Good composition can make or break a landscape image. Composition is how you arrange and frame elements in a scene to guide the viewer’s eyes into and through your images. Good compositions in landscape photography have just enough detail and elements to guide your viewer’s eyes towards the most important parts of the scene. Too many elements can create distractions. Not enough elements and your viewers may not be able to interpret your images correctly.
Unlike exposure and colour corrections, composition is something that cannot be changed in post processing. Cropping can help to remove unwanted parts of an image and to assist with tighter framing, but only when you are shooting at a wider focal length than you require. Cropping also reduces the resolution of your images which may potentially impact on print quality.
While the goal of good composition in landscape photography is to portray your subject in the most aesthetically pleasing way, all forms of art are subjective and open to the opinions and expressions of any individual viewer. Understanding composition in photography is something that people need to learn and experiment with over time. The more you get out and practice your shooting, the more you will start to recognise major elements and where to place within your images to portray strong visual weight and balance in your images.
Let’s take a look at 10 composition tips for landscape photography to help you understand what to look for when you are exploring the beautiful landscapes many of us love to visit and capture.
1 – Use the rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is most likely one of the first photography “composition rules” you will learn. When using the rule of thirds, divide your image into thirds vertically and horizontally using a ratio of 1: 1: 1. This will leave nine individual equally sized frames in your image, with the intersecting grid lines in the upper or lower right or left being where you place major elements, or subjects of interest within your scene. The rule of thirds can be used to help create depth in your scene, drawing your viewer into your images.
The rule of thirds is quite commonly used when considering where to place the horizon line of an image. Rather than having the horizon on the middle of your photos, composing with the sky along the top or bottom horizontal line quite often creates a much more aesthetically pleasing and balanced image.
Many cameras come with a function to overlay a rule of thirds grid in the live view or even in the viewfinder. This can be used while composing your image, or overlayed onto an image you have already captured.
2 – Look for leading lines
When we look at photographs our eyes naturally and unconsciously follow any lines that appear in images. By using leading lines effectively you can guide a viewers eye through your compositions, create the illusion of depth and impact the way they interpret a scene. The idea is to draw a viewer into the image, towards a subject or to make them feel like they are travelling into or taking a journey through your images. The leading lines do not need to be straight – they can also be curvy, diagonal or even zig-zag through your frames and come from different directions and angles. They can go from left to right, top to bottom, corner to corner or take twists and turns.
Roads, tracks, paths, streams, jetties. railway lines, fences, rocks and waterfalls are all elements that can help create strong leading lines. Use them to create depth and a three dimensional effect in what is otherwise a two dimensional photo. The effective use of leading lines will force the viewer to discover more elements in the photo by guiding their eyes from the foreground through to the background and everything in between.
3 – Include foreground interest
Using a strong element in the foreground can help create separation and layering between the foreground, middle ground and background of your images, which again adds depth and the three dimensional impact that makes many landscape images so visually appealing. The foreground should create a focal point that compliments the rest of the image and does not distract from the remaining layers.
If you think of your images in terms of layers, the foreground should contain an isolated subject such as rocks, logs or branches or even a person. The foreground layer can help to provide a sense of scale to the middle or background and could potentially be used as a leading line guiding viewers eyes to the main subjects. Don’t forget to get down low and experiment with the placement of your foreground elements to best create the depth we seek in landscape photos.
4 – Use negative space to isolate your subjects
The effective use of negative space is a compositional technique used to create an area around your main subject that can help to achieve a sense of scale, while not distracting from the main subject. Negative space will allow viewers eyes to naturally gravitate towards the main subject, quite often creating a dramatic effect that portrays a sense of solitude, loneliness, and importance of the main subject within the scene. The simplest way to think of negative space is as emptiness in an image that balances and creates weight towards the main subject. More often than not negative space lacks any major details that will overwhelm viewers eyes, but elements such as “whispy” clouds or textures in sand can compliment the positive space that will be your main subject.
Elements such as a plain sky, grass, sand, walls, and water can all help to isolate the main subject and create the dramatic effect for scale and size that negative space is typically used for in landscape photography.
