Ansel Adams, the master of landscape photography, had a lot to say about photography, mainly landscape composition. He was quoted saying, “A good photograph is knowing where to stand,” “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept,” and “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
So, how do we, as landscape photography junkies, know where to stand, develop a sharp concept, and make a photograph? The answer is develop a full understanding of landscape photography composition.
Composition is the placement or arrangement of objects to create a work of art. It’s of the utmost importance to compose a photo before you start snapping the shutter. It doesn’t matter if you place a photo of an ocean sunset next to a properly composed photo of your backyard. The properly composed photo will win every time.
So, let’s explore some landscape photography composition guidelines.
Not the Rule of Thirds
The second I said composition I bet half of you immediately thought I would talk about the rule of thirds. Well, not so much! Yes, the rule of thirds is a great guideline to follow when you are quickly composing a photo. However, photos that allow you to take your time require a more precise formula.
I’m talking about the golden ratio. The golden ratio is similar to the rule of thirds, and it has been used for centuries by artists like Michelangelo. If you Google golden ratio, you will get crazy math equations that no one understands. I’ll keep it simple for you. The golden ratio is basically the rules of thirds, but more towards the center. Here is a graph showing the rule of thirds in blue and the golden ratio in red:
The golden ratio was made to be more aesthetically pleasing, and I’d say I would have to agree. Sometimes the rule of thirds pushes objects too far to the edges of the frame. I’ve practiced with both and my favorite photos are the ones that use the golden ratio.
You want to be sure to balance your photo using the golden ratio as well. If you have something on the left side of the photo, try not to have blank space on the right. Find something in the background that will help take some of the weight off of one side.
Your goal, as a landscape photographer, should be to show the world something they have never seen before. Now, does that mean that you should never go to a location that has been shot hundreds, even thousands of times? Of course not!
What is does mean is that you should be shooting a location from angles and perspectives that have never been seen before. For example, take a look at this picture of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park:
Don’t get me wrong, the photo is fine. But, that’s all it is. Just fine. This view of Half Dome is probably a popular spot along the road or an easy access trail. Now, take a look at this photo of Half Dome:
Not only is the photo impacted by the light from sun peaking over the horizon, but the angle and perspective at which the photograph was taken is much more interesting, not to mention rarely seen, than the previous photo.
The angle and perspective of the second Half Dome photo also creates the reality of the size of Half Dome. By taking the photo from a higher angle, including more mountains, and showing the tiny trees on the slopes, you are able to see the massive formation that is Half Dome. Where as in the first photo, the trees in the foreground are so large, they dwarf Half Dome’s size.
The second photo also has great balance. Half Dome is still the main subject and focus of the photo, but the mountain range along the left side keeps the overwhelming weight of the right side within balance.
As you can see, perspective can either make or break your photo. The first Half Dome photo makes you glance, but the second Half Dome photo makes you stare. Read all about perspective on this post!
Remove the Clutter
One of the most beneficial lessons in landscape photography composition has to do with how much clutter is in a photo. You should have a distinct subject or feeling that you want to communicate in your photo. When you frame your shot and review the photo, ask yourself, “What takes away from the subject?” Whatever is taking from the subject is clutter.
Remove the clutter. Frame the shot and shoot another photo. Ask yourself again, “What takes away from the subject?” Again, remove the clutter, frame the shot, and shoot. By the third shot, I guarantee you will be taking a more interesting, direct photograph.
Overall, clutter is chaos within the photo. When you remove the chaos, you bring peace, harmony, and good composition to your landscape photograph.
Leading lines are a very popular, and very effective composition tool to use in your landscape photography. Leading lines actually pull the natural progression of sight up a line, into your photo, usually to the subject of the photo.
Take the photo to the right for example. The rock edge goes from the bottom of the frame, stays close to the golden ratio line, and leads to the waterfall. The natural progression of vision follows the line throughout the photo effectively.
Leading lines are very popular with wide angle lenses because of the distortion effect a wide angle lens has on a scene. The distortion makes leading lines look even longer than they actually are. Getting low to your leading line with a wide angle lens is a very effective composition trick.
I talked a little bit about framing a shot when I discussed the process of removing clutter, but let’s go into more detail. Framing and composition go hand in hand. Framing is the process of including or excluding things within a photo.
Obviously, like we talked about earlier, you remove clutter. But, what about things that aren’t clutter; things that could potentially add to a photo? Items that add to the feel and idea of a photo should be meticulously framed.
For a framing example let’s look at the following photo of a dock on a lake:
Just like the first Half Dome photo, this image is fine. I like the detail on the wood, the reflection of the trees in the water, and the reflection of the sky in the bottom left corner of the photo. But, the framing is holding it back from being a GREAT photo.
To make the photo complete, the trees on the top of the frame need to be fully visible instead of cut off. Yes, I can see their reflection in the water, but cutting off the tops of the actual tree line makes the photo feel like there is no conclusion. I want to see the full scene! Including some of the sky that’s reflected in the water would be great too!
Getting lower to the ground and tilting the camera up would include everything within the frame and make the photo much more complete and balanced.
Let’s take a look at another example. This one is so close! It’s a 95 out of 100! The small tree is positioned well on the left of the frame, the sun star in the top right balances the weight of the subject on the left, and there is great contrast between the single small tree and the rest of the surrounding forest.
So, can you spot what is wrong with the framing that’s keeping the photo from being a 100?
If you answered barely cutting off the leaves on the left side of the photo, you’re correct! Let me know you got it correct next time you see me out in public and I’ll give you your reward: a nice firm congratulatory handshake!
Seriously though, either backing up or zooming out just a little bit more would include the rest of the leaves on the left side of the frame and complete the photo. I know it might seem like small details, but it’s the small details that separate good photos from GREAT photos.
I mentioned the contrast between the size of the trees, so let’s learn more about contrast.
Contrast within a photograph shows differences between things. So, like the tree in the woods example above, there is contrast between the size of trees, and between the orange leaves and green pine needles.
You can create a long list of things that show contrast in a photo. There’s size, color, shadow and highlights, black and white, age, movement, speed, natural and man-made, etc! The list goes on and on!
Creating contrast within a photo increases the interest level of the photo. For example, if I took a photo of an amazing sunset on the beach with no one around, it might be a great photo. But, if I added an old boardwalk to the frame, it would give the contrast of natural versus man-made, making the photo more complex and interesting.
Foreground, Mid-Ground, and Background
The 3-ground technique (that’s what I call it at least) is a great way to add depth to a photograph. Foreground elements are subjects that are very close to the camera. Background elements are at the very back of the scene. Mid-ground elements are usually half-way between the foreground and the background.
A wide angle lens is the most common tool to use for the 3-ground technique. The way wide angles add depth to a scene makes it easy to fit so much into one photography. That’s probably why photos taken with wide angle lenses are so popular right now.
I do want to caution you, however. Don’t go crazy and only take photos using the 3-ground technique because some of your photos will fall flat. If you have a good foreground element to work with, great! But, if you don’t, you should never force one into the photo. Weak foreground elements equal weak photos.
I will guarantee that you will see a vast improvement in your photos if you use these composition guidelines. Study the scene, apply the guidelines, and take the photo. It takes diligence to construct a great photo, so put in the time and effort!
To learn more about improving your landscape photography, listen to this podcast!