A note on authorship: This article was updated in October 2023 with contributions from seven expert photographers: Darren Rowse, Jim Hamel, Jeremy Flint, Alex Morrison, Amar Ramesh, Nisha Ramroop, and Jaymes Dempsey.
If you’ve ever stood in front of a stunning vista, camera in hand, and wondered how to capture its grandeur, you’re not alone. Every great landscape image includes a great composition, but understanding what composition is, what it does, and how you can use it to improve your scenic shots can be intensely daunting.
Fortunately, landscape photography composition isn’t as challenging as it might seem. And in this article, I break it all down for you. I start with the basics, then I continue on to share 17 effective landscape photography composition tips so that you can start creating beautiful images. as soon as possible.
Specifically, you’ll discover:
- How to draw the viewer straight into the scene (and keep them wanting more!)
- How to position your horizons for maximum dynamism and balance
- A simple trick for minimalistic landscape shots
- A cool technique to focus the viewer exactly where you want them
- Much more!
So if you’re ready to take your landscape compositions to the next level, let’s dive right in!
What is composition in landscape photography?
You’ve likely heard the term “composition” thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean? Composition involves the thoughtful arrangement of elements within your frame. For landscape photographers, it’s all about where to place the horizon, what to include in the foreground, and what should occupy your background.
When determining a landscape photo composition, you’ll often need to ask yourself a handful of key questions:
- What should my main subjects(s) be?
- Where should I position them in the frame?
- Does the scene have plenty of depth?
- Have I removed all distractions from the shot?
- Did I choose a good angle to showcase the landscape?
When you’re just getting started, it can be helpful to mentally run through a checklist before you capture each shot. Before you know it, however, you’ll be setting up your shots without even having to think twice.
The importance of mastering landscape composition
Mastering composition isn’t just for show. It serves a bigger purpose: to create images that captivate your audience. What makes an image engaging? The answer often lies in how well you’ve positioned the different elements within the frame.
A well-composed landscape shot typically has a balanced feel, and you can frequently sense the depth, almost as if you could step right into the picture. Good compositions often add dynamism to your photos; the arrangements guide the viewer’s eyes, making them linger on the details you want to emphasize.
The bottom line is that the better your compositional skills, the more striking your photos will be. If you’re just getting started with landscape photography, all this may seem a bit overwhelming, but don’t worry: landscape photographers have developed plenty of easy-to-apply techniques that work great for snappers of all levels, and they don’t require any technical wizardry to pull off!
17 tips to improve your landscape photography compositions
You know all about what landscape composition is and why it’s important. Now let’s take a deep dive into the approaches you can use to create beautiful results, including basic guidelines like the rule of thirds and leading lines as well as more advanced techniques such as patterns and color harmonies.
1. Include a main subject to engage the viewer
To instantly level up your landscape compositions, here’s how you should start:
By including a clear, identifiable subject in each photo.
The subject can be anything: a rock. A mountain. A river. A shell on the beach. Waves crashing on the shore. Lightning in the sky.
The point is to include at least one element in your photo that a viewer can latch onto – something that sucks them into the frame and piques their interest. Otherwise, the viewer will become confused. They won’t know where to focus, so they’ll move on to a different image and never look back.
Is it okay to include multiple interesting subjects? Absolutely! In fact, many landscape photographers these days like to pack both a foreground subject and a background subject into a single photo. But make sure the subjects complement one another and be careful not to include so many subjects that the viewer no longer has a place to focus. When in doubt, keep it simple.
2. Use the rule of thirds to position your key elements
The rule of thirds is one of my favorite landscape composition tools. It’s a great way for beginners to get started with composition, and it gives you an easy way to arrange key elements within the frame (e.g., your main subject, your horizon, and other supporting elements).
If you’re unfamiliar with the rule of thirds, here’s a quick explanation:
The rule of thirds tells you to split your composition into vertical and horizontal thirds so you end up with a series of gridlines (displayed below). To create the most powerful compositions, you should place compositional elements along those gridlines and at their intersection points.
This often comes into play when working with horizon lines. Instead of putting the horizon smack-dab in the center of the frame, you can put it along the top rule of thirds gridline (a good idea if your foreground is especially interesting) or along the bottom rule of thirds gridline (a good idea if your sky is colorful or dramatic).
For this image, the blowing sand in the foreground is stunning – so the photographer chose to put the horizon along the upper gridline:
You can also use the rule of thirds to position your main subject. You might put the subject along one of the vertical gridlines, or – even better – at an intersection point. In fact, the rule of thirds gridline intersections are sometimes referred to as power points because they create such compelling compositions.
