“Two Arctic Wolves, Profiles in Black & White”

Seeing Wildlife As Compositional Elements

Landscape & Environment

June 23, 2018 ·

Harvey Stearn
“Gulls in Formation”, Cannon Beach, OR
“Gulls in Formation”, Cannon Beach, OR

During the 2010 Sedona Photo Festival, I was one of six exhibitors in a show featuring the works of local master photographers. During a quiet moment, Larry Lindahl, another of the six featured photographers, came over to say hello. Larry is a widely-published landscape photographer whose opinions are well considered. He turned to me and said, “you know, your images look a lot like paintings”. That wasn’t the first time that I had been told that; and I didn’t necessarily view that as either good or bad. So, I asked Larry what led him to that conclusion. He paused, and then said, “I can’t really say. But, there is something about them.”

So, it was left up in the air for both of us to ponder. I often use higher shutter speeds for landscape images that include wildlife, to keep every element of the image sharp and detailed. Sometimes that leads to a relatively static, perhaps more painting-like image that lacks a sense of movement. Consequently, showing some blur to emphasize movement in my wildlife photography is a technique that I now use more frequently.

But, there is another side to the “painting-like feeling” in many of my photographs that I’ve come to understand better. Over the years, I spent much time viewing classical paintings in many museum exhibits. The old masters who produced these paintings placed great emphasis on composition and balance. This is a luxury that painters have that often is unavailable to nature photographers, as the painter is free to take license with what he or she sees. In periodically reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of my own work (something that all artists need to do periodically), I recognized a persistent bias toward creating nature photographs with classic compositional balance. This takes place in what I choose to shoot, and additionally in what I select for printing from the variations that I shot.

There are many ways to present any scene. Following one way slavishly is not the way of the creative artist. So, the guidelines presented in this article are only offered in the spirit of sharpening one’s visualization, and not as “The Way” one must follow.

The great majority of successful wildlife images are close-up portraits of animals caught in interesting poses or with compelling expressions. There are two problems with concentrating on this aspect of wildlife photography. First, it usually requires the use of a super-expensive lens that is also very large, heavy and awkward. Second, it ignores the interaction between the animal and other animals, and with his environment in general. Images containing more than one individual often make compelling subjects, particularly if the photographer’s visual sense is sharp. Following are some thoughts on watching for more interesting wildlife presentations to capture.

General Composition Principals

Centuries ago, artists learned that organizing paintings and sketches in certain patterns attracted viewers’ attention more quickly and held their attention longer. Out of these observations, a set of compositional guidelines emerged that has been followed by classic artists in many cultures. In more recent history, it has been fashionable to develop new art forms that largely disregard classic principles. This is healthy and stimulating. But there is still much benefit to be derived from utilizing these classic principles, particularly within the realm of nature photography.

Intrinsic to classic art principles is that the overall composition should be balanced and pleasing as a whole, so that if one were merely to reduce it to simple outlines, or the “bones”, viewers would still find the artwork to be pleasing and artistic. Second, the important elements should stimulate interest individually, but should also relate to each other in a way that highlights the connections between them and their environment. Ideally, they should tell a story, and their relative size, postures, colors, lighting and where they are placed in the composition has a lot to do with that.

If skillfully rendered and placed, the artwork will take advantage of the natural human tendency to explore, and will guide the viewer’s eyes from one part of the image to another without leading them out of the picture, until all of the detail in the image has been absorbed. An artwork that continues to please the eye and stimulate interest will have sustainability, and on a commercial level is more likely to be purchased.

Relating this to wildlife photography, images of animal groups usually don’t sell as well as up-close shots of individual animals. For a given print size, the larger size of the individual animal and more abundant detail is hard to compete with. So, understandably, the demand for prints portraying a single highly detailed individual is usually higher than for prints of groups of animals. But, some of this disparity results from the fact that photographers of wildlife groups rarely pay attention to classic composition principles. Admittedly, when a number of animals are present, it’s difficult for the photographer to concentrate on anything other than getting the shot.  To make composition and placement a priority requires that the photographer change his priorities and take the time to observe wildlife groups to see how they interact, and to stay involved long enough to see dramatic displays of animal behavior.

For example, allotting only a few minutes to a scene with two or more horses will almost guarantee missing some of the more dramatic forms of equine behavior known as “horsing around”, as captured in the following image.

“Just Horsing Around” West Coast of Iceland
“Just Horsing Around” West Coast of Iceland

Staying alert to group behavior and capturing a moment of peak action resulted in the following image of geese at sunset, also taken in Iceland.

