10 Nature Photography Guidelines

The value of composition guidelines in nature photography can be a controversial subject. Some feel that trying to remember and apply guidelines stifles their creativity and hinders their photographic experience. Conversely, there are others who follow every guideline and end up making the same photos as everyone who follow every guideline.

Composition guidelines exist to aid us in the design of our photographs. I think of them as tools more than guidelines. They originate from different arts, people, places, times, and ideas and they are used by visual artists spanning many mediums. Following are some common design practices which have been adopted by nature and wildlife photographers over the years and around the world. Bear in mind it is not an exhaustive list, and these interpretations may be different from what you understand them to be. Some have been in use for hundreds of years and some have only recently been put into practice.

red fox portrait

1. Centering the subject

Centering a subject, or group of prominent objects in the frame gives the image a “showcase-style” composition. With this kind of composition the main subject is unmistakable and becomes the star of the show. Another guideline where centering is concerned is that most subjects that look good in a vertical format can usually be centered, as the photograph of the Red Fox illustrates.

There are many instances when centering a main subject is appropriate but more often than not in nature photography, artists strive to create something a little more interesting than a centrally framed point-and-shoot image. In addition, centering a small subject can result in what is negatively referred to as a bulls-eye composition. In this composition there are no interesting spacing or balancing techniques employed. Unless the main subject is special enough to warrant this kind of spotlight composition, this placement can result in a dull and uninteresting design, robbing the scene of uniqueness and impact.

This type of composition is not always bad, however, and often photographs are specifically designed with a bulls-eye composition, such as in images featuring radial balance like flower close ups.

2. People in Nature

When including people in a nature photo, be aware that they will always become a main focal point. Because we recognize the human element as something familiar, our own shapes, our eyes will always find and return to human figures in nature. For example, even though the above image includes the magnificent Maroon Bells, the eye will spend more time inspecting me and that ridiculous pose.

Deciding on the size of the human element to be included in the frame is a critical design decision. The bigger they are the more attention they will demand. It needs to be decided if you want a nature photo with people in it, or a people photo with nature in it.

3. Use Side Light to Reveal Texture and Form

Side lighting, on most objects, reveals depth by rendering the light in a gradient from light on one side to dark on the other. Sidelight is often used to reveal contours, shapes, forms and depth.

The speed of the gradient is determined by the number of steps from light to dark. The smoothness of the gradient depends on the texture of the object. Smooth surfaces like plastic can create almost imperceptible gradations. The intensity of the gradient is determined by the values of light and dark.

Exposing details in a range of values this way gives the textures a realistic three dimensional look which can enhance the viewing experience by letting the viewer know how the object might feel.

4. Use Backlight to Reveal Translucence

In the same vein as revealing textures using side light, backlighting can be used to exploit translucence in our subjects. Such subjects can include feathers, fur, plants, leaves, clouds, flower petals, insect wings, and any other surface that allows light through.

5. Use Color to Create Mood

In the field it is wise to remember that humans tend to associate colors with emotions or moods. For example, pastels can make most us think of innocence and youth. Reds and yellows are warm, bright and festive while blues and purples are cool, calming and relaxing. These associations can be used by the photographer to help create or influence the mood in the image. They can even be used to extract a desired emotional response from the viewer.

Humans do not, however, associate colors with emotions in the same way. They can be different depending on cultures, time periods, religions and geographic locales to name a few. In the flower image, the color of the flower, its shape and its position in the frame were all carefully planned to create a cheery, festive and inviting photograph.

To explain: oranges and reds are known to excite and arouse so I chose this flower over an adjacent purple flower of the same species. The star burst shape creates an energetic, bursting shape that I loved. And the contrast of the bright orange against the green makes that flower pop from the background, reinforcing that ‘bursting energy’ feeling that I wanted. These features all work together to make my happy visual statement quite effectively. If the flower were of a cooler hue, blue or violet for example, the feeling of the image would be different.

6. Use Color to Design

There are colors that look good together; colors that contrast and complement one another and colors that can affect one another positively and negatively. Some of these colors have been grouped together by industry professionals and artists over the years and given labels. These labels are color schemes. Popular color schemes include: pastels; harmonious colors; contrasting colors; flesh tones; monochromatic; neutrals; cool hues; warm hues; and analogous hues, to name just a few.

Understanding how colors affect one another and how a viewer reacts to color will help you design the space within your frame in a way that exactly extracts your desired emotion. This is accomplished with experience and the study of color theory. Studying the colors in your favorite photographs is a practical and effective way to study and understand color theory as it applies to photography.

