I have deliberately avoided titling this ‘Understanding the Rules of Landscape Composition.’ The canon of landscape painting and photography has allowed artists to develop a language of composition and critics to take this language and impose rules or criteria when they ask the question: “What makes a great landscape?”
The suggestions and guiding principals of great artists have, over time, almost become prescribed as rules but it best not to think of them in such hard and fast terms. It is best to think that what we have inherited from the work of great artists, however, are tried and tested methods of composition that it helps to have knowledge of as a platform on which your photograph can comfortably sit. All of the compositional tools at your disposal are there for one reason and one reason only: to lead your viewer into the photograph and then make it difficult for them to leave.
A question often arises when it comes to the subject of landscape composition: “Won’t following a set a rules just make my photography formulaic?” Well, as a general rule it is the subject matter, rather than composition, that is often formulaic, so if you can discover an interesting and original way to view a landscape or scene then how it is composed will become the bedrock on which to present your ideas.
As an example, some years ago I was shown a photograph that a friend had taken of a ladybird on some roof tiles. The subject matter was simple but the image was shot with the ladybird in the foreground and the camera offering us a point of view shot of how the ladybird saw his landscape; an endless terrain of texture and symmetry leading towards the horizon; a platform where he might take wing into the blue skies. It made me feel as though I were part of his journey. He seemed weary, as though all that was missing from the picture was a little suitcase and a walking stick
The image was wonderful and original and refreshing. However, the fact that the picture followed, almost to the letter, all of the “rules” of texture, focus and placement merely allowed the photographer to present an original idea and a captivating view of the world in a coherent and well balanced manner. Perhaps, if the picture had dispensed with the whole notion of compositional contrivance then something of the magic of the photograph may have been lost.
The most important part of composition is composure – self-composure !
Before you begin to think about how you may compose the shot, settle in to the surroundings and take in what is around you. What may seem to be a pretty boring or mundane scene may contain some incredible abstract elements or unusual geographical geometry. It’s worth getting used to the idea of spending ten minutes or longer simply enjoying the atmosphere of what is around you before committing to a shot. Once you have locked on to an idea it becomes harder to see other aspects of the landscape that you might have missed, so let your mind and eyes drift and wander for a while.
Simple changes in your own perspective can have a massive effect on how well the composition turns out. Try to control your impulse to just quickly shoot the scene, but rather look at the scene from every possible perspective. Moving only a few yards to the left or right might suddenly reveal something ten times better than you had hoped or may obscure some unsightly electricity pylon you wished was rather not there. Try getting down as low as you can or elevate your position to see what difference this makes. Your decision on the perspective of the photograph can really make the difference between taking a photographic landscape or merely taking a picture.
Remember that landscapes don’t always have to be grand or dramatic but can be smaller details of the landscape or just one fraction that serves to embody everything else. Does everything really have to be in the shot?
Once you have an idea for the shot it’s worth taking some time to consider how the shot is framed.
Here are some of the main landscape framing rules.
Note: I’ve used my own photos to show examples in this post of each technique.
Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds is so ingrained in the language of photography, it has almost become a bi-word for formalism, but its importance cannot be over-stressed. Today a lot of photo software comes with Rule-of-Thirds crop guidelines and these four, well known, intersecting lines can even be found as an overlay on the rear screens of some point and shoots.
As you can see from the diagram above the simple idea is that when you are composing a shot you imagine the photograph split into thirds vertically and horizontally, creating four lines which then intersect at four points. These are the points that it’s a good idea to draw the eye towards in the composition. It is also a good rule of thumb for finding a position for the horizon which always looks wrong and awkward running across the centre of the photograph. In fact, the eye does not naturally fall upon the centre of a photograph but rather, is drawn to one of these four points. These are more commonly known as thePower Points.
For most photographers this becomes an instinctive way to frame a shot. If you haven’t composed the shot correctly then many editing tools offer the rule of thirds as cropping guidelines in post production. But remember, nature generally doesn’t travel in straight lines and where you might have more curvature or complexity it might be worth starting to play with this rule slightly and look at the Golden Ratio.
