Composing With The Stars

Let’s take a look at two guest photographers and one painter today, and how they compose their pictures of wild mammals.

I have shown David Hemming’s bird photography on numerous occasions. Birds are not his only wildlife subject as David is a mammal photographer as well.  How about this shot of an Alaskan Brown Bear rising from the water. “in your face” can be beautiful with wildlife imagery.6113902_org

I have never shared the work of Suzi Eszterhas and I thought it was about time. She and Laurie Marker have an important book on the plight of the Cheetah that has just come out. I believe all of the imagery in this book belongs to Suzi.1511693_586274228120635_677210199_n

A few articles ago I shared the bird paintings of Valerie Rogers.  I promised I would bring you a look at some of her fine mammal work, and here it is.  In order from the top, we have a Mountain Goat, Coyote, Black Bear cub and an Otter family.7

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Over the past few months  I have shared a lot of photos by other photographers.  Many of the world’s best image makers. Their subjects and styles differ greatly.  There is however a common thread running through most of these pictures. Compositionally most are very well-balanced, but they are rarely symmetrical.  There are those circumstances where you are in so tight on a wildlife subject, that it becomes almost symmetrical from its own energy. There are on rare occasions, those mirrored images of the land where symmetry is the perfect choice.  90% of the images you see from great photographers are what I call ordered chaos.  They tend to be orderly, but not so much that you grow weary of them.  I have found that most (not all) great composers of wildlife images either also make landscapes, or once did.  I am surely not suggesting that any photographer make an unbreakable set of rules and live by them.  I only suggest that the next step up from sharing your pictures with your friends, and accepting applause from those that love you, is successfully sharing them with strangers who could care less about you.  Most of the photographers that I present on these pages fit into the latter category.  They do not spend their lives attempting to make pictures they hope you and I will like, they spend their lives making pictures that they know most strangers like you and I will like. They know that because they have spent much time observing and learning from the images of others.  They add that knowledge to their own personal vision and share them with us. The same photographers succeed over and over and over again.

If you look at David Hemming’s bear picture from today, it is “sort of” symmetrical.  He is in so tight on the bear that almost the whole image is bear. This is where “sort of” symmetrical images are at their best.  Keeping this image “sort of” symmetrical takes us on a journey right into the world of this bear.  The bear’s slight cock of the head, throws (beautifully) off-balance, any true symmetry that this image might have had.  David knows when to use this technique.

The Suzi Eszterhas image of Cheetahs is not symmetrical.  This is another tight image and it is cropped to fit the format of a book.  The middle baby is looking us right in the eye. The mother and the baby on the far left are looking ever so slightly to their right.  Suzi has the group shifted slightly right of center giving both animals that are looking to their right (our left) some extra space. Little things mean a lot.

Photographic composition comes from paintings. Our painter Valerie Rogers has all the choices in the world.  Even if these images are painted from photographs, as most wildlife paintings are, she can recompose in any way she chooses.

The Mountain Goat is well above center and a smidgen of extra space is left in the direction the goat is looking.  Composing the goat high in the picture frame puts him above the viewer, and implies that he lives at high elevations. Making sure he is not smack dab against an invisible wall when it comes to the direction he is looking, keeps this painting comfortable and natural for the viewer.  The goat is not in a cage.

The Coyote comp is beautiful. There is a wonderful rhythm and flow to this picture and the animal has a lot of room to go wherever he may be going.

Ah you say, with the bear cub we now have an image that is symmetrical. Not hardly.  The bear is above center and you guessed it, it is right of (our) center. It has more space in the direction it is looking and not so much in back of the bear. When you look at this painting I imagine you first look at the bear, but is the next direction you looked in back of the bear, or the direction the bear is looking?  Once again keeping him above center helps us appreciate the fact that the bear is “up” in a tree.

The otter composition is unique.  There are five otters in the picture looking straight at the viewer. Are they in a straight line?  Are they all equal distances apart?  She has a very unsymmetrical grouping of these critters, yet it is still balanced. All of the animals are off-center from left to right.  She uses one lone otter to balance the others.  If they were divided evenly you would once again have created a boring amount of symmetry.  Notice that the individual otters are definitely not placed evenly from top to bottom.  In an environment like this where there are no specific visual clues as to depth, placing the otters at different levels from top to bottom helps create that depth. Having one otter partially covering another, is an “absolute” sign of depth.  If something is behind something else, there has to be depth. It is undeniable.

I would love to be able to paint. To create composition from the beginning to the end can be a true joy. Unfortunately I am absent the painting gene.  On the other hand I once did studio photography, where I was able to create my compositions from the ground up, but left that for the more challenging discipline of creating compositions of what is provided to me by nature.

While I  probably study landscape and macro composition more than wildlife, in many ways I think wildlife comp is even more interesting.  We have fewer choices when we are working with wild animals.  While the choices we have may be slight, they are equally important.

Thanks for stopping and have a great day,                                                                                    Wayne

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