A quick way to understand how colors work together is to invest in a painter’s color wheel. Colors opposite each other on the wheel are ‘complementary’ and will contrast one another. Colors next to each other on the color wheel are similar and will be harmonious together.

It should be noted that harmony in color is not always the goal of the photographer. Often color is used to shock, enlighten, disgust, to instill excitement, happiness or sadness, force our attention to an area, highlight an object, and … the list is endless. Color is a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled designer and can be used to extract whatever reaction he or she is capable of producing.

7. Use angles to alter sense of height and connection

A trick we can use to make our subjects appear taller or shorter is to photograph them from a low or high angle, respectively. Using angles creatively is also a great way to add interest to a straight scene or portrait, or of a static subject such as a statue that cannot move or pose.

The Key Deer fawn photographed above was about the height of Golden Retriever, so I decided on a low ‘worm’s eye’ view of the animal. Sometimes accentuating the obvious can create a more extreme and/or dramatic view of the thing. In this case, photographing the animal from this low perspective does two things 1) lets the viewer know what the animal is eating so it is informative, and 2) this low angle creates great eye contact and a personal connection with the animal. This can result in a more intimate viewing experience.

Following are a few other ways to use interesting or creative angles:

  • Interesting angles and perspectives can be used to capture the subject in a more flattering way than would be had with a straight-on view.
  • With long animals, such as horses, the combination of lens and a straight-on perspective could result in a foreshortened appearance of the subject. Foreshortening causes that which is closest to the camera to appear disproportionately large compared to the rest of the subject. Using an interesting angle to capture the horse’s portrait could avoid foreshortening and result in a more flattering portrait.
  • Angles are used to capture commonly photographed subjects in a unique, exciting, creative or fresh way
  • Angles are used to create a connection and eye-contact with an animal. For example, getting onto the ground with an alligator can create more of a personal viewing experience than would a direct overhead view.

8. Using the Rule of Thirds Grid

Evenly dividing your photograph into three rows and three columns creates The Rule of Thirds grid. There will be four points at which the lines intersect and these intersections are called Power Points.

The Rule of Thirds composition guideline suggests that placing a main focal point on or near one of these points, or on one of the grid lines, will help to produce a visually pleasing, spatially interesting and balanced photograph. It ensures weight or visual focus in one area, with ample space between it and its nearest edges, while the object is balanced by empty or negative space, or other subject matter, in the remaining area of the photo.

In the case when there is no single main focal point, objects can be placed along one of the lines of the grid to create the same sense of organization, balance and spatial interest as when using the power point placement technique. There are situations, as with some abstracts, vertical portraits, showcase and bulls-eye compositions, to name just a few, that this guideline is appropriately ignored. The key to employing this guideline is knowing when and when not to use it

In the photo of the Great Blue Heron nest above, the dark foliage occupies the bottom 1/3 of the image. The top edge of that dark foliage stops on the bottom horizontal line of the Rule of Thirds grid. That was not an accident. You will also notice that the main subject sits very near the top right power point. Also, not an accident. Two Rule of Thirds positioning and balancing techniques were used in this single photograph. And because I used these techniques, the fact that I placed the big, dark, nest dead-center in the photograph is not a negative.

9. Achieve Balance

Structurally balancing a composition refers to the arranging of the elements, be them tangible or intangible, in a way that distributes their visual weight throughout the photograph so that no one area appears visually heavier than another, leaving the composition imbalanced.

The purpose for visually balancing an image is usually to avoid an uncomfortable, awkward or ‘unfinished’ look in the image. We all know how it feels to be in balance — everything on the left is the same on the right and it feels right to be in balance. This same sense of ‘rightness’ is translated by our viewers when evaluating the balance in an image. Given this, often the goal is to create an imbalanced feeling in the image as when the idea is to purposefully throw-off the viewer’s sense of stability in order to create tension or some other effect. This is easily done using angles and interesting perspectives

10. Allow the Subject Room to Move

When photographing wildlife, it’s often a good idea to leave ample space around your subject to allow it ‘room to move’ and avoid having it look stuffed into the frame. It is more comfortable for the eye and avoids an awkward and cramped look. With animals leave enough space around the subject to achieve this while giving an idea of its activity or habitat.

The habitat of our living subjects can provide attractive and interesting clues about its life and behavior such as how it lives, eats and reproduces. While close-up portraits are nice and usually visually pleasing, including meaningful habitat that tells a story can make for a rich, educational and visually appealing photograph.

Text and images copyright Gloria Hopkins. All rights reserved.