If light is the raw material of photography, composition is the glue that holds everything together. For a landscape photograph to be considered truly great, these two powerful elements must work together with equal force, to provide stability and equilibrium. If one fails, both fail.
In practice, composition isn’t a particularly difficult concept to grasp. Essentially, all you’re doing is arranging the different elements of a scene in your camera’s viewfinder so that they form a visually pleasing whole. A successful composition will be balanced and interesting to look at, and should lead the viewer’s eye around the frame, effortlessly taking in all the important elements within it.
To help us do this, there are various aids and tricks available. The ‘rule of thirds’ is a classic and effective compositional tool, while natural or man-made lines can be used to lead the eye around an image, and foreground interest adds depth and scale. Colour has great power, helping to highlight elements so they dominate the composition or influence the mood of the image. Lens choice allows us to control what appears in the frame and how perspective is recorded, while viewpoint changes the relationship between elements in a scene.
Ultimately though, the most powerful tools at your disposal are your eyes. By using them, and by thinking about what you’re doing, your compositional skills will improve.
1 CREATE BALANCE
A fundamental principle of good landscape photography is creating balanced compositions. Follow the age-old rule of thirds and you won’t go far wrong
If you’re aiming to create compositions that are both easy on the eye and hold the attention, you could do a lot worse than follow the age-old ‘rule of thirds’.
To use this rule, divide your camera’s viewfinder into a grid using two imaginary horizontal and vertical lines – some cameras have a viewfinder grid that does this for you. The lines and intersection points of the grid can then be used to aid the position of important features in the scene.
If your composition has a focal point, such as a barn in a field, a boat on a lake, or a tree on a hilltop, you can place it on one of the four intersection points created by the grid.
With landscapes, the best intersection point to use is usually the top-right one, because the eye tends to scan a scene from bottom-left to top-right. If you position the focal point off to the right and towards the top of the frame, the eye will take in most of the scene before reaching the focal point.
The lines of the grid can also be used to help you divide up the composition. You can place the horizon a third from the top to emphasise the landscape, or a third from the bottom to put more focus on the sky. The two vertical lines serve a similar purpose. If there’s a tree in the foreground of the scene, place it on the right-hand vertical line so the eye scans across the image to it. You should never force your compositions to comply with these rules (or any others, but they do work, so give them a try.
SHOOT A WELL-PROPORTIONED FRAME
Make the most of a stunning view in a few easy steps
1 FIRST IMPRESSIONS
This beautiful Tuscan view appeared in the closing scenes of Gladiator, but it’s all rather ‘windy’ and there’s no substance to the composition. Definitely room for improvement.
2 CLOSING IN
Walking into the scene and zooming in on the road and villa simplifies the composition. It excludes unwanted clutter, and focuses attention on the most important elements of the shot.
3 REFINE THE COMPOSITION
Getting closer still and using a telezoom to compress perspective creates a much stronger composition, with the winding road carrying the eye through the scene to the villa.
A stunning scene reflected in calm water is easy to shoot, and hard to resist
1 FIRST IMPRESSIONS
So, you arrive at a great location and there’s the promise of better things to come. All you can do now is set up your gear, say a little prayer, wait, and hope for the best.
2 COMPOSE THE SCENE
Placing the horizon across the centre of the frame is often considered to be bad compositional practice, but when it comes to shooting the reflected landscape, that’s the best place for it.
3 ND GRAD FILTER
A reflected scene is naturally darker than the scene itself, so if you want to balance the shot in-camera, use a 0.3 or 0.45ND grad to tone down the sky and landscape.
4 VARY YOUR COMPOSITION
While waiting for conditions to peak, experiment with different compositions to make the most of the situation. Try shooting with a wider lens, or a longer lens.
5 REFLECTED GLORY
A few quick edits in Photoshop and the work is done. You now have a jaw-dropping location, a mouth-watering sunset and water that’s as calm as a millpond.
PRO TIP EDIT FOR BALANCE
If a composition doesn’t work in-camera, you can always improve it during editing by cropping the original frame. Changing the image format can also work – from 3:2 to 5:4 or even 1:1.
2 MAKE THE MOST OF LINES
Natural or man-made, lines are a powerful aid to many compositions
USING THE GRID LINES ON YOUR CAMERA
Your camera’s preview screen is a handy compositional aid
In the good old days of film, the only way you could compose a photograph was by peering through your camera’s viewfinder – unless you happened to use a large-format camera with a giant focusing screen. But with digital cameras, you have an alternative option – the preview screen.
Composing images using the screen and Live View is recommended, because by standing back and observing the screen you get a better impression of how the image will look. The grid screen is also useful, as it can help you decide where to position key elements, such as the horizon and the focal point.
Why exactly? It’s because as well as providing a natural route into and through an image, lines can also be used to divide up the picture into different areas.
The most obvious lines are those created by man-made features such as roads, paths, tracks, walls, hedges and avenues of trees. Natural features such as rivers and streams, although not necessarily straight, have the same effect, winding through a scene into the distance and taking your eye on a fascinating journey. Shadows, too, can create strong lines, especially when the sun is low and long shadows rake across the landscape.
Horizontal lines echo the horizon, so they’re calm and easy on the eye. Man-made boundaries in the landscape, such as walls, fences and hedges, are obvious examples of horizontal lines. Vertical lines are more active, producing dynamic compositions with a stronger sense of direction. To maximise the effect, shoot in portrait format so the eye has further to travel from the bottom of the frame to the top.
Diagonal lines add depth as they suggest distance and perspective. They also contrast strongly with the horizontal and vertical lines that form the borders of an image and, in doing so, can create tension. The eye tends to scan naturally from bottom-left to top-right, so diagonal lines travelling in this direction have a greater effect, carrying the eye through an image from the foreground to the background.
Converging lines add a sense of depth. Look down a track and, as distance increases, the parallel sides get closer together until they meet at the ‘vanishing point’. The river or track is roughly the same width along its length, so if it appears to become narrower, it must be moving away from the camera. This effect is best emphasised using a wide-angle lens.
VERTICAL LINES ADD VISUAL INTEREST
Vertical lines add tension to an image. To make the most of them, shoot in portrait format so the eye has further to travel from the bottom of the frame to the top.
Including a vanishing point in your composition is a great way to add a sense of depth
Main image, bottom
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