A quick word of caution, though:
The rule of thirds is a helpful technique. But despite the name, it’s not a landscape composition rule. Rather, it’s a guideline, so you don’t need to follow it all the time. Instead, use it when it works, and break it when it doesn’t.
3. Use foreground interest to create depth
But if you want to really take your landscapes to the next level, I highly recommend including foreground interest, which should sit somewhere between your camera and the background. (This is also referred to as the near-far composition technique.)
It’s a powerful tool, one that’s insanely popular among today’s professional landscape photographers. Check out the work of popular landscape shooters on Instagram or 500px, and you’ll see thousands of stunning near-far compositions featuring:
- Foreground logs and background waterfalls
- Foreground rocks and background sunsets
- Foreground flowers and background mountains
And the reason this technique is so popular? It helps create the illusion of depth in a scene.
For instance, a photo of a distant mountain can look nice, but it often appears flat.
But add some flowers or grass close to the camera, and the whole composition immediately deepens. The viewer first focuses on the foreground grass, then moves into the midground, and then finally sees the stunning mountain in the background:
So the next time you find a beautiful background subject, like the mountain I mentioned above…
…take a few moments to look for foreground interest. Then include both foreground and background in a single shot. (It can also help to use a wide-angle lens and get down low; that will magnify the foreground element and make it loom large in the frame, sucking the viewer right in.)
Note that the foreground interest can be a discrete subject, like a patch of grass. Or, as I discuss in the next tip, it can be a linear element that leads the eye into the frame:
4. Use leading lines to suck the viewer into the scene
Leading lines are lines that draw the viewer into the scene. They generally start in the foreground of the composition, then move back, back, back…until they reach a distant subject.
In the photo below, the road acts as a leading line, which moves the viewer toward the beautiful sunset:
The road isn’t really a discrete subject, but it does provide foreground interest, and it moves the viewer toward the background.
By the way, you can make leading lines out of pretty much anything. I highly recommend you take a look at some of your favorite landscape photography and see how it incorporates leading lines; you’ll find all sorts of creative compositions with lines created out of roads, rivers, fallen trees, ferns, lines in the dirt, and much, much more.
5. Change your angle for a unique perspective
This one’s a simple composition trick that works for pretty much any type of photography:
If you feel like you’re starting to capture the same old images over and over again, put some real effort into picking your angle.
Most beginner landscape photographers shoot at eye level. But while you can certainly get great images that way, it often pays to go beyond the standing shot. Try getting down low over a foreground element; it’ll create extra depth, plus it’ll help draw the viewer into the frame.
Alternatively, find a vantage point and get up high. (A drone can be hugely useful here!) From an elevated perspective, the scene will look far more abstract, and you’ll capture stunning images that convey the incredible scope of the landscape.
You can also carefully adjust your angle to block out distracting elements and create interesting framing opportunities (see below!). Sometimes, a couple of steps to the right or the left is all it takes to create a stunningly original composition.
6. Photograph with a tripod
I can’t stress enough how valuable a tripod can be for landscape photography, not just to capture sharp images but also for composition.
You see, when you set up a tripod, you’re forced to slow down – and when you’re not rushing, you naturally pay more attention. You notice how the foreground plays against the backdrop. You start to scrutinize the edges of your frame. Are there any distractions that need to be eliminated? What about gorgeous elements that lie just outside the frame but could look great as part of the shot?
You might think that tripods are a hassle, and in a way, you’re right. They’re bulky and setting them up takes time. But in the context of composition, a tripod can be a game-changer. The level of deliberation it encourages will inevitably elevate the quality of your work.
Therefore, even when you have enough light to shoot sharp handheld shots, I strongly recommend using a tripod for the sake of better compositions!
7. Use lots of negative space to create minimalist landscape compositions
These days, minimalism is all the rage in landscape photography. Here’s how it works:
First, find a scene full of negative space. (Negative space refers to “empty” areas in the composition, like a long stretch of blue sky, a swathe of green grass, a smooth, barren beach, etc.)
Second, find a small, isolated, lonely-looking subject, like a tree in a field, a rock jutting out from a flat landscape, or even a person.
Third, position your isolated subject so it’s small in the frame, and it’s surrounded by plenty of negative space. Here, it often pays to break the rule of thirds; instead of putting your subject at a rule of thirds intersection point, you put it closer to the edge of the frame, which serves to emphasize the emptiness.
You’ll end up with an attention-grabbing shot, one that feels both contemporary and timeless.
