Landscape Photography Design Part 1: Composition Primer

Landscape Photography Design Part 1: Composition Primer

Landscape photography is the often stigmatized genre of it not communicating anything other than display of beautiful imagery at best. In this epic arc series, I strive to provide an integral resource for working on your own landscape images. We’ll cover planning, shooting, and post-processing, and talk about anything from composition to colour theory. And for the more advanced photographers, we’ll include the use of shapes, tropes, and negative space to aid in compelling visual storytelling. This week: A composition primer.

What is composition?

Composition is providing order and hierarchy in your photo; it is telling the viewer both what’s important and unimportant in the image, and tells him/her where to start looking. Visual order will provide a banister to everything there is to look at in your photography, and makes it easier to perceive. Without composition, there is just visual chaos with no beginning or end; no direction or cycle; no shape or difference between dark and light.

Why is composition challenging?

Because composition in photography is a set of rules about how a viewer can dissect an image. Hold on. Let’s take a look at that sentence.

  • So it’s a set of rules. Rules can be broken.
  • The viewer plays a role. Which viewer? Who is your photo’s audience?
  • Dissection of the image. How can you start to imagine how someone else will look at your image?
  • Photography. Composition is everywhere; not just in photography.

As if communicating a photograph isn’t hard enough – outdoor and landscape photography scenes and subjects are always changing. You have to think about these rules, whether you want to break them and how you order the elements of the scene all in mere seconds, while being buffeted by the wind. Composition is challenging because it is highly subjective and many scenes in landscape photography are filled with related and unrelated elements. There isn’t one way a scene can be composed. Instead, the possibilities of framing, choosing perspective, crop, a viewpoint, and which elements to include are quite infinite. On top of that, none of the rules and tips I’m about to share can be applied every time...

Composition is difficult. It’s also the most rewarding pre-exposure thing. No two photographers will shoot exactly the same image because of its subjective nature.

Tips for making pleasing compositions

Decide what’s appealing about a scene

As you stand unfolding your tripod in the great outdoors, it’s time to consider what it is you are looking at with admiration. What is it that your eye is drawn to? What attracts you to taking an image here? Now, once your eye is fixed on this element in the scene, you have to cut emotional attachments to anything extraneous to that particular element. If you succeed, you’re left with your subject.

Looking through the viewfinder, exclude everything that doesn’t add to the story you’re telling. Simplify the image. Once the subject emerges from the chaos, it’s time to pay attention to the edges of the viewfinder. Are there any distracting elements there? Trash? Your camera bag? Or a bright spot through the trees maybe?

The chaotic foreground in this image takes away from the lighting (subject) in the background.

Moving your tripod just a little sideways and turning it ever so slightly in the direction you came from helps to get rid of distracting foreground elements while preserving your viewpoint of the subject. You can also dial in a larger aperture to defocus any attention-grabbing nasties in the fore- and background. Be smart about what you show and don’t show. You can always hide that ugly sign behind a tree or shrub by juxtaposing the two.

Mood

You’re working with light. Nothing more. If there’s no light, you will certainly not see any mountain, flower, or sandy beach. Paying close attention to light and how it shapes the world around us, will yield you better photographs. Diffuse and oblique light on our subjects often do better than harsh lighting conditions during the middle of a sunny day. The best landscape images reminisce of not only the monumental quality of the land, but also a great sense of time. That time a thunderstorm passed in that valley. Or when the mists obscured everything but that one tree. It’s not just choosing a shutter speed that conveys timing. Being there when the light tells more of the story than the land, is the right time to be there. I know that is hard to plan, so the best tip I can give you here is to just be there. Be there often and you will start to notice tiny differences throughout the year. A photo can always be improved upon too, so return when you feel the light is better; when it helps to convey that mood.

Bright and dark

Simplification of the image is not only selecting the least complex area of the scene. The brightest elements will instantly draw attention in most photographs. Dark elements in overall light images are equally demanding of your attention. They’re like two-year-olds on a sugar high.