“Taking Off for Home” Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
“Taking Off for Home” Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

Like all art photographers, wildlife photographers need to be aware of how different masses can be balanced in the final image to create an effective composition. For example, if there are two groupings, it is best to have one larger than the other, with the larger one closer to the center of the frame. Dark masses can be used to counter-balance larger light masses. A single active animal in the foreground often contrasts successfully with a grouping of static animals in a less imposing part of the frame.

There are many combinations that can be considered which will add interest to an image. The best way to demonstrate this is to organize compositions by group size, specifically: groups of two, groups of three and groups of four or more.

Groups of Two

Compositions consisting of two animals are challenging because they often lead to static images if they are too symmetric. In most cases, this type of image has a “book-ends” look resulting from each of the two animals occupying one half of the frame. This is the equivalent of creating a photograph comprised of two similar images that conflict with each other.

Of course, like all photography rules, there are notable exceptions. So, we might as well get that out of the way first. The following image is a book-end photograph. But it works because a) the creatures are strongly patterned and brightly colored. b) finding two of the same butterflies close together and in the same position is rare, and c) the bookends are positioned so well that they look like mirror images. Moral: if you’re going to break a photography rule, do it wholeheartedly!

“Resting butterflies create mirror image effect”
“Resting butterflies create mirror image effect”

But, usually, when photographing pairs, the subjects are not striking enough to overcome a static composition. So, positioning two at a different level to create a diagonal line, and to provide more space between them provides a more dynamic presentation. The following photograph of two Mountain Goats illustrates this. Because they are placed at nearly opposite ends of the image a tension is maintained that keeps the viewer’s eyes switching back and forth between the two subjects and staying inside the edges of the frame.

“Mountain Goats, Mount Rushmore, Black Hills, SD”
“Mountain Goats, Mount Rushmore, Black Hills, SD”

The next photograph also uses this technique, which is often used by cinematographers to emphasize the tension between two antagonists (notably by Akira Kurosawa in many of his samurai epics). This image suggests that the two longhorn bulls are about to fight over space.

 “Faceoff in a Black Hills Pasture, South Dakota”
“Faceoff in a Black Hills Pasture, South Dakota”

As shown below, another image of the two Mountain Goats places them alongside each other, but still on a diagonal.  A more pleasing presentation is also enabled since the large male is closer to the camera and in the lower center, while the smaller goat’s posture reinforces his and doesn’t compete for immediate attention. Additionally, the two goats are placed near the bottom of the frame to emphasize the tall vertical elements of the treed terrain. This is contrary to the usual practice of placing animals like Mountain Goats and Bighorn Sheep high in the frame to emphasize their reputation as mountain dwellers. Logically, what goes up also comes down on occasion.

“Scanning the Mountainside”
“Scanning the Mountainside”

The next two images illustrate that a pair of animals side by side and centered in the frame. It does not create a static image if they are strongly interacting. In both cases, the surrounding scenery was neither distinctive nor beautiful. So, the animal behavior is the whole show here.

“Young Miniature Horses at Play, Santa Inez Valley, CA”
“Young Miniature Horses at Play, Santa Inez Valley, CA”
“Young Burros Horsing Around", Custer State Park, Black Hills, SD
“Young Burros Horsing Around, Custer State Park, Black Hills, SD”

The following centered image is also dynamic because the two raccoons are working their way up the tree trunk in a spiral path and maintaining a strong diagonal line between them.

“Climbing a Tree Raccoon Style”
“Climbing a Tree Raccoon Style”

Finally, a pair of centered animals can still produce a dynamic image if they are different colors or strike substantially different poses. This can either consist of wildlife portraiture, as illustrated below or can be populated landscapes featuring the two animals, depending on the eye appeal of the surrounding environment. As these wild Arctic Wolves had just been shipped to the Bearizona wildlife preserve two days earlier, the temporary enclosure contained little of interest besides the wolves themselves, with one curious conception. The cast rock face behind them in the first image contained indentations which closely mimicked the wolves profiles. Yet, when this compound was created I doubt that the enclosure designers would have anticipated that some years later they would have an exhibit of Arctic Wolves.

“Two Arctic Wolves, Profiles in Black & White”
“Two Arctic Wolves, Profiles in Black & White”
“Watching Front and Back”
“Watching Front and Back”

Groups of Three 

This is arguably the most preferred number of subjects featured in classic paintings. It easily leads to two unequal groupings of one and two subjects which are not repetitive and boring. This can be further enhanced by relative positioning in the frame and by differences in color, lighting and pose. Even if the threesome is shown as a single grouping there seems to be more charm in a trio then in a pair, particularly if one of the three animals is different from the other two in either size, orientation and posture.

