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Snowy Owl peeks through her primary feathers as she takes flight

Wildlife photography composition guide

Once you have a photo with proper focus and exposure, composition is the difference between a good and an excellent wildlife photograph. Composition is the arrangement of the subject and its surrounding elements in a photo, along with their relation to the edges of the frame. In wildlife photography, the photographer can partially control composition in the field but often has to make additional composition decisions in post-processing by choosing a particular crop.

Here are our tips for improving composition in your wildlife photography.

Determine your subject

What is the subject of your wildlife photo? Is the subject a herd of animals or a single animal within the herd?

A compelling wildlife photo has a subject that is immediately apparent to viewers. Whatever the subject, it is the focal point of your image, and you need to make composition decisions to feature it.

Perhaps an image can be cropped to isolate the subject of your image. Or you could use a wide aperture and shallow depth of field to blur the background and highlight the animal you want your viewers to focus on.

Imperial Cormorants in the Falkland Islands
In the original photo, the two cormorants are surrounded by a group of penguins, which detracts from the photo’s subject.
Imperial Cormorants in the Falkland Islands
Cropping this image removes the clutter of penguins and much of the blank blue backdrop, which wasn’t adding to the image, leaving a much stronger composition.
Two rhinoceroses cross horns
This image of two rhinoceroses is nicely balanced and shows the complete scene, but its focal point is the pair of rhinoceroses crossing their horns, which is lost in this wider-angle composition.
Two rhinoceroses cross horns
Zooming in on the rhinos highlights the important point for viewers to notice: they are crossing horns, making this a stronger composition for this scene.

Focus on the eyes

Humans respond instinctually to eye contact with other humans and with animals. By establishing eye contact between the animal and the viewer, you can form a connection between them, giving a more engaging experience with your photo.

Brown bear enters the river at Katmai National Park
This composition is engaging because the bear is looking right at you.

When photographing animals, you may have a sequence of many photos, each with a different appearance of the eyes. A photo with both eyes easily visible is generally more interesting than a photo with one eye visible.

Great Grey Owl - Grand Teton National ParkGreat Grey Owl - Grand Teton National Park
The photo in which the Great Grey Owl makes eye contact is more engaging than the one in which it gazes in a different direction.

You don’t always need the animal looking at you. Often, a predator is eyeing its prey, or a mother is looking at her offspring. When these sorts of eye contact are present, try to capture the animal’s gaze and what they are looking at.

This cheetah is staring at the zebras to the right, so the composition is based on the direction of the cheetah’s gaze.

Photograph from eye level

A photographer’s natural tendency is to capture images from a human perspective, often looking at animals from a downward angle. The most compelling wildlife images happen when you put yourself at the animal’s eye level. You can share the world from the animal’s perspective by getting low. The added benefit is that animals appear larger and more imposing from a lower perspective.

Marine iguana - Galapagos
Photographing from ground level makes this marine iguana look imposing.

Portrait or environmental image

Close-up wildlife portraits can be striking, showing beautiful details in eyes, feathers, and fur that are difficult or impossible to appreciate in person. Close-ups also isolate an animal from a busy, cluttered background. Many wildlife photographers default to close-ups.

Elephant seal sleeping on Barrientos Island in Antarctica
The original image of the elephant seal shows its funny expression, but the surroundings are boring.
Elephant seal sleeping on Barrientos Island in Antarctica
Cropping out everything except its face removes distractions and makes the image much funnier and more engaging.

It is also essential to feature animals in their environment. Use the surrounding landscape to show the viewer where they live. These environments can be beautiful, barren, or harsh. By incorporating the surrounding landscape, photographers can tell a more complete story about the animals they photograph.

Bighorn sheep ram on a rocky cliff in Yellowstone National Park
By including the rocks and positioning the bighorn sheep at the top of them, the viewer gets a better understanding of these animals’ remarkable climbing agility.

When incorporating the surrounding landscape in a wildlife photo, often the landscape dictates the composition more than the animal. The photographer’s task is to create a compelling landscape photo and wait for the animal to be in a desirable position in the scene.

Elephants on the savanna
When zoomed in, this is a nicely lit photo of two elephants in Kenya, but it lacks landscape detail and context.
Elephants on the savanna
Composing the image for the large acacia tree gives the photo a much grander scale and highlights the savanna where these elephants live. It also provides a frame for the elephants and strengthens the overall composition.

Allow space to move

Unlike video, conveying motion in still photography can be challenging. When an animal moves through your frame, allow space for it to move. For example, if the animal moves from left to right, your composition will feel more natural and balanced if there is more space on the right of the image.

Leaving more space prevents an image from feeling cramped or crowded. This space is sometimes referred to as negative space.

Black-browed albatross on the Falkland Islands
The original image of this Black-browed Albatross is centered horizontally, giving the composition a static feel.
Black-browed albatross on the Falkland Islands
Cropping the image makes a stronger composition. Excess grass is removed, and the bird is given more room in front to fly, better implying the direction of motion in the scene.

This same concept should be applied to sedentary or resting animals. Even when motionless, animals sometimes gaze in a particular direction or have a body posture that favors one side of the image more than the other.

Cheetah on a termite mound
The cheetah is looking to the left. More room on the left makes this composition feel more natural and balanced.

Rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is a commonly used compositional tool in photography and other art. It is a “rule of thumb” that discourages placing the subject at the center of the image, leading to more visually engaging images. An image is divided into nine equal parts, with two vertical and two horizontal lines. The subject is aligned with these lines or their intersections.