Red screams

Also screaming for attention are warm colours. Yellow and red in particular are active areas of our brain that helped us find berries among the bush when we lived on the savannah. We are so hard-wired to notice these colours, that supermarkets tend to put special lights in their fixtures to make the fruit and vegetables stand out more. Have you noticed that tomatoes for instance, are always on display in either green, black or brown cases? It gives them the appearance of being redder. The same holds true for warm elements in a photograph. The more bland the overall area, the more any warm tones will stand out. It’s also why sunsets are this appealing to us: We keep looking at them. Warm hues, bright in the middle, darker around the edges; it focuses our attention like a campfire.

Visual conflict

If your subject isn’t the warmest or brightest (or darkest in high key images) element in the scene, you have a visual problem. The attention grabbing parts make you look away from the main subject. You can either return when the light is better, or try a different composition. A longer lens or a different viewpoint can help in these cases.

The light shining through the trees is the brightest area in this image. However, the warmest part of the image is the glow that seemingly emanates from the mushroom in the foreground. There's conflict going on, but that doesn't always end up being a bad thing. It bring balance in this occasion.

How big should my main subject be?

It doesn’t matter how big it is, as long as the viewer wants to look at it. You can lead the eye with all sorts of visual cues to the main subject. A wide-angle view of a waterfall upstream works brilliantly if the banks lead up to the falls or when the shape of the water points in its direction. Your subject can either dominate the scene or take a more recessive stance, as long as you hint that this is your subject. It should be unequivocal that this is your subject; size is just an easy approach to grabbing attention.

The alignment of the shore and the tree work to lead the eye from left to right and up the tree into the bright cloud where the mountain meets the sky. I tried spiraling you in.

Horizontal or vertical orientation?

Most of the time it’s the subject that dictates the orientation of the camera. But since most of us share our work online for display on computer screens, your work appears larger to the viewer in a landscape orientation. If you keep that in mind, and screens are the only medium you will ever display your images on, I would argue that some horizontal crop will do better than a vertical one. But only if it works with your subject. Often times, I like the effect that the wide-angle lens has on vertical images: A big sky and converging lines in the foreground all help to establish drama.

Deciding on the crop

Sticking to a 3:2 aspect ratio will create the illusion that you actually shot the image like this. But if many elements in some part of the image become distracting or extraneous to the story, it’s a good idea to consider another crop. However, I advise you to only use standard crops such as 4:5, 16:9, 2:1 or square. You wouldn’t want to crop again when you print the image, as this will unintentionally alter your composition.

Square crops add an extra sense of calm and they look great on print as well.

Level the horizon

When the horizon is an actual horizontal line, you would do well by straightening it. Try to do this in the field as near-perfect as possible, as rotating the image in post will crop the image. If any important subject matter is in the extreme corners of the image, you will break your composition by this rotation.

Should I have rotated this image if the horizon wasn't level, most of the reddening in the atmosphere would have disappeared.

In scenes where the horizon isn’t that obvious, such as in mountainscapes or in intimate landscape photography where no horizon is visible at all, it’s a good idea to pay close attention to anything that may convey the orientation of the camera as opposed to the horizon. Consider the following image.

While there isn’t any horizon present in the image, the shared direction of the trees to the top right gives away the fact that the camera wasn’t level when this was captured. Again, you could straighten it in post, but you will be discarding image data, resolution and more importantly; visual cues that could help the story.

Framing the image

Photography is all about deciding on what to show your audience. It starts with a location and timeframe, and a general idea of in which direction to shoot. The final tweaks to your tripod’s pitch, yaw, height, and placement can make all the difference in visual storytelling. Include anything that helps, but leave everything that doesn’t.

Stars, sea, rocks, and something distracting on the edge. It's everything I want to show you. There were boats, buoys and trash on either side of this image, but that didn't help this story about light pollution.

When this stage of advancing your photography starts to take up most of your time, you are on the right track. Don’t even think about camera settings or timing but walk around the scene and let it sink in. With both eyes open, try to look through the viewfinder with one eye and observe your surroundings with the other. I have found that this method keeps you aware of the difference between what you see in the viewfinder and what is there around you.

