John's Wildlife Photography Blog

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Finding shapes: the 'brush stroke' technique

Nov 08, 2014

Animal portraits are a little out of fashion at present - there's a trend towards capturing photos that take a broader view and  show animals in the context of their environment. I think people have also become a bit weary of the large number of face-on frame filling head-and-shoulders images that permeate the internet. However, the animal portrait isn't dead and, with a few simple  devices it's  possible to create images with impact.

(Image: Black Stork, Kiskunsagi National Park, Hungary. Canon EOS 1DX, EF300mm f/2.8L IS, 1/1250 sec @ f/4.5, ISO 1000, tripod, hide)

(Image: Black Stork, Kiskunsagi National Park, Hungary. Canon EOS 1DX, EF300mm f/2.8L IS, 1/1250 sec @ f/4.5, ISO 1000, tripod, hide)

When trying to decide whether a photo will be appealing to the eye, It's sometimes useful to  look at the animals as shapes, rather than living creatures.  To help,  I  imagine taking a big paintbrush and in a single black  stroke, painting a broad interpretation of  the shape of the animal in its current pose. (I find it easiest to do this by first taking a picture and then using the image on the camera preview). Broadly speaking, some shapes  are more pleasing to the eye than others. If I have painted  sweeping curves (especially  's' shapes) then the pose is likely to work much better than one that has right angles or disjointed lines. Placing contrasting shapes against each other can be effective - circles and curves in one area and  triangles or rectangles in another often works well. Diagonal lines are especially powerful and very effective if the line up (i.e. point towards) a feature in the image, or a corner of the frame. The mental shape drawing exercise will often tell you that a photo won't work in it's current form: coming across ideal shapes by accident happens rather infrequently. But, with a bit of practice, you can sometimes see how the shape could become something more appealing by changing camera angle.

The image of the Black Stork above was made in this way. I'd started with a view to making an image with the bird at 45 degrees to the camera, but when I did the imaginary brush stroke I realised that there was a better shape if I waited and shot side-on. the shot has 's' curves, circles against triangles, a diagonal (the beak) arranged to point at the corner of the frame and also the water drop (it just took a  bit of waiting to get a drop just beginning to fall). A uniform background would have been even better, but sadly the stork wasn't obliging.

One other advantage of getting a nice shape is that the image will usually work well in black and white.