The Little Owl above was chosen by BBC Wildlife magazines website to head their Birdwatching section. So out of the thousands of images they have why does a shot like this get chosen? We’ve already talked about exposure, sharpness and camera settings to capture a good shot but the thing that can set your images apart from the rest is composition. Lets look at some of the basics.
When we take a shot we try to follow a few simple rules. One of the key ones is the rules of thirds.
The grid above represents this rule. Imagine your shot split into the nine sections. What you are looking to do is to put your point of interest on one of these lines. Lets look at the shot below of the Waxwing.
Now lets add the grid.
You can see now the subject sits nicely on the thirds with the head on one of the crossovers. This makes for a much more interesting image to look at and also gives the subject space to look into. We can apply the same rule to portrait shots too. Here’s one of a Coot.
Again let’s apply the grid.
Again the subject is nicely in the third and by positioning it at the top of the frame we have given it some room to move into.
You’ll notice with all the above shots the birds are only around 1/4 to a 1/3 of the image. Don’t worry about filling the frame with the subject. If you follow the rules you don’t need your subject to be any bigger than this. You may on occasions though want to fill the frame with your subject. Maybe something like this.
For a shot like this I’ve chosen to put the head in the centre of the image. This gives maximum impact and draws the viewers eye straight away. You can apply the same rule if you’re doing a head shot.
Again to maximise the impact the head is in the centre. You could have the head a little higher if you like to put it on the thirds, both would work fine.
Another important aspect of composition is perspective. This is the angle at which you take the shot. The most important rule as far as perspective is concerned with wildlife photography is to capture you’re subject at eye level. This can mean having to get down low but the efforts are worth it. Take a look at this female Tufted.
As you can see we’ve had to get down and dirty in the mud for this but the efforts were worth it. We’ve got right down to eye level which has given us a nice recession into the shot and put the viewer in the water with the bird. A shot like this will have far more impact than one taken looking down on your subject. Of course you don’t always have to get so low.
A nice head high flower saves the knees (and the laundry) but whatever the subject eye level works best, even if it’s just the flower.
OK, so lets look at some more things that can help improve your shots. Something that might not always be possible but can help an image alot is a nice clean background. Take this shot of a Comma Butterfly.
The butterflies were flitting around these Thistles so I deliberately chose one with nothing behind it other than the field and sat and waited. Eventually the Comma came and sat on my plant and I got the shot. Wildlife photography can be a bit like this. A bit of thought and a lot of patience can pay dividends. I’ve ended up with a shot that has no distractions and shows the Comma perfectly. This isn’t always possible but if you are deliberately going out to shoot a specific subject it’s something you need to think about when planning your shot. Another important aspect is light. Ideally you want to be positioned with the sun somewhere behind you or slightly to the side.
Having the sun in this position will ensure you’ve got no unwanted shadows on your subject and will give a nice catchlight in the eyes. You can also use the sun coming directly from the left or right.
This can create some nice shadows and add a nice contrast to your shots. A more advanced technique is to shoot directly into the sun. You’ll need to manually set your cameras exposure for the brightest light but the results can be very interesting.
All of the above rely on bright sunny days but being in good old blighty we sometimes don’t get that many. Don’t despair though. Some subject benefit from duller days. If you’ve got a particularly dark subject it can be advantageous to capture these on a dull day to reduce the contrast to a level your camera can easily cope with. Take this Jackdaw for example. Very difficult to do on a bright day but much easier when it’s a bit duller.
All of the above have been taken with fairly static subjects. But what do we do if the subjects moving. We can tackle this in a couple of different ways. We can either use a high shutter speed to freeze the action.
Or why not try using a slow shutter speed to capture the movement. You can either keep the camera still and let your subject move.
Or you can follow the subject with the camera. This is called panning and does take a bit of practise. Here’s an example from Shipley Park.
You mean you didn’t know there were Lions in Shipley Park!!!
The two shots above show how we can start to make our images more into visual art than simple record shots. It’s always worth looking for opportunities to do this. Try to capture something a bit different if you can. I like the abstract qualities of this shot.
Silhouette shots can also create interesting images. You need a strong subject for this though and Red Deer are perfect. Just set your camera to expose for the sky and you’ll get some great results.
Look for opportunities to make your shots interesting. Take this shot of a Grey Heron.
It’s a great record shot but with a little thought and you can turn it into something a little more interesting.
The reflections in the water add texture and make the shot more interesting.
If you’re lucky enough to get the chance try and capture images that tell a bit of a story. It’s not hard to imagine what’s happening here.
And you don’t need to go as far as Shipley Park to capture the thrill of the hunt.
Kirk Hallam’s just as good!!
Finally lets look at what you can do after you’ve taken the shot. Cropping your image can create an interesting image. Take this shot of a Common Tern.
I’ve removed all the empty sky around the Tern and given it lots of room to fly into. It’s made a really interesting shot. This style of crop is called a letterbox crop. You can also use a square crop to add impact to your subject, as with this Blue Tit below.
So there you have it. Some of the basics of composition and how a bit of careful planning can help lift your shots from simple snaps to something others will enjoy viewing.
I hope the series has been some use and I hope it’s inspired some to dust there cameras of and get snapping. The beauty of modern photography is the fact it costs nothing to take a shot and view it. Why not get out there, enjoy some of the wonders nature has to offer and just maybe you’ll be lucky enough to get that winning shot.
All the best!!