isn’t the only compositional element to get your viewer to focus on your point of interest! If you want your viewer to focus on something specific, why not let everything else go blurry?
That’s what I’ve done with this shot of a hanging flower from Costa Rica (Image #1) using selective focus and narrow DOF. Your eye won’t rest for long on the smooth background simply because there isn’t much visual information to collect from that area of the image. Your eyes wants to focus on something – that’s what they do all day long, every day. It comes naturally to us – and I can use that basic human instinct to direct your attention where I want it. When I used a wider aperture to capture the same subject (Image #2), the unappealing details in the background ended up reducing visual impact.
Color in Nature Photography
Contrast is an important part of nature photography composition – but I’m not just talking about tonal contrast. This is exactly what Jay did in the photo below from Yellowstone National Park. In this case, Jay is using color contrast to point the viewer toward the single magenta flowers that form the foreground in his image. Everything else in the image surrounding the magenta flower is green, so the small magenta flower stands out because it is different.
We often use colors to define the mood of our photos. It is important to realize that colors are not only impacted by the light, weather, and exposure parameters but they are also impacted by post processing.
Size in Photography Composition
In this case, I’m creating impact with my nature photography by using contrast in size – and tone. Most people focus their attention on the largest and brightest of these salt crystals. Why? Because that’s the one that stands out. But why does it stand out? Our minds are wired to notice differences and similarities in everything we see – we are masters at categorization. I deliberately chose this nature photography composition to include just one larger crystal.
But wait… there is actually another large crystal in this shot, but people rarely notice it unless they are looking carefully. Why not? It’s not as bright or as well-defined as the other large crystal at the bottom left. So, the largest and the brightest gets the most attention in my photography composition. I reason I can get away by adding that other large crystal in my shot is because it didn’t have the same visual impact as the one I chose as the point of interest.
Contrast of Form & Textures
As you may have guessed, creating impact with form and textures in nature photography also involves contrast. But this time, we’re talking about contrast of form. Monochromatic or Black and White nature photography present some of the best examples to highlight the contrast of the form and textures.
In the nature photography composition above (Image #1), the stripes on the side of the mountain in the Grand Staircase Escalante Monument in Utah form a clearly defined pattern. The small hood, on the other hand, is an obvious break in the pattern – and so it gets your attention even though the colors and tonality of the hood are similar to its surroundings.
In the monochromatic macro photo (Image #2) of a rose, the water droplet stands out from its surrounding because it has more defined structure. Difference in structure also makes the leading line that is pointing to the water droplet stand out in this nature photography composition.
Consider these ideas as you work with your camera the next time you want to create impact with your nature photography composition. Use the compositional elements like leading lines, colors, contrast, shape, and more to build a photo around your subject. But you can’t stop there! The best nature photographers are the ones who pay just as much attention to what they don’t want in their frame. Because it’s not just about what you see through your viewfinder. It’s about what you want your viewer to see in your finished nature photography composition.
Nature photography composition is about so much more than most of my students realize. To create visual impact with your nature photography composition, you need to go beyond the rules of composition. That’s why we created our new Creating Impact for Nature Photography Tutorial. I wanted to share more than the basic rules. I wanted to push way beyond the standard teaching of photography composition – which is so often glossed over or dismissed as beginner fare.
How can you use compositional elements such as leading lines and contrast to create visual interest? Do you have suggestions for leading the eye? Feel free to share in the comments below.
Check out the following tutorials on Visual Wilderness: