How to Solve 5 Composition Conundrums Faced by Landscape Photographers

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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.

  • Really nice blog post. It’s really interesting to see someones thought process when they attempt to compose an image. Time for me to access my shots.

    Thanks

    Ronnie
    http://Www.Ronniedayphotography.com

  • Tim Lowe

    I too am a big fan of 50mm equivalent lenses for landscapes. (150mm on my 4×5) Such a natural look and no distortion. Great article with good examples.

  • George Johnson

    One reason I love shooting landscapes so much, the most exciting and most frustrating things about shooting landscapes is finding that compositional golden nugget. As you say, if there’s one thing that beginners don’t get it’s composition as it cannot be taught directly. You can teach someone exactly how a camera works but you cannot teach them exactly how composition works, it has to be inferred through example and then tons and tons of practice has to be done until that magical day when all of a sudden you can’t stop seeing compositions leaping out at you from all over the place. Simply taking a grocery shopping trip to the local town and you start seeing loads of opportunities, it’s such a huge boost when that starts happening after the years of practice you put in!

  • Aleeya Hargrove

    I think this is one of the best tuts on landscape photography I’ve read. Just enough info without being overwhelming.

  • jacques brierre

    Thanks for a thorough dissection of the hurdles to a good photo! Invariably I would look at my landscapes and ask: Where’s the focal point? Others would ask me the same…

  • travel_bug

    Thank you for your contribution to this subject – I have been searching for the perfect landscape for years and will always continue to seek it I suspect.

    I shoot mostly landscape and have had some Eureka moments along the way over the years – One was finally understanding how useful histograms are in RAW post processing – especially with snow capped mountains (not the topic I know). However, the biggest impact comes from cropping the landscape shot a little across the top and bottom (or just one if it works) to give a sense of ‘panorama’ to the shot.

    Some of my landscapes can be seen at the following link:

    http://www.stonewallgalleries.wordpress.com

  • thenaturephotog

    Awesome Tim! and thanks for
    your kind words, I’m glad you liked it. I’d love to see some of your 4×5 images!

  • thenaturephotog

    thanks Aleeya! I’m really happy you enjoyed it. I am travelling in the Canadian Rockies right now shooting more (what else?!) landscapes! post a few of yours here if you feel like sharing.

  • thenaturephotog

    thanks Ronnie. I’ve found self reflection is the first step to massive improvements in my work. 🙂

  • Tim Lowe

    I’m just learning. What a different animal. Here’s a landscape I shot a little while ago with a 160mm. I’m waiting for a Copal #0 lens board to come for my 150mm. Tea farm in the hills above Cali (Colombia).

    https://500px.com/photo/119752351/hindu-tea-last-one-by-tim-lowe

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    I take issue with the common assertion that a 50mm lens (on a 24 X 36mm sensor) approximates to what the human eye sees. In fact, human eyes have a very wide view, but the brain interprets the scene by concentrating on a small portion near the centre, leaving a large surround of lesser detail. What is essential is that when you see a whole scene, you then choose just what to include and what to leave out of your photograph. Look around the scene, and decide what will appear on that little rectangle that is your camera’s sensor. The accompanying images under point 4) vertical or horizontal, of the road across the desert to the rocky mesas, highlights this. One of the best aids to composition is a piece of card with a rectangle cut out from the middle, held in front of your face with one eye closed.

  • jhsvdm

    I agree with you but only to the extent of field of view or angle of view which is probably more restricted through the lens. I think that the idea of 50 mm as standard lens or approximating the view of the human eye is very loosely defined and refers to enlargement of subject and lengthening or foreshortening of perspective. Look through your camera with 50 mm lens and then with the naked eye and it looks the same. Put on a 35 mm and do it again and everything looks somewhat smaller and further apart (and wider fov). This is irrespective of the size of the camera sensor (APS C or full frame) which is why I regard it as loosely defined. Though the lens sees and projects an image irrespective of the size of the sensor the different lens designs and combinations with different sized sensors is probably more complex than meets the eye.

  • Debashish Pal

    Nio_O nice picture

  • Thanks yo for the article Alex. It is great to get regular reminders about both technical and compositional thoughts needed before pressing the shutter. I was expecting to see some content on merged or crop ratios. I faced a difficult dilemma recently about the format of a merged image of 22 shots arranged horizontally. If printed 1m (39″ wide was only 12cm (<5inches) high. To understand what was in the image you would need to be very close. Stand back and it would look like a stripe on the wall. I compromised on the composition and cropped it both ends to give it greater impact on the wall but lost out on composition and balance.
    It was however selected in the finalists in the Burrinja Climate Change Biennale in Victoria Australia.

    I now look for potential in both very wide and tall images. However this image taught me a lot about the limitations of crop ratios and merged images.

    Artist statement explaining the image.
    Title:‘Hope Gap’

    I was struck by the irony of a farmer using out dated and destructive stubble burning, which contributes to global warming and crop destroying droughts, with the wind farm trying to save
    him and the world from his actions.

    The burn was the only one in sight.The photograph was taken in ‘Hope Gap’ a low rainfall area north of Adelaide. Enlightened farmers now use No-till cropping methods that retain the stubble to protect and improve the soil and preserve moisture. Stubble also helps stop the soil he depends on being blown away by the wind.

    Dare I suggest the farmer might also complain of the aesthetics and health effects of wind farms. He might even see them as ugly like our Prime Minister. All the time oblivious to the destructive and ugly smoke cloud he has created. Photo taken 'Hope Gap' and hence the title

  • M.h. O’Dell

    Great article. Practice practice practice!

  • Nice article Alex Morrison. Yes certainly these points u mentioned makes u confused while you’re facing a large landscape view. You capture a wide shot, a mid shot & a close up & then again confused which shot to keep & which to discard. These things happen with me every time.

  • Stuart Clough

    I have had a point and shoot for a long time. I just upgraded to a DSLR and have been working my way around. I am starting to get brave enough to shoot pics using something other than auto mode. I have found that I am really drawn to landscapes (they don’t move around like people and pets). Thank You for the great tips! I will be putting them to good use if it ever gets warm again.

  • Harry

    Do you critique photos?

  • Jack

    Well sorry folks I am retired 66 years old and learning I find my Sony SLR 5800 camera with a 55 to 300 zoom lens my favourite and my 18 to 55 lens feel every time I use it find I could have gotten a
    better shot with my 55 to 300 maybe it is me but feel having a versatile lens and being prepared for that unsuspected perfect photo I am ready any ways love to hear comments and suguestions hoping to take a night school coarse as I good photo is worth taking 100 poor one to me lol Thans great web sight will be back 🙂

  • Kevin Starr

    Good article..

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