Beginner’s Guide To Nature Photography: Composition


Photos communicate. Good nature photos communicate well! Photographic Composition refers to the arrangement of visual elements in a photo. As a photographer, you use lines, shapes, colors, tones, patterns, textures, balance, symmetry, depth, perspective, scale, and lighting to bring your images to life. But to consider the interplay of all of these visual elements in every photo is daunting. A more practical approach to nature photo composition is to look through your viewfinder and ask yourself two questions. (You probably shouldn’t ask these questions out loud, or else nearby people and animals will wonder why you are talking to yourself.

1. What is the message of this photo?
2. What is the best way to communicate that message?

Nature photos are successful when the message is clear. When the photographer’s message is garbled, ambiguous, weak or obscured by distracting visual elements in the composition, the photo is not a keeper. Nature photos that convey a powerful message compel the viewer to take a second look in order to soak in the beauty and meaning of the image.


The single best watchword to keep in mind as you compose photos is simplicity. Instead of trying to squeeze lots of subjects into a photo-a flock of geese, a wildflower meadow, a spectacular sunset and dear Aunt Thelma standing on her head-aiming for simplicity is often the best strategy. Interestingly, some professional nature photographers actually take a “subtractive” approach to composition rather than an “additive” approach; instead of dwelling on what they can add to the composition, they focus on what can be removed in order to strengthen the composition.

In many cases, a poor composition can be turned into a good composition by fine-tuning through the viewfinder; that is, by moving the camera slightly left, right, up or down with simplicity as a goal. Compositions suffer when your message is diluted by unwanted visual distractions. Avoid visual clutter and your compositions will sing!


Good photo composition takes time; great photo composition cakes even more time. Nature photos composed in ten seconds or less usually bear little resemblance to those composed in ten minutes or more. There arc occasions in wildlife photography when you must rapidly point and shoot or else you will miss the opportunity altogether, but many nature photo subjects change very slowly. When you slow down to meticulously compose photos, the rewards may include a wonderful meditative experience along with vast improvement in your photos. How much better would your nature photos be if you spent at least ten minutes composing each one?!?


Just as a landscape painter would not leave a portion of the canvas totally blank, you should not ignore any portion of the scene that you frame in your viewfinder. Make the best use of the entire “canvas” of each photo. When you look through the viewfinder, think of it as a rectangular picture frame; as you compose, make use of all the available space. Fill the frame!

You can significantly strengthen many compositions by zooming in as much as your lenses allow or, if possible, getting closer to your subject. Photographic compositions are weakened when important subject matter is too small to see.


The length of a frame of 35mm film is 50% greater than its width, so every photo is markedly rectangular, not square. Most people have a pronounced tendency to take far more horizontal photos than verticals. But many landscapes have strong vertical elements such as trees, mountains and water talk. Also, depending on your perspective even horizontal landscape features can appear vertical. If you arc standing high on a bridge and looking up a river, the river will appear as a vertical element in your photo. And in close-up photography, the stem of a wildflower or a blade of grass can be a strong vertical element.

Consider whether a vertical or a horizontal composition will be most attractive in each situation. You can enliven your nature photography if you consciously take more verticals!


You see lines almost anywhere you point your camera. How can you use these lines to enhance your photos? Three elements to look to in your photo compositions are diagonal lines, leading lines and curved lines. Judicious placement of these lines can create memorable images. Horizontal and vertical lines in photos often frame the scene or create visual boundaries within the image. Horizontal and vertical lines characteristically have a static appearance in nature photos, whereas diagonal lines frequently arc where the action is. Diagonals are dynamic!

One type or diagonal line is known as a “leading line,” A leading line may extend from the proximity of any of the four corners of a photo toward the middle of the image or toward a significant feature in the image. You can find many leading lines in the landscape such as riverbanks, borders between field and forest, and fallen trees. A leading line often enhances a photo because it leads the viewer’s eve into the picture; it visually links the foreground and background, creating continuity and an added element of depth.

