Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Composition

A Few Thoughts on Composition

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry 6 Comments

Understanding the psychology behind composition and how people read an image is vital if you are looking to create striking, powerful images.

The rule of thirds is a good place to start as it has some merit but only if the use thereof supports the narrative in your image and what you are wanting to show the reader or your image.  Using it just for the sake of complying is not only boring but can lead to stale images that lack creativity.  Breaking the rule of thirds just for the sake of breaking it is basically anarchy and won’t necessarily lead to better images.

If we look past all the talk of composition, rules and what the professionals think I believe a common sense approach to composition will always win.  People don’t look at your images to see how well you conformed to the rules they look at, and appreciate,  your images because it makes them feel something.

Using this common sense approach take a look at this image.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Composition

By placing the herd of elephants in the middle of the frame I am confusing the reader of my image.

Don’t think of it in terms of rules or composition but rather look at the image and ‘feel’ how your eyes move through the frame.  Don’t you feel like your eyes wander a bit?  Isn’t there too much negative space split between the top and bottom of the frame?

Sure, an argument could be made that this image make me feel like the elephants are in a vast expanse and almost lost but I think the narrative can be stronger by shifting the subjects either to the top or bottom of the frame.  From experience and questions that I’ve received on safaris most people will drop the subjects down to bottom in order to show more sky.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Composition

Same elephants.  Same scene.  Very different visual.

In this image my reader will get the feeling of massive skies and how small the world’s largest animals is dwarfed by the scale of the place.  Nothing wrong and often a great way to compose your images especially if you have dramatic clouds to create depth and interest in the image.

My concern is that most people will then stop there or, even worse, shoot 15 of exactly the same images.

By moving the subjects to the top of the frame you will not only create more depth in your images – one of the most difficult things to do in photography – but you will also end up with a more diverse portfolio of images.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Composition

The look and feel of this image is very different to the previous one.

By placing the subjects at the top of the frame it makes the reader of my image notice the distance to the subject, more than the sky, and that they are closer to eye level to the elephants.

To me this is the best of the three images and the one that both looks and feels the best.  Don’t get so stuck on the rules that you forget to consider what a certain composition feels like and how the reader of your image will react to it.

Until next time.


About the Author

Gerry van der Walt

I am a private and specialist photographic safari guide, public speaker, co founder of Wild Eye and wildlife photographer. Visit my website at or follow my journey on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter a look forward to changing the way you see the world.  I also host a Wildlife Photography Podcast and I Vlog!

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Comments 6

  1. Pingback: A Few Thoughts on Composition - Africa Freak

  2. Neil Nourse

    Very informative Gerry,
    As I was reading this I was scrolling down and and thought the picture looked better with the elephants nearer the top. It gave them somewhere to walk into, same as a side portrait usually needs a place to look into. Glad to see reading down farther that I am on the right track!!

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  3. Brian Helsdon

    Sorry don’t agree. The image you prefer is half blurry desert, surely not pleasing to the eye whatever the point you are making. My preference is nearly the first picture but with the elephants placed between the halfway point and the top third.

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      Gerry van der Walt

      No need to be sorry Brian. The nice thing with photography is that there really is no right or wrong. The way we shoot and compose is a very personal thing and something that a lot of people struggle with. The idea with this post, and other ones like this, is to make people think and to push them to try different things. there is nothing quite as frustrating as just going with the rules all the time and ending up with a portfolio of images that all look the same. And yes, the images weren’t intended to be sharp as this is the type of hazy light you find on the lake bed in Amboseli. Thanks for your comment. Always appreciated! 🙂

  4. Doug bolt

    My initial thought after viewing image 1 was to crop just below thedark band in the foreground Thoughts?
    PS presented a slideshow last evening at our camera club. Lots of folks expressed interest in a Wild-eye safari.

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