The basics of landscape composition (Part one)
When I began my landscape photography journey, composition was one of the most difficult things for me to wrap my head around. We all see so many beautifully composed images online these days, and it’s hard to know where to start, what lens you should use, or the type of composition that works best for the scene in front of you - let alone the challenges of finding your own unique style!
In the beginning, many photographers use classic compositional tools such as the rule of thirds to construct their frame and, while this is a great compositional tool to help you understand the basics of landscape photography composition, it’s not perfect for every scene.
Over time, I’ve learned that if you can incorporate a variety of different techniques into your toolkit you can further your compositional knowledge and be well equipped for any situation you come across in the field.
The following are some compositional tips and tricks I have learnt from years of experience, research and from my mentors in landscape photography. I hope these tips help further your photographic knowledge, creativity and confidence.
Getting low to the ground with a wide-angle lens such as a 16-35mm on a full frame camera creates a very compelling perspective. This angle is commonly used in landscape photography and for good reason.
A low angle draws the viewer’s eyes through the frame from a perspective not often seen or appreciated in our day-to-day lives. For example, setting up at ground or water level when photographing a waterfall puts maximum emphasis on the reflection or flow of the water. If you were to look at a waterfall from a normal angle of view, your perspective would be totally different.
Being low to the ground is also a useful technique for making small foreground subjects appear larger than they really are. This is an especially useful way to get the viewer’s attention. You can use these elements to turn a tiny subject into the ‘hero’ of your frame, or guide your viewer’s eyes through the scene with an attention grabbing foreground.
To shoot low, I recommend using a tripod with no centre column, and with an L-Bracket. An L-Bracket lets you change composition quickly between landscape orientation and vertical orientation. This eliminates having to recompose with the ballhead slumped over to one side.
Getting up close is a great compositional trick for trees and forests. By getting close, I mean using a long lens (50mm+) or focussing on details within a scene. When I crack out my telephoto lens, it’s often to shoot a tree or forest from a distance. Zooming in creates a sense of curiosity for the viewer and a sense of mystery in the frame.
This is because the natural surroundings of the image are absent, so the viewer begins to question what is they are looking at. This ability to hide and reveal is a powerful photographic technique.
I often find certain trees have a unique and striking character, and I usually try to fill the frame with the most interesting and intriguing parts of them.
Take for example my photo Intensity above. This image captures the inside of a burning tree. At first glance, you might question what the subject of this image is – but that’s the fun of it! As the viewer explores what appears to be textured tree bark and a burning furnace, they begin to see the image come to life and the real subject is revealed – a tree’s centre aflame.
It can be difficult to know when a wide angle or a telephoto lens is best to use. Here’s a tip - ask yourself what it is you like about the scene in front of you, and use the most appropriate lens to focus on that. If you like the way the light is reflecting off a certain part in the landscape which is leading to your main subject, then this is a situation where you may like to use a wide angle to capture the entirety of the scene.
But if it’s a moment where the light is doing something interesting in the distance and you have no foreground interest, this is a situation where you could zoom in with the telephoto and pick out what you find most interesting.
Every successful image needs to have a subject – your job is to use the right tool to illustrate it best.
I believe leading lines are the most powerful tool a landscape photographer can use. Once you understand how they work, you will see a great improvement in your photographic composition.
Basic leading lines can include just about anything - sticks, logs or rock patterns are all great, and will draw the viewers eyes from your foreground towards the main subject in the background.
Another way you can use leading lines is to split the frame into thirds. Having a strong leading line in your foreground then another leading line or interesting feature in your midground and then your main subject in the background.
This is a fantastic way to create an image that tells a story to your viewer. Incorporating a few different leading lines throughout the frame that lead towards your subjects is another way to create a compelling image.
A more advanced leading line technique is one that is constantly changing, such as flowing water or moving light. When photographing waterfalls or seascapes you can use the motion of the water as a leading line to draw your viewer from the foreground all the way through your scene until their eyes fixate on the main point of interest.
Leading lines are an important instrument which gives landscape photographers the freedom to control how their images are constructed and viewed by their audience.
Look out for part two next week.
About the author: Samuel Markham is a self-taught landscape and wilderness photographer based on the South Coast of New South Wales. See more at samuelmarkham.photography.