How to maximise the impact of key elements

An understanding of the factors that influence the salience of the main elements in our landscape and nature photographs can enable us to produce stronger images that communicate the stories we are trying to tell.

The ‘salience' of an element in a photograph is a measure of its prominence, conspicuousness and the degree of impact it has on the viewer. How quickly and emphatically something in one of our images grabs our attention is a reflection of the way our eyes scan an image and how our brains process the information coming in. As humans we have evolved to quickly notice certain bright colours in our surroundings, for example, as they can identify food sources or danger. Red and yellow are colours that particularly ‘advance', for instance, grabbing our attention. In a similar way, we are more likely to notice bright objects or features that contrast strongly either in colour or tone with their surroundings.      
Our eyes also have a propensity for following lines in images, and no doubt there is some evolutionary advantage in having this inclination. Since many creatures tend to follow worn paths, perhaps our ancestors were more likely to spot predators or prey along their course. Even now, this adaptation probably helps us in our urban jungle lifestyles, where there are many clearly defined lines for us to track visually. As we cross a road, the ability to quickly spot a car racing towards us along the line of the road is clearly a great advantage.      
Furthermore, we appear, perhaps more recently in our history, to have developed a tendency to quickly pick up on any written words and geometric shapes within a scene. Personal experience and cultural conditioning work together here, further cultivating our ability to quickly pick out ‘useful' information such as faces and street signs. Our experiences and the societies we live in also determine that our eyes tend to follow certain routes across a page - left to right in our case. It is also apparent that our eyes will tend to start at the bottom of an image, probably because the foreground reflects what is nearest to us and warrants checking out more urgently. Over the next few pages I'll look at how awareness of these processes might help us with our nature and landscape photography.

Here, the outflowing stream provides a strong lead-in line to the main point of interest - the pyramidal rock formations of Westcombe Bay in Devon. The setting sun and its reflect ion provide stark contrast in this zone, strongly defining the outlines of the coast al elements. Canon EOS 5D MkIII with 17-40mm lens at 23mm, ISO 100, three exposures at f/18, tripod


Typically in our wildlife photography, the element within the frame that we will want to draw attention to is the animal itself, some aspect of its bodily make-up or perhaps its relationship with other animals. Some creatures tend to stand out boldly anyway. Often, brightly coloured animals, such as certain insect s and amphibians, don't taste too good, or are even poisonous, and want to remind potential predators of this fact . For most other animals, however, if there are certain aspect s of them that you want to highlight in your photographs, it is worth taking time to consider how you can manifest this.      
As always, choice of location will influence the nature of the surroundings and their potential to distract . So, photographing in places where the background contrast s markedly either in colour, tone or texture is likely to be effective. The clarity of a creature's outline, and how clearly its shape or form is revealed, will also determine how it stands out. Big influences on this are light intensity and direct ion, which can make a subject stand out by helping to define its shape, form and texture relative to the surroundings.      
Side-lighting tends to reveal the three-dimensional form of an animal, for example, whereas backlighting may help to clarify the outline of a creature by silhouetting or rim-lighting. Spotlighting will also work, simply by providing a strong tonal contrast between a creature and its surroundings. Your choice of viewpoint will further influence all these factors and fi ne-tune your composition. Finally, remember that your camera settings may also affect how the subject stands out from the foreground and background, and the timing of the shutter release can provide the icing on the cake. It's also worth remembering that at times you may want to use similar considerations to actually reduce the salience of your subject s, as when showing how effective the camouflage of a creature is.

A low viewpoint in this open environment helped to separate these running grizzly bears from the potential distract ion of the debris on the beach. Canon EOS 7D with 100-400mm lens at 310mm, ISO 400, 1/800sec at f/11

Timing my shot to catch this male mandarin as it passed through a patch of sunlit water on an otherwise dark channel has effectively spot lit the bird, drawing attention to its amazing plumage and reflect ion. Canon EOS 5D MkIII with 100-400mm lens at 330mm, ISO 1600, 1/100sec at f/11, monopod

