Landscapes 201 – Composition

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There are two things that need to come together to achieve a striking Landscape photo.  The first, and ultimately most important is the light. But coming in at a very close second is composition.  You can have the most glorious light filling the scene in front of you, but without a strong composition it is simply just that – light.  It won’t engage the viewer beyond the color, and no amount of editing will fix a bad composition that wasn’t thoroughly considered and thought about while in the field. Composition is equal parts what to include, what to exclude, and where to place each element within the frame. In order to balance these competing elements you use not only your feet, but also your tripod height (you are using a tripod right?) as well as your selected focal length.

In my Landscapes 101, there are a number of points that can be rounded up and all considered under the heading of ‘Composition’.  Tip #2 states ‘Don’t shoot from eye level’, a couple further down makes note of the classic ‘Rule of 3rds’ in Tip #5 (why I didn’t make that #3, the world may never know), and even Tip #6 – titled ‘Patrol the edges of your frame’ can also be considered composition related.  Beyond these initial tips, there are also more advanced topics such as focal length considerations, use of leading lines and much more.  In this 201 series article, I want to dive a little bit deeper on each of these, explain my thought process in different situations and conditions to hopefully give you something more to think about and consider the next time you’re looking for that perfect frame to capture the light. Also look for an even more in depth set of articles coming soon where we focus on the specifics of both ultra-wide and telephoto compositions specifically.

Lenses and Focal Length

It is through the lens which we see the world. With each range of focal length, how we think about how we capture that world must change with the characteristics of that lens. The results of standing in the same spot with an 14mm, 50mm, 200mm and 600mm lens will profoundly impact how you choose to shoot, and likely what you choose to shoot at a given location. As you progress from the Ultra-wide and wide ranges, through the ‘normal’ range of 35-70mm, and into telephoto focal lengths there is also a transition from thinking about leading lines and strong foregrounds to thinking about compression and stacking.

It is my belief that the wider angle you shoot, the more important the lowest third of your frame becomes. These are the anchor points for leading lines that is going to draw your eye through the frame. At ultra-wide angles, you can see SOOO MUCH of the world, that it is very easy to get lost in an image. As the photographer, you have to leave a road map to follow or else they will wander off the edge of your frame and on to the next thing. Take a forest scene with a waterfall in it for example. The wider angle view you shoot, the closer down to the water you will need to be to exaggerate the the texture of the moving water the create the lines needed to then follow up to the waterfall and the rest of the image. Nothing turns an ultra-wide view shot into an uninteresting snapshot than not anchoring the frame with a strong foreground. Getting down low and away from eye-level (Tip #3!) is an absolute must for an ultra-wide landscape. Below you will see a recent shot from Sedona, Arizona, shot on my full-frame Canon 5Dmk4 and 16-35F4 lens, the tripod setup just in front of the large Agave plant, zoomed in just enough to get the framing I wanted to eliminate a few distracting bits right up front at my feet, with the red-rock formations in the opposite corner in the upper half of the frame.

Blue Agave – Sedona – 22mm (full frame)

Moving away from the ultra-wide and wide focal lengths (up to around 35mm on a Full Frame) and into what is known as the ‘normal’ focal length range, you lose the ability to achieve strong leading lines, and you are also in the range of what the human eye sees all day every day. This is where the term ‘normal’ comes from. It feels familiar to the viewer, and for a landscape image that you want to create a draw into, this usually is not a good thing. You’ll need to rely on other composition techniques to create that ‘wow’ moment. I’ve found that using the slightly longer focal length to simplify the composition works well in this range. Picking out sections of a larger waterfall that have a sense of symmetry or patterns, or a single mountain peak reflected in a lake back-lit by a sunrise. Below is a sunrise shot from Castle Point Lighthouse in New Zealand. Standing on the edge of a rock ledge to get the height I wanted for the background composition, even shooting at 65mm focal length, in a portrait orientation, I was still able to include a strong foreground element to anchor the lower section of the frame, give the lighthouse and the rock formations in the background a grounding point and context.

Castle Point Lighthouse – 65mm (full frame)

At the longer end of the focal length range are telephoto composition that rely on a concept known as compression. This takes items that may be significantly distant from one another and stacks them one behind the other in the frame. What you can zoom up on and place against one another is really only limited by the topography and your willingness to move. Endless layers of hills and mountains in the Smoky Mountains, the moon rising above a distant sandstone formation in Utah. Even more than in the normal range the use of patterns or minimalist composition can be capitalized on. And, since most of what you’re focusing on will likely be at some distance, getting down 2ft off the ground will no longer be required – unless you’re compressing a bunch of poppies against a vivid blue sky perhaps. Below is an ideal example of using compression at a 200mm focal length. From an elevated position, looking down at multiple ridges of mountains in North Carolina, each is layered upon one another. All of the near by foreground elements are eliminated from the field of view, allowing the mountains and light to be the sole stars of the show.

Smoky Mountains Sunset – 200mm

Where to put the subject and supporting cast

No matter how little or how much of the world a landscape photo shows, there should still be a subject. Something that can be categorized and stated as ‘the’ subject. Even during the most blazing spectacular sunsets, or the deepest darkest nights under the Milky Way, you should be able to find a ‘grounding’ element – ie: of this earth, that you could consider the subject. Otherwise, what you have is an astrophotography photo, or a weather photo, etc, not a landscape. This one concept drastically improved how I approach the world any time I have a camera in my hand. A majority of the time, the best place to put that subject is ANYWHERE except right smack dab in the middle, or right on the edge. So if you eliminate the far edges, and you eliminate the dead center what are you left with? Somewhere around a 3rd on one side or another, or at the intersection of two of them. This my friends is known as the rule of thirds.

