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One Compositional Technique to Transform Your Landscape Photos

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GreenRocks

Turning the corner from taking snapshots into taking actual compositions is a hard thing to do. It doesn’t come naturally, and it takes experience. Another reason it is difficult to learn composition is that there is no one, hard and fast rule. You can get caught up in looking for various shapes, patterns, leading lines, and other compositional elements until your head is spinning.

To avoid all of this, I want to share one concrete technique for you to use when you are out shooting landscape photos. It is one way to go about setting up your shot, that will give you a path to setting up a successful composition. Of course, it isn’t the only way to set up your shot, and you won’t use this all the time, but it is great for helping when you are stuck.

Mushrooms

And the tip is . . .

. . . the next time you are out shooting it a scenic location, just put on your widest angle lens and get right behind something on the ground to take the shot.

I mean right behind it. That something on the ground can be anything from a flower, to a rock, to a pattern in the sand. It does not matter. What matters is that you are down on your knees with your wide-angle lens right behind it.

Clogher

Why it works

The wide-angle lens will give the foreground object an exaggerated sense of proportion, but will also pick up the background. By getting right behind something, you are adding a subject to your picture. You are creating a center of interest. You are going beyond just showing the general scenery. The background will still be in your picture as well, you just do not need to focus on that.

Another benefit is that it gives the viewer a sense that they can walk into the picture. It is providing a real foreground, that adds depth and interest to your photo.

HydePark

What typifies a snapshot, is standing at eye level trying to capture the entire scene before you. For many of us when we are just starting with photography, that just intuitively seems like the way to take pictures. We want to capture the whole scene, and not have it blocked by something on the ground immediately in front of us. The problem is that there is no foreground, subject, or center of interest to speak of. In addition, you are presenting the world in the exact same way as the viewer is used to seeing it, which is bound to be rather boring to them.

Acadia-low

Putting the tip into action

How you determine what items on the ground will work as your foreground elements, that is the hard part. There is no right answer. You will just have to look. In fact, it will not be obvious even when you are out in the field looking around. There are times when you might have to walk around while looking at the LCD in Live View mode, or with the viewfinder to your face to find something on the ground to use as a foreground.

BigBend

Here are some examples of things you can use as foregrounds in different contexts:

  • When photographing water – use a reflection in the water
  • When at the beach or desert – find a pattern in the sand
  • When photographing creeks or coasts – use rocks
  • At midday – use shadows
  • In the fall – use leaves

There are obviously a variety of subjects you can use. Go out and try it next time you are shooting, and if you come across a good item to use in the foreground, leave it in the comments and share your images with us.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jim Hamel shows aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. Check out his free photography guides and photography tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. The free tips, explanations, and video tutorials he provides are sure to take your photography to the next level. In addition, beginning photographers should be sure to check out his new book Getting Started in Photography, now available in the Kindle store!

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  • I totaly agree with you Jim. Foreground element il keypoint to make interesting landscape photography!

    Here are some exemples from my travel in Namibia this summer.
    What do you think?

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jpmiss/20705022722/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jpmiss/20198934303/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jpmiss/21010409215/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jpmiss/21565335778/

  • @10ACITY_ Connor

    I’ve been doing this for ages. Glad to see someone else sharing this trick. I love using dandelions too.
    I have more like this on my DeviantArt profile titled 10ACITY.

  • Great tips photography a passion

  • Nice. Good examples. Thanks!

  • Aweseome, thanks. Dandelions are great! I like sunflowers too, but they grow so tall it often makes them difficult to use.

  • I’m a wide angle lens addict so I fully aggree with your relevant recommandations

  • Tim Lowe

    Best single piece of landscape photography advice there is and very well explained and illustrated. This is why we large format photographers START with a little backward back base tilt and forward front tilt before we even look at the ground glass.

  • Tami

    I’m just starting my business. But I love doing this whenever possible. It helped for me to have instruction on the technique. Thanks! 🙂

  • Thanks! Glad it applies to large format. You guys that do that are amazing and I could never do what you do.

  • Thanks!

  • Tim Lowe

    Hey, we’re only on the hook for one or two shots an outing. It’s a lazy man’s game. 😉

  • Dennis Zito

    Hi Jim,

    I have a question on a composition of this type. Where is your focus point? Are you using stacking to achieve the depth of field? I just got my first wide angle and learning how to best use it. I shoot a lot of Classic Cars and the wide angle lets me get really close and get some unusual perspective.

    Thanks again for this Tip! I definitely will try it out.

    Dennis

  • Great question. If there is a definite subject in your photo, make that your focus point. If you are trying to keep everything in the picture in focus, then the general rule is to focus on something about 1/3 of the way into the picture. I’ll be interested to see what others think, but I personally find it most important to make sure the foreground is in focus. Therefore, I tend to focus on something very close to me. For example, in the pictures above, the one with the leaves on the ground I focused on the closest leaves, and in the one with the rocks at Acadia National Park, I focused on the closest rocks. If forced to choose between a little blur in your foreground or background, I choose background most of the time.

    I will focus stack sometimes, but not that often. I think the best way to deal with depth of field is just to have a general sense of hyperfocal distance. Check out my dPS article called “How to Find and Use Hyperfocal Distance to Create Sharp Backgrounds.” That will help you focus on something close and keep the background sharp without using the smallest aperture setting on your lens (which can lead to diffraction in your pictures). At the same time, sometimes I just use very small apertures anyway. With a wide angle like you have, you actually may not need to use as wide of an aperture as you think to keep everything sharp.

    So, to answer your question directly, I would set your focus on your subject or else the closest item in your frame. To keep everything sharp with a wide angle lens usually only requires a moderately small aperture, but understand hyperfocal distance to make sure. If sharpness throughout the frame is paramount, then focus stack.

    Hope that helps.

  • Excellent. I love the wide angle too. Thanks!

  • Dennis Zito

    Hi Jim,

    Thanks!! I really appreciate the explanation. I’m off to check your article on Hyperfocal Distance.

    Thanks again,

    Dennis

  • Travel Bug

    Thanks Jim. depth of field improves with wide angle and rocks just below the water’s surface in the forground on a lake is a great effect (visible using a polarizing filter).

    We are all looking for a magical shot – your tip is a good one.

    http://www.stonewallgalleries.wordpress.com

  • Demogorgon

    Use a hyperlocal distance chart to get the leaves in front in focus.

  • MPR1776

    Horizon line is crooked in the first shot

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