If you want to take your landscape photography to the next level, it’s time to start thinking about how you balance your subjects. The most powerful compositional tools that you have at your disposal are your knees, and your feet.
Simply stepping to the side a couple of feet can change your landscape compositions drastically. Take things one step further (weak pun intended) and bend those old knees to get a lower point of view. Now things might start to look more interesting.
The reason why I say this is because horizontal and vertical movement will allow you to achieve the ideal balance of subjects in your landscape images. If you’ve got a camera with one of those flippable LCD screens, you’ll be able to get right down on the ground or way up high on your tripod. Nice.
So what do I mean by ‘balance’?
I’m referring to how you balance subjects in your image on the horizontal and vertical planes. Simply plonking your interesting subject slap bang in the centre of your image might work, but there are times when you might get a better composition by placing it to one side of your image, and counter balancing that with something on the opposing side.
With my image above ‘ Something Wicked’, I wanted the moody storm clouds to be the main subject but it was essential to capture it bearing down on the mesa. By devoting the lower third of the frame to the mesa and the upper two thirds to the menacing clouds above, I balanced the subjects to my liking.
Subjects can’t move but you can
There may be times when you actually use interesting space to counterbalance your main subject, don’t assume that your spaces have to be filled with obvious subjects. I like to invite my viewers to think about what’s in that space, drawing their eye to what at first appears to be nothing, but upon closer inspection reveals something interesting.
Balancing subjects in images that feature reflections is really important. Perhaps you want to give more emphasis to the reflected elements? Movement from left to right, or up and down, can really place those elements exactly where they need to be. Moving one foot to the left might eliminate a pleasing mountain ridge in the distance. Dropping down a few inches might bring it back.
With my image of Mono Lake above, I found that if I got too low to the ground, I lost some of the mass in the reflected clouds. The ideal vertical position was at an agonizing semi crouch that had my quads screaming. If I’d moved a little more to my right I would have lost the foreground tufa mound that you see in the lower left corner, which adds depth to the image.
I’ve done this so many times that I no longer think about doing it, something just clicks and I know the shot is in the bag. When you’re starting out however, this might require a bit of conscious thought, so here are two tips I always teach to my workshop students.
Do the Squat
After you’ve taken a shot with your camera at normal height on the tripod, squat down for a few seconds and survey the scene from a lower perspective. Make it a habit and I can virtually guarantee* that you’ll see a better shot around 50% of the time.
Do the Cobra
Rather than shuffling left to right, I often like to crack out my Cobra impersonation and move my head from side to side while trying to maintain the same height. By doing this I can see how my foreground subjects move around the subjects in the distance. If you see some bloke with a tripod on a cliff edge who looks like he’s doing some type of shamanic dance, that’s me setting up a shot.
This sounds really obvious, but I notice a lot of photographers don’t bother with these two basic moves. There’s more to composition than your standard tripod setup.
My shot of Los Arcos Park in Cabo San Lucas (Mexico) is a prime example of how ‘doing the Cobra’ helped me to visualize the ideal composition for having El Capitan (the central sea stack) positioned so that it fits just right in that gap. If I’d moved just 12 inches left or right I would have lost that pleasing ‘equidistant’ position. If I’d moved lower (the Squat), that foreground rock would have obscured the footsteps in the sand that lead your eye towards El Capitan.
Yes, yes, I realize I’m a one man tripod enforcement unit but I’ll often start a shoot without the tripod so that I’ve got the freedom of movement to find the best compositions. Once I’ve discovered that ideal balance of subjects along the vertical and horizontal planes, I’ll grab the tripod and take the shot. This will save you a lot of fiddling around with the tripod, especially if you’re rocking one of those flimsy box store tripods that belong in the recycling bin.
Try it out
Go out and try the ‘Squat and Cobra’, then post your comments here to let me know your results. Being conscious of how you balance your subjects will give you better landscape images, and with practice, will become automatic.
** Guarantee is virtual and only worth the paper on which it is written.
For more articles on composition try these:
- Composition, Balance and Visual Mass
- A New Photographer’s Guide to Composition
- Perspective in Photography – Don’t just stand there move your feet!