Guidelines for Advanced Composition and Image Design

by Arthur Morris | October 1, 2004

© Arthur MorrisAn excerpt from “The Art of Bird Photography II”, a book in progress: When I was a fledgling photographer living in New York City, there were many local camera clubs with lots of members who enjoyed nature photography. In spite of the fact that I was extremely competitive in sports, especially 3-man half-court basketball, and in spite of the fact that my friend, Robert Villani, was a member of two of these clubs and consistently walked away with blue ribbon after blue ribbon, I refused to join a camera club. Why? Because they had rules for art. I remember thinking, “There are no rules for art. If it’s good, it’s art. If it moves people, it’s art. If not, who cares?”

It is ironic that nearly two decades later, after pushing the shutter button tens of thousands of times, after teaching dozens of full day seminars, and after leading seemingly countless BIRDS AS ART Instructional Photo-Tours, I now realize that much of what seemed at first to be intuitive artistic sense can actually be codified as a series of guidelines. These guidelines are not hard and fast rules, but being aware of them will drastically improve the artistic quality of your images.

While most folks are familiar with the rule of thirds, how many are familiar with the rule of fourths for horizontal compositions? Subjects that are too large in the frame to be placed on a perfect rule of thirds spot often look great when placed on the horizontal centerline one-fourth of the way into the frame. With even larger-in-the-frame subjects, one-third of the way into the frame often works very well. And both of these compositions shine when the bird or animal is facing the camera.

Fourths © Arthur Morris

In The Art of Bird Photography I wrote, “To design a pleasing vertical portrait, simply place the bird on the vertical centerline equidistant from the top and bottom of the frame.” I did not, however, emphasize the fact that when working with small-in-the-frame subjects in vertical format, it is imperative that the bird is kept well out of the center of the frame. Placing a small-in-the-frame subject anywhere near the center of a vertical frame is usually a sure way to kill the artistic impact of a photograph. It is almost always best to tuck the subject into one of the corners of the composition and fill the rest of the frame with pleasing habitat. Such images work especially well when the subject is surrounded by strikingly beautiful habitat.

While a vertical line near either frame edge may work to balance a horizontal composition or to set off a subject, and a vertical line on each side of the image may serve to frame the subject, placing a strong vertical line in or near the center of a horizontal frame should almost always be avoided. Photographers need to take great care to keep vertical lines away from the centers of their horizontal compositions, as the viewer’s eye tends to be drawn there and only there.

Juxtaposition © Arthur Morris

While the hallmark of my style is working with single birds set against backgrounds of pure color, there are countless times when including other elements (both natural and manmade) in the image is not only necessary, but desirable. The positioning of these other elements of composition in the frame is exceedingly important. These elements are not, of course, “placed” in the frame; the photographer changes the juxtaposition of these elements in the frame relative to the subject’s position by changing his or her perspective. As long as two elements are not on the same plane, their placement relative to each other will change as the photographer moves left or right, up or down.

Composition balance © Arthur Morris

Always strive for compositional balance, the manner in which the elements of an image relate to one another. A bird in the lower right corner might balance a blossom in the upper right. A flock of birds on one side of the frame may balance a stand of reeds on the other. Similarly, blocks of light or dark background colors may balance each other. The empty or negative space in an image also affects the balance of an image.

When changing the juxtaposition of the subject and another element of composition, compositional balance should be the primary concern. If a gull is placed on the horizontal centerline 1/4 of the way in from the left frame-edge, strive to place the rock or the shell, for example, on the horizontal centerline 1/4 of the way in from the right frame-edge. If a goldfinch is placed in the upper right third of a vertical composition, try to place the large, colorful flower or leaf in the lower left third. Etcetera!

Composition anchor © Arthur Morris

Bird-scapes are scenic images featuring a bird, or more often a flock of birds, either as an integral part of the composition or as an accent or accents. When designing bird-scapes, place a strong compositional element in one of the lower corners of the frame to strengthen the design of the image. A tree, a stand of reeds, or a large boulder placed in one of the lower corners of the frame will anchor the image and help lead the viewer’s eye around the photograph. When photographing large flocks of birds in flight, I often use a tree or a distinctive mountain peak as described above to act as a compositional anchor. If the birds are flying from left to right, for example, I will generally place the “anchor” in the lower left portion of the frame and make photographs as the birds fly past the “anchor” and fill the rest of the frame.

When designing bird-scapes that feature large flocks of birds, a clean lower edge always serves well as a compositional anchor. Strive to point the lens down far enough so that a birdless strip of water, grass, shoreline, mountaintop or hilltop occupies the portion of the frame below the lowest bird or birds in the flock, that is, the area at the bottom of the frame. This applies when working in either horizontal or vertical format. The height of this clean lower edge will usually range from one-tenth to one-fourth or one-third of the height of the vertical frame-edge.

Lower edge © Arthur Morris © Arthur Morris

A second, out-of-focus bird in the background is often distracting. If the photographer, however, takes great care in the placement of the second bird in the frame, and considers its posture as well, then the second bird may serve as somewhat of a mirrored (though pleasingly out-of-focus) reflection of the subject. When attempting this, do strive for compositional balance as well. The results can be most pleasing. Imagine two Caspian Terns on a sandy beach. It is a cloudy day, so light angle is not of paramount importance. Working in vertical format, you notice that the bird in the back appears above and slightly to your right of the closer bird. You need to put some separation between the two birds so you take a large, slow step to your right. You reframe the image and notice that the closer bird is in the lower right part of the frame, while the upper bird now appears in the upper left. The juxtaposition of the two birds is perfect: you have achieved compositional balance. A pleasing image results.

If a compositional element (aside from the subject) is worth including in the frame, it is almost always best to include the whole element (if possible). If you are, for example, including a shell or a bit of seaweed or a small stone as a compositional anchor, strive to include the whole object in the frame with a bit of room to spare. Take great care not to cut off any part of the object with the frame-edge; do leave a small border around it. If you are using a small plant with a blossom to balance an image of a gull chick yawning, be careful to frame the image so that the entire plant (and not just the blossom) is included in the final image.

Whole leaf © Arthur Morris

Many of your compositions will, by necessity, feature only horizontal and vertical lines. Be on the lookout, however, for strong diagonal lines to add strength and power to your images. Examples might include a crouched Green Heron angled towards the water and ready to strike or the bill of a fledgling Snowy Egret angled across the frame as the young bird awaits the return of the gone-fishing parent. Diagonal lines are most effective when they enter or leave the image from one of the four corners of the frame; having a strong diagonal line enter the frame from one of the upper corners can often yield a powerful vertical composition.

Diagonal © Arthur Morris Diagonal composition © Arthur Morris

Leading lines © Arthur Morris

Leading lines direct the viewer’s eye to the subject. Diagonal and curved lines are especially effective as leading lines. The young egret’s bill noted above might direct the viewer’s attention to its captivating eye. Shapes and forms may often serve the same purpose. The scapular feathers of a sleeping Brown Pelican resemble an ellipse pointed at both ends; this shape can be used to guide the viewer’s eye to the bird’s half-opened eye, while the elegant curve of the neck does the same. In this case, all roads lead to the eye.

About the Author

Arthur Morris is a highly accomplished and inspirational photographer specializing in birds. His writing and his photographs have been published in hundreds of books, magazines, and calendars. Art now photographs, travels, speaks, and teaches extensively in North America. For more information please visit his website at

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