4 Rules of Composition for Landscape Photography - Digital Photography School

4 Rules of Composition for Landscape Photography

While I’m not always a fan of sticking strictly to the ‘rules’ or ‘guidelines’ of photography I think they can be well worth knowing and keeping in the back of your mind as you shoot (whether it’s so you can follow them or break them for effect). Here’s four ‘rules’ for landscape photography that might be helpful for those just starting out (ie they’re not meant as a definitive guide but rather a starting point) :

1. Diagonal Lines

Diagonal-1

Using diagonal lines can be a very effective way of drawing the eye of those viewing an image into it and to the main focal point.

The ‘lines’ need not be actual lines – they could be the shape of a path, a line of trees, a fence, river or any other feature in an image.

Converging lines (two or more lines coming from different parts of an image to a single point) can be all the more effective.

Read more about using Diagonal Lines in your digital photography.

2. Geometric Shapes

Triangle-Composition

By positioning key aspects of a landscape on points of a geometric shape you can help create a balanced composition. Perhaps the most common and easiest way to do this is to use a ‘triangle’ shape between objects in an image with three objects in a frame positioned with one to each side and one more central.

Using Geometric Shapes in this way isn’t something that I’ve done a lot of – but it is one technique to get balance in a shot and if you’re clever, to lead the eye into it (in a similar way to the diagonal lines rule above).

You can see this illustrated (to a point) in the photomontage image to the right.


3. The Rule of Thirds

Rule-Of-Thirds

The Rule of Thirds gets trotted out more often than any other in all types of photography and is one of the first rules of composition taught to most photography students. While sometimes it can feel a little cliche it can also be a very effective technique in landscapes (although keep in mind that breaking this (and other rules) can also produce dramatic and interesting shots).

Position key points of interest in a landscape on the intersecting point between imaginary ‘third’ points in an image and you’ll help give your image balance and help those focal points to really capture attention.

Read more about using the Rule of Thirds in composing your shots.

4. Framing Images

Framing

While adding points of interest to a foreground is an important technique for adding interest to landscape shots – a similar technique is to ‘frame’ the shot by adding interest to other parts of the edges of an image.

Perhaps the most common way of framing a landscape shot is to include an overhanging branch in the upper section of a shot. Similarly framing a shot with a bridge might work.

Read more about Framing Images

Rules are Made to Be Broken?

Of course while knowing the rules can be important – knowing when to use them and when to break them is a talent that great photographers generally have.

Practice these techniques – but don’t get so worked up about them that they kill the creativity that you have.

Let me finish with a quote about Rules of Photography from Photographer Edward Weston to help give us a little balance on the topic:

“To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk. Such rules and laws are deduced from the accomplished fact; they are the products of reflection.”

Further Reading: 11 Surefire Tips for Improving Your Landscape Photography.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • http://www.digitalstudio.in Industrial Photographer

    Yes, this is certainly an enlightening article.

  • Graciela Navarro

    I’m a beginner.. I would like to learn more about photography..Thanks

  • nooj

    Blehh, whatever, shoot whatever looks good :)

    Afterwards sometimes you see that a good picture followed a rule (rule of thirds) but other times, they don’t necessarily follow any rules described above.

  • http://takegoodpictures.co.uk PaulB

    Thank you for a great, easy to understand and implement article.
    I would have to agree with Dave, weather conditions and their wonderfully varying lighting variations can and do produce some amazing shots. So never be afraid to experiment in fog and rain, they can add atmosphere and a ‘surreal’ effect to an otherwise ordinary shot, especially at sunset when reds and oranges illuminate landscapes.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/rxbg/ Rex

    Another guideline or thought for landscape composition is paying extra attention to the edges of a photo. Often there may be a distracting branch, brush, some man-made clutter, or some other unsightly object on the very edge of your photo. Paying extra attention to those edges and corners will further solidify the strength of the overall composition. It may also lesson the amount of potential ‘Photoshopping’ that might need to be done.

  • http://www.gdanmitchell.com G Dan Mitchell

    Rex makes an excellent point about edges. Many photographs develop a habit of scanning around the edges of the frame at the time of the exposure looking for distracting elements, and then do the same once again in post-processing. It is often surprising to find how significantly this can improve many photographs.

