Basics of landscape composition

You’re up well before sunrise and you’ve hiked three miles in the pre-dawn light to reach a beautiful landscape location, writes Guy Edwardes.

The prospects look good, with the first signs of a colourful sunrise beginning to paint the clouds. You’re ready to capture some amazing images, but wait … you can’t decide how to compose the scene. This is a familiar situation for many photographers, but thankfully there are some simple guidelines to consider that will help to prevent you struggling for ideas when it comes to composing that perfect shot!

Successfully arranging the elements of a scene within the proportions of your camera’s sensor will quickly become second nature once you appreciate how the use of leading lines, foreground interest and the rule of thirds can effect the aesthetics of your photographs. These guidelines will help you develop the skill to visualise compositions, leading to better balanced and more visually appealing images.

Even a small pool of water can help to inject some brightness into the foreground of your image. For this shot of the stones at Callinish on the Isle of Lewis, I positioned my camera directly on the ground to make the puddle appear much larger than it was in reality. There was no more than two square feet of water here!

Find your viewpoint
One of the first mistakes that many landscape photographers make is to arrive at a location and immediately extend their tripod and fix their camera to it. This is a very restrictive approach that will discourage you from exploring all the compositional options available. Try to develop a workflow, the first step of which should be to thoroughly explore the location searching for interesting foreground elements and leading lines. When you’ve found a likely spot from which to shoot only then should you reach for your camera. Look through the viewfinder and move around to observe the effects of shooting at different heights, positions and of using different lenses. Decide whether the scene is best suited to a vertical or horizontal composition. Once you‘ve found a striking composition only then should you reach for your tripod, which provides a solid platform from which to fine tune your chosen composition.

Keep it simple
Unfortunately great landscape compositions don’t tend to simply present themselves, so you’ll often need to work hard (sometimes mentally and physically) to find one that works well. Some of the most successful landscape images are often achieved with the simplest compositions so don’t try to cram too much into the frame! There should be no confusion about what the main subject or theme of the image is intended to be, so consider which elements you can leave out whilst maintaining the overall effect you wish to achieve.

Simple landscape compositions are often the most successful, especially when using telephoto lenses. This view across the Tatra Mountains in Poland is basically a pattern created by receding mountain ridges and clouds.

The Rule of Thirds
Composing an image within the restrictions of a rectangular frame is always a challenge. The “rule of thirds” is an ancient principle used by artists to achieve a reliable and consistent method of arranging the main elements of a scene to form an aesthetically pleasing composition. Imagine two vertical and two horizontal lines through your viewfinder that split the image into six parts. The four points at which these lines intersect are known as “power points” and are areas within the rectangular frame where the eye tends to rest naturally when exploring the image. Consider placing the focal point of your image upon one of these four intersections. If your image includes divisions such as a straight horizon or the trunk of a tree, these are often best placed along one of these imaginary dividing lines. As you develop an eye for composition, arranging an image with this principle in mind tends to become second nature. Remember though that this is simply a useful guideline to consider which does not need to be strictly adhered to!

The importance of focal points
The composition of a landscape photograph can sometimes be enhanced if there is a point within it that attracts attention. Such a focal point can be a very important compositional tool. A focal point should be eye-catching but in most cases should not dominate the image. It can be placed anywhere in the scene, but when placed towards the distance it will help lead the eye through the image. This often has the added benefit of increasing the apparent depth of the shot. Prominent features in the landscape such as isolated trees, lighthouses, churches, rock stacks and other geological features, can all make a good focal point. Subtle focal points such as a splash of autumn colour amongst otherwise green woodland can be equally effective. The composition will normally be stronger if the focal point is positioned away from the centre of the image, so bear in mind the rule of thirds.

Lead-in lines
Including prominent lines in your composition can create a dramatic image. Lead-in lines can be produced by landscape features such as dry-stone walls, hedgerows, patterns on a sandy beach or even by shadows. These can all have the effect of leading the viewer’s eye through the scene, or towards a specific focal point within that scene. These lines provide a path for the viewer’s eye to follow as it explores the image, and can also greatly enhance the perception of depth by providing a more three dimensional feel. Leading lines need to be positioned carefully – if a line leads towards the edge of the frame this can unbalance the composition. Straight lines that run directly from foreground to background imply movement and drama, but can lead the eye through the image too quickly. Curved or wavy lines slow down the viewer’s journey through the image. A series of interconnecting linear features such as a zigzag of walls can create a more subtle leading line that draws the eye through the scene less quickly. The intersections themselves also provide a place for the eye to pause within the image. Implied lines can also be used to create a connection between points of interest and a suggested path for the eye to follow – subtly guiding the eye around the image along an invisible but predetermined route.