8. Don’t be afraid to go tight
Most photographers do landscape photography with wide-angle lenses. And in general, this works really well; you can capture the vastness of the scene while emphasizing foreground and background subjects.
It sometimes pays to zoom in tight using a telephoto lens (a 70-200mm or 100-400mm will do a good job).
This works especially well on relatively flat subjects with graphic lines: a distant waterfall, cracks in a canyon wall, overlapping mountains. Zooming in will compress the scene, so advice about adding depth tends to fly out the window, and that’s okay.
Instead, focus on using landscape compositional tools like the rule of thirds to create balance and flow. And as I emphasized at the beginning of this article, make sure to include a clear point of interest!
9. Use layers to help simplify the scene
Layers are one of my absolute favorite landscape photography composition techniques because they make scenes simpler, easily digestible, and all-around beautiful.
When you’re out with your camera, just look for a clear bottom layer, middle layer, and top layer (though adding more layers is fine, too!).
One of the great things about layered compositions is that they work regardless of your focal length or subject of interest. You can create layered wide-angle shots by incorporating clear foregrounds, midgrounds, and backgrounds into the composition.
And you can create layered telephoto shots by compressing distant elements (as I mentioned in the previous tip, overlapping mountains look great, but you can also layer trees, sand dunes, and more).
Not every composition is amenable to layering. But when you find a scene with repeating or overlapping elements, that’s a good sign you can get a layered shot – and when possible, I recommend you go for it!
10. Incorporate diagonal lines to add movement
This one’s a more advanced landscape composition tool, and the effect can be subtle – but when done right, it can level up a good photo to a great one.
You see, diagonal lines are an effective way to move the eye around the scene and add flow to a shot. They’ll carefully push the viewer toward the main subject, while also prompting them to have a fun little journey around your photo.
To get started, I’d recommend first identifying your main subject. This should be the focal point of your image, and the place you want the diagonal lines to lead.
Then walk around, looking for potential diagonals that point toward – not away! – from your subject. You’ll often need to get creative. Consider all your options: paths, lines of trees, fences, rivers, a shadow, even clouds!
Finally, compose your photo, including at least one diagonal line moving toward your subject (and feel free to use two, three, or four lines if you can find them).
Note that diagonal lines can be foreground leading lines, but they don’t have to be. It’s perfectly acceptable to find a diagonal line that starts far off in the distance as long as it moves toward your main subject.
11. Use geometry, especially triangles, to add flow and stability
In landscape photography, geometry is your friend.
Specifically, you can incorporate shapes, such as triangles, squares, and circles, into your compositions. These will help create both flow and stability, plus they just look very cool (especially when done with subtlety!).
For instance, consider the triangle, one of the most powerful shapes available to the landscape photographer. It includes diagonal lines and therefore adds plenty of movement. It also tends to be very stable thanks to its strong edges and wide base.
Circles are great, too – partial circles create nice curves for plenty of flow. And complete circles create eye-catching points of interest.
You don’t need to find full shapes in the landscape, by the way. It’s okay to use a somewhat circular rock, a vaguely triangular mountain, and so on. The point is to include shape-like elements when you can, without stressing too much about whether you have a complete shape or an implied one. That way, you create strong compositions that still feel natural.
Also, remember: When it comes to working with geometry in landscape photography composition, there are no hard and fast rules as to what works well. You can look for single bold shapes, you can look for multiple shapes that are similar, or you can look for several opposite shapes. Play around, and see what you can create!
12. Find natural frames to focus the viewer
As emphasized earlier in this article, foreground interest is a great way to add depth to landscape compositions.
But sometimes, you run into foreground elements that can’t quite work as a discrete compositional element…
…yet can still sit around the edges of your photo as a frame.
This is the landscape photography framing technique: You include tangential elements around the outside of an image and use them to direct the viewer toward the interesting midground and background.
For instance, you might include an overhanging branch toward the top of the image in order to guide the viewer toward the subject in the middle of the shot:
Or you might find a tunnel of rocks that leads the viewer toward the sunset in the background.
In wide-open spaces, finding frames can be tough. But if you’re shooting in a more chaotic landscape, you can often find trees or rocks to create a frame. In fact, it’s often these simple frames that take a good composition to the next level; they provide much-needed focus by showing the viewer exactly where to look (and when positioned carefully, they can also block out distracting elements).
Pro tip: When working with foreground frames, spend time experimenting with different apertures. A narrow aperture will help you capture lots of detail, while a wide aperture will blur the foreground frame for a cool creative effect.
