Beyond leading lines: Composition tips for compelling landscape photography (Part two)
This is part two of a two part series on composition tips for landscape photographers. You can read part one, from last week, here.
Shape light and natural vignettes (dark-to-bright transitions)
Vignettes—where the periphery of the frame is darkened—are an essential technique in photography. But why?
Our eyes are drawn to more luminous areas. So with darker edges, your viewers will drift towards the brighter areas in the centre of the image.
In Lightroom, I’ll often use a gradient mask to lower the exposure in the foreground, transitioning up to a brighter subject in the middle of the frame. (Ideally one that is already being lit with natural light to help it stand out.)
And while vignettes are often left for the post-processing stage, you can also achieve a similar effect in the field. By carefully observing light and considering your framing.
Let’s consider my composition thought process behind this image of Mackenzie Falls in the Grampians.
First: Determine the details. I wanted to distil this waterfall down to its core elements: the water trails and the rock wall they spilled down. So, I opted for a telephoto lens to focus purely on the streaming water. This eliminated other distractions, like the bright sky above and the messy river in the foreground.
Second: Centre in on the scene. This section was an isolated section set amongst the much wider falls. I took a few portrait frames of the vertical cascades. But after reviewing the images on my camera—they felt too cramped, with bright white water filling the entire frame.
Third: Finesse the frame. Next, I rotated my camera to landscape orientation. I found the most balanced cross-section of the cascade. And, most importantly, the shift to the horizontal frame now included black rocks to the left and right—acting as a naturally darker vignette to frame the brighter falls.
When you’re out in the field, you might exclude bright rocks in the periphery that are glowing with direct light. Or you could try to find foreground ferns in shadow that point towards a brighter midground tree.
And you might decide to break this rule altogether. By using a lighter periphery to frame a darker central subject—such as bright leaves framing the dark branches of a shapely tree.
To harness this composition technique, be mindful of the luminosity transitions across your images. The key is to use those variations to frame and highlight your main subject.
Turn away from sunrise to harness directional light
For many years, my photography was centred around bold sunrises and sunsets.
That meant shooting into a (very) intense light source. And while this produces brilliant colours—when the clouds align—it also results in many harsh shadows and dim landscapes.
I still chase bold skies, but now I pay equal attention to the quality of light falling across the entire lay of the land—not purely the colours in the sky.
My tip? Instead of shooting directly into a sunrise, turn around and look for frames where the sun shines perpendicular onto the landscape.
From a compositional perspective, the directional light will add shape and create a sense of dimensionality. Even softer light will highlight contours in the land. In fact, I often prefer diffused light as it’s not too intense with white-hot highlights and pitch-black shadows.
Directional light can bring a flat scene to vivid life and inject depth into your composition.
Consider this image of the (former) Lake Pedder in Tasmania’s remote southwest below.
Sunrise was out to the east. But after surveying how the light was falling across the rolling landscape, I decided to turn northwest—and I’m so glad I did.
The side light emphasised the shapes and forms in the hills, drawing attention to the layers and adding dimensionality to an otherwise static image.
Avoid these elements (most of the time)
So far, we’ve explored what you should do or include. But often, the most powerful compositional choices you can make are the things you avoid and don’t do.
There’s an old expression that photography is the art of exclusion. Painters slowly add elements to their canvas, shaping light and colour with each stroke. Whereas we photographers often seek to remove or obscure distractions.
Here are a few composition tips on what to avoid:
Centred subjects: Unless you're intentionally seeking perfect symmetry, a centred subject will be too quickly processed by the viewer.Their visual journey will be over before it begins.
Instead, recognise that some degree of tension can be a good thing, like sweet and sour sauce or an unexpected bridge partway through a song. By offsetting subjects in the frame—and harnessing some of the earlier compositional choices—viewers will process your image more deeply and for longer.
Overlapping zones: Sometimes you’ll want to crouch low and send your seastack soaring above the horizon line. On the other hand, for example, bushes that poke up into a tranquil river stream can be a distracting edge and disrupt the flow of the scene.
The solution? Move your tripod, gain elevation, or obscure the offending element behind a tree trunk or rock. The key is to keep the edges between zones as distinct as possible.
Busy borders: Clean, open borders provide breathing room around your main subjects. So, avoid harsh edge shadows or lines that run parallel to a border. And look out for lines (such as overhead branches) that cut through a corner of the frame. The fix? Alter your crop to make the lines appear less precise—we’re showcasing imperfect landscapes, not geometrical renderings.
Earlier, I referenced the idea of photography as storytelling. And you’ve likely heard this expression time and again. But it’s true—and it underlies most of the theory behind strong compositions.
If you point your cameras at a grand waterfall or a bold sunset, great—but more often than not, that’s just a pretty snapshot.
It’s nice to look at, but rarely will it hold attention. To do that, you need to tell a richer story. To harness (or obscure) surrounding elements and imbue the scene with deeper meaning.
Strong compositions ensure your work stands out from the crowd. That it holds its own amongst the millions of other images of Bombo Quarry or famous waterfalls.
Above all else, the key to compelling compositions is time.
Memorable landscape photos aren't rushed and are rarely taken on a whim. They require careful consideration. By taking the time to learn and apply composition techniques (like the ones explored here), you’ll become more aware of the concepts to look for in the field.
You’ll be able to work a scene until you create the most appealing composition to tell a richer story of your experience.
One last note: I’ve never been a fan of theory for theory’s sake.
I encourage you to be mindful of the concepts explored above—not all are appropriate all of the time. A luminous high-key image, such as a tree in snow, will always be processed very differently from a seascape sunrise. Take time to apply the theories in service of your creative vision, but don’t be afraid to ignore them when they aren’t. ❂