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The Art of Nature Photography

Lesson 6 of 12

Ten Deadly Sins of Composition

Art Wolfe

The Art of Nature Photography

Art Wolfe

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Lesson Info

6. Ten Deadly Sins of Composition
Photography composition is full of rules -- that are sometimes meant to be broken. In this lesson, learn common compositional rules and when you should break them. For example, try out the rule of thirds -- then learn when to center the subject instead. Work with techniques like learning where to place the horizon and getting sharply focused images.

Lesson Info

Ten Deadly Sins of Composition

The ten deadly sins have composition ten deadly sins of composition all right, so some of these I've covered I'm just going to make it simple subject in the bull's eyes bad why why is because the guy goes straight to the waterfall in stops no eye movement whatsoever by simply putting it off centre there's a relationship of that waterfall now to the forest around it so the eyes moving back and forth that's what we're after so these shots are not shot illustrate this point there is simply the way I shoot and I have our obvious subject I'm not gonna have it right in the middle ox pecker on a reticulated giraffe zebra and a herd of wildebeest a cheetah in the grass not in the middle little boo boo bear out there in the, uh the alaska peninsula so these are the way I shoot off center some people say, how do you get a shot like this? I say I bring a slingshot positive and negative space is another way of looking at this. The sheer expanse of this adobe wall is balanced by the intensive the o...

