Finding Compositions in Wildlife Photography: A Case Study

Tips & Techniques

The first part of wildlife photography is encountering a subject. The next is making the most out of that encounter. It is easy to end up with boring images of your subject if you get caught up in trying to document the animal and don’t look for powerful compositions.

After all, the goal of a photographer is to create an image which is more than the sum of its parts. There are four questions you can ask yourself in the heat of the moment which will help you find the best composition:

  1. What aspects of the scene do I want to highlight?
  2. How can I move myself to improve the composition?
  3. Where is the light coming from?
  4. Why am I taking the photo like this?

In this article, I will tackle these questions to help you make the most out of the scene presented to you. It starts with a journey to the Florida Everglades.

Table of Contents

There Are Crocodiles in the Water

When I visited Everglades National Park, I had one species in mind: the American Crocodile. The American Crocodile is a formidable reptile which ranges into the United States only in the extreme southern portion of the Florida Peninsula. They are less appreciated than lions and owls among wildlife photographers, so I sought to photograph them in a way which would convey how impressive they are.

The sky was overcast and the sun low in the sky in the morning. I had reached the boat ramps and docks where I knew crocodiles were most commonly seen, but the first ones I saw were far away and mostly submerged. As exciting as it was to see them, I knew there was a long way to go before getting a photo I was happy with.

So, I waited. After a torrential downpour – hardly uncommon in Florida – freshwater flowed from the shoreline into the brackish estuary. The thirsty crocs wanted to drink. One bold individual swam right up to me, interested in some runoff from the storm. I knew it was time to shoot.

This is meat of wildlife photography: the moment you come face-to-face with your subject. As the photographer, you have to think fast. It can be tempting to forego creativity and do nothing but document everything you’re seeing as fast as possible. But mindless shooting is what yields “blah” images. Instead, you must focus on finding a better composition.

As it turns out, as cool as a 10-foot reptile is, when only the eyes and nose are protruding above the surface of the water, it makes a difficult subject. That’s especially true since I was shooting while standing up and looking down at the croc in profile.

american crocodile bad composition
My initial photo, documentary and uninteresting

Even though the crocodile was a few feet away from me, my images were just documents and not the creative work I aim for. Thankfully, this particular crocodile was the perfect subject and gave me some time to slow down, think, and work to find the best composition. All I needed to do was ask myself the four questions:

1. What aspects of the scene do I want to highlight?

Obviously you want to highlight your wildlife subject, but what specifically? Maybe it is the eyes, which are the most expressive aspects of your subject (most frequent case). It could also be spectacularly colored plumage, an interesting pattern, or the dramatic silhouetted shape of your subject. Maybe it’s even the environment around the animal, or a colorful background that leads to good bokeh.

Then you need to find the best way to highlight that part of your scene or subject. It may require repositioning yourself, reframing, or adjusting your settings. Some specific ways to bring attention to the aspects of interest include: changing depth of field, changing exposure, zooming in or out, and changing your composition.

For example, you could highlight the colorful eyes of your subject by using a narrow depth of field, zooming in, and framing the eyes to be centered in your photo. Alternatively, you could highlight the shape of something bright like an egret by underexposing the image slightly and perhaps boosting highlights in post-processing, making it look like a spotlight is shining on your subject.

2. How can I move myself to improve the composition?

You are not a tree! Maybe if you’re in a blind, or are shooting a subject that would flee at the slightest movement, you don’t have as many options to move around. But if you do have the luxury, take advantage of it. This is one of the reasons I personally do not like to shoot with a tripod. I prefer having the flexibility to quickly change my shooting position, since it has such a strong impact on composition.

So, where exactly do you move to get the best composition? Since you’ve already identified the points of interest you want to highlight in your shot, it’s easy. Just move up, down, and sideways until those points of interest are prominent.

Often, the biggest changes you can make (at least quickly) involve the appearance of the background. Even if you don’t have the time or space to move your camera very far, just shifting it by a couple of feet can dramatically change the background behind your subject, which has a huge impact on how much the subject stands out.

For example, if part of my background is sky, and the other part is a brown bush, it’s often very easy to position my subject in front of either of them. I’m sure you can imagine how a bright bluebird would stand out more against the bush, and a brown heron would stand out more against the sky.

Your angle also impacts what part of the subject is more visible. If you shoot from a higher angle (as I did with the crocodile photo from earlier), you get more of the top of your subject’s head. Alternatively, shooting at the subject’s eye level can give you a more intimate view that feels less like a documentary shot.

What is important is that you do not remain in the default shooting position. It’s better to think about all possible positions, and to consider that even small camera movements can make a big difference to both the subject and its surroundings.

3. Where is the light coming from?

This is one of the most important questions you should always be asking yourself as a photographer. Depending on the circumstances it may be best to shoot with the light, utilize sidelight, or shoot against it.

