10 Wildlife Photography Composition Tips By Kathleen Reeder
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10 Wildlife Photography Composition Tips By Kathleen Reeder

October 23, 2019


Hi, Kathleen Reeder here to give you 10 wildlife photography compositional tips The first tip is above all else make sure that the eyes of your subject are tack sharp whether it’s the eye that’s closest to you or both eyes. And you’ll want to leverage the autofocus function your camera in order to do this. You want to place the focus point whether it’s a spot single or a small number of points on the eyes or on the head of the subject. The second tip is to position yourself at the subjects eye level. Whenever you can you want to be right at their eye level and typically that’s being low to the ground. When you’re on safari or in a vehicle, the farther away you are from the subject, the more it gives the illusion of being at eye level. So you want to look for opportunities where you’re either at eye level or below your subject to make you feel make the viewer feel that they’re there experiencing with you what it’s like to be with that animal. The third tip is that the simpler the composition the more visual impact will be placed on the subject. So you want to eliminate distractions in the frame to put most of the emphasis on your subjects. Do what’s called a perimeter check look around your entire composition. You don’t want anything to be sharper or brighter or in any way more attractive or colorful than the main subject. Snow is a beautiful background for photographing wildlife because it really puts all of the attention on the wild animal. The fourth tip is to communicate our mood or behavior in your photo. It may be a yawn or a growl. It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the two. If you wait for a yawn to be almost done, when the tongue is back in the mouth and the eyes are now looking forward it can look just like a growl. It’s gonna be hard to tell the difference. It can be wildlife on the move jumping, flying, running, swimming, hunting, or territory protection. You want to leverage the shutter speed to either freeze the movement in the frame or to intentionally blur the movement. It might just [be] simply a relaxed moment. A leopard in a tree is classic. With a comfortable look. You want to wait for the behavior, so don’t start pressing the shutter button until the behavior begins so that you get multiple shots of the execution of [that] behavior whether it’s running or jumping or howling like a coyote. A natural behavior is also walking. Look for times when all four legs are distinctly separate and ideally one of the front legs is up a bit and slightly bent so it gives the feeling of forward motion. Sometimes you can’t get the entire animal in the frame, and that’s okay. When you do crop in camera, just avoid cropping the subject on a joint. Wherever there’s a bend in the bones, knees, toes, digits, elbows… Try not to clip the tips of the tails or the tips of the ears off. You want to make it intentional. Do a crop mid-body or mid-leg. When you’re photographing more than one subject you want to look for opportunities where they’re connecting with each other. If they’re not connecting, if they’re not looking at each other or in the same direction or moving in the same direction, then it’s almost better to isolate the focus just on one. But when they are moving together, looking at each other, interacting in some way that’s when you want to get the photo to include more than one or all [of] them in these cases. You’ll need to leverage higher f-Stops, more like F9 F11 in order to put more [of] the subjects in Sharp focus. It can be be a playful moment, a tender moment when they’re interacting with one another. The fifth tip is to look for opportunities to use color from either the subject Itself or the background [to] enhance the impact of the photo. In this case there was a reflection of a palm tree in what was kind of a murky green water that turned it kind of this liquid gold color. But it doesn’t have to be something quite that dramatic and can simply be blurred foliage. You know blurred foliage is a pretty green or even just background branches when you’re using a long focal length in a small F-Stop. You can blur that background completely and give a nice collage – a simple collage –
of color to enhance the impact of your subject. Sometimes it’s the lack of color either having a fully black or a full white background that can also impact the emphasis on your subject, so look for opportunities of those as well. The sixth tip is to use line to draw the viewers attention to the subject. Diagonal lines – whether they’re real or implied – have a greater appeal because they’re less common in our world. So where they’re not vertical or horizontal. Look for incorporating diagonal line. This can be done in post-processing. Sometimes it’s not so easy to find this right when you’re composing a photo of an animal, so it’s something to consider when you’re looking back through all your photos and trying to pick out your favorites The seventh tip is to look for opportunities that show alertness and interest in the animal, so ears and eyes focused in the same direction is really key here. With the with four-legged animals their ears are just moving constantly. The left one and the right one in two different directions at the same time, but at some point the ears always come forward and and are pointed in the same direction as the eyes and that’s when you want to press that shutter. A look over the shoulder is a very interesting look – very appealing. Just be sure that the focus point is on the face or the eyes versus the back end of the animal, because typically the back end’s usually closer to the camera. So you’d end up not getting a