  • http://www.cfleesphotography.com/ Christopher Flees

    You have made some great points with your article: lines, shapes, rule of thirds, and framing. For many of my images I follow at least most of the rules, well usually. You can be the judge if I do or dont there at http://www.cfleesphotography.com , but with that said your final point rules in photography are made to be broken, I could not agree more. Not every image will fit neatly in a box with all the rules. Funny instead of calling them rules we should probably call them general guidelines. Great post.

  • Christopher Flees Insightful

    dam girl that was insightful

  • marius2die4

    Landscape photography is one of the difficult kind of photography, I guess you write about all the major tips. Tkx!

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    Your tips work very great for me… thanks.

  • Alex

    I’d say they are techniques rather than rules or guidelines. Good to practise so you know how to spot them when the situation presents itself. Also good to know when not to use them,

  • http://www.cfleesphotography.com/ Christopher Flees

    Alex guidelines is a good term. whether you are photographing landscapes or taking animal pics a sound set of guidelines is a great place to start then branch out to more creative compositions.

  • Terry Koerner

    Have been using the composition rules you are telling us, but I am learning so much more with your articles. Thanks a lot for all your helpful articles

Some older comments

  • G Dan Mitchell

    March 6, 2013 09:58 am

    Rex makes an excellent point about edges. Many photographs develop a habit of scanning around the edges of the frame at the time of the exposure looking for distracting elements, and then do the same once again in post-processing. It is often surprising to find how significantly this can improve many photographs.

  • Rex

    March 5, 2013 08:16 am

    Another guideline or thought for landscape composition is paying extra attention to the edges of a photo. Often there may be a distracting branch, brush, some man-made clutter, or some other unsightly object on the very edge of your photo. Paying extra attention to those edges and corners will further solidify the strength of the overall composition. It may also lesson the amount of potential 'Photoshopping' that might need to be done.

  • PaulB

    May 28, 2012 05:42 pm

    Thank you for a great, easy to understand and implement article.
    I would have to agree with Dave, weather conditions and their wonderfully varying lighting variations can and do produce some amazing shots. So never be afraid to experiment in fog and rain, they can add atmosphere and a 'surreal' effect to an otherwise ordinary shot, especially at sunset when reds and oranges illuminate landscapes.

  • nooj

    March 3, 2012 03:33 pm

    Blehh, whatever, shoot whatever looks good :)

    Afterwards sometimes you see that a good picture followed a rule (rule of thirds) but other times, they don't necessarily follow any rules described above.

  • Graciela Navarro

    February 25, 2012 09:22 am

    I'm a beginner.. I would like to learn more about photography..Thanks

  • Industrial Photographer

    February 4, 2012 11:30 am

    Yes, this is certainly an enlightening article.

  • Kartik

    January 31, 2012 03:52 pm

    I think the Golden Spiral also works well for landscapes, provided one has the eye for it.

    Here's an example:

    Antelope Canyon with Golden Spiral composition

  • suzanne faker

    December 2, 2011 05:07 am

    Thanks for the outstanding tips on landscape photography....Keep up the good work; it is appreciated!!

  • Robert

    November 13, 2011 11:33 pm

    Here's a tip that will improve all your pictures......Slow down....Take the time to compose your intended shot from different angles, from all sides if possible. When you think you've got the shot, then set up your tripod or shoot freehand. The point is....s...l...o...w d...o...w...n

  • utpal

    July 29, 2011 10:15 am

    Very effective rules for taking landscape but I like the last rule ' Rules are made to be broken !'

  • Neil

    July 29, 2011 04:37 am

    I attended a workshop with Joe Cornish, the world renowned landscape photographer. He told me that he did not care too much for the rule of thirds. He said it is too restrictive. In his view what counts is that the image must have energy and balance.

  • Pashminu Mansukhani

    July 29, 2011 02:29 am

    Good article. Visit: Industrial Photographer for many Rule of Third
    adhered images.

  • G Dan Mitchell

    July 26, 2011 12:56 am

    Whenever I hear of people trying to apply the so-called "rules of composition" to the creation of photographs I recall someone pointing out that such "rules" are more effective for conducting artistic autopsies than for giving birth.

    Dan

  • Mark

    July 26, 2011 12:07 am

    One more rule, 5. Panorama. A wide-angle view can really convey the sense of space.

    Mackinac Island Marina on Lake Huron
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/whalemap/4874011539

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    July 26, 2011 12:05 am

    Hi

    I really enjoyed this article...for Landscape work I always like to shoot wide and include some foreground - this is from down under, New Zealand.

