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The Master Guide for Wildlife Photographers: Wildlife compositions

by © Bill Silliker

This is an excerpt from the book "The Master Guide for Wildlife Photographers" by Bill Silliker. Thanks to Amherst Media for allowing to present it in our library. To read the rest of the book, you are welcome to buy it directly from Amherst Media or from

  • Is it wrong to put the animal in the middle of the frame?
  • What are the points of power in a composition?
Artists who draw or paint follow - or at least know when they have chosen to break - the rules of composition. The best photographers do too.

But most wildlife photographers have little classical art training. And so their exposure - pun intended - to the rules of composition conies from looking at their photographs and wondering why they sometimes don't have the impact that the original scene did. Was it the exposure? The light? The pose? The angle? How about the composition?

While "the eye of the beholder" determines what might be called art, some photographs work better than others. They please us in some way.

Selecting elements that lead the eye around a picture makes for more interesting photographs. Triangles, diagonal lines, and balance with the subject all work.
Some people have "an eye," and can make such photographs naturally. Since many don't, it helps to find ways to improve on our "vision." To do that, we need to learn what classically trained artists have known for centuries: how the human eye looks at a painting - or a photograph.


To attract and hold attention of the eye, a composition should have:
  • an entry point
  • an exit point
  • elements that attract the eye
  • balance between the elements.
The eye needs a place to enter a photograph that doesn't stop it cold. Sometimes it's the primary subject; sometimes it's something that leads the eye to the primary subject. Painters add other elements besides the primary subject to attract the eye further into a picture. Artistically inclined photographers do too by selecting to include them, as they frame a photograph.

The deer's antlers lead the eye up, where the overhanging branches help lead the eye out of the photograph.
The out of focus branch distracts from the portrait of this anhinga.
What are those elements? They could be any of many things that add interest to a composition. Some elements found in nature might include: a line made by the horizon or water's edge; a cloud in one corner of the sky; a colorful tree that balances the other side of the frame; or perhaps another animal that draws the eye toward the main subject.

The photographer needs to take care where such elements fall in the composition to avoid drawing the viewer away from the main subject too quickly, or worse, totally. For instance, a significantly brighter object that immediately pulls your eye away from the animal subject might do that.

Compositional lines - perhaps a row of trees, a shoreline, or a rocky hillside in the background-draw the eye into, across, up, down, and out of a photograph. While all can help the composition, we need to think about how distracting any such lines might be. A background horizon that cuts the subject in half while leading the eye off the photograph may hurt the composition.

The diagonally held bill of the egret leads our eye out of this picture after exploring the egret's eye and that of the Fish.
We do need to provide the eye a way out of the photograph. If the viewer's eye locks on to a single spot it feels trapped and probably loses interest quickly. We should offer a pathway out of a picture. Perhaps we can use a fainter distant element, converging lines that recede, or simply a perspective that draws the eye into the distance. With a portrait of an animal that fills the frame, it might be a curve on its face or body that points us to the edge and out.

Even though out of focus, the tree balances this silhouette of an Alaskan bull moose.
Balance comes from placement of an element in a composition against something of equal attraction to the eye. To better understand how this works, first consider that each element in a picture has a given value, or weight. That weight depends on a number of things, including the following:
  • an element near the edge has more weight than one in the center
  • an element by itself has more weight than one mixed in a group
  • an element in the foreground has less weight than when in the background (assuming it is the same size)
  • elements with higher contrast to their surroundings have greater attraction
  • colors have more or less weight depending on their hue.
The idea is to keep the viewer's eye involved with a composition by providing an interesting design. That can be done any number of ways, perhaps by offering the eye a circular route, a long graceful curve, or perhaps a back and forth attraction of two or more well balanced elements.

Right now you're probably thinking: all this sounds great. But a major difference exists between painting and phorography. The photographer has to make do with what the scene has to offer. And the wildlife photographer has an even more difficult job. We work with wild animals that we have to capture on film, not draw into our compositions. While the landscape photographer can maybe tweak his or her compositions, the wildlife photographer often simply doesn't have the time.