sharp focus on the eyes. The eighth tip is to use the composition to give space to the animal – a way for the animal to look into the frame and to move into the frame. So that’s moving your focus point around the frame to put that animal off center. Whether it’s the top or the bottom or one side or the other of the frame to give them plenty of space. The viewer can then see what the environment is like with the animal easily looking into or moving into the frame. In this photo, this huge bull elephant was walking thru the Okavango Delta and my focus point was clear to the left side of the composition to give as much space to the right of that as possible. The ninth tip is to use light to show the animal in their best light. My purpose – my goal – is always to honor wildlife and to make them look as beautiful as I can. The photos that I take I’m always looking for ways to use light and get the best light and interesting light to show their beauty. There are multiple kinds of directional light. Front light emphasizes color. It’s the easiest to expose for because the light is coming on to the animals in the same way across left to right top to bottom. It’s pretty easy to get a good exposure. The best time regardless of the type of light is the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset because there’s the least amount of difference between the highlights and shadows. It’s easiest to get both detail in the shadows and the highlights. So I mentioned front light emphasizes color. Side light emphasizes texture. It creates a moodiness, a three-dimensional quality to the subject. It’s a little more complicated to expose for because you’re making a conscious decision of whether you’re willing to let one side blow out to all white or the other side go to all black or something in between. It’s important to take a few exposures to see whether you’re getting the effect that you want and to look at that histogram. Backlight emphasizes shape and there are two ways to get a backlit photo. One is to spot meter on the subject by putting the focus point on the subject and that will expose for the subject and gives you an halo effect – a white line around the shape of the animal. Or two spot meter on the background and cause your subject to go all black because of the difference in bright light coming from behind the subject and less light on the subject. It will likely throw your subject to all black and works great for a silhouette effect when the subject has a clear shape that it’s it’s easily recognizable. So if it was an elephant for example, people would know when they saw the shape of the elephant that it was in fact an elephant. I’m usually opting more for the halo effect, so I’m spot metering on the subject more than I’m opting for the silhouette effect but in both cases, backlighting really offers some interesting opportunities. Mid-day light is kind of the worst light to shoot in and unfortunately, It’s most of our day, but in those cases you want to look for even light all sun or all shade so that you get the best possible exposure of your subject. The reason why it’s just a terrible is because look how the this bear has gone from what would be normally a beautiful golden brown color or deep dark Brown to this middle gray? Washed out color and the eyes are shadowed because the sun is coming from directly above. But in those opportunities if your subject and the background can be in shade you can actually get a beautiful exposure. In this photo, yhis was a mountain lion cub and the cub was under a tree, and it was shaded behind the tree, so light that was coming through the branches put some nice catch light in the eyes, but the exposure is just nice and even with the subject and the background both being in shade. The last tip is to get your subject off-center. So you hear this in landscape photography as well… You want to apply the rule of thirds which is essentially a tic-Tac-Toe board – two vertical lines and two horizontal Lines – equally spaced apart in your frame. And you want to put your subject or subjects on a line, which is basically getting them off centered and even more ideally where the lines intersect there are four points where at least two lines intersect and those are called power points, and if you can get the key feature of your subject, or the full subject on a power point, you’re going to have a more impactful photo. You can certainly crop for this in post-processing and just keep your focus point in the middle of the frame and always put your subject in the middle of the frame, so your subject’s text sharp and then crop for this rule of thirds in post-processing. However, you have to shoot wider, more zoomed out, in order to include enough information, so that when you do crop later. You’re going to have a nice, really good composition if you can do it in camera. So the more that you’re comfortable moving your focus point down around in the frame the more you can think about and apply this last tip more frequently and have more successful results. So those are the ten tips they’re explained in detail in my book: Capturing the Moment the Art and Science of Photographing Wild Animals which is available on Amazon and also Itunes in both paperback and ebook format. I encourage you to keep in touch! Sign up for my newsletter to stay updated on the latest workshops that I offer www.KathleenReeder.com. Thanks very much for your time.

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  1. I enjoyed this video. Some detailed tips in there – particularly on capturing animals walking. Very true.

  2. Exactly why would you want to shoot at EYE Level of Animal , WHEN No one is at that Level. who bends down to go Oh yeah my view is better here looking into eye of a snake

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