f the color on this massai they share expanse of that desert is balanced by the intensity of those kemel writers in roger stan converging lines all of this open landscape of sand dune is countered by the intensity of the converging lines in that bisa oryx so there's a balance to that leading lines I talked about that before all these lines lead you to this my interpreter in vietnam she's looking right and then you follow her gaze to the boat beyond so there's a balance is not I want people to think about how they frame their shots just don't aim and hope design and think about what's unfolding so one of those things is taking the subject off center it creates attention that's good asad do in india and then there's the other way when there's a beautiful cemetery, a balance and often when I'm photographing architecture, I'm trying to build and emphasize the symmetrical nature of the building or in this case, the goat's head. So I'm going to put the subject right down the middle to take advantage of the beautiful thing that's unfolding know this bird for a second, spread his wings in a very even way and then I just re if refrained it and emphasizes that emphasized the point. So I showed you examples off subject off center and now I'm showing you where I would put him in the middle. This young monk was wearing gold adam on the story where there was this beautiful gold medallion on the wall of the monastery and I tried to get him to pose right there anyone to it, he kept coming back to the interpreter talking in burmese no no no no no I said what the hell what the heck is going on here? Buddhists they do everything you want him to do and back and forth back and forth and finally the young monk smiled at me with that smile and said, why don't you just photoshopped me into place oh and then he smiled and went right there so he was just playing with me any rate you know these young monks in myanmar learn english at a very early age so unlike the rest of the population these these people I've seen month going to monastery with little you know iphones they're pretty hip those subjects in the middle you know that's a great metaphor for the disappearing ice in the arctic or a single penguin on an iceberg thes air all naturally shot there were like eight penguins on that iceberg but as I approached it on a zodiac all but one left and that one never left so it was like ok, this was meant to be so emphasizing the symmetrical nature of the subject unfolding before me. Okay? One of the few self portrait in this entire day so whatever the subject you know, if there's a beautiful cemetery to the subject I'm going to shoot it from a different angle different perspective if suddenly these giraffes that we're fighting crossover instantly I'm goingto line it up in the in a balanced way okay, so very similar to a subject in the middle you heard me allude to this earlier horizon in the middle is not a great idea and we're all wired you know it's it's almost like the minute you pick up your first camera and you shoot your first landscape you're going to put the horizon right down the middle and that's not a good idea because nothing above this image adds to the story, so realigning it creating a high horizon line does two things takes it out makes it more interesting but more importantly it gives me all that part of the composition to incorporate a foreground and by incorporating the foreground your eye sweeps up to the distant rich movement of the eye is what we're after the sweep of the flowers up to the top of mount rainier and there are times then there's nothing in the foreground nothing in the foreground that you really want to incorporate so my allegiances shift to what's above the horizon but I'm trying to keep the horizon out of the middle so the clouds of patagonia these great lenticular clouds are much more interesting but horizons low in the frame and then there's the times we're in and put the horizon in the mill and it's exactly the same submit a symmetry ah balance could be ice could be rocks in the canyon could be just a reflection of a caiman now this latin third rule of composition is only for us up type left handed virgos horizons on angle drive me nuts and yet the eye that I used to focus tends to always read it wrong and so I'm always correcting it in light room I'm always correcting my own but people will show me pictures like this and I said there's something wrong with that shot? I don't know so look at the horizon you know only twenty five year old art directors like horizons on the angle so if you have a very simple compositions where the horizon matters, be careful to keep it aligned alright number four distracting elements you know in a very soft world those hard edged white lines distract so what I say is look at that good walk up there to the stream plucked that baby out saves a lot of time to do it in photo shop later in a close up those little white hard edges and a rounded world distract so pluck them out pull them out. I've been known to chase old man with wiry eyebrow hairs with tweezers but that's just me but I've seen a couple of you out there so look for distracting elements you know a shot of booty in bhutan landscape and little white edges little white edges like that matter they clear eye away, so be very scrutinizing what's in your friend the very sign that commemorates this is a world heritage site is the ugliest thing in the frame, so I'm using those kids on the donkey to obscure that sign because it wants to be organic it wants be soft, it wants to be traditional not a big white sign in ha long bay, vietnam, a junk a chinese junk with beautiful landscape with a lighthouse and then seconds later without so I've gotten both in my archive inappropriate light, I see a lot of these shots when I critique maybe later on today you could hide napoleon's army in the shot we wouldn't see it because it's so complex light dark, light, dark, light, dark, so use light appropriately in a complex forest is hard to read on overcast day is softer and easier becomes simpler to read this for other's field of flowers is low angle of light, but it's still light and later on as the clouds build in simpler, easier to see so simple light for complex subject this shot is about texture this