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Tips for Better Composition of Seascape Photographs

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I do not believe that in photography there are absolute rules of composition, but it is undeniable that certain compositions work better than others.

Why? Probably because our brain is the result of millions of years of evolution, and as in two dots and a line we recognize a face (you don’t believe me? Have a look here.), in the same way we recognize some images as more pleasant to look at than others.

So let’s look at a few tricks to keep in mind during your next visit to the seaside.

Start following rules

Before trying to break rules, try to follow them. Start with the Rule of Thirds: divide your image into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. Then place important compositional elements along these lines or their intersections. The result will be that your photo becomes more balanced. In a seascape shot, for example try to put a Lighthouse on one of the vertical lines and the horizon on one of the horizontal ones.

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Important elements (the lighthouse and the horizon) are positioned along the lines and at the intersections

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Choose the leading actor

If you follow the Rule of Thirds, you’ll never again put the horizon in the middle of your image, and that’s a great thing unless you have a perfect symmetrical reflection.

Decide next if the leading actor of your seascape is the sky or the sea, and place the horizon line accordingly. For example if the leading actor is the sea, the image portion under the horizon line will be 2/3 of the whole image.

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The rock formation in the foreground is really interesting with this tide. I wanted to emphasize it and so I give ? o the image to the sea in this the image.

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Check the horizon

There is nothing more annoying than seeing a crooked horizon. Use the built-in level of your camera, or for few cents buy an external hot shoe level (the yellow one with an air bubble inside). Why? Because every time you fix the horizon in post-production you will lose a portion of the image. Finally, remember that if you publish an image with a crooked horizon, the horizon will be the leading actor of your image.

Choose your focal length wisely

Sometimes you might believe that a certain focal length is perfect for the scene you have in front of your eyes. Think wider! If you’re using a 24mm lens, try with an 18mm or a 21mm lens – don’t be lazy. Remember that in post-production you can always crop your 21mm image to a 24mm image, but you’ll never be able to do the opposite.

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A 21mm lens was perfect here as it let me put inside the frame the spring flowered plant on the bottom right.

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Use leading lines

An image is like a book, and to really enjoy it you should be able to read it from the begin to the end. To do that, try to use lines and curves to guide the eyes through a path. You can use a road or the natural line of the coast for example. Keep in mind that you should avoid interrupting that path because it’s like skipping a line in a book; you lose the sense of the story that you’re telling. Also try to avoid lines that guide the eyes of the reader outside the image. You want attention given to what is inside the image, not to what is outside.

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I used the road to drive the eye of the viewer from the margin of the image to the main character.

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Avoid straight objects in the margin

One common problem of wide angle lenses is the perspective distortion when the camera is not aligned perpendicularly to the subject. In other words buildings like lighthouses appear to be falling if you (correctly) place one according to the rule of thirds. Well, the bad news is that there is no an universal solution. The best one is obviously to buy a lens with excellent optical quality, but they are very expensive and in any case the perfect lens does not exist. So we need to correct the distortion in post-production. There are a thousand ways to do that, but most of them require an image crop. For that reason, if you have a straight object in your frame, don’t put it exactly on a vertical line of the Rule of Thirds, but slightly closer to the image center. In that way, after correcting the distortion, your lighthouse will be nearer the vertical line of the third.

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If I had put the small village too close to the frame edge, it would be affected by perspective distortion and to correct it in post production probably I would have lost the nice leading line with a crop.

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Add dimension and scale

When I started taking seascape pictures, I was a purist: no humans or human artifacts were allowed inside my frame. If humans are still not allowed to join, sometimes I think it’s a good idea to put some artifacts in my composition. The main reason is that even if you exactly the dimensions of the rock formations in front of you, viewers of your image may have no idea if they have never visited that place. When you look at a image, your brain tries immediately to define the dimensions comparing the unknown to something known – help it and use something like a lighthouse, bridge, church to give an idea of scale. A reef is even more beautiful if it is perceived as high and massive.

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The lighthouse give a dimension to the other rocks in the image (try to cover the lighthouse with your finger.)

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Use negative space

I’m a big fan of using negative space. But what exactly is that? Easy – it is nothing but the space around, and between, the subject of an image. Yes, basically they are “the” nothing. So, how can that be useful? Negative space is perfect to emphasize the subject. A lonely church on the top of a cliff is even more brave if it seems that it challenges the vastness of the sea.

