Beyond leading lines: Composition tips for compelling landscape photography (Part one)
What makes a great landscape photo, great?
The topic of what makes a landscape scene compelling is one I’ve examined for many years. (And it’s one I’m still exploring).
Technical considerations such as crisp focus and an even exposure are necessary, but not sufficient. Captivating scenes—the ones that hold our gaze as we scroll by on social media—often rely on considered composing by those who created them.
Yet the art of composition is one of the most challenging topics to codify—not to mention apply.
You’re likely familiar with common maxims, like align your horizon with the rule of thirds, include nearby elements to create foreground interest and position leading lines toward your subject.
These tips are well-known for a reason. They tend to work.
But have you taken time to consider why they work? Are there other composition principles you can harness? And when should you break the rules altogether?
The nebulous world of landscape composition is so much richer than leading lines. So, let’s delve a bit deeper and consider a few key tips to be mindful of next time you go out to frame your shot.
Balance your scene by carefully positioning subjects
Big bold seastacks or giant old-growth trees make for impressive subjects. But when a single element carries too much visual weight, it can dominate your photo and leave it feeling unbalanced.
So, what can you do to restore harmony? Position supporting foreground or midground elements in an opposing zone of the frame to even out the scene so it’s not so lopsided.
Here are two scenarios to illustrate the principle. If you have mountain peaks running across the top of your frame, consider including hills or rocks to ground the scene below. And if you position a bold tree in the top right, look for a fern or fallen trunk to position in the bottom left.
Unless you’re shooting a minimalist scene, you need to be mindful of how all the elements in your frame interact with each other.
As a visual artist, it’s up to you to arrange all the pieces of the landscape puzzle to create balance—so your image isn’t a one-trick pony of a single sea stack.
Subject positioning is less of a hard rule. And more of a ‘vibe of the thing’ type of principle.
You can develop your eye by reviewing the portfolios of some of your favourite photographers. Evaluate how they arrange scenes to establish harmony across the frame.
This first principle weaves into the second: controlling flow through your image.
Finesse foregrounds to control flow (big-to-small transitions)
“I’m including these rocks to add foreground interest.”
It’s a line that’s repeated on endless landscape photography vlogs. But have you stopped to ask why? Why might we want to add foreground interest?
Foreground elements in wide landscape scenes serve two main purposes.
The first? To direct attention.
If you let your primary subject fill the majority of the frame, your viewer’s eyes will jump straight to that single, prominent element.
You can counter this by positioning your more distant subject in the top 30-40% of the frame and filling the remainder with foreground and midground. With these nearer elements occupying the majority of the frame, your viewer will process these first, before moving back through the frame.
(This is precisely why the rule of thirds is such an effective rule of thumb.)
The second purpose? To tell a richer story.
Supporting foreground subjects provide context and can offer viewers a richer experience of the scene.
By dedicating a majority of the frame to environmental cues—such as slick coastal rocks or arching fern fronds—viewers will first gain a greater grounding in the scene. Then they’ll turn their attention to the main mountain or waterfall deeper in the frame.
You can harness these big-to-small transitions to accentuate that feeling of depth through the scene.
So don’t stop at including foreground elements just because it’s repeated on YouTube videos. Include foreground elements to add layers to your scene so you can tell a richer story.
Zoom in to focus on order amongst the complexity
Natural landscapes and wild scenes can be, well… wild.
Forests are often pure chaos. Seas can rage with menace. While mountains are temperamental at the best of times.
So when we stumble on scenes of order, they grab and hold our attention. These pockets of calm stand out in contrast to the disorder and complexity around them.
Yet these more harmonious frames can be challenging to a) notice and b) capture. Particularly if your mindset is set on capturing grand epic scenes.
My advice? Put the wide-angle lens away and opt for a telephoto zoom. Particularly on a day hike, the chance of an epic midday sky is low—so why not exclude the mediocre sky altogether?
Even a mid-range 24-70mm lens will help you to move beyond being anchored to wide-angle frames. With a tighter field of view, you’ll be able to place greater emphasis on the core elements of calm.
What qualifies as ‘order’ depends on the environment you’re in. So, to help prime your eye, here are some examples of what to look for in different settings:
- Forests: Compressed trunk columns or fractal branches spreading out
- Cliffs: Contrasting rock cracks, colours and textures
- Rivers: Long-exposure water patterns as streams cascade down
- Coastlines: Repeating pebbles or stones set against a distinct backdrop
- Lakes: Smooth ripples and reflected golden hour light
- Smaller scenes—consisting of patterns, shapes and textures—have formed some of my most unique and striking compositions.
Compared to sweeping vistas at scenic lookouts, these intimate compositions are less likely to be replicated by other photographers. By focusing on key details, you’ll walk away with a more personal photo that you can truly call your own.
Look out for part two next week.