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/2130/

  • luse.13

    July 25, 2011 11:40 pm

    great post as always! I must try more of number one and two. Here is one using the frame tip. I actually started doing it before I knew this "rule" :)
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/62159493@N06/5656267207/in/photostream

  • Fuzzypiggy

    July 25, 2011 09:56 pm

    One "rule" I follow a lot of the time, "A landscape is not a landscape without an introduction."! Which means foreground, if you have nothing to catch the viewers eye at the edge and throw it into the scene, you have nothing worth showing. Something must grab the viewer's eye and introduce it to the scene before it goes in.

  • Jason Edmonds

    July 25, 2011 05:41 pm

    Great post! Thanks for the tips. The rule of thirds is a great composition tool indeed.

  • fotomate

    July 25, 2011 04:22 pm

    I like this: "Of course while knowing the rules can be important – knowing when to use them and when to break them is a talent that great photographers generally have."
    KEY POINT OF ALL POINTS :)

  • Shane McDonald

    July 25, 2011 12:15 pm

    Great Post. Rule of thirds is a good one - nicely explained in your post!
    Must try the diagonal lines!

  • Brandon

    July 25, 2011 08:03 am

    Framing of the Bay Bridge:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/56112084@N06/5919249203/

  • Brandon

    July 25, 2011 08:02 am

    Farming the Bay Bridge:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/56112084@N06/5919249203/

  • scottc

    July 25, 2011 05:36 am

    The tip on Geometric shapes is interesting, don't think I've heard that (or the concept explained that way) before.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5761809124/

  • NIKONNISTA

    May 23, 2011 01:07 pm

    Many thanks Sir for this article , more power

  • ratkellar

    April 22, 2011 01:00 am

    Just a comment on framing. In the example above, the 2 trees are different distances from the lens. This enhances the 3-D effect and draws the eye into the picture. I love this effect among trees.

  • D' Lenz

    April 12, 2011 04:34 am

    Diagonal works for me on Sea Scape with Pier.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/20316906@N02/5569776943/

  • Shirley

    April 3, 2011 07:48 pm

    I am just starting out in photography and find the rules of composition most helpful among others. As most of the photgraphs we take as regular people are mostly from our tours/travels, landscapes are always part of our shoots.
    Even as a beginner with no professional experiences, these rules always makes photos more balanced and 'thought through'.

  • Phil Marion

    June 19, 2010 02:07 am

    Great article.
    In a previous article about composition it was mentioned about the importance of using horizontal lines as a compositional tool. This is difficult to do with landscapes, but not impossible. A long telephoto lens can be used to compress the landscape to acheive this desired effect.

    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3411/3303918179_85a8944a42.jpg[/img]

  • Marjorie

    February 19, 2010 09:06 am

    Another helper that works right along with the rule of thirds and basic geometric shapes is to look for the letters of the alphabet. Often you can arrange your shot so the main interest lies in an S, V, A, T or other letter. K and R can be really useful when posing children (can you get your kids to stay still that long?). A bridge makes a nice H and you can raise or lower it in the frame to honor the rule of thirds....Thing shaped like O, C, G, Q, and D make good frames. And of course, unlike handwriting, you can use mirror images of these just as well as the original shapes.

  • John C. MacAlister

    November 29, 2009 04:15 am

    Many thanks!

    I was not entirely satisfied with the pix I took in Arizona in March '09. I will be travelling to New Mexico next March and will take your tips along with me.

    John,
    Ontario, Canada

  • Chandrashekhar Bapat

    November 11, 2009 12:16 pm

    Dear Darren,
    Your article is great no doubt. The rules are made for the begineers. But for the photographer who is looking further beyond, he is not satisfied with these rules. A View vpoint, perspective, arrangements of the subjects, colour and brightness of subjects, principal subject and many other factors affect the scene and I think they are much more important than the traditional rules of composition. I would not say that the rules of composition are not useful. But by sticking to the rules, approach may become mechanical. I think to show the depth and vastness in a landscape is also very important. You are kindly requested to put on some light on all these factors.
    Chandrashekhar Bapat

  • Lake Tahoe wedding photographer

    November 10, 2009 01:38 pm

    Great article and beautiful pictures!

  • PEG

    October 1, 2009 01:54 am

    Great article, simple to follow and implement.

    I also recommend that you have a look at shape and form to help your composition.