The S-Curve/Lead-in Lines
The S-Curve is a powerful landscape composition technique that, in the right circumstance, can be stunning. The trick is to basically take something that follows a gentle curve — a meandering river, a path, or some geometric shape that leads the eye into the picture. This composition draws the eye into the picture. You have a couple of lens choices with this technique. You can opt to use a telephoto lens or a wide angle. Both lenses will give completely different looks. If you use a telephoto lens, all the objects in your photo will be compressed (the side effect of using a telephoto). There will be little perspective of distance between the objects in the photo. If you use a a wide angle, the foreground will be much larger. You can use this to great affect by having a foreground object draw you into the photo.
The Frame Technique
This is another common landscape composition technique that can work very well in certain instances. You use some sort of visual frame to frame the main subject of the photo. The object used to frame the photo subject could be a doorway, an arch, an overhanging branch or limb. The frame technique ensures the eye is drawn towards the subject of interest. For landscapes, common “frames” are rock formations, archways, trees, overhead branches, and doorways.
For an even more exotic look, you can opt to seek a frame within a frame. This adds even more emphasis to the subject matter inside the second frame.
Keep the Horizon Out of the Center
As a rule of thumb, try keeping the horizon level and not smack in the center of the composition. It’s better to have the sky over the halfway point of the picture or below the half point (make it distinctly above or below!). You can choose whether to show more sky or less sky depending on if the sky is interesting. If it’s an amazingly dramatic sky with interesting cloud formations, it’s best to fill the picture with more sky than foreground. If the reverse is true, fill more space with the foreground. The rule of thirds words very well in this case — put the sky in the upper rule of thirds rectangle.
Another technique is to show a definite sense of scale in your photo. You could have a vast, wide open expanse with a tiny tree (which shows how vast the field is) or maybe in a landscape with mountains, a tiny house which shows the scale of the mountains. Landscape pictures that show vast objects but don’t introduce a smaller object to show the scale don’t look as dramatic.
Often it’s not about what’s in your photo, but about what’s not. The more “space” you have in your photo the more the eye is drawn to what is in the photo. This type of technique if quite popular with some photographers and is known as minimalist photography. One sort of example is to have wide empty spaces with a single, solitary point of reference — a tree, a rock, a person, a windmill, etc. This can create a striking photo that juxtaposes the empty space with the single object.
Make Your Landscape “Alive”
Another technique that you can combine with The Rule of Thirds is to make your foreground object of interest something that’s living and breathing. Injecting “life” into a lifeless landscape really adds another dimension to the photo. For landscapes, this could be a wild animal (works VERY well if you are taking safari landscape shots), a shadow of a human or animal, or just a human. This can really help pump up your photo. You also add a sense of “scale” too to the picture.
These are some composition tips that relate to geometric patterns. When you compose your shoots, keep an eye out for these naturally occurring shapes. If you can structure your composition roughly along some of these rules, your can get some great shots.
This is a further compositional guide to bear in mind and simply involves superimposing an imaginary diagonal line from frame corner to frame corner, with other lines running off from this to create right angled triangles. It’s simply another way to imagine how the eye might be guided to one of the power points. Especially useful if your perspective has a definite vanishing point. If you look at the right angle of the smallest of the three triangles, this is sometimes called the cradle and is simply another way of describing a power point deriving from a diagonal.
This is a great method of thinking about how you might want to compose more structured, architectural elements of a composition. If you like architectural photography, this rule is something you are absolutely going to need to know and utilize.
Look at this example I found on the web. Note how the building cuts in a diagonal across the frame with the different elements of the photo roughly partitioned into placed within right angle triangles?
Here’s another example I scooped up on the web. Notice the shoreline roughly acts like the main diagonal with the bridge as another line connecting to it. You can roughly fit each area of the composition into each of the three triangles.
Here is my own example of this, using a mountain. Notice that the scenery can roughly be broken into parts, with each section contained within a right angle with the main diagnal line cut by the mountain valley running across the frame:
Here are some mountain pictures I took in Nepal. Note the naturally occurring diagonal lines
Diagonal lines can be used in a variety of ways. Obviously the diagonal lines in nature don’t conform to straight lines, such as the slope of a mountain or the curve of a bridge relative to the horizon but remember that the lines are only suggestions for angle and path, hidden beneath the beauty of the image.
