As in all other photography types, in landscape photography, composition of the image is of the utmost importance. Elliot Weston once said: “To compose a subject well means no more than to see and present it in the strongest manner possible”. Let’s have a look how we can bring this into practice.
Know the rules / break the
A nice landscape does not automatically mean a good photo. Taking a good photo seems like an art but creating a good composition is a gift that one can develop. A few tricks can help you on the way.
In better landscape photos there are usually common characteristics: location, timing, light and composition. The basic rules for a good composition are well known: apply the golden section or rule of thirds, ensure leading lines, a ‘point of interest’ and create depth by using a subject in the foreground. These rules are there for a reason. By applying them, we take into account how people look at a photo. In this way one can create for the viewers a sense of proportion, balance and harmony. Applying rules should become automatic without really thinking about it for a long time.
Edward Westen said about this: “Now to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk. Such rules and laws are deduced from the accomplished fact; they are the products of reflection . . .”
According to Ansel Adams, a photo can just as well be successful by ignoring a number of rules intentionally or unknowingly. Edward Weston added that “There are rules and we endure them whether we want it or not and that these are the result of a lot of thinking”. Before breaking the rules, I believe it is important to know some of the rules.
I think these rules are even more important when the location or circumstances are less spectacular. So, I use them as a starting point for a photo. I will come back to this later when you can safely break these basic rules. After all, you are still the artist who decides how you want to capture the landscape and there are no fines for breaking the rules. On the other hand, respecting the rules increases the chance that the viewer will also find the image beautiful or balanced. Personally, I see these so-called rules more as “guidelines”.
Master Ansel Adams has put all this in perspective again when he said “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs”
“Framing” with, for example, trees, bridges, arches, gates etc. creates a “see-through effect” that can help to attract attention to the focal point of your landscape image. This also helps to place the image in a certain context, as it is then told that the image is part of, for example, a historical context, or natural environment, etc … Moreover, it gives additional depth and, just like lead-in lines, it leads the eye to the main focal point.
Gary Winogrand once said “Photography is about finding out what can happen in the frame. When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.”
The edges around the frame are important in the composition because they also define what fits into the frame or not and how the elements in the frame relate to each other. The art of reduction cannot be underestimated. In general, the fewer objects or elements in a picture the more impact they will have. In relation to this point I invite you to read my blog on minimalism.
The boundaries of your frame depend on what you decide to include or to exclude from your picture. When one focuses on a certain object, it sometimes happens that unwanted elements pop up within the framework or vice versa. It also happens frequently that important elements are not sufficiently present in the image. Some subjects also might need so-called breathing space or negative space so that they are not stuck to the frame.
Perspective and foreground (focal point)
Finding the right spot may be simply a matter of spending a few minutes walking around the location. Look at your landscape from all possible viewpoints, move left, right, up or down. and try using different elements in the foreground. If necessary, take a few test shots until you are happy with your angle and frame.
As I already mentioned in a previous blog, a photo is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional reality. Perspective is one of the features that can make a photo particularly fascinating.
Two types of perspective can be distinguished.
The first is the perspective that is obtained by elements in the image that suggest distance: something big in the foreground, something small in the background. In order to create the illusion of depth and to increase the perspective effect, it is often better to place a subject in the foreground. That can be a tree, a rock, a wall … But people can be used for the same purpose. In that case it is necessary to move closer to the subject in the foreground. It is up to the photographer to investigate the best options before taking the photo. All photos need some focal point. A landscape without a focal point often seems rather empty and allows the eye of the viewer to wander aimlessly over the photograph. Focal points can take all kind of shapes in landscapes, buildings, structures, striking trees, boulders, rocks, silhouettes, etc. It is not only important to look for a point of interest or focal point, it is also important where you place it in the image. The rule of third parties can offer great help.
Another kind of perspective is the atmospheric perspective: the further image elements are towards the horizon, the more blurred they are. In landscape photography, this is a wonderful fact that can produce particularly beautiful images, especially when certain layering can be used. Just think of mountains that lie one behind the other. The rear ones appear more blurred than the front ones.
While changing the height (higher of lower) of your viewpoint one can emphasise the perspective. It is important to find a balance between foreground and background without overemphasising the focal point in the foreground. A lot of intuition will help you in this case.
Whether you like it or not, the eye is always drawn to the lightest point of the image. You should try to use this to your advantage. If the brightest spot is not your focal point that you want people to look at, you might face a problem. Either you reframe your image or you should try again at another time under different lighting conditions. In very bright pictures darker spots can have the same effect.
Your focal point should catch your eye either as being the sharpest point, the lightest point or a specific colour patch in the image.
Lead-in lines in landscapes
The lead-in lines that you can find in several landscapes will hopefully lead the eye to the point of interest and add to the perspective. These lead-in lines can be streams, paths, rocks, hedges, darker pavestones or even shadow lines etc. The lead in lines can go straight to the point of focus or meander in a S-shape like a snake into that direction. This works best in my opinion when working with a longer lens to compress the image.
Golden section / Rule of Thirds
A well-known rule from painting and photography is the “golden section” or “golden mean” already used in ancient art and architecture. Most of us simplify this as ‘the Rule of Thirds’ that is much easier in the field. The concept is simple: divide the image into a 3×3 grid by lines. The important image elements are placed at the intersections of these lines. In case of a landscape shot, for example, the horizon at 1/3 from above, the main subject in the foreground at 2/3 from the left and 2/3 from above. This gives a balanced composition. But do not stick to rules, because they limit photographic freedom. Only use them when the picture is better and they are effective.
It is assumed that this mathematical relationship is the closest to the human perception of aesthetics. An important advantage of this rule is that it keeps us away from the natural reflex of many to put the most important element in the image right in the middle of the composition. By moving the focal point from the centre, you get a more dynamic image and you place it better in the environment and it gets a broader context. Such placement also gives the viewer the opportunity to see other elements that can still improve your main focal point.
It is wise to first examine different points of view: often a different point of view is more likely to give a better result. Rules for composition can help with this, but also make use of the properties of colour, shape and line, and make optimum use of this by choosing the most suitable lens. At the same time, it is again not an absolute rule. Some compositions work better if the object is central. This is certainly the case when symmetry plays an important role and is also often used in the case of reflections.
Patterns in landscapes
Patterns already present in the landscape will help you just like lead-in lines or layering of the image. Patterns are often present in agricultural landscapes because of human impact, but also on beaches or even woodland.
When the pattern is strong enough you can even make appealing landscape photos without a focal point.
Contrast and colour can be used as a help in structuring your image and repetition will help guiding the eye. Examples are poles, trees, houses etc…
Leave your comment
I have written down my own thoughts here, but I am interested to hear your comments as well. So please, feel free to leave your own thoughts here. Even if you don’t agree with me, just let me know.