The first of the following images follows the classic positioning of two and one, which in this case has the one giraffe closer to the camera and commanding attention, while the two in the mid-ground and on the opposing side of the image echoes the posture and movement of the foreground giraffe. What adds particular charm to this image is that the trees follow a similar pattern, with a large clump in the mid-ground echoed by small scattered trees in the background.

“Giraffes of the Serengeti, Tanzania”
“Giraffes of the Serengeti, Tanzania”

The next images each appear to be single groups of three, but with some subtle differences. In the Zebra shot, the one on the left stands a little further from the other two, and faces in a different direction. Their reflections clearly illustrate a placement of two and one.

“Three Thirsty Zebra in the Serengeti”
“Three Thirsty Zebra in the Serengeti”

The out of focus lioness has just left a group of three, while the remaining pair (in sharp focus) appears to be having a conversation behind the other’s back.

“Catty Comment”
“Catty Comment”

The following shot of three penguins follows a similar spatial arrangement. The young penguin stands right up against his mother in a classic “Feed Me” pose. His mother tries to ignore him, as he is already shedding his baby plumage and will soon become self-sufficient. The third penguin in the background, which may be the juvenile’s father, is acting totally disinterested. In addition to standing well apart, he mimics the mother’s seeming indifference.

“Feed Me!”, King Penguins, Falkland Islands
“Feed Me!”, King Penguins, Falkland Islands

Through their interaction, the three Desert Bighorn Sheep in the next image definitely form a single group of three. However, the two younger and smaller sheep practicing their head-butting with the tolerant flock leader are a sub-group of two in contra-position to the single dominant ram.

“Practicing Head-butts with the Dominant Ram”
“Practicing Head-butts with the Dominant Ram”

The next three images also feature single groups of three animals. The first two maintain compositional interest by not being completely uniform. In the case of the three African Impala, two of the three animals are mature and sport long curved horns. The third is a young male with smaller straight horns.

“Three Impala, Two Mature Males and a Juvenile”
“Three Impala, Two Mature Males and a Juvenile”

The three Bison in the next image are a group of three animals, but, the two Bison closest to the camera are cows, while the Bison in the back is a young bull recognizable because of his pronounced hump.

“Grazing Bison, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone NP, MT”
“Grazing Bison, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone NP, MT”

The third group of three animals consists of three King Penguins that show great uniformity. They are evenly spaced, close to the same size and are completely in step, though the third penguin is looking away from the camera. Yet this image is anything but boring. Penguins waddle in a comical way. This image and others like it resemble a chorus line, and the effect is, even more, engaging in a video. So, again, rules of photographic and artistic composition are only rules for the majority of situations. The exceptions often turn out to be compelling.

“Penguin Chorus Line, Falkland Islands”
“Penguin Chorus Line, Falkland Islands”

Groups of Four or More

Larger groups of wildlife create more compositional variations but also are more chaotic and confusing. The best way of handling this is to study the group and look for smaller portions that provide interesting contrasts and patterns, and isolating them by either zooming in on that portion (preferable) or crop to that portion during post editing. Specifically, this means finding a group or sub-group where one individual stands out from the rest, or where there is a dramatic distribution pattern that illustrates a story. The following examples should help illustrate this more clearly.

The simplest arrangement of individuals in a wildlife setting is a straight line, usually horizontal. This occurs most often when animals are moving through a scene as in the following image.

“Zebra Parade”, Lake Magadi, Ngorongoro NP
“Zebra Parade”, Lake Magadi, Ngorongoro NP

On rare occasions wildlife will organize themselves into a straight line even while stationary, as captured in the next scene.

“Front Line”, Cape Buffalo, Tarangire NP, Tanzania
“Front Line”, Cape Buffalo, Tarangire NP, Tanzania

Wildlife groupings in which one individual stands out from the rest occur frequently, and the more you look for this, the more adept you will become in capturing it.

The next six images capitalize on this principle in different ways. The first two, of Canada Geese and sea stars simply have one individual in the immediate foreground dominating the scene with others in the foreground complementing the main subject.

