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Composition: Use Obstructions To Your Advantage

In photography you will most often be cursing the leaf, blade of grass, or tree branch that is between you and your subject and ruining your otherwise perfect image. But there are times when working with things that get in the way can open up new possibilities for creative shots. Consider using these obstructions — rocks, tree branches, or even the ground — to frame a subject in some way with out-of-focus elements or even to cover up an otherwise unavoidable distraction. The key to using an obstruction well is that the obstruction has to be close to the camera, not close to the subject. When it is close to the camera, its out-of-focus edges will create a nice gradient you can work with to obscure an area in the image. Aperture is important—the smaller the aperture, the more the edges of the obstruction will harden. Achieving good results with obstructions is easier in low-contrast situations like shade or overcast light.

By lowering my shooting angle and using the tips of emergent wetland sedges to obstruct part of the frame, I was able to turn an ordinary portrait into a unique image. Whooper Swan, Varanger, Norway. 500mm with 1.4x teleconverter, 1/500 second at f/5.6, ISO 800

These two images of a Spotted Owl in Oregon are vastly different despite being taken within a minute of each other. In the second image, I moved to a position where I could partially obstruct the owl with the trunk of a tree midway between us. The resulting image is far more mysterious and evocative, which is more appropriate for this owl of deep, dark old-growth forests than the more standard portrait shot. 500mm with 1.4x teleconverter, 1/100 second at f/5.6, ISO 800; and 500mm with 1.4x teleconverter, 1/60 second at f/5, ISO 800

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