Determining Composition – Part 1

by Ofer Levy | July 25, 2014

© Ofer LevyComposition is the arrangement of visual elements in the image.

Successful composition should lead the viewer’s eye toward the most important parts of the image. It should help portray whatever it is that you wish your image to convey. Good composition is a crucial element of a great photograph. I have seen a lot of fantastic captures that have never evolved into excellent photos due to poor composition.

Good composition is something that is not easy to define and is most certainly a matter of personal taste. I guess some of you won’t like at least some of the choices I have made in my sample images. The best advice I can offer to anyone is to invest time in making your decisions and not to follow the ‘rules’/guidelines blindly. Instead, analyse what works best in your photos and in the photos of other photographers. Experiment and learn new ways of composing your images. Trying to “force” the composition to fit any of the ‘rules’ doesn’t usually work. I often see images which were “forced” into the ‘rule of thirds’ but this simply doesn’t work. When I try to determine the composition in my images I always turn off the ‘rule of thirds’ grid in Photoshop which for me is not useful.

The good news is that with a lot of practice, both in composing your images and viewing images of other photographers, the skill of determining great composition will eventually become a natural process for you. With enough practice you will instinctively ‘feel’ what the image needs. Poor composition will look ‘wrong’ to you at a glance. I remember when I was starting out more than 30 years ago. I once proudly showed a photo of a heron to a photographer friend. Her response was “Why is the heron so tight in the frame?” I remember the disappointment and the embarrassment I felt as I could not see it myself. It took me quite a while to develop the ‘eye’ and ‘taste’ for good composition.

Determining the composition involves 2 stages:

  1. Before capturing the image.
  2. After the image is captured (this article refers to this stage).

In bird/wildlife photography, especially when it involves capturing action and behaviour, we often have limited ability to get the best possible composition in the camera so the more controlled process is left to be done on the computer. In this article I will discuss the general guidelines I use in order to compose my images on the computer after the first stage of determining the composition during capturing is done. Firstly I would like to mention those guidelines then I will discuss each one in more detail with some examples. These are just some of the elements of composition I consider in my photography. They reflect my own style and personality but there are many others. (I don’t mention the ‘Rule of Thirds’ as I rarely find it useful in my work.)

  1. Balancing Elements
  2. Avoid the Centre
  3. Leaving Space
  4. Space to Move
  5. Leading Lines
  6. Symmetry
  7. Orientation

Let’s look at each one of these guidelines with some examples:

1. Balancing Elements

Good composition requires good balance. The position of the various elements in a frame can leave an image feeling balanced or unbalanced. Too many points of interest in one section of your image can leave it feeling too ‘heavy’ or complicated in that section of the shot and other parts feeling ‘empty’.

Bird portrait © Ofer Levy

Shorebird © Ofer Levy

Bird in water © Ofer Levy

Bird with flowers © Ofer Levy

2. Avoiding the Centre

When you’re just starting out, it’s tempting to put whatever you’re shooting right in the centre of the frame. However, this produces rather static, boring pictures. Instead, move the subject’s head/eye away from the centre and get a feel for how it can be balanced with everything else in the scene.

Duck in water © Ofer Levy

Falcons © Ofer Levy

Bird portrait with yellow flowers © Ofer Levy

Kingfisher portrait © Ofer Levy

3. Leaving Space

There can be a fine line between filling your frame with your subject (and creating a nice sense of intimacy and connection) and giving your subject enough space to breath. When we look at pictures, we see what’s happening and tend to look ahead—this creates a feeling of imbalance or unease if your subject has nowhere to move except out of the frame. When you look at a portrait you tend to follow someone’s gaze, and they need an area to look into.

Falcon profile portrait © Ofer Levy

Sandpiper in water © Ofer Levy

Two birds preening © Ofer Levy

Kingfisher on tree stump © Ofer Levy

4. Leaving Space to Move

Leaving space also refers to implied movement. When you show an animal moving in the frame it is usually a good idea to leave enough room for it to move into as well as leaving enough room in the direction it came from.

Bird perched on tree stump portrait © Ofer Levy

Falcon in flight © Ofer Levy

Bird in water © Ofer Levy

Bird portrait by water © Ofer Levy

5. Using Leading Lines (Mostly Diagonals)

The human eye is drawn into a photo along lines—whether they are curved, straight, diagonal or otherwise. A line—whether geometric or implied—can bring your viewer’s eye into an image and take it wherever you want it to go. If your image doesn’t have clear lines you will need something else to let the viewer know where to look, otherwise her eye might just drift around the image without ever landing on any one spot. Implied diagonal lines can be also used in the same way as actual lines.

Bee-eater pair on flower branch © Ofer Levy

Falcon in flight with blue background © Ofer Levy

Bird perched on rock © Ofer Levy

Bird on flower branch © Ofer Levy

6. Symmetry

Symmetry can make for very eye-catching compositions.

Front view of bird in water © Ofer Levy

Birds interlocked © Ofer Levy

Bird photography © Ofer Levy

Two pelicans in water © Ofer Levy

7. Orientation (Don’t Be Afraid of Verticals)

When an image contains a lot of horizontal lines, use an horizontal orientation. When it contains strong vertical lines, use a vertical orientation. This of course is another one of those “guideline” rules (as they all are, really), because you can take excellent shots of vertical lines in a horizontal frame, and vice-versa. But the choice is, as always, going to depend on what you want that final image to say.

Bird with catch © Ofer Levy

Two bats hanging from branch © Ofer Levy

Bird on stump with lunch © Ofer Levy

Bird on branch with spider web © Ofer Levy

In my next articles I will discuss how decisions I make before getting the photo determine the composition. Please leave feedback below if you have a question, suggestion, or any comments regarding the article.

About the Author

Ofer Levy is a Sydney based professional wildlife/bird photographer and instructor. He is a BBC/Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Nature's Best Windlan Smith Rice prize winner as well as ANZANG Nature overall winner (2007 and 2011). His photos have been published by numerous magazines internationally and have been used in many books, public exhibits, calendars, and other projects. The Australian Museum in Sydney is showing 16 of Ofer's bird images in a special exhibition, which runs through January 2015. As a former science teacher with a master's degree in science, Ofer offers wildlife and bird photography workshops in Australia's most exciting locations.

2 thoughts on “Determining Composition – Part 1

  1. Thanks, so many very nice images and helpful advise.
    Readers may also benefit from seeing one image with different examples of cropping that image, and thus what effect the different crops have on the composition of that image.
    I learned a lot about composition from studying Dutch landscape painters from the 1600s.

Post a Comment

Logged in as Anonymous