Photo Tip: Composition is Vital in Creating that Great Safari Photograph

I look at a lot of photography.  A lot of it is really bad.  Why do I say it’s bad?  Well usually the ‘small things’ … but important things:

  • Subject too centered in frame
  • Distracting elements in the background directly behind the primary subject
  • Horizon too centered
  • Exposure issues

The proposed exercise in this article may not help with exposure, but hopefully it will help with the other issues mentioned as well as many other common mistakes.  This is not to say exposure isn’t important – it is very important, often creating the overall mood of the image, but we will leave that exercise for a later post.

There have been many articles written on the subject of composition.  I have read many and must admit they expand my mind when considering composition.  However, as much as I read, composition does not come from these articles until I get out and practice.  I am convinced that a well-composed image is more a matter of practice and experience than it is one of following a list of rules.  I am not saying the famed rules of thumb such as the ‘rule of thirds’ are wrong, but they are guidelines and not written in stone. All of my favorite photographers break the rules in some of their images if it gave him the final results he was after.  However, most of their other images follow the traditional rules. You just have to know how to work those rules, and that comes from practice.

Some great photos are ‘luck’ or quick ‘snapshots’ that worked out; however, the best images are not just taken, they are ‘produced’.  By produced, I mean that the photographer new and understood all of the elements of the image that was within his frame – the foreground, the horizon and all of the other elements that build the image.  This requires a lot of understanding from practice.  I try to shoot daily … and I still often miss critical elements, but I am much better than I was a few years ago.

Some people ‘have the eye’ and will catch onto composition fast.  While this sounds great, many of these photographers, when asked why their image is good cannot articulate what elements make the image work.  These folks probably need this exercise even more as it is important to understand framing you are producing if you wish to have repeat success in your work.  Others will struggle greatly to make that first ‘great composition.

Regardless if you are the former or latter type mentioned above, most people can consistently make good compositions given some good pointers and time to practice.  Throughout, we have tried and will continue to try to give you many good pointers.  It is up to you to practice.  You don’t have to be on safari to practice.  You can practice in your neighborhood, at the local park or on city streets. How long that takes mostly depends on how you go about it. The only real way to practice composing a good image is by getting out there.  Digital photography makes this practice inexpensive, virtually free.   Practice images allow you can see what you did right, and what you did wrong. However, just slapping a lens on your camera and shooting away is not the answer either.

I hope my discussions so far have convinced you that practice is needed, now for the exercise and the point of this article. Many years ago I came across what I feel is probably one of the best ways to learn composition.  The process will feel limiting, but we promise it will give you the focus needed to grow. The concept is very simple. You take one camera body, one lens, and pick one subject to shoot. Sounds easy, but here is the key catch: before going out, set a limit of how many images you are allowed for this ‘shoot’.  We recommend a maximum of 20 frames.  Now, go out about town, or country, and fill your quota with that one subject only, and take your time doing it.  Whether you use a point and shoot or a dSLR camera makes little difference, but we suggest that you only use a wide angle lens. In fact, the wider angle the lens is the better. When you start trying to compose an image with the wide angles’ huge field of view You will see why this is an important step in the process. Telephoto lenses are too easy to compose with, as just about any way you turn you can frame a shot with them, but a wide angle lens will make you “work” to get things right. Suddenly foregrounds are much different and a distracting object will make you move in, or around to eliminate it.  You will also see the importance of elevation (high angle or low to the ground) in creating a more powerful image.

Here is one last tip on composition; if there is any object that appears in the frame which does not “enhance” your image, then it will most often “detract from” the image. Watch carefully to eliminate or minimize  telephone poles and wires, tree branches where there is no tree and generally items that from the message that you want to show in your image. Once more this is where the use of the wide angle lens will give you a lot of practice working to eliminate those things, because the wider the angle, the more things that appear in the frame, and the more you have to pay attention to what is there that should not be.

Once you try this composition test, and see just how demanding it is, you will also see just how much better your images start looking with all of your lenses, as you learn what to show in a shot, and what to make sure does not show up there.

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