“Proud Bird”, Canada Geese at Lake Tahoe, CA
“Proud Bird”, Canada Geese at Lake Tahoe, CA
“Low Tide at Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, OR”
“Low Tide at Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, OR”

In addition to larger relative size, other ways in which individual animals may stand apart in a scene include striking a more intense pose, looking in a different direction than the others, and having a distinctively different appearance. Following are four images that demonstrate this.

“On High Alert”, Desert Bighorn Sheep, SD
“On High Alert”, Desert Bighorn Sheep, SD
“Keeping an Eye on a Rival”, Rocky Mountain NP
“Keeping an Eye on a Rival”, Rocky Mountain NP

In the above elk scene, The central figure is obviously the dominant bull who keeps his harem close to him and an eye on the other bull which he will drive away if the outsider gets too close. The composition helps define what is taking place.

The next two images are crowd scenes in which only one individual stands out because he is distinctly different from the others. The juvenile penguin who still has baby feathers on his head and neck stands out among his generation who already display adult plumage. And the Red Ibis may have coloration similar to the horde of Flamingoes, but he is distinctively different in size and shape.

“King Penguins – The Next Generation”, Falkland Islands
“King Penguins – The Next Generation”, Falkland Islands
“Why Don’t I Look Like Them?”, Red Ibis & Flamingoes
“Why Don’t I Look Like Them?”, Red Ibis & Flamingoes

One last comment on larger wildlife groups. Look for unusual patterns that help create dynamic images. The following photograph of horses and foals running free in the high desert shows a pattern of either two parallel horizontal lines and the stallion running above the lines, or can be viewed as two strong diagonals forming a “V” with one mare running outside the formation in the lower right. Either visualization is dynamic and carries the viewers’ eyes back and forth. This is one of the images that prompted Larry Lindahl to compare them to paintings.

“Running Wild”,  Horses in the High Utah Desert
“Running Wild”,  Horses in the High Utah Desert

Another wildlife photograph that captured an unusual and striking pattern is the opening image of Sea Gulls flying in formation against the wind. Depending on point of view, the pattern is either three horizontal lines, or the Letter H. I consider this image to be unusual and striking.

“Gulls in Formation”, Cannon Beach, OR
“Gulls in Formation”, Cannon Beach, OR

The motivation for this article is to present fresh ways of observing wildlife to photographers who aspire to greater artistic achievement. I hope that those who read it will experience deeper enjoyment from future efforts, and in doing so will help spread the message regarding the importance of supporting and preserving our wild environments.


Harvey Stern
June 2018

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Harvey Stearn

Harvey Stearn has been a dedicated outdoor photographer for over 60 years, starting with his own darkroom prints and moving exclusively to digital capture and printmaking in 2001. His images have won many awards and have been exhibited in galleries, museums, offices and public buildings. They have been published in magazines and have appeared on billboards. His images are represented in private collections through much of the United States. Following a successful business career including the development of the cities of Mission Viejo and Aliso Viejo in California, and extensive public service including the chairmanship of the California Arts Council, Mr. Stearn and his wife Bobbie moved to Sedona, AZ in 2002 to fully pursue their respective artistic passions of photography and painting. Highlights 1980 – 2000 (While primary profession was the management of three major development companies.) - Annual Orange County Fair Photography Competition & Exhibit: Awarded two gold medals, one silver medal, one bronze medal and eight blue ribbons for art photographs submitted in three-year period. - Commissioned by Registry Hotel at John Wayne Airport in Southern California to make large monochrome print for the hotel lobby. - Photograph of a Bristlecone pine tree exhibited at the Laguna Beach Museum of Art for four months. - Photographs of Lake Mission Viejo appeared on billboards and in magazines throughout Southern California. - Served nine years on the California Arts Council (a California State agency) including two years as Chairman and two years as Vice Chairman. - Founding Chairman of the John Wayne Airport Arts Commission for the organization of airport art exhibits. 2000 – to present time - Taught digital photography for eight years at Sedona Arts Center (SAC). - Fashion photograph featured on cover of Apparel News (12/2003) - Photographs of Brins Mesa fire featured in Emergency Management Mag. (2006) - Awarded first place in professional photography division of 2008 SAC show. - Selected as one of five Sedona Masters of outdoor photography for 2010 Photofest. - Full page landscape in 7/2010 Sedona Monthly Magazine article on Sedona Masters. - Winter portfolio published in Winter 2011 issue of Sedona Magazine. - Published art photography book “In Search of the Old West” in 2013, featuring 110 of H Stearn’s images of landscapes, wildlife, western events and old structures. - Guest lecturer (photography) on a South American cruise in 2014. Visit Harvey's Website www.CameraStops.com

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