See related content: Pro Tips For Composing Wildlife Images


As we have seen, where you position a key feature within the frame will also tend to have a bearing on its salience. When studying a photograph our eyes tend to make a journey through the image, the course of which is determined by many of the aforementioned factors. It is particularly important in our landscape photography to appreciate this, and it is often worth taking the time to consider how you can make this journey a particularly comfortable and pleasing one and also ensure that features that you would like to be noticed are indeed detected en route. It often proves a good ploy, for example, to place a key element towards the top-right of the frame, so that the eye takes in most of the scene before reaching this focal point as a sort of conclusion. One can also incorporate some foreground interest as a starting point and perhaps one or two other elements along the path to delay the gratification of the final key feature.      
As in all genres of photography, light direct ion can be a strong influence on how readily the form and shape of structures are perceived. Again, a careful choice of viewpoint and position will affect the light direct ion across a landscape and will determine how clearly various features stand out. Silhouetting by shooting into the light will, for example, help define the broad outline of trees and rock formations.     
 In most landscape vistas there are specific features that we compose our shots around. Whether they are isolated barns, intriguingly shaped trees or dramatic rock formations, these help capture the interest, set the scene, define the location and perhaps generate a narrative. Careful timing, both in terms of season and time of day, will profoundly influence the direct ion and quality of light falling on these features and, consequently, their salience in the resulting image. The colours and textures of the surroundings are also likely to change with the seasons, further influencing this.

The zigzag line leading up from the isolated trees to the peaks of these mountainous dunes in Namibia forms the essence of this shot. I only had a couple of minutes to capture this patterning, as the sun was descending rapidly. Canon EOS 7D with 100-400mm lens at 214mm, ISO 250, 1/20sec at f/16, polariser, tripod

The high-contrast pattern in the flowing water, aided by a polarising filter, leads the viewer into this Dartmoor scene and up towards the main feature, the twin waterfalls, which are positioned in the upper right and partially framed by the fallen tree. Canon EOS 5DS with 17-40mm lens at 17mm, ISO 100, two exposures at f/16, cable release, tripod

See related contents: Pro Tips For Composing Landscapes

Wildlife in the landscape

Of course, many of the strategies I have covered can be applied equally to both landscape and wildlife imagery. When depicting a bird or animal in the broader context of its environment, for example, compositional strategies routinely adopted in landscape photography become relevant. These might include careful consideration of where in the frame you position the animal and how other features, including other animals, relate to it and help balance or create a narrative. This would also apply to a person in a landscape image. Ensuring that the person is dressed in a strong contrasting colour, such as red, is a commonly used strategy, or you might simply position yourself to ensure that their outline is clearly and boldly defined, through contrast of tone or colour, against their surroundings.

A simple graphic image based on the line of the groyne leading the eye from the left towards the cormorant perched on the isolated marker in the upper right. Canon EOS 5D MkIII with 24-105mm lens at 105mm, ISO 160, 1/320sec at f/16


We can often further improve the salience of features in our images through subtle processing measures. The eye tends to be drawn to lighter areas or areas of higher contrast , for example, so localised adjustments involving tone, contrast or even colour may help desired features to stand out. Let me stress again, though, that these adjustments need to be subtle.
Darkening tones in other competing areas is also worth considering - a gentle vignett e, which helps channel attention towards the centre frame, is one such ploy. In Lightroom, a carefully set Adjustment Brush is likely to be your tool of choice, painting over the relevant area of the image and then modifying the settings for precision before applying them. In Photoshop, I frequently use Curves Adjustment layers to subtly affect the tones in the relevant area and then use the layer mask to apply the effect solely where it is required.
Conversion to monochrome can also often make specific features in an image stand out more by eliminating the influence of colour. Careful select ion of colour filters during the conversion process may further exaggerate this by darkening or lightening the tone of specific colours.

Lightening the periphery to form a reverse-vignette helps to further the sense of mist enshrouding the isolated moorland tree. The black & white rendition places further emphasis on the subtle tonal variations. Canon EOS 5D MkIII with 24-105mm lens at 105mm, ISO 100, 1/30sec at f/14, tripod


1 Plan ahead. Some research can help you find suitable locations and appropriate times to visit them.

2 You're unlikely to capture the ideal shot on your first visit to a location. While there, think about how returning when the sun is in a different position or at a different time of year might influence things. Be prepared to return time and time again.

3 Think about what you are trying to say, reveal or express through a photograph, and then ponder how you can make a photograph that does this effectively.

4 Even during the shoot itself, try to think about how image processing could influence the photographic options that present themselves, as this can have a bearing on how you might bias your exposure settings, for example. It may even spark another creative idea.

5 Don't forget to think about how filters might help things st and out. This also applies to how colour filters might work for a scene if you're considering a monochrome conversion.

6 As our eyes tend to move from one strong element to another, arranging them in geometric shapes can create a satisfying journey and reinforce their relationship. Positioning three key features so that they form a triangle if joined by imaginary lines, for example, often works well.

7 Generally speaking, in landscape work we are striving for a greater depth of field, whereas with wildlife images larger apertures tend to be prioritised. There are times in both fields of work, however, when opting for a very different f-stop will increase the salience of a key feature. Be open to the idea of experimenting.


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