Foreground interest
The correct use of foreground elements can add great depth to your landscape compositions. Look for shapes, colours and textures that will add interest and scale to the image, without overpowering the distant details. Foreground interest can be beneficial regardless of the lens focal length used. However, shots taken with wide-angle lenses tend to benefit most as they exaggerate the effects of perspective. Use hyperfocal focussing to ensure sufficient depth of field to keep both foreground and background elements of the scene sharp. Try to maintain a natural flow from the immediate foreground right into the distance. Positioning your camera at a very low angle can result in foreground elements blocking this flow by obscuring the middle distance. Bear in mind that small changes in camera position will cause foreground and background elements to move dramatically in relation to one another, which can have a significant effect on the composition of your image.

Balance your composition
When arranging your composition it is important to pay close attention to the balance of light and dark areas within the frame. Try to prevent one area dominating the composition; such as a bright patch of white water in a river scene or a strong shadow in an otherwise evenly lit landscape. If such a feature exists try to balance it with a similar tone elsewhere in the image. If your composition has two main features or focal points try to position them diagonally opposite. Don’t over-darken the sky with polarising filters, graduated ND filters or post-processing techniques, as this will unbalance your composition.

Eliminate distractions
When composing an image pay careful attention to the edges of the frame. Be aware that your camera may not show 100% of the image in the viewfinder, so it can be easy to miss potential distractions around the perimeter of the image. Zoom out a little or move the camera around to check for potential distractions before making your exposure. Wait for people, vehicles or aircraft contrails to move away. Shift your position slightly to hide telegraph poles, buildings or parked cars. Remove litter, dead leaves or other small distractions from the foreground of your composition. Tilting horizons can be a major distraction, especially when shooting along the coast, so make use of your camera’s built-in spirit level or use a hotshoe mounted bubble level.

Prevent merges and convergences
It’s important to prevent important elements in an image from merging together. This is an easily overlooked compositional error that can cause the image to look very flat and two-dimensional. Maintain clear separation between each element in order for them to be individually recognisable, and try to keep them away from the extreme edges of the frame. Sometimes a shift of only a few centimetres can make all the difference. Initially exploring the scene with a handheld camera can make this task easier, enabling you to find the perfect position from which to shoot before reaching for your tripod.

Persevere and return to good locations
Just because you have found a good composition doesn’t mean that the shot is going to work first time. You may need to wait a while or even return later or on another day when the light is more favourable. Seasonal changes can also effect whether a particular composition will work. Some scenes benefit from green vegetation and wildflowers whilst others look better in the harsher conditions of winter. When you find a really good composition it is often worth returning frequently and in different weather conditions and seasons to capture the varying moods.

Use water to brighten the foreground
When shooting around dawn and dusk the foreground of your image can often appear much darker than the rest of the scene. This can unbalance the composition, but water can sometimes be used to alleviate the problem. You don’t have to use a large body of water, often something as small as a puddle will do. Try to position yourself so that a colourful or interesting area of sky is reflected in the water, which may mean shooting from a very low angle. Remember that in nature a reflection rarely appears brighter than its source, so don’t allow the water to record any brighter than the sky, which can happen as a result of using a graduated neutral density filter that is too strong or poor exposure blending in Photoshop.

I used a wide-angle lens to amplify the effect of perspective for this shot of Ox-eye daisies in Somerset. By positioning the flowers very close in the foreground I have been able to achieve a much greater feeling of depth in the image.

Guy’s top tips

  1. A useful exercise is to go out occasionally and shoot using a single prime lens. The restriction this imposes will force you to think even harder about how to compose an image.
  2. Carry a black card mask with an aperture the same ratio as the format of your camera to allow you to judge a potential composition without removing your camera from the bag.
  3. Once you’ve fine-tuned your composition rack the focussing back and forth to check for any potential distractions protruding into the frame edges.
  4. Make a list of compositional guidelines that you can take with you into the field. When you find a potential scene consider how these could help you arrange all the elements.
  5. Once you’re happy with your composition step away from the camera for a few seconds. Observe the scene carefully once more and then take a final look through the viewfinder.
  6. Don’t be afraid to exclude the sky from your image. Very often it adds nothing to the composition and may even detract from it.
  7. Often we only see the wider view, so interesting details in the landscape go unnoticed. Force yourself to explore every scene as if looking through several different focal length lenses.
A focal point doesn’t have to be something as obvious as a lighthouse or a castle. The two small trees in the upper left of this image os the Marshwood Vale in Dorset act as a subtle but perfect focal point to draw the viewer’s eye through the scene.

Composition is very much about balance and what feels right to you as the photographer. And while you should never follow every rule rigidly as if it is some sort of order you can’t refuse, these guidelines definitely work and will make a big difference to your images. As you can see from the images in this article I use them all the time and the more you do, the more this becomes instinctive. Brilliant composition rarely presents itself easily, even at classic venues so you have to work hard at it.

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