How to Use Balance in Your Landscape Photography Composition

How to Use Balance in Your Landscape Photography Composition


How to use Balance in your landscape photography

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’?

Composition basics - using balance in your landscape photography

Something Wicked

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.

How to balance reflections in landscape photography - Gavin Hardcastle

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.

Composition tips for landscape photography

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.

Go Handheld

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.

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Gavin Hardcastle is a fine art photographer, writer and instructor from BC, Canada. Become a better photographer today with his free photography guides and photography tutorials. You can learn from Gavin directly at his global photography workshops in some of the worlds most spectacular locations. Upgrade your post processing skills with his online video tutorials for Photoshop and Lightroom.

  • chris

    I understand what the point is, but the ‘balance’ you talk about for ‘something wicked’ could be achieved by just changing the tilt on your camera and not moving up or down. It’s not really balance you are changing by moving camera up or down, side to side, etc. It’s the perspective and you explained it better later on gor the ‘Mono Lake’ image when changing the perspective changes the reflection. It is a little misleading to say move the camera to change the balance when the balance can be changed just by how the camera is aimed, when really you are trying to explain to people to move around and see the affect on the shot and keep moving until you see the best shot you like.

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Hi Chris, When using a very wide angle lens there can be quite a difference in perspective when you tilt the camera compared when you simply change your level. This has a major effect on any foreground elements. Ultimately it’s down to the photographer and both methods can achieve balance, but if you don’t try getting lower you’ll never know what you’re missing.

  • chris

    I know. That is exactly the point I’m trying to make. You have not mentioned perspective, you only wrote to obtain balance move the camera. Instead of change your perspective to change your view and balance your composition. You did a good job describing process for the second image by stating the affect on the reflection by the camera movement. For the first one though, I think you did more than just placing horizon in the bottom third to balance the photo, but the way it’s written that was the balance you were trying to achieve. No mention of what elements were affected by moving the camera and what you were trying to balance into your photo.

  • Geoff

    Love your shot of Los Arcos park in Cabo. The protruding rocks almost form a classic “S” shape.

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    How about I do a ‘Perspective’ article for you Chris? 🙂

  • Can’t agree more with the “go handheld” idea.. First thing I always try to do when I don’t have a clear composition in mind is setting the ISO to a high setting on my camera and running around taking test shots from various angles to find something I like.. Then I go back and get the tripod to that location and do the shot..

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Great idea Daniel. I’ll often put the camera in (shudder) AUTO mode while I go handheld because I can’t be bothered changing my settings just to get an idea for a good composition. I’ll take several shots, chimp on them to find the best idea and then hit the trashcan button. Then it’s time for some tripod action.

  • SandyStorm

    Lol…doing the ‘Cobra’. Love it!!!

  • BayAreaBiker

    I’m all game for Cobra dance…

  • Elizabeth

    Okay- So I LOVED Gavin’s articles. My landscapes all get critiqued hard in my critique group so I’ve been studying to try and make them stronger. Fabulous advice here- took it to the field and got what I thought was a really well balanced shot. Put it up for critique and got told it wasn’t balanced compositionally? If you don’t mind can someone here respond— I’m starting to wonder if it’s just that group or if I really am not getting a balanced shot?!

  • Elizabeth

    Trying to get the shot to upload

  • Elizabeth
  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Hi Ruth,

    Your shot does seem to have more space devoted to the stumps but that would be OK if they had more WOW factor. Sometimes it’s also better to stand further back from your foreground to reduce its magnification which can also help with balance. Maybe I’ll do an article dedicated just to that. Keep practicing and don’t be put off by stuffy old critique groups. Be your own harshest critic and you’ll get better FAST.

  • Elizabeth

    Thanks for taking the time to comment Gavin. Your thoughts were a big help, and I look forward to your next article. 🙂

  • Dumitru D. Mititelu

    Thanks Chrys. Shoot, shoot, shoot. The best teacher is your own practice.

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