    Shapes - basic geometric 'shapes' that are often found within an image are circles, squares, triangles

    Form - is how these shapes 'form' together to create the overall composition.

    Check more about this on my blog - Photo Expert Guy, specifically this link:

    http://photoexpert.typepad.com/my-blog/2009/09/photographic-techniques-part-1-of-3-.html

    All the best

  • maphoto

    September 24, 2009 12:34 pm

    Great article, I am really trying hard to make better landscapes, I am happy with my protraits but I just don't seem to have the 'x' factor when it comes to Landscapes, so thanks for the composition tips.

  • maphoto

    September 24, 2009 12:33 pm

    Great article, I am really trying hard to make better landscapes, I am happy with my prortraits but I just don't seem to have the 'x' factor when it comes to Landscapes, so thanks for the composition tips.

  • Mudit

    September 15, 2009 01:22 am

    hey! Everyone.... this one i tried with my point and shoot camera...

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/40236565@N03/3700572858/

  • chandrashekhar bapat

    August 23, 2009 11:45 am

    the most important thing in the composition of landscape photography is the addition of foreground. By controling the view point one can add sufficient and proper fore ground to enhane the impression of depth

  • David Cook (SeaDave on flickr.com)

    August 14, 2009 06:43 pm

    All these tips are just a great reminder that we need rules and we need to break them too.

    Thanks for the article and the various replies - all stimulating ideas.

    In a recent landscape shot I incorporated a number of different 'rules' : 3rds; diagonals; foreground interest; central interest plus square format. Have a look:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/seadave/3819410117/

    I'm still learning ............... Thanks everyone.

  • B P Maiti

    August 14, 2009 11:23 am

    Thanks for this well written article in one place.I would request to deal on the quality of light and angle of vision as well.

  • Bryan McCall

    August 14, 2009 06:12 am

    I think you site is great! I read and save everything you send, I find your tips and information so useful with my new Canon XSI, and it's in clear and in understanable English.
    Thanks again
    Bryan

  • Rodrigo

    August 14, 2009 02:48 am

    Nice tips, one kind of composition that sometimes can create an impact is shooting the landscape at the ground level, of course depending on the type of landscape.

  • Richard Crowe

    August 14, 2009 01:48 am

    Great tips. I would like to add that utilizing a prominent foreground object such as a rock, a tree or flowers is a way to bring wide angle landscapes up from the boring and mundane to visually exciting imagery.

  • Tomblerone

    August 11, 2009 08:45 pm

    I think rules are made to be broken, but the 'rule' of thirds really makes images more interesting. I never really looked at diagonal lines, but this picture of mine has one. Mayby that is why the foreground still got something:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/adhe55/3738919955/

  • G Dan Mitchell

    August 11, 2009 04:20 am

    I prefer to think of these (and others) as "Four Observations About Composition in Landscape Photography." They are important and valid and awareness of them is critical. However, I feel like it is time to let go of the word "rules" when discussing these and other issues related to composition.

    Take care,

    Dan

  • Martin Barabe

    August 11, 2009 02:54 am

    Great reminder of rules for the landscape shots. One thing to try is also merging a few of these techniques toghether. In my shot , i wanted to take a shot then looked around mooved 15 feet to the left and saw my shot before i took it. In it you will find a combination of diagonal lines, converging lines Framing, 1/3. Here it is

    .http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3347/3455514988_422a72fc48.jpg

  • Robin Ryan

    August 11, 2009 02:07 am

    Good tips in here. Stuff that'll work for most styles of photography.

    I like to, if I have water, divide my image between land, water and sky. It often works with the rule of thirds and divides the photo nicely while offering lots to look at. Here's a few examples:

    Vancouver, Canada
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/2546927091/in/set-72157603000254329/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/2732669452/in/set-72157603000254329/

    Sayulita, Mexico
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/1357715940/in/set-72157603000254329/

    Patzcuaro, Mexico
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/1849220419/in/set-72157603000254329/

    hope this helps.

  • Todd Eddy

    August 11, 2009 01:07 am

    Interestingly enough after a family reunion yesterday I went to a park to take pictures. I was mainly trying infrared photography. Unfortunately I forgot to focus and ruined all the photos. I don't know where my focus was but it wasn't anywhere near where it should be where I could pass it off as adding a "dreamy" look to the pictures, it was just off. Anyway I took some regular pictures too and without even reading this article I followed some things that just "made sense" to me. Only thing here that I knew is the rule of thirds but I still used all the tips mentioned here.

