How to Make a Great Nature Photograph – Analyzing a scene

Black and white image of saguaros

I chose the words in the title of this post intentionally I did not say “how to take a great nature picture” because making a photograph involves deliberately conceiving and executing a set of actions to create the image you envision.  Part one of this series involves how to break down a scene or situation to capture the essence of what appealed to you enough to stop in the first place.

 Step 1:  Find your subject or light

Saguaros the initial scene

You usually start with one and then find the other.  It’s an iterative process.  As I was walking down this trail, the shape of these saguaro appealed enough to me to make me stop and look.  I found my subject, the saguaro, then walked around them to analyze the light.  I chose a position where the sun was illuminating the cactus from the side to create bright spots and shadows.

Step 2:  Look for a complimentary background

Photography is a three-dimensional sport; it requires looking from all angles.  As I walked around these saguaros I noticed surrounding mountains, tree branches, and blue sky.  I chose to position myself a little lower so I could simplify the background by placing more of the saguaros against the blue sky.

Step 3:  Simplify

Four Saguaros

Similar to “selective listening” when it comes to a spouse, your mind edits out extraneous elements when you see something that appeals to you.  As you compose your photograph, look for ways to edit out objects that aren’t necessary or can get in the way.  For example, I originally composed the image with all four saguaros and then remembered that odd numbers more appealing to the visual senses, so I recomposed with just three.  What do you think?  Four or three?




 Step 4:  Arrange the elements and objects

Three Saguaros with foreground rock
Three Saguaros with no foreground rock

I try to arrange my subject and the supporting elements so there is a foreground, middle ground, and background.  Compare these two images.  Did you notice the large rock in front of the cactus on the right?  I thought it made a stronger foreground than the jumble of rocks and dirt leading up to the closest saguaro.

Step 5:  Fine-tune the composition

The last things I evaluate are:

  •  Is there separation between the elements?  Can you create space or distance between things that are touching? This spacing is important.  Can you imagine what this image would look like if the limbs from the saguaros were touching each other?
  • Have I created interesting lines?  Are there opportunities for diagonals?  The mind likes the unpredictability of diagonals, rather than traditional grid structures, so I incorporate them when possible.
  • Are there any elements along the edge of the frame that are extraneous or distracting?
  • Have I placed anything dead center?  Did I intend to?  Often times you can create a dynamic compositions by using the rule of thirds and placing elements in different areas of the frame, rather than dead center.
  • Is the horizon level?
Saguaros with cuttered edge

It is rare that you will encounter a situation when all of these elements come together perfectly; photography requires compromise and trade-offs.  For example, I could not leave space in front of the foreground rock and bottom edge of the frame, without introducing arms from the fourth saguaro on the right side, which would clutter the edge.  I chose to cut the rock off, so that I could keep the edges of the frame clear and focus on three saguaros.  There are many ways to interpret a scene; I often find that Peter and I will be in the same place, same time of day, and have completely different images. Try a few different angles next time your out, and compare.  What works best for you?

To see more of our photographs, go to

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s