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This old church reminded me a solitary sentinel who scrutinizes the sea.

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Have fun

Finally, remember that every rule is made to be broken. If the horizon is not perfectly in one third because the sky lacks of clouds, put it above the upper horizontal line of rule of thirds. If you need to put a lighthouse near the margin of the frame to use leading lines, just do it.

The real goal of a picture is not to follow the rules, but to arouse emotions in the viewer. Keep this in mind and there is no composition that can overcome you.

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The lighthouse is on the right vertical line of rule of thirds. Unfortunately I didn’t have a wider lens with me and I had to put it there in order to use leading lines in the foreground and not to cut the nice wave trails in the upper left side of the image.

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Francesco Gola is an Italian engineer who's fallen in love with photography. Born in Italy in 1981, as soon as he started taking pictures he fell in love with long exposures of seascapes. For him a long exposure is a parallel universe in which to escape from the frenzy of modern life. His passion for the sea and for travels let him to visit some of the most iconic locations on this planet looking at them with different eyes. See more of his work on 500px or his website or join one of his Workshops around the world!

  • Michael Owens

    That’s not too far away either. Thanks

  • Avinash Aman

    The article is very inspiring….and the way its been presented helped me learn things easily. Thank u Francesco 😛

  • Francesco Gola

    So happy that you found it useful dear Avinash! Have fun!

  • David

    Hi Guys. Not wanting to start any serious discussions or disagree with anything that Francesco has written but Ugo has a very good blog post at
    http://blog.ucphoto.me/will-the-real-landscape-photography-please-stand-up/

    A question of landscape photo journalism or conformism or is it possible for most of us to have truly memorable shots? Something to think about more than anything.

    Myself, I think that I am at the technical stage of being able to produce consistently reasonable seascape/waterfall shots but I don’t think that I have a memorable shot even if mine get good a number of views/favourites/Explored.

    Peace
    David.
    PS: not wanting to drive traffic to my site but….
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidmarriottsydney/

  • Bravissimo Francesco. Questo sì che è un post interessante. Sono certo potrà aiutare tante persone a chiarirsi i dubbi su cosa significhi comporre per bene un paesaggio marittimo. Lo condivido subito sui miei canali social 🙂

  • Francesco Gola

    Ciao Giulio! Ti ringrazio tantissimo per le tue parole e per lo share! A breve spero di poter pubblicare una versione italiana ed estesa di quanto sopra! A presto!

  • Francesco Gola

    Hi David,
    Yes, I read the article some days ago, but I’m only partially agree. When I go out with my camera is mainly to enjoy my hobby and Nature, and I do that for me. I believe that the final aim of a landscape photographer is to mix the outside world of nature with the feeling you have of it, and not to display your work on a TV monitor in a Inn. Today the available technology raised up the bar of the possible results you can get, but I firmly believe that this should be seen as an advantage for us, not something to be afraid of. If I say “WOW” to a picture, probably is because it was able to speak to my Soul, not because the photographer found the saturation slide of photoshop.
    In my opinion technology is not our enemy, but our greatest allied to show to the world what we want to communicate.
    So, I really suggest you to enjoy what you do (because you should be really proud of your Flickr gallery!!!)..work for your Soul, not for the Likes!
    Cheers!

  • Karen Lo

    Thanks for the tips on taking better seascape pictures. You took beautiful pictures! I have many opportunities to take ALL sorts of pictures. Will put your theory into practice. Another area which I find it challenging is how to take better pictures of architectural buildings?

  • Francesco Gola

    Hello Karen! So happy that you enjoyed the article! Unfortunately I’m not able to help you in the same way with buildings, but I’m quite sure that soon you’ll find a related post on this subject! Best

  • Ivor Morgan

    “work for your Soul, not for the Likes”
    I may have just found a new motto!

  • Francesco Gola

    Absolutely honored dear Ivor!

  • Ian

    Thanks for these great tips. What do you use for long exposures, Big Lee Filters?

  • Kathy McAllister

    Fort Myers Beach, Florida

  • Bryce Wilson

    Fantastic lesson probably because of the simplicity. Like Ivor, I will borrow your “work for your Soul, not like the likes”. I will give yoy credit!

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