Space in composition

On most occasions with wildlife photography you don’t get the chance to sit and think about your composition too carefully because the species you are working with is active and you’ve got to work fast to get a picture, writes Andrew James. This doesn’t mean you can’t consider your framing, it just means that your brain needs to process everything at Warp Factor 10. However, there are lucky occasions when you can and this article is based on one of those times.

Please note there is Lightroom Processing video at the end of this article.

I was in Antarctica and we had landed on Moon Island. I’d ambled about in the snow taking a few shots of penguins and helped some of the others do the same. I continued as far as I was able to go, and found a solitary seal fast asleep on the snow. I set up a respectful distance away and studied it and the surroundings. The Weddell is an attractive seal (as seals go) and the most southerly breeding mammal on earth. The snow around it was clean and white as the penguins weren’t bothering with this particular area for their toilet! Behind the seal was an area of more snow, then a slight drop off to the sea, and beyond that, the edge of the sea ice again. It wasn’t exactly an inspiring scene photographically – although simply being able to get close to the Weddell seal in such a remote place was a privilege, of course.

The photo below shows you the scene on my arrival. It’s no more than a record shot but hopefully you can see my point. An upside down seal, gently snoring does not have much drama or excitement about it. In younger years maybe I would have been impatient and headed off in search of yet more ‘active’ penguin images but instead, I stayed put.  After a while, other people arrived at the same point as me and were obviously curious as to why I was lying down in the snow looking at a completely motionless, snoring seal. My answer was simple; it might wake up. 

It's hard to get excited by an upside down seal that's dreaming of fish.

Anticipation is a huge part of photography and, in particular, wildlife photography. If it woke up, I knew I could get some interesting shots of a species I didn’t have many photos of. I needed to be in place, ready.

I encouraged a few others to lie near me and before long, the gently sleeping Weddell had lots of human company. Lying down was important both from a photography point of view and from a fieldcraft point of view. If the seal woke up, I didn’t want a crowd of humans standing around looking threatening. Lying down we could just be other seals. It makes sense really and I’ve used this ploy at Donna Nook in Lincolnshire when I actually fell asleep myself – only to wake up and find a large bull seal snoozing worryingly close to me!

While the seal snoozed, in anticipation of it waking up I considered my background and the other elements in front and behind its position. This is the process of working out what is going to help or hinder getting the shot you want. As I said at the start, it’s usually done at speed, but here I could take my time. I worked out quickly that the best position was side-on. If I moved around to my right to shoot straight on, I would run the risk of others walking in my background, plus there was a little outcrop of rock that might be distracting. I thought about my backdrop and the difference my shooting position made. It’s amazing how a few inches higher or lower can include or avoid background elements. I also needed to think about how high the seal’s head might be if it did wake up, so I wouldn’t crop it out of the frame.

I was using a 1DX with a 100-400mm zoom lens. At 200mm I could get the whole of the seal in the frame, while at 400mm I could crop in tight on the head and a small part of the body. The AF was set on AI Servo (Continuous) because even with a relatively static subject like this, if it woke up I’d have lots of head movement to contend with. I had a single AF point selected for the most accurate focusing possible, which was hopefully going to be planted smack bang on the lead eye.

After a while of lying in the snow the Weddell began to stir. It gave me a big toothy yawn to prove it was waking up.

Patience paid off as the Weddell Seal began to stir.

I hadn’t really had a chance to study its finer face features while it was sleeping but as it turned to look at the other lying figures nearby I was able to carefully look at its face and it was absolutely beautiful. I was fascinated by the markings and the textures. It was at this point that the next part of the composition conundrum dawned on me. I wanted to shoot a very illustrative image – something that gave some pin-sharp detail to this beautiful animal without distraction. I’d been talking about composition with Richard Symonds, a wildlife artist who was with us on the trip. We’d spent a few evenings talking about how the use of composition by both fine-art  and photographic artists were generally the same.

I’d particularly been admiring some of his images created on plain, clean white backdrops. He sometimes leaves a lot of white space within the frame that I felt really allowed the artwork to breathe. It helped to centre attention on the subject without cramming it within the edges of the canvas, which can be the natural tendency. I wanted to do something similar – and here was my chance.

By the way, you must take a look at Richard’s artwork here. It’s amazing, as you can see from the work in progress of a tiger. He’s also a lovely bloke. It’s always great when someone so talented is down to earth and modest about what they do, even if the rest of us are in awe of what they are able to do with a pencil or paintbrush.

Richard working on one of his amazing wildlife images.

I wanted to photograph in a similar style and the clean white of the surrounding snow and beautiful fur markings of the seal was giving me a perfect opportunity to try this ‘High-Key’ style of approach. This was my first effort. All the white space is 100% deliberate. It’s much looser than perhaps I’d normally shoot, but it’s good to use the influence of others, whether that’s from photography or painting/drawing, to try something fresh.

Of course, I didn’t shoot all my images with that much white space but I played around with different compositions as the now wide-awake Weddell Seal looked around wondering why he had been joined by a group of clicking human-seals! Because I had anticipated what might happen and thought about my approach carefully I was able to get some beautifully detailed portraits, always trying to use the white space to my advantage compositionally.

I realise that you may not get the chance to lie in the snow in the Antarctic and enjoy an encounter like this, but you can experiment with different styles of composition with whatever wildlife you are lucky enough to come across. There’s no doubt you could try this with seals on a UK beach, as long as you can find a clean background of sand or sea. You may get lucky in this country or overseas, and have a close encounter with an animal in the snow too and that’s when, hopefully, you’ll remember this article and embrace the white space as an important part of how you design your photograph.

Finally, here’s the Lightroom tutorial that takes you through my processing of this image.

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