Compose yourself


Words and pictures by James Gifford.

Compose yourself

It’s happened to all of us – you have an amazing wildlife sighting, fire off hundreds of photos, but then when you get back home, your images don’t look as good as you’d expected. Or, that beautiful landscape scene you spent hours over has somehow turned into a very ordinary photograph.

Composition is probably the single most important element of photography, but it requires an artistic eye that is almost impossible to teach. Some people instinctively just ‘get it’; but, luckily, most of us will be able to improve our photography dramatically just by following a few simple guidelines.

Use space
Don’t be afraid of leaving space in your images. Often the most striking compositions are the simplest ones. A good test is to examine every part of the image before you take the picture and ask yourself if each element is adding to the picture, or if is it just an unnecessary distraction. For profile portraits (of wildlife or people), give your subject room to look into, to allow the viewer to follow its gaze.

The most well-known of these is the ‘Rule of Thirds’. Imagine dividing your viewfinder into thirds with horizontal and vertical lines. (Some cameras have a setting which projects these lines onto your viewfinder). The idea is to place your subject on one of these lines, or better yet, at the intersection of a pair of lines. Landscapes will often follow this formula, with the horizon positioned on the top or bottom third of the picture. Likewise, wildlife portraits might place the eye of the animal (usually the most important focal point) where two of these lines meet. This tends to create a more interesting composition than placing the animal in the centre of the frame.

Most successful landscape images have a subject in the foreground: anything from a rock to a tree-stump will help to give depth to your image and draw the viewer into the picture. Lines can be used in the same way. A common example is the classic image of the twin parallel walls of a pier stretching out to sea; but nature often provides less obvious ‘lines’, which can be equally effective. Our eyes will naturally follow a path through the bush, or a trail of spoor, or a row of boulders, or a pattern in a cloud formation, which will instantly give your photograph greater intrinsic appeal.

If you’re faced with a large herd of animals, try zooming in on a select few; and remember that odd numbers of subjects tend to be more aesthetically pleasing than even numbers. Also experiment with different focal points; sometimes you might get a more interesting effect by focusing on an animal in the background rather than the one closest to you, or even focusing on a different element of the picture altogether, so that the animal (which should be identifiable despite being slightly out of focus) might only be noticed a second or two after you look at the image.


It is most important to remember that rules are there to be broken. Sometimes placing your subject slap-bang in the centre of the viewfinder might actually provide the best composition. This can work if you have an element of symmetry in the picture (e.g. a reflection, or two animals facing each other). Alternatively, if you have a lot of vegetation or branches in the scene, then positioning your subject in the middle and using the foliage to ‘frame’ it can also form a more arresting composition.

Originality is key. We’ve all seen a thousand photographs of beautiful beach sunsets and lion portraits, so you need to surprise the viewer by adopting an original perspective. This can be done literally – try lying on the floor looking up at your subject (this might not work with the lion!) or getting as close as you can and using a wide-angle lens (maybe also not with lions!) – or figuratively, by placing the subject in an unusual position in the frame, or using an alternative point of focus.


If you’re struggling for inspiration, open any magazine or look on the web at photo-competition winners. Pick a photograph you especially like and ask yourself what it is about the picture that’s so enticing. Is it the angle, the colours, the simplicity, or something else? You don’t have to replicate it, but it will help to open your mind so that you automatically start thinking about actively composing your images rather than placing the subject in the middle of the picture and just pressing the button. And don’t be afraid to experiment – in the digital age, it costs you nothing, and you might just end up with a masterpiece.


Pangolin Photo Safaris operates all year round from their base in Chobe, Botswana and offers safaris in custom-built boats and vehicles. These trips are aimed at photographers of all levels of experience and enthusiasm; they’ll even lend you state-of-the-art DSLR cameras and telephoto lenses free of charge if you don’t have your own kit. They also run regular photographic workshops hosted by accomplished photography teachers like James Gifford. Their latest venture is a self-drive package aimed at 4×4 enthusiasts who are visiting the Chobe in their own overland vehicles. For more information, visit×4 or call Mandy on 021 461 2941 (o/h).

Post your comment

To read more articles from this issue please click here. To buy a copy of our magazine, please click here.

Free news, reviews, travel features and more… everything you need to know from the 4x4 and outdoor industry.