Composition and Wildlife Photography – Greg McCall-Peat

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In photography, composition refers to the structure, organization, and visual characteristics of the elements in your photograph. Compositions can be complex, powerful, boring, moody, uplifting, and a plethora of other adjectives. When you hear photographers refer to the composition of a photograph, likely they are talking about things like subject placement, lighting, colour, lines, space, balance, and more.

Although composition is one of the most important aspects when it comes to photography it is also one of the most difficult things to master, especially in wildlife photography when your subject doesn’t always behave how you want it to, or in the heat of the moment you forget to place your subject correctly and end up cutting of a tail or an ear ruining a potentially fantastic photograph.

The beauty of understanding composition guidelines is that when you want to experiment and try something new, if you build on solid, proven guidelines, success is already on your side. You can pass beyond those “compositionally sound but nothing special” photographs that everyone else is making and create images that nobody has ever seen, images that are compositionally solid and technically perfect. Those are the kinds of images that make people stand up and take notice, regardless of your specialty. Push the boundaries of technique and creativity in your photography and start creating images instead of recording nature.

So what are the DOs and DON’Ts when it comes to composition and how can you use them to improve on your photography? Where and how do you go about correctly placing your subject in your frame? In this day and age thanks to post processing this can be done after the image has been taken thanks to cropping, but as you learn and improve your skills it is easy enough to do this in camera while you are in the moment. There are so many things to consider and therefore this is probably the most important part of composition, in the following images I will show examples of the correct and incorrect ways to place your subject and how this adds or detracts from the impact of your photograph.

 

THE RULE OF THIRDS:
If you imagine a grid super-imposed over your image this will help you place your subject correctly in the frame. Every photographer has heard of the “Rule of thirds” and this grid breaks your image into thirds for you, both in portrait and landscape it works the same way. As a rule I try to get my subjects eyes as close to one of the lines as possible therefore ensuring that my subject has enough space to fit into the frame.

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ALLOW SPACE FOR MOVEMENT:
Don’t rush taking your image, have an idea in your mind of the photo you want to get and try position your subject accordingly. Although I have the full giraffe in my frame, I have left no space for “movement” and in a photograph although it’s a still image you want to be able to create a story for an observer when they look at your image, in this case the giraffe was finishing drinking and busy standing up and I left no space for the upward motion of the giraffes neck. You simply need to envision the end result and if your image were to be able to accommodate that without actually doing it. If I had used less area at the bottom of my image and more above the giraffe I would have achieved this and the image would have worked better.

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In the comparison below you can see how I have left enough space for my subjects “movement”, as the leopard walks the negative space left in front of it gives the leopard space to walk into and through the frame rather than cutting that part of my story within my image out, which you see in the picture on the right, although I have the full leopard in frame in amazing light the image seems lifeless and missing something.

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FILLING THE FRAME:
The only time I want the centre of my image to be the focus point is when my subject fills the frame and I have eye contact. When a subject fills the frame there are no distractions to pull the eye away from what you wanting your photograph to show and the intensity of eye the eye contact is enhanced by the central focal point of the image.

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CREATE THOUGHT PROVOKING IMAGES:
Placement and positioning of your subject can also provoke thought, making your image almost come alive and make a story as you wonder what the subject may be doing, in this case is the lioness hunting and looking at potential prey or is it the sound of her pride members nearby that has her attention. This allows people to really engage with your image rather than just looking at it and moving on to the next image.

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USE THE ENVIRONMENT:
When composing an image its often nice to incorporate the environment into your image to show off the habitat in which your subject lives, this also tells a story and adds interest to your photograph. Although this distracts from your subject somewhat it also adds to the story you are wanting to tell with your image. But again placement of your subject is key and don’t slap your subject in the centre, be sure to place it off to one side and incorporate as much of the environment as possible if that is what you are going for.

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GET DOWN TO EYE LEVEL:
When it comes to wildlife photography and composition you want to get the most natural looking images that you can. Often photography is done from a vehicle giving the photographer a much higher vantage point, this isn’t ideal as your angle of shooting is from slightly above your subject, you ultimately want to get as low as you can, so when the opportunity arises; like when your subject is on a mound, in a tree or up on a river bank, take it! A lower angle not only creates a more natural image but being on the same level especially with the larger animals emphasises their size and can make for a very powerful image.

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LINES IN NATURE:
In nature there are very few straight lines, however some times you find yourself in a situation where there are lines that you have to contend with. Always make sure that they are level with your frame. This can be fixed in post processing but I always say that the less processing that is done to an image the better.

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The below image shows that if your image isn’t straight and lines don’t match up it can actually distract from your subject.

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At the end of the day, when it comes to how you should compose your images think out of the box rather than sticking to any rules, the guidelines I have laid down here are just that…guidelines, use them but also expand on them to capture images that are different and that stand out in a crowd.

Greg McCall-Peat

Sigma South Africa Ambassador

“Greg McCall-Peat grew up coming out to the bush and from a young age knew that it was the place for him to be, soon after leaving high school he sought out his future in the game lodge industry. After realizing his dream and through many years of living and working at various lodges as a field guide Greg developed his passion for wildlife photography. With 13 years of experience behind him, his keen knowledge on animals and their behavior allows him to capture the full essence of his wildlife subjects in all their glory.”