The rule of thirds is useful and can provide a good guide or starting point when thinking about your final composition. However, it is merely a suggestion, and you should experiment based on the contents of your image.

The Willet is aligned to a vertical line using the rule of thirds.

Try for separation

When photographing groups of animals, the best images are usually those where there is separation between the animals, not overlap. Since you don’t control the animals’ motion, achieving this requires luck or patience.

Bison trudge through a snowstorm in Yellowstone National Park
The overlap between the two bison is an undesirable composition.
Bison trudge through a snowstorm in Yellowstone National Park
Moments earlier, the visual separation between the bison provides a more compelling composition.

You should also look for separation between an animal’s limbs. When walking, running, or standing still, four-legged animals sometimes appear to have only two or three legs because they overlap during their stride. You can overcome this by capturing a sequence of photos and choosing the image with the best visual separation of their legs.

Pay attention to the background

The background of your image can be just as critical as the animal you are photographing. A background can add context and beauty to an image or help isolate and highlight your subject animal. A poorly chosen background can detract from your subject animal. Unfortunately, compelling wildlife activity can happen with busy or cluttered backgrounds.

When photographing wildlife, you often cannot control the background. You may be restricted to a specific location because you are in a blind or a boat or restricted by terrain or safety concerns.

There are situations where you can improve your background simply by walking to a new location. Sometimes, you can remove an impeding branch or get a better angle to the animal by repositioning yourself.

You can also use the animal’s motion to wait for them to pass in front of the best background.

Bald Eagle
This Bald Eagle in Alaska is attractive in flight, but the forest background is a bit boring and doesn’t offer much contrast against the eagle’s dark feathers.
Bald eagle in flight
A couple of seconds later, the Bald Eagle flew in front of a snow-capped mountain, providing more contrast and telling a stronger story about the Alaskan environment in which it lives.

Use leading lines

A photographer’s task is to present the viewer with an image that directs the viewer’s eye, leading it through the image and landing on the subject. A leading line is one compositional tool for this purpose. Leading lines are natural lines in the picture that could be horizontal, vertical, diagonal, straight, or curved. A viewer’s eye will naturally follow these lines when viewing the image.

In landscape photography, you can deliberately select and feature leading lines. In wildlife photography, the animal’s position dictates the scene, which may or may not have obvious leading lines. If the scene has compelling leading lines, position the animal relative to them in your frame.

Coyote at a creek in Yellowstone National Park
The stream forms a nice leading line that leads to the coyote.
Gentoo penguin swimming - Neko Harbour, Antarctica
The ripple pattern in the water forms a series of leading lines that draw your attention to the penguin.
The iceberg’s graceful, curving lines lead the viewer’s eye toward the subject of this photo, the tiny penguin.

Find symmetry, shapes, and patterns

The human mind seeks symmetry and groups symmetrical elements together unconsciously. Images with strong symmetry can be more visually pleasing and engaging.

The mind also seeks recognizable shapes and repeating patterns, such as triangles, diamonds, or more complex shapes like hearts.

White rhinos grazing with a starling passenger
The mirrored posture of a mother rhinoceros and her calf creates a visually pleasing composition.
Snowy trumpeter swans sleep on the banks of the Yellowstone river
The viewer’s eye is drawn to the symmetrical curves of these resting trumpeter swans.
Flamingos in Walvis Bay, Namibia
The two flamingoes in the middle share strong symmetry and form a heart shape that draws the viewer’s eye.
Zebras in a watering hole
The repeating patterns of zebras hold the viewer’s attention.

Avoid unintentional crops

Scan the edges of your frame to ensure you photograph the entire animal. If the edge of a wing, antler, tail, or limb goes outside the frame, it looks like a mistake. During fast action, photograph at a wider angle than you need so you don’t miss any body parts, and crop the image in post-processing.

If the image features only part of an animal, be intentional about where you crop it. Usually, cropping at mid-limb or mid-torso gives the photo a natural feel.

Two zebras fighting
This image of two zebras fighting should have been photographed at a wider angle to capture the lower parts of their bodies and avoid the hoof’s intersection with the edge of the frame.

Pay attention to shadows

Animals can cast a strong and distinct shadow in certain lighting conditions. When your subject casts a strong shadow, it becomes an essential part of your subject. Pay attention to shadows when photographing, and keep them in frame.

Coyote on the banks of the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park
The coyote’s shadow is an essential part of this photo.

Use reflections

Like shadows, reflections of an animal in water can make an image far more dramatic. When still water is in the foreground, position yourself to take advantage of reflections. Moving backward, forward, up, and down, even a small amount, can dramatically affect how reflections appear in your composition. Experiment with your position and ensure you don’t accidentally crop off essential parts of the reflection.

Bison reflected in Trout Creek - Yellowstone National ParkBison reflected in Trout Creek - Yellowstone National Park
Moving closer dramatically changed the reflection of the bison in the water.

Take advantage of natural framing

You can frame animals by using natural elements in a scene. For example, trees, foliage, rocks, or even man-made objects can be subtle or obvious frames that draw the viewer’s attention to your subject.

Baby moutain gorilla
The dense jungle foliage provides a natural frame for this baby mountain gorilla.
Chimpanzee picking ficus fruit
Tree limbs provide a natural frame for this chimpanzee picking ficus fruit.

Break the rules

Sometimes, unique scenes don’t fall within these guidelines. Be creative and ignore the rules of composition. Sometimes, you’ll end up with an unusual and striking image.

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