If you want to make landscape photographs that get noticed, it is vitally important to master the art of composition. Composition is the artistic arrangement and placement of visual elements within the picture frame, and it is the way you tell your subject’s story and how you share your artistic vision with others. Although composition is a complex topic, there are several basic strategies that can help you make powerful images. What follows are five of my favorite techniques from my Ultimate Photography Composition Course (available exclusively to PRO members). These techniques will help you supercharge your landscape photos and allow you to break free from the pack.
Find a Good Foreground
Although you don’t need to include a foreground in every landscape photograph you make, you will find that foregrounds add considerable depth and punch to your compositions, and provide an obvious point of reference for viewers, helping to simplify otherwise chaotic scenes. Since the foreground elements are the first that the eye encounters, be sure that they are interesting and relevant to the rest of the composition. Resist the temptation to merely find something to put in the foreground just so you have something there; instead, take the time to find a foreground that actually works toward your goal of captivating viewers. For the image below, I used a gnarled piece of driftwood as my foreground; its interesting shape nicely complements the dramatic mountains in the background. Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Canon 5DIII, Canon 11-24mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 6 seconds.
Use Leading Elements for Power
One of the most effective ways to create compositional power is to use shapes and visual elements that lead the viewer’s eye into the scene. Leading elements can be just about anything, including lines, curves, or a progression of visual elements which encourage the eye to travel deeper into the composition. Leading lines which stretch from foreground to background are especially powerful, propelling the viewer into the scene. Other shapes placed in the foreground can accomplish the same thing; a curving river can compel the eye to meander throughout the image frame, while a triangle-shaped rock can point into the composition. Multiple visual elements can more subtly encourage the viewer to explore the composition; a near-to-far, bottom-to-top visual progression is often particularly effective. For the photo below, I used fins of sandstone, dramatically side-lit at sunrise, as leading lines. Valley of Fire State Park, USA. Sony a7RIV, Venus Optics 9mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/125 second.
Emphasize your subject
Find a way to highlight and emphasize your main subject in order to direct your viewer’s attention to what is important in your composition. Framing is one effective tool for simplifying a composition and focusing interest on your subject. Examples of commonly used frames include tree branches, natural arches, and old barn windows. Sometimes framing shots work best if there is an element of contrast between the frame and the subject—for example, silhouetted trees framing a sunlit mountain peak. Another way to draw attention to your primary subject is through use of light; spotlighting, or a dose of subtle brightness behind your subject, can help focus the viewer. For the photo below taken in an "ice cave" along the south shore of Lake Superior, I framed the man with encircling icicles; his bright orange jacket helps to further emphasize him within the composition. Lake Superior, USA. Sony a7RIV, Venus Optics 12mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/20 second.
Engage the Eye with Repetition
People are naturally attracted to patterns, part of our ability and psychological need to organize our chaotic world. When the eye explores a pattern, it tends to want to visit each and every repeated element; accordingly, the savvy photographer can use repeating shapes and colors to encourage the viewer to visit multiple parts of the composition. Visual repetition gets the viewer’s eye moving, engaging interest and creating compositional energy. On the flip side, repetition can also help create harmony and balance, adding structure to a composition. For the photo below of a clay pan surrounded by massive sand dunes, I created a composition based on the pattern formed by the dead trees. Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia. Canon 5DIII, Tamron 70-200mm lens, ISO 100, f/22, 5 seconds.
Create Visual Energy
Look for ways to convey a sense of motion and energy in your photos. Visual opposition is a particularly effective way to create dynamic compositions, as opposing visual elements get the viewer’s eye engaged in multiple points of interest. Use lines or shapes which tilt or point in opposite directions. Visual opposition is great if you are seeking to create powerful and energetic compositions, but be careful: if you have too much energy going one way and not enough going the other, the result can often be rather unbalanced. For the photo below of methane bubbles trapped in ice, I chose a composition where the shapes of the bubbles tilted at different diagonal angles, adding considerable energy to the visual design. Abraham Lake, Canada. Sony a7RIV, Venus Optics 9mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/40 second.
Always remember: a snapshot shows the world what your camera sees, but when you create a composition, you show the world what you see. You can learn more about photography composition by: 1) Purchasing my Visual Flow ebook, which has been hailed by critics and customers alike as the best book on composition ever written; or 2) becoming a PRO member, which unlocks access to my Ultimate Photography Composition Course (the Visual Flow ebook is included as part of the course).
A PRO membership takes a deeper look at how compelling photos are made, and unlocks access to this course as well as a number of my other courses and tutorials.