is the shot is about patterns here's a soft scene, but I'm including the source of the soft light and that light pulls your eye up in a way, so zoom in and eliminated when I'm in a forest, I'm never showing the sky and I'm never shooting the forest on a sunny day so it's soft light for complex subject did a lot of work on rainforest around the world they're rainforest because there's a lot of clouds and rain was perfect for the subjects camera movement oh my god I get a lot of this person's gone to africa first time once in their life they photographed lions but unfortunately on the moment they took that picture of that line so it was scratching some part of their body in that land rover and so the camera is moving and it's never sharp so here's my rule of thumb if you've only been to africa once or anywhere once and got that once in a lifetime shot but it's out of focus you can keep that for two years and then after two years you have to throw it away because it's not going to come into focus with age it's not going to do it so you have to throw it away I have cerone away the first ten years of my life already all those photos that I thought were brilliantly sharpe I'm looking through the loop and I'm thinking oh my god I never had a good loop for most of my life they were never sharp so they have to be thrown away this is a sharp shot so if you have a shot where I contact is critical you gotta demand better of yourself you've gotta have sharp images of the eyes and very similar to this is inappropriate focus you know as much as I like gabrielle con do we want the pores on his nose to be the most important thing in focus so select where you're going to focus and I learned this the hard way when I was working on tribes where I was putting the camera in the faces of people every aspect of this face has to be tech sharp find bringing your attention to this young boy's face every follicle on his face every pore on his face has to be universally sharp every hair on that r rang it saying has to be sharp so you have to use depth of field and focus every little monkey in that frame if their eyes are out of focus or on ly ones in it's less than what it should be so be critical I teach workshops around the country and in fact around the world because in the age of everybody taking pictures there standing here with their iphones and they're not being critical at all and I think and I believe and I think you would agree that photography is every bit of in our art form as painting so we should be held out to the same standards that painting or sculpturing or writing or any other discipline is so we gotta get back to some of the basics I see a shot like this and I'm thinking what's your subject well, I love the flowers it's like ok, you love the flowers but is it one flower or the entirety of the meadow and they don't know and if it's a mixed message of soft message it becomes confusing so here's a shot just to show you the power of depth of field matters look at this on ly blade one blade of grass is touching the edge of the pond soft background beautiful you khun see the words love is never having to say you're sorry right there a ziff that's okay aaron same shot at twenty two very different shot completely different and it is on ly changing the depth of field so when I was shooting groves the trees or the migrations book I had to use great depth of field to get every bird in the focus every mammal, every fish, every insect that was in that book how to be sharp every sunflower in this field needs to be tacked sharp if it's a pattern and then there's other shots where you have to open up the depth of field in a single firm front in a forest that backgrounds busy and distracting. So by opening it up to two point eight I neutralize whatever's in the background. There are times where I only want the connection between the camilion and the texture of the skin to be the story where I only want your eye to go to the eye of the little gecko incentive I either shoot a pattern of buddha's or one remember when I said I was using leading lines to direct your eye? Well I'm now directing your eye by focus I either want every one of those monks to be important or all single one out so I could direct your eye where I wanted to go it's a great device for communicating ah thought so depth of field matters and here's an interesting shot this is a trident that's a sunday a holy man in the hindu faith the eyes of the siddhu are far enough out of focus we get it now if I was to use a smaller appetite you're opening and slightly brought him into focus but not in focus it really is disturbing for us to look at because we're trying to bring into focus, but we've never bring it into focus so either go one extreme or the other open it up or have it tack sharp so a different way of looking at a brown bear in a luxuriant environment or a disappearing tiger in southeast asia forest just a hint of the tiger number nine and we're almost there number nine confusing subject I see these shots all the time and we'll probably see him in the next segment what's your subject well, I was in bhutan and I shot this mountain valley I said okay, but where's your subject well, the mountains and I said, okay, listen, here's what I think you got out of the car, you had to go the bathroom and while you were out of the car, you decided to take a picture, but this is a lot of picture, so make a clear statement about where you're shooting, maybe it's the architecture of how they build buildings in bhutan that's the subject you may not like it, but on equivocal maybe you don't like that hand a man. So you have shoot only nature, so that contrast between blurred motion of river and the rocks that's a natural history shot maybe you come from the midwest and you're a farmer and you like the way they till the soil that's a subject I don't have to guess what you're shooting I know what you're shooting, but the entirety of it is soft message maybe like abstract, so you're going to zoom in on just that roof that's a subject I particularly like as I've told you before prayer flicks? Yeah there's prayer flags in there, but not with a wide angle, so I want to make my shots unequivocal, okay, sorry for that I get myself off a letter all right, so number