If you have a strong subject, but also a secondary ‘supporting cast’ element or two (or more, but hopefully no more than a couple) you can start working on creating diagonals through the frame between them. You don’t want to stack up your main element and one or more strong supporting elements on one side of the photo with nothing on the other – this results in a very unbalanced feel and less of the photo is seen as the viewer is drawn only to one side or another.

And now a word on Symmetry – it is the great exception to the rule. If you have a very strong sense of symmetry, usually thanks to a very strong reflection of your subject matter in a pristine lake, then you can start playing with the idea of throwing the Rule of 3rds out of the window and pushing that subject up into the middle. For me, there needs to be some sense of symmetry in not only the horizontal plane, but also on the vertical. The view of Mt. Hood from Trillium Lake in Mt. Hood is a prime example of this. When shot with a short telephoto or normal focal lengths, the mountain and foreground forest creates a 2-directional sense of symmetry that can make placing the the edge of the water on the far end of the lake right on the horizontal center line, and the visual center of the mountain on the vertical a composition that has visual impact. If you don’t have the vertical plane symmetry on both halves, try to get one or the other: a sky with clouds streaming out towards the corners, or a foreground that has a feel of symmetry along the lower edge of your reflection. Once you’re committed to the symmetry though, it is extremely easy for non-symmetrical elements to throw off the composition – such as a dominate rock or two in the water on one side or the other.

Symmetry in action

Putting it into practice

Learning to see compositions is a learned skill. With knowledge and experience comes power to make the journey a little faster however. When shooting wide, I usually start looking for what I want the eye to go towards, ie: the destination. Then I start looking for the ideal way to get the eye to go there. That means lines, start looking for anything that can create a leading line to the destination. I get my camera in live view, usually zoomed all the way out if I’m shooting with the 16-35, holding it down kinda low, looking for any elements that might help anchor the frame in the corners as well. If there’s not any really compelling lines, then I look for texture, or or contrast of some sort. If none of those are available, I’ll consider zooming up on the subject a little, check out what the scene looks like zoomed in at max 35mm, eliminating much of the near foreground and just focusing on the subject. If it starts looking better at 35mm, but there’s still too much, then a lens change might be considered to see what 50mm, or 70 and up might have to offer.

Once I start finding a composition I like, be it super wide, or zoomed up on, the next step is refining the composition. Don’t settle for the first look you see. Move a little left, a little right if rather wide and up close on your foreground – don’t forget to go up and down some too, at 14mm a foot of height changes the perspective greatly! If it’s a telephoto view, you may need to move a fair bit more before the effective composition changes much, but typically a few yards one way or another will be enough to get an idea of it’s going in the right direction and if its worth moving further. Generally the further away your subject the more you’ll need to move to have any affect on the composition. I’ve been known to wander off and end up a half a mile away trying to find a better composition on a set of dunes for instance, while at ultra-wide angles the difference of a few inches can drastically alter the balance of the composition. Ideally, only when I’m satisfied the composition can’t be improved I will get the tripod setup and bring it to as close of a position to where I saw that composition. That’s when I’ll start patrolling the edges of the frame, make sure I haven’t lost something important, or including something that will be troublesome later during post processing. Depending on what I find, I may zoom in or out just a touch, adjust the camera angle on the ballhead, or nudge the tripod to adjust. Once I’m satisfied that the composition is locked in, I then pray that whatever light I saw that drew me to that spot to begin with is still there to be captured.

I am a strong advocate for shooting just for fun, when the light isn’t great, close to home, and as often as you can. You may not come home with wall-hanging quality images every time out, but it will ultimately benefit you when you are standing in front of a majestic location. I also highly recommend going out and shooting with just one lens, even a prime lens, as often as you can. Shooting a single lens, of a single focal length forces you to train your eye to see the world in the focal length that you have available. Be it the ultra-wide 14mm, a 50mm, or 70-200mm, time spent behind that lens, seeing the world through that lens, will train your mind to see compositions in that focal length when the lens is still in your bag and a different lens is on the camera. Being able to see compositions with your own eye ensures that you don’t leave the best compositions undiscovered.

Ultra-wide composition practice close to home – Oak Point Nature Preserve

Never have I been so heart broken for a photo not taken as when I was working on editing a shot taken at 24mm of an early morning on the banks of the Mountain Fork River in south eastern Oklahoma. I zoomed in on a section of the shot to check for lens shake and that I had nailed focus, what I was present with at 100% zoom was the shot I *should* have taken. I don’t know if I was just being lazy that morning, if I hadn’t fully woken up yet, or what, but I hadn’t considered a longer telephoto shot from where I had taken the wide angle shot. Since then I’ve revisited that exact location several times, and to date I’ve yet to get the same light and conditions to reproduce what I saw zoomed in on that wide angle. Today, I also ensure that I have my 70-200 lens on me, if not already attached to a second camera body and at the ready.

Overall, composition is the element of photography that you have the greatest control over. You may not be able to move the clouds, or the sun, but you can control the view of those clouds and sun that you capture. An eye for composition isn’t something that most are just born with, but rather takes time, experience, and willingness to contort into some very uncomfortable positions at times to really nail. Keeping some general rules in mind, not being locked down to the first thing you see or the first spot you stop at, nor being constrained to one specific focal length will help open up the doors to improving all aspects of your compositions.

Coming soon!
Landscapes 301 – Ultra-Wide Compositions
Landscapes 301 – Telephoto Compositions

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