There are many elements that make a great photo. And there will be as many opinions as there are viewers. However, there are some basic guidelines, which can help you to learn and improve your composition skills as a photographer.
In this guide to composition in landscape photography, we begin with the basic stuff. Further down, we will move on to more advanced but the essential techniques to master composition in photography.
Remember when looking through photos taken by a friend or family member. I guess, if you think about it, with many of the photos, they would need to explain what the photo was about. What caught their interest in the first place.
If you want to improve as a photographer, your first task is to clearly show the viewers what your photo is about. And without needing to tell them with words. The first step is to use a clear focal point in your photos. Ask yourself: “What is the main point of interest that I want to capture?”
Becoming clear on what your focal point is in a photo before you take it will help you think like a photographer. You will be able to make stronger photos that clearly tells the viewer, what the photo is about?
If you take photos without knowing what your focal point is, it becomes very difficult to make great looking photos, except by accident. To create great photos, you need to know what your focal point is – before you press the shutter.
Not to confuse you, but a photo can have multiple focal points (like two points of interest in a photo). Sometimes a secondary focal point can be out of focus, without being a problem. On the contrary, it can make the photo stronger.
When introducing a second focal point in a photo, the story the photo tells often becomes about the relationship between the two focal points.
Using a foreground element, often acts as secondary focal point to a primary focal point further away, like a sunset or mountain range.
When you have chosen the focal point for a scene, you should consider how you can make that focal point stronger. You can do that by using different compositions, perspective, and techniques like depth of field and so on. As you will see in this guide to basic photography composition, there are several techniques or tool you can use to emphasize the focal point and make the photo stronger. Let us begin with the most obvious: Getting closer to your subject.
How much should your subject fill up the frame before you get too close? It is hard to say that your subject should fill 40% or 70% of the frame. It depends on what you are photographing and how big a role the context plays in your photo.
Your viewers should never be in doubt, what your subject is. You should get closer than you think. For this, I suggest that you use the best zoom you have, which is your own feet. Often they can get you in the exact place you want. For example, if you take photos of mushrooms in the forest you should consider getting so close that the viewer can see the texture of the mushrooms surface.
In landscape photography, your subject will often be a great vista, like a mountain range, it becomes a little more tricky since most likely you are far from the mountains. But, still the mountain range or the interesting part of it should fill the frame, and you should decide on what to include in the photo, and what to leave out.
The rule of thirds is one of the best-known composition techniques in photography. While the rule of thirds isn’t complicated, it can take some practice to remember to use it in your landscape photography.
The basic idea behind the rule of thirds is simple enough. When people view a piece of art – whether a painting, portrait, or landscape photograph – they instinctively break the image up into nine equal sections to get an idea of what the image is about. It is faster for the brain to interpret the image this way. They are mentally drawing two equally spaced vertical lines and two equally spaced horizontal lines through the image, and their eyes tend to focus on the imaginary lines and their intersections first. As a result, viewers tend to find images most pleasing and interesting when important points of interest are placed near these invisible lines and points.
The grid overlay on this photo shows the third lines. The ideal placing of interesting elements of your photos is near the intersection points. Often you can also place the horizon on a third line.
Using the rule of thirds creates a sense of balance while also adding tension while avoiding the image becomes static, which centered image are prone to. Furthermore, it helps you draw and keep a viewer’s interest. That said, there are times at which experienced photographers may choose to break the rule of thirds, often with good reason – maybe to give more balance to a photo or to achieve a symmetric composition.
The rule of thirds comes relatively naturally to some photographers, but others find that it takes practice. Many beginners are instinctively inclined to place points of interest near the center of the photograph, which is contrary to the rule of thirds. Centered images will tend to look more stilted, stark, and boring than those where the subject is placed at the intersection of third lines. In contrast, placing points of images far from both the center and the imaginary lines dividing the image into thirds can look jarring and random.
Using third lines isn’t a strict rule photographers have to follow at all the time, but rather a valuable guideline or tool that can help you take your landscape photography to the next level. It’s always better to master a technique before you decide to break it.
If you’re one of the many photographers to whom the rule of thirds doesn’t come naturally, you may need to consciously practice it for some time before it becomes second nature. Be patient and stick with it. You’ll know when it’s working because your photographs will look and feel more balanced.
When you compose your next photo, think about the key points of interest. Now, mentally divide the image with those two horizontal and two vertical lines, and shift your view until the points of interest align closely with the imaginary lines and intersections. It doesn’t have to be perfect! The most important thing is to shift your thinking away from centering points of interests.
Perhaps the most obvious point of interest in most landscape photographs is the horizon. Many beginning photographers tend to center the horizon line, but this can lead an awkward, static-looking photograph. Instead, create interest by aligning the horizon with the lower third of your photograph if you want to emphasize the sky, or with the upper third if you want to emphasize the land or water. Other important points of interest, depending on your interests and the types of landscapes you’re photographing might include: rock formations, trees or other vegetation, tall peaks within mountain ranges, buildings, particularly bright points in the sky, or deep shadows.
In the beginning, many photographers forget about the foreground and just focus on the mountain or whatever they want to photograph. But how can a large stone at the beach make the sun setting in the ocean more attractive? This is partly because of the perception of depth it creates in the photo. You can easily improve your photos if you include some trees, a river or maybe a house or a person in the foreground. Try it and see what it does to your photo.