ten this is the most salient one today is lacks emotional response I've been saying over and over and over again I wantto impact your emotions I want to elicit a laughter or awe or sadness or something how a bunch of cows looking at my picture chewing your cuts I want you to interact with me so here's a picture of a cascade seen the water is so clear you could drink it the sky is so blue the trees are amazing and yet there's no impact the only person that would get excited over this picture is a developer that wants to put a piece of property and make money off it. So now there's no emotional connection to this so when I shoot a landscape I'm trying to bathe it in the most beautiful light I get up early or I stay out late or surreal quality something that has an emotional connection that's why I traveled all around the world that's why I got on top of mount etna or went up to that iceberg in the arctic if I'm photographing people I want a connection with tribes it was all about you know connection of the eye to the subject in this case it's about the moment a surreal moment in a monastery during prayer session so shots that I shoot either elicit a smile or make you think about an image if it justice sir without a connection you feel it when I teach a workshop, if the person is on ly fulfilling a lesson and they don't care about subject, I'll know it instantly that there's no investment in it. So on ly shoot shots that move you that make you happy or sad or intrigued, you know it's, a powerful medium that were connected to your in my audience today, simply because you all have an interest in photography and it's a powerful medium, it khun next to the world. So an image like this is of a lost soul that I saw in india, so photos like this can be a powerful contribution to a cost about psychology or health. Photos of mind have been used in campaigns to preserve a mountain valley up in a in canada one year, or to help save an environment where mountain gorillas are on it's a worthy contribution. So when I see a shot like that, you better I'm going to photograph it. You know, somebody that's in our entire life is wrapped up in a throwaway rug looking into a store. I thought this was pretty funny. I photograph it because I thought it was funny, and then I looked at it and said now that's, not funny little monkey was taken out of the forest, got a chain around his neck made too you know, beg for money that's not such a funny thing but I had a mixed message on that this is pretty funny hello crown of ice this photo has been used by dennis to convince the kids to dental floss so you wanna you want to impact people with your work? The power of the image is a great I think responsibility so I take it I wake up every day I've been working every day and for forty years I've never taken a vacation I've never taken a vacation I am hard wired to take pictures to see the world to capture powerful moments and that's a great thing that's had been a great thing for my life you can feel it in my voice right now that's it thank you so I'm running about five minutes late but I feel like if there's any quick questions you've gotto ask. All right? I just want to say how incredible that segment wass I feel no matter how long we've been photographing there's always something that we can learn to improve our so and even the reminders of things that when you get out there they slip your mind sometimes so just to reiterate these and get these really drilled in that was really exceptional thank you I appreciate that so before we ask questions, why don't we talk about how people can join you in the field because I know that you do do seminars and you give a workshop, so we do a couple of things. We have three things we actually do one day seminar, so I'll be doing one in boston and new york and montreal later on this fall. We do we meaning myself and my assistants will do like three or four day workshops olympic national park we do every spring we love that I'm detaining a workshop later on in august pen mount rainier, right at the height with flowers that's coming up in about three or four weeks uh, we teach workshops in the loose, and then we also take people on safari will goto africa, I'm doing one in kenya in october of next year. Greenland, east greenland is coming up next year in september, so people to come onto our website and if they've ever if they think they can handle me and we have a lot of fun, then look seriously, innit? Because it's a great way of seeing the world, but on a pace that doesn't drive your family members crazy because it's really hard to travel with family and take picture. So when you travel with a group of people of like minded, we usually do our international workshops with ten to twelve people with two, two instructors, so the ratio of instructor too participant is pretty hot and we have a lot of fun. It would be in our absolute dream come true to travel with you and and have you teach how to photograph that for me personally that would be incredible art tell us the difference between a seminar in a workshop well, the seminar is a one day I'm talking on and it's it's like this only personified all day long you know, five lectures about composition and the art of seeing those it's an audience of maybe forty to one hundred people I'm talking all day long the workshops it's usually twelve people in the field where we have a combination of lectures as wells in the field and then critiques and that's pretty intensive that's three three days we'll eat together we traveled together it's like a community for three, four days and then there's the travel workshops which are both were shop but also putting yourself into locations around the world. One of our audience members teaches workshops along with gabriel to con emily's right here and they do workshops in morocco and turkey. I tend to go to africa a lot or south america so it's fun I mean it's a great way of seeing the world but on a level and speed from which it opens up your imagination and learning at the same time you have a great time excellent and you can find out more about both of those at art wolfe workshops dot com so check those out I also wanted to ask you I know from personally going to your studio how incredible it is to