All true.

The secret for the wildlife photographer? Train yourself to "see" better. Learn to evaluate a scene in a hurry. Note as many of the following as you can:

  • the effect of the direction of the light
  • colors you might be able to use
  • textures in the scene that might make the photograph more interesting
  • possible natural elements to include
  • the animal's direction in the frame
  • distractions to exclude.

The line of cormorants and the turtle have balance. Cropping with a telephoto lens provides an even more balanced image, with the repetition of the three similar birds.
If a good color background or foreground element is available to include in a photograph, do it. If another animal can be included without distracting from the primary subject, do it. If a pattern in the natural scene that repeats itself or has vivid texture can be included in the composition do that. Especially if your picture is a scenic wildlife image.

An animal in motion should be entering the frame, not leaving. I panned the camera at a slow shutter speed lo show the motion of this whitetail.

Placing a subject at a point of power con make an interesting composition.
Don't overlook verticals. You can apply the rule of thirds to them as well.
Select your framing so that your primary animal faces into the picture, not out of it-especially if the animal is in motion. An exception to that might be when you're trying to show motion by panning at a slow shutter speed on a moving animal. In that case, you might need more space behind the animal than in front of it to capture the best effect.

Remember that all of these rules are made to be broken. Photographers who only follow the rules of composition blindly fail to see the creative possibilities in other ways to compose an image.

Train yourself to look for those distractions to exclude from your photographs. While the painter adds to a canvas to improve a composition, the photographer usually needs to subtract to make a photograph better. Too much clutter, especially near the main subject, usually hurts a photograph.


One of the easiest composition rules for the wildlife photographer to remember is called the Rule of Thirds. By the Rule of Thirds, we divide a picture into three equal parts horizontally and three equal parts vertically. To easily grasp this, mentally draw the game tic-tac-toe. Now think about where you might place an animal in your photograph. The center square? This makes for a rather boring composition, doesn't it? How about the lower left square? That works, if it's not too close to the edge of the frame or looking to the left.

Now think about placing the deer where the left-most vertical line and lowest horizontal line intersects. That's better, isn't it? The intersections of the dividing lines arc considered points of power. An element placed at one of these points has more eye attraction.


Many photographers overlook the chance to make vertical photographs. Perhaps that's because we see the world horizontally. Train yourself to think about flipping the camera into a vertical position.

How do you know when to shot a vertical? While that might be in the eye of the beholder, with some subjects it's easy to decide. If shooting a horizontal would include distracting elements on either side of an animal that you can't get close enough to crop out, shoot a vertical. If shooting a vertical would cut off an important part of the subject such that it diminishes a photograph, shoot a horizontal. If you want to sell photographs for magazine covers-shoot some verticals. Covers pay well. So do two-page spreads, but those are horizontals.

A few last thoughts on composi-tion. Forget all the stuff about where the subject appears and what else is in the frame for a moment, and keep your eye on the target. Think about what you're really trying to do: capture the real essence of a wild animal on film. How can you best do that? Shoot pictures that tell a story. Make an effort to shoot every wildlife image so that it offers a story to the viewer and their eye won't get bored.

Look at some photographs that you like, and see if you can figure out if the photographer used any of these concepts to help do that. Better yet, look at your own photographs and see if you have. Sometimes we do it without knowing.

A horizontal image thal has room For the "gutter" where the pages of a magazine are bound, could make a double-page spread.

Pictures that tell a story always make interesting compositions. This tern chick is waiting for one of it's parents to bring back food, while it's sibling remains unhatched.

In the next chapter, we'll explore some of the ways that we can add or subtract elements in the field to improve our compositions.

Published with the permission of Amherst Media. All images and text are copyright © by Bill Silliker.
No use of these materials shall be permitted except through the prior written authorization
and permission of Amherst Media.

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