Hey Scott, I absolutely love your shots of the mountains (Pics 1,2, and 5 in particular stand out for me). How many shots do you typically take on a landscape shoot? And of all those shots, how many do you keep?
6 Tips for Better Image Composition in Landscape Photography
Image composition is an essential part of landscape photography. Simply, composition in landscape photography is how natural elements are arranged within the frame of a photograph. The job of image composition is to capture the interest of your viewer and lead them on a visual journey throughout your photo. However, these natural elements are generally haphazard and chaotic, meaning it is possible to have either a successful or unsuccessful composition. Successful image composition happens when that chaos is organized by the photographer in a way that is not just aesthetically pleasing, but also communicates to the viewer what it was like to be there.
Start by Finding Your Subject
Composition in landscape photography starts by answering the question, “What do I like most about this scene?”. The answer to this question can be fascinating in that, depending on the scene, everyone will have a different answer that is shaped by unique interests, personalities, and experiences. If art is an act of expressing feelings, thoughts, and observations by the artist, then it is vital that every photographer, who wants their imagery to become a personal expression, answers this question. The answer will direct you to what you want your photo to be about; the subject.
Now that you’ve established a subject for your landscape photograph, the next step in image composition is to support your subject. It is helpful to think of image composition in terms of visual hierarchy; starting with the determined subject of the photo and working backward. This hierarchy can be established using a myriad of approaches. These approaches aid in the visual flow of the photo, leading the viewer through the photo to define the primary point of interest.
The first approach to image composition in landscape photography is balance. Nature is generally fairly chaotic, so finding complementary elements can be challenging. However, once you find them, it leads to a photo that tells a compelling story. The simplest form of balance in your composition is symmetrical balance. This occurs when both halves of the image are mirrored and thereby hold equal weight. An example of symmetrical balance is the reflection here.
Asymmetrical balance is much more complex and is achieved through the unity of contrasts between the two halves. Instead of mirrored images of equal weight in each halve, the image composition is balanced through the creative use of size, colour, tone, or form of the subjects within the composition. In asymmetrical balance, each side of the photograph becomes equal-weighted regardless of their differences. A reason this photograph works is that, while there are two competing visual elements in the deer, each side of the frame also includes very different elements of interest. Namely, the thunderhead on the left and the bird on the right.
Lines are used to lead the viewer into the background or towards the subject in your photo. These lines can be literal or suggestive. Suggestive lines are formed when elements of the landscape are separate, but appear to be pointing towards something as in the below example. Lines can be made by using shape, colour, or light, normally beginning in the lower portion of the frame and leading the viewer into the photo towards the visual payoff.
A camera captures the landscape in two dimensions. It is the job of the landscape photographer, when composing the image, to give the viewer a sense of being in that three-dimensional place. In this way, using overlapping layers can create a sense of depth in landscape photography. Find a strong visual element occurring in only one layer, or simply photographing the way that the light interacts with one specific layer. Regardless, there should be a single layer that acts as a visual payoff or subject for the viewer while the other layers play supporting roles.
Isolation is potentially the most powerful use of image composition in landscape photography. This approach utilizes negative space surrounding the subject to draw the viewer’s eye to the highest place of contrast or interest in the scene. Again, as nature is generally chaotic, this can prove challenging to complete. However, successfully isolating your subject through the use of tone, colour, or shape, leaves no question in your viewer’s mind as to what the photo is about.
Frame in a Frame
You’ve already placed four framed edges on the scene in front of you when taking a photo. By strategically placing natural visual obstacles on the outside edges, or in other places in your photograph, you can direct the viewer towards the path of least visual resistance. In the below example, I’ve used the darker trees as a natural frame for the lonely conifer illuminated by light.
What’s your favourite approach to composition when you’re out photographing nature? What is it that always catches your eye? Let us know in the comments below and don’t forget to upload your best nature photo with your favourite composition in The Great Outdoors Photo Contest for your chance to win a Dell 4k monitor, a Nikon camera, or CyberLink creative software. I hope you found this tutorial helpful and if you’re interested in learning more about composition in landscape photography, I have a FREE eCourse on composition available, you can sign up here. I wish you happy shooting!
About the Author: Scott Aspinall is an award-winning Canadian photographer. The opinions in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his Website, YouTube, Instagram, or Facebook.