5 Essential Composition Tips for Landscape Photography

5 Essential Composition Tips for Landscape Photography

How many times have you seen photos of the landscape that look like someone just pointed a camera at random before pressing the shutter release? Compare that to compelling landscape photography that takes your breath away. Very often, the difference between the two has a lot to do with compositional elements and the use of composition techniques.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
Photography composition is like a recipe that you can learn!

Taking a well-composed landscape photo is a bit like following a recipe. Think of your finished photograph as a giant bubbling cauldron, into which you’ll throw various ingredients which might be mundane on their own but magical in combination. When you’re adept enough at choosing the right ingredients to use, then you can start branching out and altering the recipe, figuring out what works best for you and which ingredients are just too awful on your palate to ever include.

In this article, I’m going to share with you a few essential landscape photography tips that will enhance the strength of your compositions. Before you cross those arms and exclaim that you’re just not good at cooking up magical potions, let me reassure you that you can start with a simple recipe and work up to finally making your own from scratch. Just give these composition ideas a go!

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#1. Use Space Effectively

When we talk about composition in photography, we often refer to the frame. The frame is how we describe what you will see within the confines of the edges of your image.

To put it simply – what’s inside the frame is the picture that you’re going to take.

Organising your compositional elements within the frame is a bit like figuring out where to place the ingredients for your recipe. Think about the order in which things will go, as well as how much of each element you want to include. Even small variations will have an effect on the overall outcome.

With landscape photography, you can use the compositional techniques of filling the frame or simplification to make use of space. Both are effective for conveying different types of scenes.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
Negative space can draw attention to your subject.

The photo above is an example of simplification, which minimises the content within the landscape and uses a lot of negative space. Pictures with negative space draw the eye towards the primary subject.

In comparison, the next image is an example of filling the frame. This involves placing compositional elements within the confines of your image in such a way that they take up the majority of the space. The result is that there is much more for the eye to see and the brain to interpret.

The key to filling the frame is to have a good understanding of the principles of composition. Think about how your compositional elements relate to each other and how they’ll contribute to the overall image.

Is there a visual path that enables the eye to move on a journey throughout the frame? Or is it so cluttered that it’s impossible to make out the subject?

Make sure that there is enough breathing room in the frame to define each element.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
Filling the frame means that there is more for the eye to interpret.

#2. Make the Most of Lines

There are many types of lines in photography and all of them will have different effects on your compositions. Whether the result is positive or negative depends on how you choose to use them.

An example of a line in photography is the horizon line. This is the visual boundary where the sky appears to meet with the Earth’s surface, either on water or on land.

When taking landscape photos, it is fundamental to make sure that the horizon line is straight. Where you place the horizon line within the frame can also create balance in an image.

In general, photographers tend to place the horizon line according to the Rule of Thirds – that is, either two-thirds up from the bottom of the frame if the landscape is your subject, or one-third up if you want the emphasis to be on the sky.

Below, you can see an image where the horizon line is two-thirds up, placing emphasis on the icy formation within the frozen lake in the foreground.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
The horizon line is two-thirds up from the bottom of the image.

For reflections within the landscape, try placing the horizon in the centre of the frame. Doing so cuts the image directly in half, which is great for creating a mirrored effect. Keep in mind that in any other context, central placement of the horizon line can be distracting, as it forces the eye to separate the top and the bottom of the image into two distinct parts, thereby disrupting the balance and flow of a composition.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
Central placement of the horizon line is great for reflections.

Another type of line in photography is the leading line. The definition of a leading line is one that guides the eye through the frame. These lines may be horizontal, vertical or diagonal. 

Leading lines enhance the composition of a photo by creating a map for the eye to follow, whereby the gaze is directed towards the subject. This compositional technique of creating movement takes the eye on an explorative adventure through the photograph, rather than allowing it to wander aimlessly all over the place. The sensory input captures the attention of the viewer and makes an image much more interesting.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
The lines in the sand draw the eye towards the main subject of the frame, the tree, before receding into the horizon.

Above is an example of a photo with leading lines created by ripples in the sand. The ripples guide the eye towards the tree, before continuing further towards the horizon, thereby creating a sense of depth in an otherwise two-dimensional image.

