Can a photo of an animal, bird, or insect be successful and, indeed, dramatic without an artistic graphic design? Yes, it can. The wolf in winter that I included below is an example. The power of this image comes from the piercing eyes and the dramatic contrast between the black animal and the wintry environment. The shape of the animal is fine, but it's not compelling in any way.
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In the other photos, however, you can see an exceptionally strong design element. Sometimes this has only to do with the animal itself; other times it's the interplay of the subject and the surroundings. In the picture of the yellow snake, for example, the background palm has a striking design with a series of diagonal lines and horizontal lines, and the way the curvaceous lines of the tree boa are intertwined with the frond is artistic. The same kind of thing can be seen with the giraffe and the acacia trees that I took in Kenya. This was the first game drive on my first trip to Africa in 1994, and I thought I was in Heaven as I composed this picture. I recognized immediately the remarkable graphic design of the scene.
The rearing horse is one of my all time favorite pictures. I had hired a horse trainer who had trained a horse to rear on command. This picture was taken against a white sky - the lighting was added later. I wanted a dramatic silhouette, but just because the horse could rear didn't mean that every time he went up I got a classic shot. Sometimes he didn't reach the right height and other times his legs weren't extended artistically. If one leg blocked another the shot didn't work at all. Before he tired, I got only one strong, graphic design out of many tries, and that's the one you see here.
The photo of the sea dragon is another favorite shot. This remarkable animal was swimming slowly in an aquarium exhibit, and sometimes he would face me and sometimes he would angle away from the camera. I wanted a profile shot where the plane of his body was perpendicular to the lens axis. The exquisite graphic design of this unusual creature is the thing that would make this picture so dramatic, and it took me about a half hour to get a perfect shot.
Beautiful graphic design doesn't usually hit you in the face. You have to look for it, and wait for it with patience, and recognize it when it presents itself. And then you have to know which lens to use to take advantage of it. Photographic maturity, or the evolution of your ability to see and identify winning graphic design, takes time. Don't be impatient with yourself. For some people, this sense of artistry is innate. For others, it helps to see many examples of good design so you can look for similar situations when you are in the field.
Article by Jim Zuckerman. To learn more about photography, explore the many online photography and Photoshop classes offered here at BetterPhoto.com.