Combining Rules of Composition to Improve Your Landscape Images - Digital Photography School

Combining Rules of Composition to Improve Your Landscape Images

One of the most elusive and frustrating elements of photography is finding the right composition. Many otherwise good images are often derailed by poor compositional choices. There are several primary rules of composition to be aware of, and by being aware of them, and then combining them, you can give your landscape photos a real boost in terms of interest.

In this image, I had a flat gray mist killing any interest in the sky. But when this lone sailboat began sailing right at the edge of the mist, I began to see possibilities. By placing the sailboat at the intersection of the rule of thirds, and placing the horizon line at the bottom third of the image, I allowed the negative space to take up a lot of room. That negative space gives the boat a place to go, and keeps the interest squarely on the sailboat.

The first and most basic rule is the Rule of Thirds.  This rule states simply that elements of interest in your photos should be positioned one third of the way in from top, bottom, left or right of the image.  Elements of primary importance should be positioned at the intersection of those thirds.  The rule of thirds tends to be the first rule I look to when composing my images.  But I find my strongest images happen when I am able to combine the rule of thirds with other rules.  These rules include using leading lines, using negative space, and using framing.  Of course, there are always times to break these “rules”- they are actually more guidelines than rules. But that’s another article altogether.

Use negative space to help your subject stand out. Too often photographers try to eliminate negative space, simply because there’s nothing of interest in that space. Negative space is simply an area of the image with nothing in it- a blank sky, a dark shadow area, a flat expanse of land.  However, that negative space can be used to contrast against your subject, ensuring the viewer’s eye goes right where you want it to.  Ideally, your subject should be heading or pointing IN to the negative space, to lead your eye into the composition.

The shoreline in this image leads the viewer's eye right to the lighthouse. The lighthouse is positioned right at the intersection of the rule of thirds, with the water on the right creating some nice negative space in contrast with the rocky shore. The horizon line is roughly at the top third of the image.

Leading lines are another excellent tool to use to help draw attention to your subject. Ideally these lines are created by other elements in your composition and help lead the viewer’s eye right to your subject.  Leading lines help create depth when used to lead the eye into the frame, giving a more three dimensional feel to the image.

A very effective way to draw attention to your subject is to use other elements to frame it within the image. Framing can be used to help keep interest where it belongs, and keep the eye from wandering aimlessly through the image.  Framing can add context to an image.  For instance, trees at the edges of an image, framing off a lake, or mountain peak, give a sense of where the photographer is when taking the image.  Eliminating those elements removes the context. This is not necessarily bad, but another variation to consider when photographing at a location. I’ve often found myself frustrated that a tree was in the way, or I couldn’t get the view I wanted because a building was in the way. Then I realize that I can use the trees, or use the building (by shooting through an open window), to add that context that gives an added layer of interest to a photo.

By keeping these four simple compositional guidelines in mind when shooting, you can create a variety of images from the same subject, increasing your keeper ratio finding images you may not have found otherwise.

In this image of Half Dome, foreground trees are used to set apart Half Dome and make it stand out, while providing a context. In addition, note that the trees are roughly at one third on each side of the image. This need not be exact, but it helps create a space within the image that the eye finds pleasing.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in New York, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick's work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page.

  • scottc

    Great photos, and nice combinations of compositional rules.

    Advice I can use, thanks.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4983015714/

  • Tammie R

    Beautiful pictures. Love the lighthouse one. How did you get the water to have that beautiful effect??

  • http://www.kerstenbeck.com Erik Kerstenbeck

    Hi

    Here is an example of hyper focus composition from the coast of Oahu, Chinaman’s Hat in the distance

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/towards-happiness/

  • Joe Shelby

    This deer in Cades Cove (Great Smoky Mountains NP) was one I was pretty happy with, and hits 3 of your items – thirds, framing, and negative space. The leaves being out of focus adds framing context, but also break up the monotony of the grassy plain that otherwise would have made for a very boring background given the high angle I was shooting from.

    Even negative space needs something there or else the emptiness itself can detract from the subject. Nothing still needs to be “the right sort of nothing” (Dr. Who).

  • http://Www.wildlifeencounters.eu Steve
  • KevinZ

    Beautiful sunset at Montauk lighthouse!! Can you share more about how you captured it? What focal length ? Did you apply any filters in post?

  • Abigail

    I love that second picture!!!!!!!

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    Love the second image and thanks for pointing out that the rules can be combined!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • http://stuartchardimages.com Stuart Chard

    Very interesting tips in this post although I wonder if we would be better talking about these concepts as guidelines rather than rules. Experimentation is also a worthy contender in the “rule” book and often trying a different approach can add something new and interesting that makes your pictures stand out. By the way – Nice website Rick and some great photographs.

    Best wishes
    http://www.stuartchardimages.com/blog

  • http://www.guigphotography.com/# Guigphotography

    I always find Rick’s stuff to be very valuable and his composition tips are great. The last one in this article set me off an exercise a little while ago and got me one of my favourite shots to date. Thanks Rick!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/8218312574/in/photostream

  • http://benchapmanphotos.blogspot.co.uk/ Ben Chapman

    The lighthouse image is beautiful. I love the textures of the foreground rocks

  • Archie Macintosh

    The image of the yacht at the top of the page is NOT composed on the Thirds (thank God!). More interestingly, the yacht is pretty much on the intersection of the sinister diagonal (top left to bottom right) and its reciprocal (the line coming from the top right corner, and crossing the diagonal at right angles).

