Composition Put Simply
There are many factors in landscape photography, lighting, weather, composition, color, motion, all being equally important. You can’t have a great photograph until all of these things have lined up and are working together in the image. There are a lot of things to think about when creating an image, and even the best of us forget about some of them while in the excitement of the moment, but I wanted to touch on a few basics that will really help you to improve your shooting and allow you to effectively create interesting and visually pleasing images.
Composition, put simply, means how you, the artist, decide to frame the image you create. What you include or exclude in your frame, should all be thought through and considered, the less things you have for no reason, the simpler and more precise your message will be, making it easier for viewers to understand and be touched by it. With that being said, everything you then choose to include in your frame, should be for a reason, that reason being that it makes the image more powerful. “But how?” you say.
In my photography workshops, I choose to cover more theory than anything. We can all learn the technical stuff on our own by reading manuals, watching tutorials, etc. People don't need to pay me in order to learn that. What I see people struggling with the most is how to shoot things and convey their vision in their photographs. After having taught many people how to effectively compose their images, I have come up with these basic points.
Subject: Every image must have a subject or a hero, being a central focus or idea. The hero of your image can be a person, an object, a pattern, a design or even a color. The first step is finding something interesting that can be your subject that you want to base everything else around. Whatever you choose to include in the rest of the image should complement the subject and drive focus towards it, helping it to stand out more than anything else.
Click on the image to enlarge. While looking at this image, ask yourself the following:
1. What is the subject of this image?
2. What is it that makes the subject obvious?
3. How does light make this subject stand out?
4. What was included in the image to help tell the story of the subject?
Placement: Once you have chosen what your subject will be, you must then decide where to place it within your frame. The most basic options being to center it in the frame or place it along one of your thirds (google: Rule Of Thirds if you are not already familiar with this concept). I always have my Rule of 3rds Grid turned on while in live view mode on my camera to get an idea of where I am placing the subject. If you are shooting wide, you will usually want the subject to be more towards the top of the frame as opposed to the bottom, since our eyes usually move through an image from the bottom upwards. You want your viewer’s eyes to eventually land and settle on the Hero in your image.
Click on the image to enlarge. While examining this image, think about what the subject is and where it was placed. Ask yourself:
1. Why would the artist choose to place the subject there?
2. How does the placement help the subject be the central focus?
3. Would I have placed it differently?
Framing: Now it’s time to find other interesting elements surrounding the subject to include in your frame. You want to fill the frame as best you can, excluding all of the unnecessary elements and including only what works for you in driving the viewer’s eyes towards your subject. This is where you choose if it will be best to shoot with a wide lens, to include other things that may be there that help the image work, or maybe zoom in to exclude the surrounding elements that can be distracting. Will you shoot it horizontally or vertically?
In landscapes, try not to include things that are taller than your subject. It is best to have it stretching above the horizon so that it is not surrounded by distracting textures and it stands out as much as possible. Being the tallest object in the image, it will demand the most attention, don’t include things that compete for that attention. Be mindful about things that overlap the edges of your frame; should you include them more or exclude them all together? Will it be distracting to leave part of the object cut off by the edge of the frame? If your idea is to show the beauty of the subject you are shooting, try to find and include other things that are also beautiful.
Click on the image to enlarge. While studying this composition, ask yourself these questions:
1. What else did the artist include in the image besides the mountain?
2. How does including this help the overall feel of the image?
3. What does it tell me about the time of year/season, it was shot in?
4. What would happen to the feel of the image if it hadn't been included?"
5. How does the vertical (portrait) orientation help the subject to stand out?
Balance: Now it's time to organize the things you wish to include in a way that balances the image. If you have chosen to have your subject on the top, right third, then you should think about including something interesting in the bottom, left third to complement it. If you have everything interesting in the image all on one side, it will end up being too heavy and not feel good to the viewer. If your subject is in the center, put the other interesting elements closer to the edges.
Click on the image to enlarge. While looking at this photo, ask yourself the following:
1. Where is the subject placed within the frame?
2. Where are the other interesting, attention grabbing elements placed in correlation to the subject?
3. What would happen to the balance if the subject had been centered instead?
Flow: Pay attention to how you organize objects from foreground to background, keeping space between them and not letting them get all clumped and cluttered together. Find forms and shapes that work as leading lines that lead the eyes towards the subject. Avoid apparent lines that lead away from the subject or in a completely different direction than anything else in the image. Avoid random things sticking out that may disrupt the flow of your image and stop the viewer’s eye from being able to move through it freely and naturally.
Click on the image to enlarge. Take a look at this photo and think about the following:
1. How do my eyes move through this image?
2. What elements, shapes, and forms help my eyes move through the image?
3. How did the artist effectively use the concept of leading lines to help guide the eye?
4. Is there anything distracting that could be removed to help the image have a better sense of flow?
Color: The colors you include in your image should harmonize. You can alter these things in post processing, but it will work much better and smoother if you can think about it and consider the colors you are including while in the field. While you cannot control the colors of what objects are around you, you can choose which objects you include and what kind of lighting you shoot the scene in. If you don’t already have an understanding of what colors work together there are many great articles that explain it. I would recommend this one by Ted Gore.
Click on the image to enlarge. While looking at this image, think to yourself:
1. What are the two main color tones I see in this image?
2. How do these colors work together?
3. What would happen if I introduced another color? What new color could be added and help the color harmony within image? What new color would disrupt the color harmony within the image?
Reminders: While creating compositions in the field, continually ask yourself these questions: "What is my subject? What colors are in this scene? Is this composition interesting? How could this be simpler/cleaner? Are the elements in this scene balanced? What can I include or exclude to help draw focus towards the subject?"
There are many other things you can do and decisions you can make while shooting that will help strengthen the composition of your image, but these are the basics that will help you know where to get started and begin creating images that are visually compelling and make sense. The easier it is for us to understand your message, the more powerfully it will come across. I would invite you now to go back and look through all of these images and think about all of the principles I have discussed and how they were used to effectively improve the scene or how they could have been used better. I would also invite you to look through the rest of my work while thinking these same things, as well as the work of other photographers. Dissecting images while thinking about these principles will help you to know how you can improve and grow.
How did this article help you?
Stover Photoon September 8, 2017
Excellent. I am now going back through all of my photos to see how I could have improved them. Thanks for taking the time to put this out there for us.
Ken Beathon January 30, 2017
Great article. In the end a well composed photograph looks right, so it can break rules but still be fine. I was recently looking a Dupain's "Sunbaker" in an exhibition, one of the classic photographs, and half the photograph is white sand, but it just seems perfectly balanced.
Armin Amanoon January 13, 2017
Thank you for this wonderful article Eric. Your explanation is always on point so it's easy to understand for amateur photographers too.
I personally love the way of your explanation because the "self question" strategy is so useful to improve. To ask yourself questions and to question about the photographers idea behind his picture is one of the best ways to practice and to improve. Because these "self questions" are the basis to get an idea "what I want to do actually" "what do I want to show". You need a concept for every picture to create something outstanding and your article really helps to get the idea.
Even though I'm not an amateur photographer your article refreshes my knowledge and I was realizing I can improve on it.
I'll recommend your article to my friends because I know it will help them out.
A big THANK YOU Eric. You are a wonderful artist and a great teacher because you exactly know what's important to teach people and what they can practice by themselves.
It's every cent worth to take lessons from you!!!