Elements of Composition (for Landscape Photography)

When you are approaching the composition of a landscape remembering some of the following basic ideas will help you create a stronger image. Sometimes you may wish to ignore these elements to make a creative choice. To retain creative control, do this by design rather than by accident!

1. Tell a story

If you aim to tell a story, that will help you decide what to put into the frame and what to leave out. Think

  • What am I feeling?
  • What am I seeing, what do I want my viewer to see?

The main tools that assist with effective story telling are to:

  • Have some element of interest
  • Strive for visual balance
  • Control the way the eye moves in the image

2. Consider the following basics elements of an image:

  • Framing: Is it horizontal, vertical or a panorama? Bear in mind that a frame is an artifice – we don’t see in letter-boxes with hard edges. Our eyes behave differently when constrained by a frame, so how you frame is a critical component of your image. Consider using a frame within a frame (such as a doorway, foliage) for a stronger effect.
  • Visual balance within the frame. Landscapes generally work best if there is a foreground, a middleground and a back-ground. If your image is not satisfying to you, see if you are leaving out one of these elements, or if they are not balanced. Placing items of interest in accordance with the “rule of thirds” can also help make visually balanced images.

3. Learn how to control they way the eye of the viewer moves within your frame. Generally the eye moves:

  • To light areas
  • To areas with contrast and sharpness
  • Along lines
  • To colour – more to saturated and warm areas
  • To contrast
  • To eyes, human forms, animals and representations of human influence.

4. Include elements that the eye finds pleasing:

  • Patterns
  • Repetition
  • Symmetry
  • The odd one out in a pattern or repetition
  • Simplicity or complexity but not busy-ness and clutter

5. Avoid things that the eye finds displeasing:

  • Distractions – light areas in the wrong spot
  • Lines leading out of the frame
  • Cut edges and overlapping forms.

In order to reduce displeasing elements,

  • Always check your image and subject edges
  • Look for separation between elements.
The loneliness of the lighthouse keeper's wife

The loneliness of the lighthouse keeper’s wife

This image is an example of a frame within a frame. The door invites the viewer into the image. The colour of the sea attracts the eye. The door, rug and picket fence tell of domesticity. Although the scene is beautiful it is empty, hence the caption. This was taken at the lighthouse cottage at Green Cape. The lighthouse keeper’s wife had little company or support in raising her family through all weathers and in sickness and in health.

Boat at Fishpen Jetty

Boat at Fishpen Jetty

This image is an example of framing, leading lines and light. The early morning sun has just kissed the wooden jetty. This image is not that successful as the leading lines go nowhere. However, if there weren’t complete separation of the boat, it would certainly not be a successful image.

Laguna Blanca - Bolivian Altiplano

Laguna Blanca – Bolivian Altiplano

This image has a foreground, middle and back ground that all work well together to tell the story of isolation and a grand landscape. The human element adds to the story – they have obviously travelled without the benefit of roads. They are dwarfed by the landscape features.

Precarious Tree on Cliff at Oxer Lookout, Karijini

Precarious Tree on Cliff at Oxer Lookout, Karijini

This image shows the tree on one of the “line of thirds.”  The eye finds this off-centre approach appealing.

Greenland Fjord

Greenland Fjord

Another example of an image with a fore- middle- and background. The real subjects are the magnificent icebergs and interesting light on the clouds. However the human element in the foreground, and the extensive middle ground add to the sense of scale.

Tatio Geysers, Chilean Altiplano

Tatio Geysers, Chilean Altiplano

Another classical fore-, middle and background construction. Note that if the geyser steam had been curling the other way, the image would have been less successful.

Uyuni Salt Train

Uyuni Salt Train

Classical leading lines illustrate that, culturally, we tend to read lines from the bottom left of the image as the strongest lines. Other elements are balanced, with the central train flanked by two volcanoes (a trio of elements). The main subject is the most colourful element.

Knox Swimming Hole, Karijini, WA

Knox Swimming Hole, Karijini, WA

Leading lines and strong colour tell the story of an inviting and tranquil pool.

Judy on the Rocks: Merimbula

Judy on the Rocks: Merimbula

Strong colour and leading lines – as taken.

Judy on Rocks: Image Flipped

Judy on Rocks: Image Flipped

To my eye, this image reads much better as the strong lines coming in from the bottom left travel through the whole image before being turned back. They eye therefore travels around within the image, which it doesn’t do in the top version. The human form adds scale and interest.

A single cone in the vast salt lake of Uyuni after rain

A single cone in the vast salt lake of Uyuni after rain

As I was looking for this image, the thought running through my mind was “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” The single salt cone and snow-clad volcano hang in a sea of light.

Phil at Sani Pass, Lesotho

Phil at Sani Pass, Lesotho

Again I was looking for a simple image. Note that the cloud in the middle ground separating the fore and backgrounds is what makes the image. The human element adds interest. Without the cloud and the figure the image would be boring.

The vast salt flats of Uyuni, Bolivia

The vast salt flats of Uyuni, Bolivia

I was looking to simplify to tell the story of the vast open space, and to convey the feeling of being suspended in a blue bubble.

Bryce Canyon Rock Formation

Bryce Canyon Rock Formation

Interesting light can be the most important element in a successful landscape. Here the first rays of the sun light up and isolate a rock formation in a complex canyon.

The following images illustrate the use of repetition and patterns, and the effect of breaking a pattern (white railway trucks on a red train, a village in rice terraces).

Bridge over the Tigris, Turkey

Bridge over the Tigris, Turkey

RedUmbrella_MG_5041 copy

Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces and Traditional Village

TwoBoats_MG_8721

Two boats at Merimbula

Uyuni Salt Train_IMG_1358

Salt train from Uyuni

Finally the following images illustrate the importance of separation. The pre-dawn light is soft and the silver bark gleams. There is no overlap between this tree and any other. This sometimes takes a bit of effort to find. In the wharf silhouette, the rocks of the foreground are just separated from the background by the water. Without the fishermen facing in to the scene, the image would be bland and boring.

Eucalypt in pre-dawn light, Karijini

Eucalypt in pre-dawn light, Karijini

Merimbula Wharf at Sunset

Merimbula Wharf at Sunset

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3 comments on “Elements of Composition (for Landscape Photography)

  1. Murray Foote says:

    Excellent article, Helen

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lenuta says:

    Thank you Helen and Phil for sharing your photo experience with us. Wonderful photos.

    Like

  3. Jim Mason says:

    Straight to the point and simple with stunning images to illustrate your reasoning, Well done and presented Helen.

    Like

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