    One tip on the rule of thirds thing (aside from remembering to break it every so often) is don't think in just horizontal or vertical, think of it as an actual 3x3 grid where you keep anything of interest out of that middle square. Good example of this is a winding road or stream. Have the road move around the image. Also I've heard of using "V"s or triangular patterns in photos to direct attention somewhere. Easy example of this is a stream. It appears wide close to you and then gets narrower the further away it goes.

  • yasky

    August 11, 2009 12:37 am

    My mistake in landscape photo is often I am too far from a point of interest. I think my tips is get closer to the point of interest to make it significant enough when using wide-angles lens.

  • Brian Miller

    August 10, 2009 11:41 pm

    I was taught a long time ago that it is important, particularly in scenes where there is a lot happening, to break the composition into three planes depth-wise, and create a focal point for each of those three planes. Find something for the viewer to be drawn to in each of those places. "Foreground, middleground, background!" Let the viewer be drawn into the frame by the pattern you create with those three focal points.

  • Zack Jones

    August 10, 2009 10:01 pm

    Great tips! Here's another one, it's move of a tip than a rule though: Look around before you shoot. Don't just plop the tripod down and start shooting. Spend a few minutes looking around (I usually do a slow 360 turn to see if I can find something more interesting to shoot).

  • dcclark

    August 10, 2009 09:44 pm

    Lately, I've become a fan of photographing landscapes in black & white. I've found that focusing on black & white can really force you to think about composition (and rules such as those in this article). That's not to say that there's anything wrong with some good colors -- especially the wonderful ones you can get at sunset or sunrise -- but going B&W is a good learning tool.

    My favorite recent example is The Cliff Swamp, which I tried in both color and B&W before settling with this high-contrast version.

  • Ilan

    August 10, 2009 03:27 pm

    I really tried to think hard here, and I couldn't find anything that I miss in these tips.
    Well.. Maybe taking a tripod for night scenes, or using wide lenses... but these are more specific.
    Great article, I really use most of these tips in my landscape shots.

    Here is a shot I took in Kinneret Lake (Israel) - http://www.ilanbresler.com/2009/02/under-moonlight.html - Easy to see that I used 'lines' to divide the frame into upper and lower parts and created 'balance' between the tents and the city light.

  • Christoph

    August 10, 2009 02:57 pm

    For landscape photography, I find that devoting one third to sky, earth and whatever is my "interesting third part in the middle" makes for a nice balance in the picture, as in this mountain panorama:
    http://www.focx.de/2009/07/29/zugspitze/

    Sometimes it's even an option to use the horizont as the diagonal line. It's "risky", but I think for storm images like this desert storm it's cool. Of course it's about the bad weather!
    http://www.focx.de/2009/07/20/desert-storm/

    Sometimes the rule of the thirds feels weird if applied. I tried both and looked at the pictures again and again until I decided to put the ruin in the woods in the (horizontal) middle, but gave it a vertical offset to the left:
    http://www.focx.de/2009/07/01/bild-des-tages-1/

  • Sumsion

    August 10, 2009 01:31 pm

    Agree. Thanks for the reminders. I also agree with Dave. Bad weather is your best friend. I can't wait for the storms to come through this fall.

  • OzShadow

    August 10, 2009 01:07 pm

    All good and valid points here!

    I find that having points of interest in the shot can sometimes make the shot pop more. or useing a leading line to guide the eye.
    In this case - http://www.flickr.com/photos/ozshadow/2894529799/ - the simple boat on the water with a hint of reflection on the left hand side makes the eye see it and then your brain works out its a seascape (its extreme example)

    or this shot -http://www.flickr.com/photos/ozshadow/3155957747 - just by using the beach line of rocks it drags the eye to the sunrise

    1 more shot to show how powerful leading lines can be - http://www.flickr.com/photos/ozshadow/2649518746/ - basically another fence line but being reflected in the water leading to the sunset :)

  • Dave Kozlowski

    August 10, 2009 10:43 am

    Great tips...thanks for the reminder!

    One more tip I can add is not to fear shooting landscapes in bad weather. When shooting outdoors, in many cases, the skies add 50% of your image...use this to your advantage, and let the weather help to 'paint' your image composition.

    Many times, the 'bad' weather has improved my final photo:
    Landscape images with focus on the weather

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