13. Look for patterns to add compositional coherence
Patterns are instantly eye-catching, they’re a great way to add rhythm to your images, and they help landscape scenes feel more unified.
So whenever you’re out with your camera, keep an eye out for interesting patterns. Some patterns are very conspicuous, so you’ll spot them immediately – for instance, aspen trees standing in a row, or flowers dotting their way toward the horizon.
But other patterns are more subtle, and it’ll take some work to find them. A forest in fall may initially seem chaotic, but if you take the time to really stop and examine the leaves around you, you’ll start to see little runs of color.
Which leads me to another key point: Patterns can be composed of forms (e.g., several trees or rocks) or colors. Don’t restrict yourself to tonal patterns; use patterns of all types!
14. Work each scene before moving on
The world is beautiful and full of landscape photography opportunities – so it’s easy to get in the habit of capturing a quick image of each subject, then packing up and continuing the hunt for more photos.
But if you only ever capture the first composition that you see, you’ll miss out on other breathtaking images (many of which are better than your first attempt).
Instead of taking a single shot, I encourage you to work each scene. Commit to sticking around for a few minutes (or even a few hours). Capture that first shot, yes, but then keep going. Adjust your angle. Find different foreground elements that complement the background and lead the viewer into the scene.
A handy trick here is to walk twenty paces in each direction with your camera to your eye. That way, you can see how the foreground and background elements shift in relation to one another, and you’ll quickly notice other compositional opportunities (such as interesting frames or powerful juxtapositions of foreground and background).
Then, once you feel satisfied you’ve exhausted all possibilities and captured the best possible image, you can move on!
15. Try to portray scale
When you’re photographing gigantic landscape features – mountains, for instance, or oceans – it can be difficult for the viewer to get a sense of how big the elements actually are. And this can be a problem; in my experience, the more you can show scale in a landscape image, the better.
Fortunately, there’s a simple technique that allows you to give your landscape compositions a sense of scale time and time again: include a reference point, something that the viewer is familiar with and can use to gauge the size of the rest of the scene.
Natural reference points include lone trees, flowers, and branches, while human-made reference points include bridges, cars, roads, barns, houses, or even people standing (or walking) in the vicinity. In a pinch, you can even stand in the scene yourself!
16. Don’t forget about color
Color. It’s more than just eye candy in your photos; it’s a powerful tool in your composition arsenal. Often, we get so caught up in lines, shapes, and focal points that we forget the role color plays in our landscape shots. The mood, the emotion, the depth – color affects them all.
As you compose each landscape shot, take a moment to think about the colors present in your frame. Stick with 2-4 main colors to avoid overwhelming the viewer, and when you’re scouting a scene, be on the lookout for complementary colors; think red and green or blue and orange. They sit opposite each other on the color wheel and create a dynamic tension when placed together in a photo. Contrasting colors naturally draw the eye and can make your image pop.
But don’t exclude analogous color combinations, either! These are the colors that are adjacent on the wheel, like shades of blue and green. They create a sense of peace and can often give your photos a deeply tranquil mood.
Note that color, unlike framing, is something you can fine-tune during post-processing. Adjusting the hues or ramping up the saturation can enhance the natural color relationships in your scene, and you should always spend a bit of time working with these elements during photo editing. Of course, for the best results, you should always aim to get the colors right in camera and only use post-processing as a last resort.
17. Break the rules
Don’t feel you have to stick to the compositional rules and guidelines outlined above. As with all rules, they don’t always give the best result, and you can break them successfully!
Sometimes positioning the horizon along the center of the frame can produce a much more eye-catching photo, for instance. Yes, it breaks the rule of thirds, but the result is very powerful. And you can even place your main subject in the center of your frame for some intense symmetry.
Bottom line: Don’t be afraid to try out different compositions and experiment to see what looks best.
Landscape photography composition: final words
By now, you should have a solid understanding of the elements that go into creating a visually stunning and emotionally impactful landscape photo. But remember, the rules and tips are just a framework; the real magic happens when you start to apply your own vision and creativity.
Sure, composition may feel overwhelming at first, especially if you’re just dipping your toes into the world of landscape photography. But here’s the thing: The more you practice, the more intuitive it becomes. And before you know it, you’ll be capturing landscapes that really catch the eye!
Now over to you:
Which of these composition tips is your favorite? Which are you going to try first? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- 5 Tips for Setting the Focus in Your Landscape Photography
- 10 Landscape Composition Techniques for Breathtaking Photos (2021)
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES