Whilst Ansel Adam’s quote above is rightly encouraging, landscape photography often relies heavily on the rules of composition. At least at first, you need to know them, if you want to later be able to break them. When you get to the level of Ansel Adams, you are then in a position to rip up the rule book, throw the rules of composition, and my landscape photography tips out of the window. If your not quite at that level, keep reading!
Now you know what you want to take pictures of and have found your perfect photo location. The next step is to compose your image. Good pictures should draw the viewer in and make them linger. Composition is arguably the most important aspect of doing this. If a photograph does not cause someone to pause and look deeper into the image, it is often because the image lacks depth and structure. You want to captivate the viewer. The difference between an image that captivates someone and a snapshot of a beautiful landscape is often conscious image design and composition.
The aim should be to have an element of the image that draws the viewer in towards the main component of your image.
Often it seems like the most sensible thing is to put the subject of your image in the middle of the frame, but intact, the composition of the picture then appears very static with nothing to pull the viewer in. There are certain rules of design that, for some reason, are pleasing to the human eye. They apply to everything from painting, to architecture, to design and photography. The old masters were using the same rules, as were artists for 100’s of years before that, and they have not changed since.
Many of these are related to thirds and the number 3. For some reason, we humans find threes pleasing and attractive. Once you realise this, you tend to see it everywhere, in religion, in story-telling, and in art and design. It is very interesting but beyond the scope of this blog. If you are interested i really recommend doing some further reading here and if you have a head for maths read up on the ‘Golden Ratio’ here
The rule of thirds
The first and most simple rule is the rule of thirds. Basically, this involves dividing the frame up into three verticle sections and three horizontal sections. Placing aspects of the image along thee lines or at the crossing points is pleasing to our eyes. You will quite often find that cameras have a setting that overlays a ‘rule of thirds grid’ over your viewfinder to help with framing and composition.
The most straightforward example of this in Landscape Photography will be where you place the horizon. Typically you will want to place it on either the top grid line or the bottom, not straight through the middle of the image. In this way the sky will either fill the top third of the photograph and the foreground the bottom two thirds or visa versa.
If you had a lone tree in your image, you might place this on either the left or right verticle grid line. You might place the main component of your image, say a bird, or a rock on the cross-section of two of these grid lines.
Of course, all rules can be broken and have exceptions. The main exception with the rule of thirds is when you are trying to create symmetry, for example, a reflection in a lake or a symmetrical tree. In these instances, it may well be better to place your horizon in the centre of the image, or the central theme in the middle.
This is a way to create harmony in your composition, again using 3s!
The triangular composition places three sides of a triangle over your image, giving the feeling of being drawn into the photograph. Painters such as Rubens and Carrivaggio often used the triangular composition to great effect.
Layering in Landscape Photography
Another composition option is to divide your image up into layers. Typically in landscape photography, this will be a foreground, middle-ground, and background.
This is where small adjustments to where you take your image from can give you just the right amount of foreground. It is important to remember the foreground does not have to be what is immediately in front of you. If you are using a telephoto lens, it might be some very out-of-focus leaves or blades of grass, that you use to add layers to your photograph.
Look for Lines in the landscape, you can use them to good effect to lead the viewer into the image. The most obvious example is a path, the edge of a river, or a coast line like below.
You can frame these lines diagonally in your frame so that they lead from the corner of the photograph into the centre. This can give a pleasing effect that again leads the eye into the image.
The line by no means has to be straight, you could equally use a meandering river to draw your viewer in. Look for tracks, footprints, fallen trees, mountain ridges, all can be used to create this effect.
Things such as tree branches, rock edges, or even clouds can be used as natural frames around the edge of your photographs to keep the viewer’s eye from leaving the image and keep them interested.
Repetition can be used as well as or instead of leading lines. They are best used to draw the viewers eye into the frame as they see each repetition repeated. The effect can be to create intrigue and a fascination in the viewer.
Problems with scale
When you have visited a dramatic landscape, no photograph is going to be able to replicate the smells and sounds and the general feeling that you have while there. One typical problem that is a little easier to fix though is scale. People often struggle to communicate a sense of scale into their photography.
The best way to add a sense of scale is adding something familiar into the frame, a house, a figure, or your tent, can all give the viewer the scale of the landscape they are seeing in your photograph.
Colour and Contrast
Understanding what colours work well together is very useful in picking out images that will captivate. Most of us will remember seeing the colour wheel at school. Interestingly one of the first colour wheels created was by Issac Newton in his work on the primary colours.
You should be able to visualise a colour wheel in your head, so when you are out in the field, you will have an understanding of what colours work well together. The colours that sit at opposite sides of of the wheel are known as complementary colours. It is worth, reading a bit more into colour theory here, for now though, just print out the colour wheel and try to practice visualising it.
Contrast texture can be just as effective as complimentary colours, especially if you are planning to shoot for black and white. Look for texture in rocks, against smooth cloud or snow.
Contrasts in texture can often be accentuated by the use of long-exposure techniques. You can use it to create a silky smooth look to a river or stream that will contrast nicely with the texture of the surrounding rocks.
Choosing your Lens
I mentioned this in my ‘Landscape Photography Equipment‘ article as well, and it is probably my top landscape photography tip: Do not always choose to use your wide-angle lens. Often the temptation on seeing a stunning scene in front of you is to try and capture everything in one frame. It is often much more effective to pick out particular elements of the scene in front of you. Many of my most successful landscape photographs have been taken on a telephoto lens. While they are often heavy and cumbersome, I try and take mine where ever I go. Above all my Canon 70-200mm, commonly used as a portrait lens, is by far my favourite landscape photography lens due to its sharpness and the ability it gives me to to be more choosey in my frame.
Portrait vs Landscape
The majority of photography and particularly landscape photography is shot in landscape; however, this should not mean that as a landscape photographer, you should ignore portrait mode. There are times when framing your image in portrait can be extremely effective. Not only does it allow you to frame something vertically, but it also gives you more space for a foreground, middle-ground and, background. Furthermore, the mere fact that most landscape photography is shot in landscape can make an image in portrait that bit more interesting to the viewer. Causing them to stop, linger, and allow their eye to explore the image in more depth, which after all is everything that we are trying to achieve as landscape photographers!
In my next instalment of ‘Tips for Landscape Photography’ series, we will look at working with natural light.