see could you guys till I'm a super fan of our way like a super I know how incredible it is to be in your studio and see your actual work in print thank you for that we have a gallery and penner square and I'm damned if I'm in seattle I'm down there working we also have a gallery in las vegas at the forum shops at caesars palace where I and robert rotella share a space and also in new york on how austin and west broadway a beautiful location and on the west side of soho and these galleries have the human canvas they have you know the best of what I should do is in that those galleries up here on these coast if you're in las vegas if you're traveling through take the time in uh see those galleries we'd appreciate it more than worth it all right all right well let's get to our questions we have some questions from online one of the questions I wanted to know is when you are shooting out in the field and you have your sights set on a scene do you always you shoot both wide angle and telephoto for every scene that you see you know on average if it's unknown environment to me I use that wide angle perspective to kind of get the knowledge of the place and I'm walking around and then invariably ongoing tighter and tighter and tighter until I'm shooting details if I have the luxury of time I'm using all those wide tighter, tighter perspectives there are times when I'm shooting wildlife where it's all about the telephoto and it's just like get it or you know you don't have it so it's it's a little bit there's no one answer that kind of covers all those questions but that is a typical workflow for me shooting wide and getting as I get more and more into the subject it reveals itself in a clearer away and then finally on an abstract level excellent all right, one more from ali sana who wanted to know what are some of your tips of taking unique photos in some of the world's iconic places looking on the internet on what's happened before looking at books I've got a huge library I personally support a lot of photographers around the world because I've got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books that are references and I just love it looking at pictures but I'll see what the preponderance of people have done before me and always I'm tryingto bring my own slant to it my own angle you know that's that's what it's been hardwired into me from the days I was a student at the university of washington is to always try and strive to shoot something slightly different or paint something different but I've, you know, translated into the world of photography I always try to shoot something different and I know a lot of my colleagues do the same it's not just uniquely me it's the idea that we want to shoot a new subject and make it our own it's one of the reasons that I abandoned central his earth is that I have seen that some other people have really started photographing abstractions of the human form, so I abandoned that as an idea and went on my way to the human canvas excellent well, we have time for a couple in studio audience questions so let's get either mike and we will get your questions answered hold on one second okay, thank you very much in discussion of gear in composition I've always found it interesting that shooting say animals with telephoto it's be often an objective to shoot close toe wide open to separate them from the background, but when you do it with wide angle the opposite is the case you're bringing in the environment around them and you want to keep it is sharpest possible or at least that's that's traditional do you ever find yourself shooting six inches or a foot away from a small animal shooting wide angle and saying I shouldn't do this it f sixteen I want to go down to f to a door abstract that background, even though it's wide angle I haven't done that before, but now that you've given me the suggestion, I'm going to try that that's a great idea, you know, for the most part, I was kind of train teo, shoot everything sharp. I started if you recall using for about five, and that was all about swing until so I'm hard wired to shoot with great depth of field. And yet, as you saw, with the seduced and opening up shallow, that is something that's within the last ten years of the way I shoot, and that idea of shooting wide with a shallow depth of field is a brilliant idea. I've just not gotten around to it, so thank you, that's a great idea. I see I learned from people honestly, no hesitation. There was another. Yes, um, having shot a good deal of your career on film, and then also digital and having that kind of back and forth and background, I think you kind of addressed it a little bit, but obviously there's a value in having come from that film idea, and I'm just wondering if that really has carried over into what you do now and if there's more of a longer thought process behind it or if if you've kind of succumb to what a lot of us come to which is over shooting and then ending up with too many photos to try and choose from this that makes sense yeah, that makes sense first of all there was no back and forth it's it was almost instantaneous when I shot my first digital capture and I could see it on a computer it was like that that was virtually the first photo I shot digitally was actually the last time I ever used film it was that abroad and I was on my way to an arctic and I wound up selling all my films so the immediacy and verification of what our shooting was, what that was all about later I could make the digital image look like any film I was using so that wasn't a heartache for me as it has been for some of my colleagues and in terms of overshooting I don't I tend to do that what I've found is my productivity has increased because I would be so nervous about not getting it right think about it when I was on everest it was three months before I could verify got anything three months so when you find the subject you like your overshoot that because you never knew now if I convey air if I've got it I move on and so in any given shoot, today, I'm shooting much more. Ah, higher variety of shots and getting them than overshooting, shooting two rolls of film. Because I'm neurotic thinking, I'm not going to get it. So my entire work load has increased tenfold.