Nonetheless it is worth trying to ensure that the composition is not too cluttered with diagonals of competing angles crowding the landscape. Use diagonals to draw the eye towards a focal point. A curved or diagonal path is always preferable to straight and direct lines towards the focal point. If, for example you have a stretch of road leading in to the image then beginning that journey from centre-bottom to horizon will often cause a foreshortening and detract from the illusion of distance and depth. Only very clever use of the available light and good technical skill can make this kind of effect work.
Having elements curve in towards the focal point or meander across the longest diagonal will give more length and depth. It’s important to note that it is usually a mistake to begin a diagonal path from exactly the corner of the composition but is usually better placed a small distance in, up to one third from the corner. Starting exactly from a corner will often be too severe, dissecting and breaking up the unified coherence of the composition.
Here is one example from one of my photos. Notice there is a diagonal line cut across the center with the slop of the mountain. However, it’s not an exactly straight diagonal as in my example above, but rather it’s more of a meandering curve, accentuated by the stone pillars that follow the it into the distance. Note how your eye naturally follows this line.
If diagonal lines are coming from a number of points then try to have them intersect upon the focal point. A 45 degree angle is the most aesthetically pleasing but no matter which angle of diagonal, try to keep some uniformity.
Try to think geometrically. Think of geometric patterns made up of triangles, parallelograms, hexagons etc… Try to have the composition contain some symmetry without being symmetrical and uniformity without being too uniform. You should be wholly aware of symmetry and geometric patterns within the composition but all of this should be carefully ‘dressed’ with good lighting and interesting subject matter so that these geometric tools are not immediately obvious to anybody else.
The Golden Ratio
The shape is probably familiar and is related to a mathematical sequence called the Fibonacci Sequence. This mathematical sequence is commonly expressed as 1:1.61803399. What makes this ratio and its resultant geometric pattern so special is that it frequently occurs in nature such as the spiral in a sunflower seed head, how pine cones arrange the growth and ratio of each layer or the curvature found in seashells. The ratio can be found in the human face and body and is widely considered to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing or geometric arrangements. In fact, the rule of thirds is really just an elementary form of the golden ratio. Further, and as luck would have it, the starting rectangle of the Golden Ratio is pretty close to the 35mm frame.
Before looking at the more complicated spiral arm it is worth taking a look at the Rule of Thirds as it appears if taken from this ratio. Look particularly at the vertical line that dissects the rectangular frame into the perfect square on the left ( diagram above). Then look at the short horizontal line that dissects the remaining rectangle into a further perfect square at the top right. Now if we repeat these lines symmetrically then what we have is the more unadulterated genesis of the rule of thirds and one with more natural symmetry better suited to the composition of landscape photography as you can see below.
Of course you can create the mental superimposition of the spiral arm in any corner or section of the image and use this as an imaginary guide for any curved natural element. Rather than moving the eye directly towards a focal point or point of interest, it’s much more pleasing to draw the eye in in a more natural and meandering style. You can utilise this idea of the spiral in numerous ways, for example, if you have some foreground object you can allow its natural shape to curve the eye off towards a more primary point of focus further in the distance, creating a natural relationship between seemingly disparate elements of the composition.
The point of focus (where the eye focuses on the photograph, rather than where the photograph is in focus) can, of course, be anything. It can be distinct from the rest of the photograph in terms of its color, focus, size or even simplicity. It could be something that provides us with contextual information such as a minaret or windmill. These would then act as a geographical signifiers giving us information about the culture, country or terrain. The point of focus could be something in juxtaposition, for example a water bottle half buried in the sands of a desert. This type of point of focus gives the viewer the opportunity to allow their own imagination to work with the composition, forcing them to create a story or narrative. Or, of course, this terminus of the viewer’s attention could simply be the vanishing point of the photograph’s perspective giving the viewer a chance to imagine the continuation of a journey beyond which they can fill in the gaps.
