Grimsey Island, Iceland

How to build a photo around your subject

…Continued from How I Approach Composition

One of the best things about going to Iceland during the summer is to be able to photograph the gorgeous puffins. But as you all know, birds are difficult to photograph because you need a really long lens to catch them. In Hawaii, a 200mm lens was long enough to reach the nearby lava flow and build a photo around my subject. But this was not the case in Iceland. My first attempt to photograph the puffins with a 200mm lens on a crop body resulted in images that looked like these.

Grimsey Island, Icelanad

Grimsey Island, Icelanad

The photo follows several rules of composition: the puffin is flying looking into the frame, it’s placed according to the rule of the thirds, it’s a simple image that makes the subject stand out, and I managed to avoided distracting elements in the background. And yet the image fails to create impact.

The main reason for a lackluster response to this image is the fact that the image is NOT built around the subject… rather it was created by only following the rules of composition. You need to step back and ask yourself, “Why do I love to photograph the puffins?” Because the puffins are beautiful birds with colorful beaks and a striking black and white patterns. My longest lens on a crop body failed to capture the features of the puffin that make them so appealing to photograph.

So my next step was to go puffin hunting (with a camera) to capture those striking features. For that to happen, I needed to get up close to them. The only way I could do that with my equipment limitation was to find some puffins sitting on the ground. My attempt resulted in this image.

  • Grimsey Island, Icelanad

    Main subject is competing with the distracting background

  • Grimsey Island, Icelanad

    Clean background, but the main subject is still too far away and the foreground is unappealing (covered with bird poop)

  • Grimsey Island, Icelanad

    Getting close to the subject using the tall grass to conceal my approach

As you can tell, the puffin I was trying to photograph was competing with the background. I needed to find a background that was located further away from the subject that I was trying to photograph. So my next task was to find puffins that were sitting on a rock on a high cliff.

But they would fly away before I had a chance to get close enough to photograph them. Additionally, the foreground was unappealing. This left my image with lots of dead space.

My next step was to use tall grass and other low growing vegetation to conceal my approach. Once I got close to the puffins, I selected the composition to include the vegetation in the foreground to hide the bird poop. And using a shallow DOF, I was able to blur out the foreground so that my subject stood out.

  • Grimsey Island, Iceland

    Using foreground element and shallow DOF to conceal bird poop – Grimsey Island, Iceland

  • Grimsey Island, Iceland

    And I was able to catch him in action as he came back with fish – Grimsey Island, Iceland

As you can see, I built my photo around my subject and selected the compositional elements (foreground vegetation, clean background) around my subject to create impact. Additionally, I followed the rule of thirds and placed the bird so that it is looking into the frame.

This process of building your photograph around your subject is what our new Composition Course is all about. We go beyond the rules of composition by helping you understand how to use different elements of composition (colors, contrast, textures, negative space, and more) to help you focus your viewers’ attention on your subject. You’ll learn how to avoid distracting elements, select the right equipment, and the correct camera settings to accomplish all of this. Our composition course was filmed entirely in Iceland and includes in-depth cases studies that demonstrate how to go about building your photograph around your subject matter.

Furthermore, we’ve partnered with professional photographer Anne McKinnell to bring you Lightroom tutorials for the Composition Course case studies. Anne demonstrates how she uses her streamlined Lightroom workflow to process the images from our Composition course.

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    Composition + Practical Lightroom Bundle

  • Composition Course

    Composition Course

  • Practical Lightroom Vol-1

    Practical Lightroom Vol-1

About Author Jay Patel

I could startoff like this – “Seeds of Jay Patel’s appreciation for beautiful places were planted early in his childhood….” but it would get boring really fast. I will just sum it up and say that I am a Landscape and Wilderness Photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. My photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars and advertising materials throughout the world.

Patience is a virtue...unless you are chasing your dreams

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