How to Lead the Eye With Composition, Shapes, and Lighting

What does it mean for a photograph to tell a story? We usually think of street photography or portraiture as the best mediums for communicating emotions, but landscapes can tell a story too.

One way to improve your visual storytelling is to critique photos that didn’t quite make the cut. This helps you beat survivorship bias and grow faster as a photographer. But there’s an unexpected place to learn some new photography tricks: comic strips. I’m not much for comic strips, but I love Gary Larson’s work because there are usually three levels of meaning that can only be discovered by dwelling on the cartoon:

  1. The main subject that commands your attention
  2. A nearby subject that seems out of place
  3. A hidden element that connects these two with irony

A key ingredient of effective storytelling is to slowly reveal new details by pacing them. We can apply storytelling to landscape photography with our own 1-2-3:

  1. Foreground: the closest subject and the first thing the viewer lands on.
  2. Middleground: the connecting ground to the surrounding environment.
  3. Background: the final subject that commands the viewer’s awe.

Like any good story, we shouldn’t have all the subjects concentrated in one region of the image. Instead, we can spread interest throughout the foreground, middleground, and background. Dedicated viewers will discover subtleties only as they rove the image.

You may not exactly be Larson, but you can take your viewer’s eye on a journey by focusing on yet another 1-2-3:

  1. Composition
  2. Shapes
  3. Lighting

These aspects of an image tell a story and communicate a mood. Composition provides a framework for pacing the subjects in an image, shapes connect the subjects, and lighting helps your viewer land on the important elements in the landscape.

My landscapes are often missing one of these ingredients, so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t feel like your images have these elements. Take some time to learn from your “failed” photographs so you can be more intentional next time.

How do you tell stories with your landscape photography? Share a favorite shot in the comments that you think takes your viewer on a journey.

Jonathan Lee Martin's picture

Jonathan Lee Martin is a fine art landscape photographer, educator and globetrotting digital nomad. He’s traveling the world for a year to discover unique landscapes and help fellow landscape photographers lighten their load to go further.

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Maybe I'm odd but I usually focus on the "awe" element first and then discover the foreground and middleground. Hmm... probably not "maybe". :-)

I definitely find that an "awe" element is what grabs me in the first place (hello mountains!). The mistake I often make is snapping away without pausing to play analyst and improve what already grabs me.

The use of the term "storytelling" is excruciating. Most people will like the images shown. They will understand the explanations given on composition and leading lines, but how on earth does that make a story? Which story? This is such a hollow slipslop

Good share.
Loved the S curve analogy. :)