5 – Use a vanishing point
One of the most common ways to create depth in landscape images is to use a vanishing point to guide viewers eyes into your images. Vanishing points tend give the appearance of diminished size the further they are away from your camera, and are effective because of how our eyes judge distance. Lines will look as if they are converging the further they are away from the viewer. Lines that lead from the front of the image towards the background work best to create the linear perspective.
Elements such as parallel lines, railway tracks. jetties, roads and bridges are all effective at creating a vanishing point when they are framed correctly. Getting lower to the ground can emphasize the effect of the converging lines – just be aware that these lower perspectives can negatively impact on the separation of elements throughout the different layers of your images.
6 – Change your lens focal length
Different lens focal lengths can provide countless options to vary your landscape compositions. Wide angle lenses up to and in the ranges of 10mm to 35mm are great for capturing the grand scenes and offer opportunities to get close and low to foreground objects, and for framing subjects in elements like trees. Wide angle lenses are generally used with narrow apertures from f/8 to f/16 to get front to back sharpness and a deeper depth of field.
Longer focal lengths such as 70mm through to 400mm are great for isolating subjects such as distant mountains and buildings with the narrow field of view being perfect for capturing details in part of the scene, rather than the entire scene you see with your eyes. Telephoto lenses can produce a compressed perspective seemingly pulling the background closer to the main subject, and can be used with very wide apertures from f/2.8 to f/8 while still maintaining a good depth of field for front to back sharpness.
7 – Use a centred composition and look for symmetry
A centred composition may be the simplest form of composition of them all to understand. By placing your main subject in the centre of your image you are making it very clear what you want your viewers to see. This can also be a great way to reduce any distractions around your subjects and force the viewer to see only what you want them to pay attention to. For many beginner photographers centred compositions are how they will start to compose their images as it is natural to point the camera straight towards the main subject to capture it.
Centred compositions are also great when there are symmetrical elements in your scenes. Symmetry can give the feeling of harmony and aesthetic balance through both horizontal and vertical symmetry. Use things like reflections in water with a centred composition to create the balance and added visual weight.
8 – Frame your subject to help tell your story
Framing your subject can provide a strong foreground element to strengthen the visual weight of your compositions. Elements such as trees and other overhanging foliage, rock arches and ice caves are all parts of the natural landscape that can be used for framing. Contrasting colours between the frame and your main subject can help to add something extra to your images.
Just as with all other compositional rules, framing should add to your compositions and help you strengthen the story you are trying to portray about the scene you are photographing.
9 – Use the golden ratio / golden spiral
The golden ratio is a variation of the rule of thirds where the image is divided into a nine frame grid. Rather than having equal proportions across each frame, the ratio of 1 : 0.618 : 1 is applied, making the middle frames smaller and having intersecting lines which are closer together. The resulting grid is called the “Phi Grid”. The golden ratio in all forms of art is a way to provide an aesthetically pleasing design to images that creates a balanced and harmonious composition. Many extremely popular and historical works of art including the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper are believed to have been created using the golden ratio.
The Golden Spiral (also known as the Fibonacci Spiral, named after Leonardo Fibonacci who developed the mathematical formulas behind it in the 12th century AD) is a more refined version of the golden ratio, with a curved lines leading through the composition joining a series of intersecting squares of which the main subject is typically placed on. The Golden Spiral leads viewers eyes through an image with a natural flow and is believed to appear in many elements of nature such as flower petals, shells, tree branches and even hurricanes or tornadoes.
10 – Break all of the compositional rules and experiment yourself!
As with all forms of art, the way we all interpret and react to photographs and other imagery we see is very personal and subjective. What one person may appreciate as an impressive composition, others may not appreciate. As a photographer you are an artist and the way you personally interpret and want to portray the scene in front of you, and your own personal feelings and emotions towards what you are seeing does not have to match what others feel. The above “rules” really are just guides that will help you understand the mathematics behind what really is a creative art. Don’t limit yourself or create restrictions around the imagery you create.
Experiment with your camera. Take as many shots as possible. Move around and explore your locations. Try different lenses and focal lengths. Get close to your foreground subjects and then move further away. Look for lines that can help guide viewers eyes through your scenes. Change the height of your tripod to get different perspectives. And most of all, have fun creating imagery that you personally like!