5 Tips to Help You Get Creative with Composition

Mimic Octopus
Mimic Octopus “Chosen to be in the Top 100 of the Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition 2012” Taken on Underwater Mode Using a Canon S95 Compact Camera

It was my birthday a couple of days ago and if one thing has come out of it, it’s made me realise how much I love helping people with their underwater photography and how much I’ve missed it during my time “recuperating” after going visiting that horrid shark and manta ray fishing market in Tajung Luar.

So that means I’m definitely inspired to write more to help you all and today I am going to focus on composition.  I remember reading through books when I started out, but there weren’t any that focused on compact cameras and what they were capable of even though composition tips are pretty much the same as their dDSLR counterparts, there was no-one out there showing if they would work with smaller equipment.  Then I remember when diving in the south of Egypt that I was overwhelmed by all the huge expanses of corals, schools of vivid anthias darting through and around the reef, as well as fish just pretty much everywhere.  I didn’t have a clue what would make a good photo and through trial, error and a lot of memory cards, I’d love to share what I’ve learnt with you.

So let’s start off with some tips to help you create the “oh-my-wow factor” to your photos.

  1. The Eyes

Whatever you are shooting, if your subject has eyes, make sure that they are in focus.  Eyes really help to create a connection with the viewer and can create a powerful moment where maybe that viewer may decide to take action and do something to join in and help protect our seas.  Make sure that your ISO is fast enough to keep your subject sharp, particularly important when it is moving, and make sure that your aperture is small enough to create enough depth-of-field to it.

2.  Shapes

Cave Silhouette Diver

There are so many shapes underwater.  Wrecks, caves, reefs, pier structures, clams, and then we can also create our own shapes with the lenses we choose to take photos, i.e. a fisheye lens.  We can create a combination of two or more key elements to create striking photos, for example in this photograph taken at the famous Blue Hole in Dahab I was initially attracted to the shape of the cave.  I used my EV minus to help darken the cave, which also very helpfully increased the blue contrast at the same time, eliminating the white burnout that can happen when the sun is shining brightly overhead.   I saw a diver fin overhead and thought that capturing this worked nicely to complement the shape.  Afterwards I realised that it worked because the diver, very considerately, was on a diagonal.  What else makes this picture work?  My bubbles, again an accident, but definitely a good one to create something a little different.


3.  Diagonal Lines

If you can’t fit the whole of your fish into your frame, why not place it on a diagonal and create a stronger photograph.  This Trumpetfish is such a long fish, I thought that by focusing on it’s head, creating a black background using a faster shutter speed, that it would bring out it’s gorgeous orange colour and create a more pleasing effect.

Diagonal Barracuda

Even schooling fish work in diagonal lines as well, simply turn your camera and create a line.  It’s easy!

Lionfish Pink Fan

4.  Looking Down as well as Up

You may often hear “get underneath your subject and look up” – well, have you ever tried that with a flat subject?  How on earth are you supposed to get underneath those?

Sometimes it works to look down, for example this lion fish above was resting in this pink fan.  The pink complemented the lion fish’s colours perfectly, hence creating a different background instead of the usual blue or murky blue as this was taken in Lembeh Straits, famous for its muck diving.

Anemone with fish and crab

In the above photograph, looking down helped the capture the interaction between the little fish and the crab.  What do you think they are saying to each other?

And as in the first photograph in Point 1 of the crocodile fish, sometimes using the creature’s textures instead or focusing on something unusual, such as it’s eye, can create a far more striking image.

5.  Behaviours

For me, the best thing about a dive is observing the behaviours and interaction that goes on between creatures beneath the waves.  Fellow divers have often run out of patience waiting for me, as some are keen to do as many miles under the water as possible during a dive, whilst I love pottering, watching the creatures go about their daily lives.

And sometimes very peculiar and interesting things happen, octopi hold hands as mating occurs, fights happen, and sometimes creatures decide to end up in the funniest of places, such as this flamboyant cuttlefish finding some delicacy in this bottle in Mabul Island, Malaysia

Drinking Flamboyant Cuttlefish small

At the end of the day, or should I say dive instead, composition is all down to you.  I’ve often been asked if I think someone’s photograph is good, but I always ask them, what were you trying to capture?  what did you see in that photograph that you liked?  Photography is all about creating memories that you are happy with and as long as you are happy with your photograph, then really, nothing else matters.  You’ve done well!

Don’t forget though to find some time to share your photos with me?  I’d love to see how you’re getting on with your photography.



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