My primary aim with Born Wild is to tell the stories behind my favorite images, but I am increasingly hopeful it will become a suitable platform to share the photographic knowledge I have gathered over my career to a community of aspiring artists and conservationists. After all, a handful of well-known photographers alone cannot propel the conservation movement with enough momentum to overcome the challenges we face. Winning this fight will require millions of passionate people investing in themselves to become the best storytellers they can be. With that as an objective, I wanted to share some notes regarding composition and its relation to storytelling – an often inquired-upon topic I wrote about in my Photographing Wild ebook.
In my opinion, composition is not about rules – it is about storytelling and emotion. It is about making decisions before releasing the shutter that will help your audience connect to an issue in the most powerful way possible. Even the most exciting subject in the world will lose its luster on the other side of the lens unless your compositional choices help it shine. What you include in the frame, the moment you choose to capture, and where you place available elements are all factors that can make or break a great photograph.
Without further ado, please enjoy chapter two of my Photographing Wild ebook: Compose Yourself.
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When I have the camera to my eye, I am not thinking analytically about composition. Much of my approach leans towards what 'feels' right – I am thinking about the feeling of the scene in front of me or the story I want to tell. My decisions usually come from my gut reaction to those things, but that doesn't mean composition is unimportant.
I have been doing this long enough that my approach has become very right-brained and intuitive. I have learned composition not by studying design principles but by studying photographs and getting a sense of what works for me and what does not. It is still a mindful, intentional approach, but it focuses on the feeling and story of the image, not so much on how I got there. Having said that, I do think an understanding of what works and why it works – an awareness of the visual tools available to us – is important.
I talk about composition in the way that makes the most sense to me: through my photographs. I have put images on the following pages with some notes about why I think each works compositionally – why I did what I did and how those decisions contributed to the photograph. I talk about scale and balance and repeated elements, but it is possible to develop a sense of composition without knowing what those things are. When you hold the camera to your eye, you're not thinking about them anyway. You can't be – there isn't time. The time to get a sense for them is now. Study other photographs and discover what you like, what you don't, what works, and why.
This image succeeds for a few reasons. The angle of the frame establishes the horizontal relationship between the Mola mola and the diver. The sunrays and the diver's bubbles establish a vertical, which creates a nice tension and draws the eye around the frame. There's good negative space, which gives the eye plenty of room to move and explore, and the diver's size relative to the fish establishes scale. Her gaze in the direction of the Mola mola pushes our focus back to the fish, the main subject of the image.
The size of the gull relative to the extent of the ice provides scale and establishes a contrast of size. There is a contrast of ideas here, also: the elegant, living bird contrasted with the cold, sharp ice helps tell the story by establishing the setting. The repeated element of the second bird in the top left corner creates energy and calls our attention again to the idea of the photograph, like a visual echo.
This photograph is about the leopard seal and her environment. Specifically, it articulates the idea that she is at home both above and below the thin blue line – an implication created by placing the waterline through the center of the frame. The mountains are reflected in the shapes of the ice under the seal, creating a delicate, dynamic balance. Her gaze into the water helps tell a story as she rests between meals, while the wide-angle lens creates a sense of depth and intimacy that a longer lens wouldn't.
A wide-angle lens pushed in low and close gives this image depth, allowing me to depict a sense of place and create a feeling of immersion. I waited for something to happen, and when I finally captured the arc of sand flipped in the air, I knew the resulting image would show life and energy. Don't underestimate the role of patience and receptivity in your compositions. Composition isn't just about organizing existing elements – it is just as important to anticipate moments that are yet to arrive.
To my eye, the strongest compositions are simple and don't try to do too much. This photograph tells a story of a spirit bear in her environment. The river creates a strong diagonal line, which implies energy, and the bear's posture does the same. She is on the move, but her attentive gaze takes it a step further by implying a search or a hunt, which gives the image its sense of story. Her small size provides both scale and a sense of place.