How to Solve 5 Composition Conundrums Faced by Landscape Photographers

How to Solve 5 Composition Conundrums Faced by Landscape Photographers

Do you ever get frustrated when reviewing your landscape shots? In the field you thought you’d nailed the scene, but back at your computer you now see that things don’t look so great. I know sometimes my frustration seems endless after a landscape shoot. There are just so many questions about how to shoot and compose breathtaking landscapes.

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Landscapes are both one of the easiest things to photograph, and the most difficult. Easy – because landscapes are everywhere, and they don’t really move, so no expensive technical equipment is needed. Often novice photographers mistake this ease of access with easy photography. Landscapes are difficult to photograph well because, like most other subject matter, the devil is in the details, and there are a myriad of details to pay attention to in landscape photography.

It is these details that create conundrums for photographers, especially when it comes to composing a great landscape shot.

When I’m out with a photography class, students seem to have several common dilemmas they want solved. So in this article we’ll explore these compositional conundrums and try to get you some solutions.

1) How do I choose my point of interest?

Most photography guides say that a great image must have a strong point of interest. In an expansive vista it’s often difficult to decide on just one central point. In fact, you may often feel like the entire scene is THE point of interest. But try thinking about the scene this way – why are you attracted to this scene? What is it that make it so stunning?

It might be the light at sunrise or sunset, or a confluence of streams, or maybe the patterns of wildflowers.  Take a moment to think about why you want to photograph this landscape. In a few moments a story will start to evolve in your mind.

If your story is about the light, where in the scene is the light most spectacular? In the clouds? Reflecting off water? Lighting up a mountain peak? You’ll soon find your answer, and will have solved conundrum #1. You now have a solid point of interest.

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All roads lead to Rome – or in photography, to your center of interest. The symmetry of the scene is mirrored in both the reflection and the composition.

2) What should I include and exclude in the frame?

This is a big compositional conundrum for most photographers. Sometimes you may want to create a frame for your scene with something from the surrounding environment – tree branches are a common framing device. But will they be distracting? Will they prevent your viewer’s eye from traveling INTO your image, to land softly on the great point of interest you carefully identified above? Sometimes the scene itself will have framing elements in it. Should you use these?

If you decide to use this type of compositional device to frame your subject, should it be on the right? On the left? On the top, or all three sides?

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BEFORE: The half tree on the left does nothing to move the viewer to the center of interest. Let’s remove it.

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AFTER: Using the framing technique AFTER removing distracting elements.

There are really only two considerations with objects at the edges of your viewfinder frame.

The first is to make sure that your leading lines are not broken by the object. So, if there is a nice big tree on the left of your composition, make sure to position yourself in such a way that the tree helps guide the viewer towards your centre of interest. If it is just a big dark shape on the left of your scene it may not add to the composition, and in fact may be detrimental. Large vertical objects on the left, or in the centre of the frame, tend to arrest the viewer’s gaze, and make for a weak composition.

Second, if you are going to use objects around the edges as a framing technique, be bold, and do it with purpose. Make sure your viewer doesn’t think it was a mistake, or something you didn’t notice. Bits of branches or clouds that seem to poke into the frame are more like intruders than active participants in your image. Move around a bit more to make sure there are no interlopers jutting in, or remove them in post-production.

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Be bold – add it like you mean it – include elements with purpose. This tree is here on purpose and its branch leads to the sun ray that takes you right into the center of interest, the glowing layers of the landscape, framed by the dark shrubs in the foreground.

If you’re using a wide angle lens, you know to include lots of the foreground to guide the viewer into the frame. But often students ask me what makes a good foreground? They walk around a bit, point to various items, and ask, “Would this be good? How about this? Or this?”

Because of the way the wide angle lens exaggerates perspective, you should take advantage of that by choosing a foreground subject that can create leading lines into your image. If there’s a big boulder in your scene, how does it look close-up through the wide angle lens? Does it create a pointer, or a set of lines that lead to your main point of interest? That will make a good foreground.