Choose the background

Poor background can, and will, ruin your otherwise beautiful image, so be careful when you compose the scene. A woodland backdrop wouldn’t often kidnap your viewer’s attention, but when there’s just one peak autumn maple in there, your subject suddenly becomes less interesting. People or man-made objects in the background are also powerful distractions.

Rule of thirds and the Golden Mean

The rule of thirds divides the frame in nine equal parts: Two horizontal lines and two vertical lines create three columns and three rows.

Placing your main subject on either of the points where the lines cross is a good idea, as it helps to avoid the so called bull’s eyes shots, but there’s a catch. The division between dark and light areas in the image can create dissonance if one of those power points doesn’t align.

The golden ratio is a special number (phi or roughly 1.61803398875) found by dividing a line into two parts so that the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part. Yeah. I had to read that three times myself. Here’s the difference between the two:

Before: Rule of Thirds. After: Golden Mean.

These rules have been around for centuries and many art forms (even music) make use of it. It’s one of those things that have become so synonymous with art, that we have come to expect the application of either the rule of thirds or the golden mean in photography as well. Don’t rely on percentages, rules, and divisions, though. Get creative and use these as guidelines, rather than rules.

Placing the horizon

Of course it’s a good idea to place the horizon along one of those lines described above as those guidelines help to avoid bisecting an image by placing the horizon in the center. But should there be more ground or more sky? It depends on the mood you want to set. The theory behind this is that more sky will convey openness, calmness, and even the divine, as a grand sky shifts the attention upward.

Conveying the divine nature of countless stars above your head works well if you place the horizon closer to the bottom of the image.

More ground however, will often result in feeling more condensed; grounded. Even conveying a sense of dread in some cases. This is derived from semiotics; the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. It’s the language of meaning.

With so much ground, it's hard not to feel like something's brooding on the horizon.

In western culture, we read from left to right and from top to bottom. In their 1996 book “Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design,” Kress and Van Leeuwen propose that you can make good use of this way of reading; from left to right. Consequently, what’s left in an image happened in the past and what’s on the right will happen at some time in the future. Everything to the top of the image, according to Kress and Van Leeuwen, is something of an ideal; the promise. Everything at the bottom of an image is more factual; the real.

The use of the telephoto lens in landscape photography

If there’s one way of practicing composition, it’s through the use of a longer lens. If you want to be a better compositional artist, a smaller frame will let you decide more easily. Too often I see aspiring landscape photographers wanting to go as wide as possible, as soon as possible. It’s far more difficult to properly guide the viewer to your subjects with wide-angle lenses.

So, until I return next time with advanced techniques for the more experienced photographers, I want you to go out to that great photography location in your area. Go out often, wait for the light, isolate your subject, and bring a lens with a focal length of a minimum of 50mm.

All images by Laanscapes. I'm on 500px and Facebook as well. Meet you there!

Log in or register to post comments

8 Comments

E Port's picture

Thanks for writing such awesome articles Daniel. Zero rehashed click-bait. Just core original photography discussions. Love it!

Daniel Laan's picture

Appreciate the wonderful comment! These are straight from the heart as well, and there are 4 more coming in this series. As long as I can keep writing about landscape photography, there will not be clickbait. Glad you like it.

Jacques Cornell's picture

"Landscape photography is the often stigmatized genre of it not communicating anything other than display of beautiful imagery at best."
Landscapes can be beautiful, ugly, shocking, soothing. And, they tell stories. Of the passage of time, the action of weather and climate, the ecosystem, the formation of the earth, and the lives and actions of creatures who inhabit or pass through. Mere beauty is a trifling thing.
For an excellent example, see Josef Koudelka's "Chaos".

Daniel Laan's picture

Well put, Jacques. I wish more non-landscape photographers could agree. Thanks for the reference and beautiful description.

Chris Hall's picture

Absolutely an amazing read Daniel, thanks

Great article. Thanks

Aneesh Kothari's picture

Terrific article, Daniel! Looking forward to more in this series