It may seem trivial to figure out where the light is coming from, especially on clear days early in the morning or late in the afternoon. But it’s not always so clear. Even when the sun is seemingly overhead, you can have a wide variety of lighting conditions: patchy clouds, leaves in a forest, or even underwater lighting conditions.

When you’re aware of the sun’s position and intensity – including how it casts light and shadows on your subject – you will be able to take photos that are more intentional. How you use that information when positioning your camera is up to you. In some cases, you may prefer soft frontlighting that shows all the details on your subject clearly. Other times, the dark shadows and dynamic light of sidelighting may make for a more interesting image.

Lastly, even when the sun is your only light source, keep in mind that you still have room to change the light in your wildlife photos. Imagine taking pictures at a small pond early in the morning. From one side of the pond, you get frontlight that illuminates your subject without any harsh shadows; from the other, you’ll be shooting backlit silhouettes! The choice is yours, but be sure that wherever you position yourself, you do so intentionally.

4. Why am I taking the photo like this?

This is the last question to think about – and also the first. Why are you composing like this and not some other way?

If you can’t answer that question, chances are that you’re not putting enough thought into your composition and camera position. Remember, as a photographer, you are an artist. It is ultimately up to you to determine what your image looks like. Once you notice that you’re taking photos with thoughtless, “happenstance” compositions, it’s time to go through these four questions once again.

Back to the Crocodiles

We left off in the middle of my first close encounter with a bold American Crocodile. I was unhappy with my documentary profile shots. In short, I couldn’t answer the question: Why am I taking the photo like this? It was just the quickest and easiest composition from where I happened to be standing. So, I needed to go through the other questions again.

  1. What aspects of the scene did I want to highlight? Not having many aspects to work with, I took the obvious choice, the eyes. To really bring attention to the crocodile’s eyes, I needed to shoot head on, not a profile like I first did.
  2. How can I move myself to improve the composition? It seemed that if I walked down the shore a bit, I could get in front of the croc and take a head-on picture.
  3. Where is the light coming from? It was a pretty overcast day, and the crocodile was brightly illuminated from all directions. So, I could concentrate on standing in the spot that gave the best composition.

Then it was down to implementing what I just learned, so that I could give a better answer to question #4.

I started by trying to position myself and my camera properly. To make things a bit tricky, the crocodile was drifting parallel to the shore with the current. It was not stationary. After I ran down the shore, I had to dangle part of my body and my camera off the seawall to get a low enough angle to make the eyes expressive and capture the looming crocodile head-on and symmetrically.

As the crocodile approached, I noticed another aspect of interest that I hadn’t seen before. The croc’s tooth was protruding from its nostril! What a cool sight and a useful contribution to the intense image I had in mind. I incorporated this aspect of the crocodile by widening my depth of field with an aperture of f/11. Then I took several shots in the hopes that one would turn out symmetrical. This one did.

expressive head on photo of american crocodile
DC-G9 + LUMIX G VARIO 100-300mm F4-5.6 @ 193mm, ISO 800, 1/125, f/11.0

As I dangled off the seawall in front of a fast-approaching 10-foot crocodile, the question “Why am I taking the photo like this?” was a curse I could have shouted. But all the aspects of the photo added up to create something much stronger and more meaningful than the initial documentary shot.

There’s another photo I’d like to share as well. This photo is from a few hours later as a light rain began. Here, I wanted to highlight the environment around the crocodile: the mangroves in the back, and my favorite, the raindrops falling.

American Crocodile in the Florida Everglades with raindrops good composition wildlife photography
DC-G9 + OLYMPUS M.60mm F2.8 Macro @ 60mm, ISO 400, 1/1300, f/2.8

In this case, I took advantage of being able to move along shore freely by positioning myself in line with the crocodile. This way, the entire outline of the crocodile would be in focus, helping it stand out. I got my camera as low to the water as possible to include as much background and foreground as possible. Again, the croc was moving, so I had to act quickly to perfect this composition before it turned away into deeper water.

I used my widest aperture to make sure the in-focus raindrops and crocodile would pop. I also boosted the ISO slightly so I could use a fast shutter speed of 1/1300 and completely freeze the raindrops. Finally, the lighting – though still overcast – was directional enough to highlight the crocodile and water droplets against the dark background. In short, I knew exactly why I was taking the shot like this, and that’s what helps it succeed.

Conclusion

The crocodiles were amazing when I was in the Everglades, but some factors made photography difficult. I was photographing brown reptiles in brown water; the light was basic and overcast; I could only move freely along the limited shoreline.

Part of the fun of wildlife photography is working with challenges like this and adapting to your surroundings. I found that asking myself those four questions was a big help in taking better compositions here, and allowing me to return home with images that make me happy. I hope the tips in this article will help you as well in your wildlife photography, no matter what setting and subject you find yourself photographing.

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