If the objects closest to the camera consist of mainly horizontal lines, running left to right in the frame, they may not be a great foreground to include, unless you can shoot at an angle so they become leading lines into your image. You may need to walk around the scene a bit more to see if this will work with the overall view. If not, choose another foreground, or if there is nothing that works, you can always select another lens – a 50mm is often a great choice for landscape photography.

Which brings us to the next conundrum – focal length, your lens.

3) What focal length is best for landscapes?

I think this is always the first question I get asked when shooting landscapes with a group, “What lens are you using?”

But the real question is what is your artistic intention for your image? If you want to get that awe inspired feeling you have as you view the scene into your image, why not try 50mm. This lens on a full frame sensor approximates what your eye sees in terms of angle of view. So it could be the best choice if what you want to convey is that awesomeness of the view that you are seeing with your eyes. Lately I have been using a 50mm (full frame) lens for landscapes almost exclusively.

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The big picture, wide angle lens, and 50mm works well too.

Remember too, that the longer the focal length, the more compressed the image gets, and the closer the background becomes. It’s not just a matter of getting nearer or getting more in the frame, the entire look of your image will be very different depending on the lens. This is a definite conundrum for landscape photographers, because the choice is usually very subjective. If, as I mentioned above, you have nothing suitable for a creative foreground, try your 50 mm to get the big picture but without the perceptive grabbing view of the wide angles. If your intention is to get a more intimate view of the place, then a longer lens would be a better choice.

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A more intimate look at patterns, textures, and shapes with a 200 mm lens.

So your choice of lens has a few considerations, but a quick check of your intention, and the surrounding space you are standing on, will help you solve this one.

4) Should I Shoot Vertical or Horizontal?

This is another common landscape photographer conundrum, and one that I often have myself. Fortunately this one is very easy to solve. My way of dealing with this is to shoot the scene both ways, then do an honest critique once I am back at a computer to view the full images. But given the traditional style of landscape photography, most often the horizontal or (curiously!) named “landscape” orientation will serve you best.

However, some things may be more suitable for the vertical (portrait) camera orientation: scenes with reflections in lakes, scenes with dramatic skies where the sky has a dominant role in your story, scenes that include the moon, or a dramatic afternoon sun with some lens flare shining through trees or objects, and scenes that include people beside tall objects or monuments so you can capture the sense of scale.

When in doubt, shoot both ways. It’s easier than having to go shoot the place again, if that is even possible. So conundrum #4: solved!

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Horizontal or landscape orientation – the scene has a certain mood and story.

This image tells a very different story and has a different mood.

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Vertical shot, with a telephoto lens. Depth is compressed and the background is much closer in the frame.

5) Is this scene photo-worthy?

As unfortunate as it is, not every grand landscape is suitable for making a great photo. It may be that the light is not right, that there is just no place for the eye to rest, or that your point of view is not providing  a clear enough vantage point. There may be too many distracting items poking into your frame that would be too hard to remove in post-processing. There are numerous reasons that a landscape might not make a good photo. But consider this a challenge – capture it anyway, see if you can make something of it. Try different lenses, camera orientations, walk around a bit more. Get down like a worm and see if there is any vantage point that will give you a creative point of view.

Practice every chance you get, and know that the conundrums will present themselves in every landscape, but hopefully now you have them solved!

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A pretty scene, but not such a great photo. Not every landscape will make a killer photograph. Do you know how to tell if it will or not?

Have you ever struggled with any of these conundrums? What are some of your landscape photography struggles?

Have you solved them? How did you decide what to do?


Here on dPS this is landscape week – here is list of what we’ve covered so far. Watch for a new article (or two) on landscape photography daily for the next couple days.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Alex Morrison is a professional fine art and nature photographer, accredited by The Professional Photographers of Canada. She was the Canadian Photographic Artist of the Year in 2009. She teaches photography, runs workshops and online classes on fine art and nature photography, as well as infrared and iphone photography. Her educational website with photography tips is at nature-photography-central.com. View her art photography portfolio here. Alex has a coupon code for her Infrared Post Processing e-book, use DPSTKS to save $12.00.