Curved lines add aesthetic appeal to nature photos. In particular, S-curves frequently appear beautiful to the eye. S-curves in nature include winding rivers, curled tree branches, sinuous vines, swirling clouds, and slithering snakes


Many people routinely compose photos with the main subject in the middle of the image. This approach produces a lot of photos that look rather static as if they were studio portraits. You can often produce a more interesting image by placing the main subject somewhere other than the center of the image. All easy way to keep this in mind is to use “the rule of thirds.” Imagine the scene in your viewfinder is divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically. To visualize this, pretend that a tic-tac-toe grid has been superimposed on the scene. Now compose the image so that the main subject of the photo is located approximately at one of the intersections of these imaginary “thirds” lines.

For instance, if a deer is the main subject of your photo, you might compose the image so that the deer is one-third of the way up from the bottom of the image and one-third of the way across from the left side of the image. You may also want to place prominent horizontal or vertical lines-such as the horizon or a large tree trunk – approximately one-third of the way from one of the four edges of the image. The objective of this rule is to diversity your compositions by consciously positioning your photo subjects away from the center.

7 Quick Landscape Composition Guidelines

postVisit most any photo site on the web, and the vast majority of images you’ll see are of people, nature and architecture. These are the overarching topics that are then subdivided – people in foreign lands, formal portraiture, kids, etc. / landscapes, seascapes, wildlife, etc. / cityscapes, isolated iconic buildings, close ups of buildings and their reflections, etc. While the text and sample images of this article focus on landscapes, the same principles can be applied to most of the listed subjects above. So study the following hints and tips and think how you can substitute Subject A, B, or C into each.

It’s All About the Light: The most dramatic light occurs at sunrise and sunset. The color is warm, it reveals shape and texture due to the low angle, and if there are clouds, the colors can be spectacular. While being out at sunset isn’t much of a sacrifice, getting up at the crack of dawn can be a struggle. But if you don’t, you’ll miss some of the best light of the day.

Think Small: Landscapes are commonly photographed with wide angle lenses to take in the grand scenic. While this is an absolute requirement, don’t overlook the intimate landscape that lies at your feet. Look to the right, to the left, and down. The shot of the day may be a macro just twelve inches from your big toe.

Filter it: Two filters I never leave home without are my polarizer and graduated neutral density. The polarizer saturates a blue sky and removes glare. Without it, my skies lack contrast and my colors aren’t as rich and saturated. The graduated neutral density allows me to create a perfect exposure of a bright sky and shadowed foreground. A 2 stop soft edge is the most versatile, although I own many other variations.

Rule of Thirds: I prefer to call it the Guideline of Thirds in that there are times when you can break it successfully, but for the majority of photographic situations, it will help. Getting the main subject out of the center of the picture provides a better image. Note the key focal points in each of the three photos that accompany this article. None are bulls eyed.

Touch of Color: Take a look at the image made in Bryce Canyon. The tree stands out for three primary reasons – rule of thirds / different texture / different color. In what would have been a monochrome image, the tree is used as a color focal point. As it’s so different from the rest of the subject matter, even though it takes up a small portion of the picture, it’s the primary subject.

Wise Use of Depth Of Field: If you want foreground to background sharpness, strap on a wide angle, stop it down to f22 and focus one third ito the image. This works great for showing the vast landscape. On the other hand, if you want a single flower to be the focal point, do the opposite. Strap on the telephoto, focus on the given bud, and open the lens up. This will create a selective focus look wherein just a single plane is sharp leading the viewer to that spot.

Leading Lines: Leading lines bring the viewer to the primary focal point. They can be zig zag, bending, or diagonal, but should relate to the context of the overall image. In the coastal sunset shot, I used a wide angle and placed the lines of the flowing river and reflecting sun in the foreground. Note how they follow a bending path up to the shoreline and then to the seastack and sunset.