Before moving on to other compositional tools it is worth stressing the importance of (initially) following these rules and practising the process of the Rule of Thirds and Golden Ratio. You may feel as though you you want your photography to be free of all restrictions and it’s perfectly OK to just let loose and experiment. These are guidelines, not laws but photography is about taking a metaphorical journey (and with landscapes, often literal!) and the rules of composition are part of that journey and part of an important process. It is a process that all photographers must go through so that they can learn how and when to break the rules. It’s important to set yourself a few boundaries so that those boundaries can be mastered before you can begin to discover how far the rules can be bent before they reach the point of snapping entirely. Even within these boundaries the scope of photographic possibility is pretty much unlimited.
Ok what does this mean for your landscape photography? Well if you have something off interest that might lead the eye to the center of composition, this rule might be something to apply. The something of interest could be several lines or it could be several objects or some geometric pattern.
Other Landscape Composition Tips
Find the Balance
Balancing the various elements of the shot comes to a photographer in one of two ways. Some photographers intuitively understand what makes a balanced composition. It is immediately and instinctively apparent to them as they choose which part of the landscape will fill the frame. However, if you asked them their secret they probably wouldn’t know where to begin describing it. For those fortunate enough it is an innate aesthetic ability. The other ninety percent of photographers, on the other hand, are fully aware of what balance is and does, understanding the techniques involved in balancing the elements of a photograph and are able to use these techniques to produce striking images.
Everything in the composition must have a harmonious relationship with each of its co-existing elements in terms of size, scale, color, texture, light etc…. If two objects or elements stand in stark contrast they will create a battle of opposition that will render the composition confusing. Of course you may want to have the focal point in absolute contrast to draw the eye but you do not want a number of elements in the photograph vying for attention. Further, be aware of balancing the height of objects. If, for, example, the top of a tree in the foreground is precisely the same height as a building in the mid-ground or the peak of a mountain in the background then the image will flatten and the photograph will suffer.
Light is everything and in landscape photography it can be your greatest asset whilst also being your worst enemy. The intensity of the sun can, to a degree, be controlled by good use of the camera settings and intelligent filter choice. The sun’s position and direction is something you can do nothing about except be aware of how this position affects what you see. Remember that the sun provides its best light during the Golden hours (an hour either side of sunrise and sunset). To avoid images with high contrast try to wait for the sun to be over your shoulder because if the sun is too high or direct there will be a loss of subtle detail and you’ll find issues with exposure.
Bearing in mind that different shapes, patterns and lines will work with you or against you to create a compelling composition that holds the eye, remember that as the sun moves, so the landscape will change throughout the day and the angle of light on objects will change too. So, if you have some outcrops or geographical features working in a diagonal path but everything else seems out of step then the likelihood is that at some point during the day the shadows will fall in such a way that they will compliment the shot geometrically.
Framing the Shot
Objects at the boundaries of the composition give the viewer a clear sense of what is ‘in‘ your photograph. Don’t allow objects around the frame be too indistinct or they will end up looking like accidental inclusions. Similarly, don’t allow them too far in to the frame or they will unbalance the image by competing for prominence. Rather, aim for a compromise of the two.
Try not to allow framing objects to run the entire length or width of the composition or have these objects run in straight lines. Objects gently curving into the frame create a more natural proscenium for your work. Remember that the framing does not need to be a solid object but can also be a drift of focus. A rather harsh example of this is the use (and current vogue) of tilt-shift lenses. When you are composing the shot think about how you might frame the shot in post-production with focus drift, tilt-shift effect or a gentle vignetting of color or contrast. Also keep in mind that you have the ability to crop the image later on. Leave yourself some breathing space and don’t confine the image to the frame but rather allow the composition to sit comfortably within the frame.
Use the Right Lens
Although is is more usual to think of landscapes taken with a wide angle lens, it is always worth experimentation with a longer telephoto lens. This has a number of benefits but most notably a longer lens will tend to compress foreground and background objects closer together. The shot may not be particularly wide but shooting from a low angle across a long distance can create some interesting images. A good experiment is to use a longer focal length and create a triptych of three landscapes that work in both isolation and also together as a panorama.
Using a fish-eye lens can also affect the composition of a landscape by curving the horizon to give a sense of scale, and soften linear objects into smoother, more stylized curves. Although not optically very good you can buy a cheap wide-angle add on piece of glass for a few dollars which will thread directly on to your existing 18mm. It’s not perfect but a good way to try out some super-wide compositions before you commit to more expensive prime glass.