For a foreground element to work well, you need to get close to it. Get so close that the viewer thinks that he can touch the foreground element. With a wide angle lens, nearby objects seem larger than they are. This help to add drama and tension to the scene. Depending on the size of the foreground element, you may need to get real close or position the camera just a few inches above the ground, so both our focal point and foreground are within the frame.
Almost anything pleasing to the eye, can act as a support. Stones, flowers, a dead tree, humans and animals, a sign or boats, buildings or cars. In the photo below, I used sheeps as an interesting foreground to a part of showing a different aspect of the Copenhagen skyline.
With the both the foreground and the focal point in place work the scene and find a good composition and shoot. It is important to take that extra step or position that will enable you to get the shot you want (of course minding your own and others safety). Your photos will become that much better. If you don’t have a good foreground element, try to move around a little while until you spot something that works.
Lines are very powerful at guiding the viewer’s eyes from one part of an image to another part. They allow the viewer to get “pulled” into the scene and creates depth in your image. Lines can also ensure a connection between elements; that would otherwise be missing. These lines could run between the foreground and the background; or between two principal components, in your image. Often an implied line, like for instance a series of stones, is enough to guide the viewer to follow the line until its ending point.
Leading lines can be very effective in bringing attention towards your focal point. Lines coming from the corners create a dynamic impression, whereas horizontal lines are more static. Horizontal lines across the frame can act as a stop sign for the eye, not to move further, with the horizon line excluded. A leading line can be a road, path, river, fence or even just an implied line of a few rocks or stones leading inward in your image. They help the viewer on where to look in your image.
To make your image stronger, make sure that the lines lead towards an interesting subject placed either at the very end of the line or along its pathway.
By placing your camera near the ground, you will make leading lines stronger. Don’t be afraid to get a little dirty, to get the right shot, even though it means to lie flat on the ground to get in the right position.
Another tip is to have lines enter the frame near the corners. It will help move the attention towards the main subject of your photo and add some energy to the composition.
The way you position lines to run across the frame can have an impact on the emotion your photo triggers.
Horizontal lines bring about a feeling of lack of change or timelessness. Vertical lines often imply a sense of stability, when used in rock formations or buildings, while when trees make out for a dominating vertical line in your image, it can imply peace. At other times, it suggests power like with rocks.
Diagonal lines convey more sense of action than horizontal and vertical lines, and they are often better at getting our attention. Therefore, they are said to be more powerful, however as with anything else it, when to use them depends on the context and the story you want to tell with your image.
Uneven and jagged lines create a feeling of unease and tension. These lines can be very powerful in reinforcing a sense of darkness, conflict or mysticism.
Curves is another type of line that can bring a sense of grace and elegance an image. You can find curves almost anywhere in nature. Coastal lines often include large curves, while branches of trees or grass or leaves create smaller curves that you can use in many creative ways.
When composing your shot keep an eye of for distracting elements. Especially around the edge of the frame. This can be branches, leaves, or a sign post or any other element that is not part of the composition. These elements can take the attention away from your main subject, particular if they are bright. Before pressing the shutter check if there are anything, that doesn’t need to be in your composition. If there is, try to overcome it by reframing or zooming a little extra to exclude the object.
Distracting elements in the middle of the frame are just as annoying as those around the edges, but with the difference that you cannot crop out the distraction in the center of the frame. If you are aware of this while shooting, moving a step to the left or right can make or break a great landscape photo.
With the horizon straight in the middle of the frame, your photos may end up being very static. You need to take your subject into account and find out whether you should leave out the sky or the foreground from your composition.
You should try to avoid the upper part of your subject or any other elements aligning with the horizon line. If you take a little lower point of view, you can the rock or tree or whatever pop-up and break the horizon line. This will make the horizon line less static and more interesting because of the added perception of depth in the photo.
Use elements in the scene to create a frame around the subject. Many former painters have used this technique successfully. You can find many suitable things that can work as a frame within the frame. Window and door openings are great examples. Include them in your shot and shoot out through the opening, revealing what is on the other side.
In the below photo, I have used avocado leaves in the foreground to create the setting for Sierra Nevada mountains in the background. The sky was cloudless, static and uninspiring that day. By using the leaves as a frame, I also managed to create a more interesting photo by encapsulation the subject in a frame within the photo.
In many landscape photos, it can be difficult to see where one thing begins and the other ends. Especially, if there are no contrasting colors present in the scene. This can make your photos look flat and without depth. Sea stacks with the same color and tone can easily blend in a photo. To counteract this, you can try to find a composition where the things that seem to blend visually gets separated. For this, you need to modify the composition, but often gaining a bit higher point of view can help a lot.
Negative space where nothing happens can be your friend. Especially in those shots where you wish to work with a simplistic and minimalist style in your landscape photography. This tip can seem to work against the very first tip, which was to get closer to the subject. However, this is no problem as long as you know why you include negative space.
Scale cues help the viewer judge how big or small the subject is and how far away it is. Include something that is familiar to give a hint about the size of your subject.
Reflections are beautiful, and since they are almost symmetrical, it often begs you to break tip 2 of using the rule of thirds and tip 7 avoiding having the horizon in the middle.
This is a great example of how these tips should be seen as tips. Even though the “rule of thirds” sounds like a rule but it is just a tool. When the subject is right, you should learn to break the ‘rules’ of composition in landscape photography.
By including one or several of these tips to improve your landscape photography composition, you will surely be on your way to creating better photos. The best way to go about this is to pick one of the tips and work with it until you are comfortable with using it. After that try out some of the other composition techniques and try to use several of them in a single shot.