Rules of composition in landscape photography
Composition. Something that doesn’t depend on your camera or lens at all. It doesn’t matter how much you spend on your gear, but only on your effort. What are the rules of composition in landscape photography?
Learning how to compose will make your shots much more appealing and it will train your eye on how to choose the best angle when you are in front of a beautiful landscape. Mastering the basic rules of compositions means having more control on your photographs. With time you’ll be able to see a photo and recognize what technique has been used and your whole experience will be much more enjoyable. Be aware of the fact that those rules can also be broken. Let’s see what they are and how to apply them.
Rule of space
This is a very important rule in photography. In landscape photography, by shooting outdoors we deal with great quantities of space. We need to learn how to control the distribution of it in our images. We can divide space in two, positive and negative space. Simply put, the negative space in photography is the space that surrounds the main subject. The main subject is known as the positive space.
With this technique the photographer aims not only at emphasizing the main subject, but it can also create a sense of motion. It creates a resting space for the eye of the viewer and it suggests the direction of motion that the main subject could move to. For example if an object is moving left in the scene, the negative space will need to occupy the left side of the frame. The object itself, will be placed on the right in this case. This is how our brain works, it imagines the subject moving towards the empty space. It’s very likely that the viewer’s eye will land on the subject first and then move to the negative space. Resting there, for a pleasant and more interesting experience. This way you can suggest the viewer to which direction the object is going to move and add interest by creating a story.
Rule of thirds
A well experienced photographer would probably tell you that the rule of thirds is the place to start when learning composition. It’s probably the first thing I learned when I thought I wanted to improve my photographs. In fact, it’s an easy yet powerful technique that will immediately improve your photos by making your compositions more balanced and interesting. It works really well combined with the rule of space and to better understand this rule it’s useful to place an imaginary grid on top of your image. The grid breaks the image down into 9 parts.
The technique consists in positioning your main subject in one of the four intersections of your imaginary grid.
In the example above, I made the eye of the animal rest on one of those points. According to studies, the viewer’s eye will scan the image starting from those intersection points and then move to the center of the photo. So this rule tries to facilitate the natural way of viewing an image. In a landscape your grid will be also useful to know where to position your horizon line, since you can use one of the grid lines. So in using this rules you’ll learn how to recognize the points of interest of a shot and know where to place them. By practicing it will become more and more natural.
Leading lines are one of the most fundamental elements in photography. I really like playing with them and give me a real sense of control of my composition. By guiding the viewer’s eye through the image from one part to the scene to the other and allowing it to rest on the main subject they help creating a strong visual impact.
A path for example, can lead the eye to the horizon or to the subject in the background and at the same time create depth in the image.
It’s also very easy to find a leading line on roads for example. Roads go somewhere by nature, they allow you to suggest the viewer what’s the main focus of the scene in the distance and create a strong attention towards that subject. By connecting the foreground to the background, leading lines help creating depth, give the image much more interest and again they help telling a story.
Almost everywhere in nature you can find leading lines. Roads, rivers, shorelines, sand dunes, bridges and so forth. Once you’ve found them you’ll need to decide how to use them. If you have a main subject, try to place it near the end of the lines or if you’re shooting a landscape, then connect the foreground to the background with those lines and create that strong sense of perspective that will make the image more appealing by creating a visual journey. So remember, creating a story by linking the main elements in your composition is crucial.
Another very efficient and maybe underrated way of creating depth and adding visual impact to an image is the use of foreground. This will give the image that 3D effect that often is missing. When you are outdoors immerse in nature and experience a beautiful view, you’ll need to be able to translate all that to a 2 dimensional medium and you need ways of communicating depth to the viewer. You need to use it with care, since you don’t want your foreground to become the main subject, but at the same time you want it to be impactful enough to make the image more interesting. So you’ll need to find something that’s eye-catching and enhance the overall value of the composition.
In the image above, the stones covered with green moss give the image that balance and depth needed to help the Peak to stand out. The color and contrast of the rocks also help adding value to the colour of the water and give vibrance to the dark image, balancing it out.
To use this technique we need to start thinking in terms of layers. By adding an object of interest in front of our subject we are creating multiple layers in our image and these elements help drawing the attention to the main subject adding depth to our composition.
Sense of scale
So I’ve said repeatedly already that one of the main challenges in photography is to convey three dimensionality and depth to an image. In landscape photography we need to try and portrait the spatial feel of a vast open space on the two dimensional surface of our “canvas”. Another way of doing this is to add compositional elements of known size to our space to provide a sense of scale in the picture and give the viewer a point of reference to better understand how small or big things are in the scene. Without a point of reference the viewer’s eye won’t be able to grasp the size of an object, a waterfall, a tree or a mountain.
In this image the subject, stands on the peak of the mountain and confront herself with the open view of the landscape.
Without the human element in this photograph, it wouldn’t be as clear for the eye, how vast is the open space and the viewer is left wondering just how big elements of the composition are, resulting in a less appealing experience.
The primary colour of the jacket creates contrast with the surrounding and helps focusing the attention to it becoming a point of reference in the photo.
When you take a photo, always think about where you will shoot your subject from. As I said in the beginning, it doesn’t matter how expensive your gear is, your camera can’t do the job without your effort. The camera can’t tell you where to stand or where to point your lens. You’ll need to do it.
Your viewpoint can have a huge impact on the final image. By changing your viewpoint your image can, not only gain a more appealing composition, but it can also help you standing out from other photos taken at the same location. To control the type of message you want your image to convey, try to change your angle. Instead of shooting from eye level, try to go down low at ground level, or from above try a close up or various angles and see how the mood of the image changes dramatically.
Practice the different rules of composition and have fun while you do it. Exploring the different compositional techniques will make you not only a better photographer, but you will start recognizing elements in nature that you weren’t even noticing before. Once you’ve mastered these techniques your images will improve dramatically and you’ll have much more fun taking photos since you’ll have more control.
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Feel free to wrote in the comments below any tips you might have on how to better compose landscape photos and send me your images, I’d love to see them!