Class Description


  • Improve your composition in landscape photography
  • Develop an eye for better nature photography
  • Find --and grow -- your inspiration
  • Go from nature lover to nature photographer
  • Spot creative shots even in popular places
  • Fine-tune composition with the unpredictability of wildlife photography
  • Tell a story through fine art nature photography


Spend a day gleaning insight from a nature photographer with five decades of experience shooting on every continent, Art Wolfe. This special one-day class includes two 90-minute discussions, 90 minutes of student critiques, and three episodes of Art's documentary series Travels to the Edge.

Go beyond basic nature photography tips and dig into the psychology of nature photography and what takes an image from a snapshot to fine art. Learn to find your inspiration, break the rules and see the story inside grand landscapes. This is not a class for taking textbook plain nature photography from a boring list of landscape photography tips -- it's a class designed to help you find your own unique voice to capture your own fine art prints of landscapes, wildlife, and culture.

After this class, you'll have the confidence to experiment, to work for the shot, and to capture the story in nature photography.


  • Beginning photographers shooting landscape, wildlife and nature
  • Intermediate photographers ready to refine their eye
  • Advanced photographers looking for insight from a top nature photographer


Art Wolfe is a nature and conservation photographer with a background in fine art and painting, a start which continues to influence his work to this day. Often described as a "prolific" nature and wildlife photographer, Art has published more than 80 books of photographs, along with images appearing in major publications such as National Geographic Magazine, Smithsonian, Audubon, and more. Art has received numerous awards, including Nature's Best Photographer of the Year. He also leads a documentary television series Travel to the Edge. When he's not traveling nine months out of the year (including leading photography tours), he's teaching and working with his stock agency and production company in Seattle.



What a fantastic use of time! My photos improved dramatically since this course. I found it so useful, I recommended it to 3 people, and am coming back to purchase. My favorite segment was about composition, which is where I really needed the most help. I'd previously subscribed to the take a hundred shots and hope one turns out well. Now I think much more carefully prior to the shot, and the quality of the photos is on a completely different level from what I'd taken before. Then entire course was excellent, and I really appreciated the segment on audience submission critiques. It helped me to internalize the concepts he'd taught, and to develop a keener eye. Art Wolfe truly is a master. His photographs have the ability to stir the emotion deeply and soothe the ailing heart. Mr. Wolfe is a great instructor too. Concepts were presented clearly, and illustrated well. I am so thankful to have participated in this course. Thank you, to Art Wolfe, for sharing insights into your talent, and also thank you to everyone involved in making this course widely available. I cannot recommend this course highly enough!


I have always loved you CreativeLive, for being there in so many ways to teach me how to do better what I love to do. And, so I doubly thank you for re-featuring this and, thus. allowing me to buy this at a no-brainer price. I live in New Mexico. I have struggled to discern how to photograph New Mexico in a way that it hasn't already been photographed. It's like the Eiffel Tower. This class has SO helped me think about how to do that. I LOVED how Art Wolfe talked about how he started as a painter and how that has influenced how he captures his photography. I'm going to really start thinking about that and experimenting with this. New Mexico has had MANY painters, besides Georgia O'Keefe, whose work I love. I'm committed to studying them more and being influenced by their work. I haven't been photographing landscapes here very much, because of how much New Mexico has already been photographed. But this class has helped me think about how to do that more powerfully.and uniquely. And also, total kudos to the videographers of the last three segments of this class. Just watching these videos and Art Wolfe narrating this is worth the price of admission. So, in short, being a New Mexican who aspires to photograph her beloved New Mexico in a way that is different and more powerful, I think this class will inspire and focus me going forward. Thank you!

a Creativelive Student

I enjoyed your presentation and critiques so very much. I was able to watch it all but decided I would love to watch it again. I bought the class. Art's sense of humor was enjoyable. I loved his time working with his models and oh my what he was able to do with them artistically was so incredible. I learned so much through his critique. I went to our local Barnes &Noble; and was shocked they didn't have any of his books. I will continue looking for them as I would enjoy having some of them for inspiration. I also want to thank creative live as I have enjoyed your programs so much and I continue to spread the word about your classes. Thank you. Frances