When using leading lines in photography, make sure that they take the viewer’s eye smoothly through the frame without exiting abruptly before reaching the subject.

#3. Build a Sense of Balance

An intrinsic principle of composition in landscape photography is to build a sense of balance. A balanced image is more comfortable for the brain to process, meaning that it will likely keep the viewer’s gaze for longer.

Balancing your compositional elements doesn’t mean detracting from the chaos or drama in terms of mood; it just involves strategically positioning or orientating your subject and other elements within the scene so that the weight of the frame isn’t askew in any direction such that the viewer’s gaze will be lost. If your composition were a small boat, that would mean arranging everyone onboard so as not to tip the weight and cause the boat to capsize.

As with lines, there are different types of balance in photography. Symmetrical balance is where both sides of a photo, left and right or top and bottom, contain roughly the same amount of visual weight.

The following images are examples of symmetrical balance in landscape photography. You can create symmetrical balance by placing your subject in the centre of the frame, giving the overall image a sense of harmony.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.

In comparison to the above, asymmetrical balance is where the subject and other compositional elements may seem to be at odds with one another but in actual fact, they have been carefully arranged to draw on the brain’s ability to see patterns. The result is a balanced frame where the weight appears to be evenly distributed. This type of balance is more complex and as such, can increase the visual appeal of a photograph.

In the image below, you can see that although the rocky cliff to the right side of the frame is much larger than the rock formation on the left, the dark patterns in the negative space created by the long exposure on the water below is enough of a juxtaposition for the brain to fill in the gaps.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
The larger mass of rocks on the right is balanced by the rock formation on the left with the use of negative space created by a long exposure of the water.

To create balance in your own compositions, think of each element within your frame as geometrical Tetris-like building blocks. Try moving the elements around until they are in balance.

If you can’t move the elements, then use your feet and move yourself around! Very often, you’ll find that just a subtle shift in your position may cause everything within your frame to ‘fall into place’.

#4. Weave a Story with Colour

Colours in all their hues, shades and intensities have the ability to affect our moods. Needless to say, they can help you to tell a story by creating emotion in landscape photography.

When composing a shot, think about how you might use different tones, contrasting hues or patterns and shades to accentuate light, movement or harmony within the landscape.

Intense colours can add to drama within the atmosphere. On the other hand, they might make an image visually unappealing, like a dog’s breakfast.

Colour patterns can sometimes behave like leading lines, drawing the eye through the scene in a subtle way. Meanwhile, complementary shades and hues can contribute a lot to the overall consistency and sense of balance within an image.

To harness the power of colour for stronger compositions, you will need to have a good understanding of colour theory. Hone your observation skills when you’re out and about in nature by training yourself to notice complementary colours within the environment.

Less is often more, so try to focus on a few different shades and hues, rather than trying to capture an entire kaleidoscope’s range of colours. You’ll also benefit from learning how to optimise colours in your images during post-processing.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
Red and blue hues harmonise to create shades of pink and purple in this enchanting scene.

#5. Mind the Edges

Last but not least, a well-composed photograph involves minding the edges of your frame. You want the viewer’s eye to be drawn towards the subject and other compositional elements within the frame, rather than to travel to the edges where it may be completely lost.

In painting, artists often use less detailed brushwork towards the edges of a canvas. A similar technique is employed in landscape photography, whereby the objects at the edges of an image may be less sharp. Many photographers choose to add a slight vignette, which darkens the edges and highlights the centre of the photograph. Some choose to go around the edges with a spot healing brush during post-processing, so as to remove any unwanted distractions that might steal away the viewer’s attention.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
There is a lot going on in this frame, so it's important that there is nothing at the edges that will guide the eye away.

Of course, the easiest path to take is to ensure that there are no confusing objects at the edges of the frame in the first place. So the next time that you’re out shooting in-field, make sure to check all of the edges for sticks and stones or anything else that might interfere with the strength of your composition.

Just a small step to the right or left may be enough for you to eliminate these unwanted distractions!

Have you cooked up any interesting potions landscape photography compositions lately? What are some of the compositional guidelines that you tend to follow or choose to break? Share your thoughts below!

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