    This compositional geometry has been widely used in painting since the 16th Century; and Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of compositional geometry in photography, uses it frequently.

  • Archie Macintosh

    PS – There are 4 places where the two diagonals and the four reciprocals cross in a rectangular frame. These ‘Eyes’ of the rectangle are not in the same pace as the crossing points of thirds in a 35mm (2×3, i.e. 1 x 1.5) film frame.

  • http://www.davidcorle.com David Corle

    Thanks for the great tutorial. [eimg url=’https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-a3IexnjSjww/UOihvTCqNRI/AAAAAAAAD0g/TD0Rzg_DEiA/s1437/IMG_3334.JPG’ title=’IMG_3334.JPG’]

  • http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com marius2die4

    Excellent tips an pics are wonderful!
    http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com

  • Rebekah

    I actually didn’t even notice the lighthouse in the picture until I read the text, my eyes were drawn to the sun and the light on the water was the leading line for me!

  • KSW

    Thank you for these suggestions. Composition of an expert is very much appreciated – and the images are stunning.

  • http://no R.Vijayendra Rao

    Great photos

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/ashiqpm Ashiq

    Great tips… regular visit to digital-photography-school really helps me a lot.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ashiqpm/9493012580/in/photostream/

  • Barry E Warren

    Nice read, plus some great shots. “Thanks” Here is a sunset that I framed threw some trees. I believe the trees added a lot to the photo.

Some older comments

  • Ashiq

    August 26, 2013 07:10 pm

    Great tips... regular visit to digital-photography-school really helps me a lot.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ashiqpm/9493012580/in/photostream/

  • R.Vijayendra Rao

    May 17, 2013 01:41 am

    Great photos

  • KSW

    January 19, 2013 04:17 am

    Thank you for these suggestions. Composition of an expert is very much appreciated - and the images are stunning.

  • Rebekah

    January 18, 2013 08:37 pm

    I actually didn't even notice the lighthouse in the picture until I read the text, my eyes were drawn to the sun and the light on the water was the leading line for me!

  • marius2die4

    January 7, 2013 04:07 am

    Excellent tips an pics are wonderful!
    http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com

  • David Corle

    January 6, 2013 04:21 pm

    Thanks for the great tutorial. [eimg url='https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-a3IexnjSjww/UOihvTCqNRI/AAAAAAAAD0g/TD0Rzg_DEiA/s1437/IMG_3334.JPG' title='IMG_3334.JPG']

  • Archie Macintosh

    January 5, 2013 09:48 pm

    PS - There are 4 places where the two diagonals and the four reciprocals cross in a rectangular frame. These 'Eyes' of the rectangle are not in the same pace as the crossing points of thirds in a 35mm (2x3, i.e. 1 x 1.5) film frame.

  • Archie Macintosh

    January 5, 2013 09:42 pm

    The image of the yacht at the top of the page is NOT composed on the Thirds (thank God!). More interestingly, the yacht is pretty much on the intersection of the sinister diagonal (top left to bottom right) and its reciprocal (the line coming from the top right corner, and crossing the diagonal at right angles).

    This compositional geometry has been widely used in painting since the 16th Century; and Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of compositional geometry in photography, uses it frequently.

  • Ben Chapman

    January 5, 2013 09:06 am

    The lighthouse image is beautiful. I love the textures of the foreground rocks

  • Guigphotography

    January 5, 2013 07:37 am

    I always find Rick's stuff to be very valuable and his composition tips are great. The last one in this article set me off an exercise a little while ago and got me one of my favourite shots to date. Thanks Rick!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/8218312574/in/photostream

  • Stuart Chard

    January 4, 2013 11:48 pm

    Very interesting tips in this post although I wonder if we would be better talking about these concepts as guidelines rather than rules. Experimentation is also a worthy contender in the "rule" book and often trying a different approach can add something new and interesting that makes your pictures stand out. By the way - Nice website Rick and some great photographs.

    Best wishes
    http://www.stuartchardimages.com/blog

  • Mridula

    January 4, 2013 05:14 pm

    Love the second image and thanks for pointing out that the rules can be combined!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Abigail

    January 4, 2013 02:32 pm

    I love that second picture!!!!!!!

  • KevinZ

    January 4, 2013 09:17 am

    Beautiful sunset at Montauk lighthouse!! Can you share more about how you captured it? What focal length ? Did you apply any filters in post?

  • Steve

    January 4, 2013 09:04 am

    Moonrise with lots of negative space and subtle silhouettes

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Andalucia/G0000DV_8_b1ufY4/I0000IvLka6cq9Eg/C0000hVl3w00l5Rg

  • Joe Shelby

    January 4, 2013 07:15 am

    This deer in Cades Cove (Great Smoky Mountains NP) was one I was pretty happy with, and hits 3 of your items - thirds, framing, and negative space. The leaves being out of focus adds framing context, but also break up the monotony of the grassy plain that otherwise would have made for a very boring background given the high angle I was shooting from.

    Even negative space needs something there or else the emptiness itself can detract from the subject. Nothing still needs to be "the right sort of nothing" (Dr. Who).

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    January 4, 2013 06:30 am

    Hi

    Here is an example of hyper focus composition from the coast of Oahu, Chinaman's Hat in the distance

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/towards-happiness/

  • Tammie R

    January 4, 2013 05:50 am

    Beautiful pictures. Love the lighthouse one. How did you get the water to have that beautiful effect??

  • scottc

    January 4, 2013 04:18 am

    Great photos, and nice combinations of compositional rules.

    Advice I can use, thanks.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4983015714/

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