On composition, part two

Unfortunately, I don’t use this blog to demonstrate composition in nature photography as often as I should, and instead you get illustrative, detail, or portrait-style images. I do a little of everything: illustrations and identifying details are important for many uses, but it never hurts to have a well-composed image as well. So now I’ll talk a little more about composition in wildlife photography.

First off, appropriate settings are greatly preferred. The idea is to capture a little window into nature, and inappropriate backgrounds or settings take away from this for the viewer. It works best if you can capture your subject already in place within the right setting, but there are many difficulties with this. Your subject is unlikely to be enamored with the idea of your close approach, and will choose to hide. The natural setting, while realistic, may not be photogenic – dead leaves or branches, complicated backgrounds, too little contrast, or distracting elements are actually pretty common. And even if you manage to get past these, getting decent light on your subject can be very tricky. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve struggled to get the camera lens lined up past concealing foliage, only to have the strobe blocked, or had my subject sitting half in shadow which becomes far too dark on film.

So, sometimes you aim to either alter a setting to work better, by removing distracting elements, cutting light to the background, or forcing a better angle (if you like nature photography, be prepared to crawl around and get filthy and wet.) Sometimes, you’ll simply move or coax your subject into a better location. And sometimes you’ll actually construct a set of some kind in controlled conditions – I find this most useful for insects, but used it extensively for saltwater and brackish subjects when I lived in Florida. Everything in those images is authentic and consistent with the species, but I was able to work without scuba gear and with controlled lighting.

Even with all of that, however, you still want to achieve something more whenever you can. A striking “pose,” an interesting bit of behavior, or even an evocative “expression.” We humans have a fierce tendency to identify animal behavior with our own, which is something I actively discourage, but it still produces stronger reactions when it can be associated with an image. Here, the frog has an almost wistful, contemplative expression, mostly communicated by the angle it sits and the position I chose to shoot from. The image is cropped (from the original horizontal composition) to give it space for this apparent attention, with an imaginary line running along the frog’s gaze to the corner. The position of the forelegs and the toes is casual and relaxed in appearance, rather than tensed and poised to jump. And, for this post, I even placed the image itself so that the frog’s “attention” directs into the text, rather than off the screen as it would have on the opposite side.

There’s more, too. The softbox on the flash prevented harsh shadows, shed light from above rather than direct from the camera, and provided a catchlight in the eyes. The rain kept the frog’s skin moist, which makes the viewer think of tree or aquatic frogs rather than toads. The stems of the leaves all seem to draw towards the frog, and the uppermost one mimics the line of the frog’s jaw and spine for a little harmony. I actually ducked down slightly to have the top leaf frame the frog’s head as it does. None of the leaves are damaged, which would also have provided a negative impact to the viewer.

And there’s one more, extremely subtle thing: the pupils aren’t dilated as they normally might have been in dark conditions. This was because I was using a bright flashlight to focus, but from the standpoint of the viewer, it actually changes the apparent emotion of the frog. Wide pupils indicate excitement, fear, or reaction, which would have said something entirely different about this pose. Instead, the smaller pupils communicate that the frog is relaxed, mellow, and not thinking of going anywhere. In truth, this is entirely inaccurate, but it makes no difference to how this image might be interpreted or used.

This frog was actually found alongside my door, perched on an old windowscreen frame. I moved it to the treebranch you see here, which was a perfectly natural setting for the species, then followed it around looking for poses of opportunity as it shifted position along the branch. The moisture is authentic, since this was immediately following a rain and the leaves were still dripping. Afterwards, I returned it to exactly where I’d found it. Taking this small step for a better setting added remarkably to the image, and the remaining factors were a combination of careful framing, timing, and the positions the frog shifted through. Making the extra effort will change your images for the better.