Finding a good composition can be tricky at times, especially when photographing landscapes. After all, nature can be a bit chaotic. I believe the key to capturing interesting images is finding a good balance in your composition. Of course, this principle applies to other photography genres as well.
There are many composition rules and techniques to choose from, making it challenging to decide which one works best. One of those is the controversial rule of thirds, perhaps the most used in photography. That doesn't mean it's a valid rule, but it's an easy one. Alternatively, a more classical approach with the golden ratio may be better, although it's a bit more difficult to apply when you’re at a location and looking through the viewfinder. Many other composition rules are available, some of which can be combined.
The composition rule you decide to use will depend on the subject and its surroundings, but personal preference also plays an important role. Regardless of the rule used, I believe there is one thing imperative for nearly every photo, and that is balance.
Finding a Subject
When photographing a landscape, there are a few things to consider. Often, there is much to see, and almost everything is interesting. However, trying to include everything in the frame almost never works. A photo needs a clear subject to grab the viewer's attention, that’s the first step in building a great composition. Once the point of interest is determined, you can search for secondary elements in the photo that complement the subject. Use these other elements to fill the surroundings, but be cautious not to clutter the frame with an overabundance.
You have influence on how things are distributed in the frame. Just by moving back and forth, left or right, and up or down, it's possible to change the relative position of most elements in the frame. Focal length, in combination with your distance to the foreground, is another way of changing the appearance. Even depth of field can be used to your advantage, although a lot of landscape photographers always prefer the largest depth of field possible, no matter what.
Using Nine Basic Composition Shapes
Placing all these elements in the frame can be done using one of the nine basic composition shapes. These shapes, based on the composition theory, apply to photography as well. They consist of central composition, symmetrical, asymmetrical, L-composition, triangle, diagonal, geometrical, movement, and overall composition.
Looking at these nine different ways of distributing elements in the frame, which I discussed in detail in a previous article, there is one thing they have in common: they’re all about balance. If the composition lacks balance, it won't feel right.
Always Look at the Edges
One thing you must never neglect is looking at the edges of the frame. Are there elements of the composition sticking out or in? Do you have extremely dark or light spots that attract negative attention? If so, use the possibilities at your disposal to compensate for these problems. Do this preferably in the field, but also in post-processing if necessary.
With elements clutching against only one side of the frame, the composition may become unbalanced. In that case, try to find something on the other side or position yourself to get rid of the part that produces the imbalance. Sometimes, you have to make the difficult decision to leave some things out of the frame.
Not only are the sides of the frame important, but also the distribution of elements on the horizontal plane. Are there elements in the foreground obscuring other elements in the background? Are elements cluttered? Is there empty space? If so, look for a position or perspective that solves these problems.
Use the Rule of Thirds to Find Balance
If you were to use the rule of thirds, would you force yourself to place a subject according to that rule? Or would you use those lines to find the necessary balance in the frame? Let's imagine you decided to place the subject at one of the lines according to the rule of thirds. In that case, would you try to find something on the other side of the frame to counterbalance? If not, the photo will probably feel off-balance.
The lines that belong to the rule of thirds can be a wonderful thing to help you to distribute elements in the horizontal and vertical planes. This will help you to achieve a balanced composition.
Instead of strictly following the rule of thirds, it's wiser to place elements according to one of the nine basic composition shapes I mentioned before. However, keep searching for things that work against that balance — not only elements that attract negative attention, but also empty parts that don't contribute at all.
I don't mean there can't be any empty spaces in a composition. Even large empty parts can have a function in a composition, but this negative space has to have something to counterbalance it. It's the photographer's creativity that must be used to determine what works best. Just make sure there are no distractions.
I believe it's essential to be aware of classical composition rules, including the rule of thirds. Still, don't force these rules upon yourself. It's much more important to place elements in the frame in a way that is eye-pleasing. And whatever you do, watch out for any distractions.
What kind of composition rules do you use for your landscape photography? How do you deal with the balance in your composition? Please share your thoughts on this in the comments below.