This three-part article series, we take a deep dive into the fundamentals of composing landscape photographs

here’s a magical moment in landscape photography when you find the right position, the subject is at the correct angle, bathed in perfect light, and, with your camera in hand, you capture “The Shot”—the perfect composition for the scene. These are the moments we all want to repeat, but for whatever reason, they are difficult to find. The more you learn about how much goes into creating such moments, the more you realize just how complex and involved they are to repeat.

This is the “Art of Seeing.”

I break the process of seeing down into three elements that I call the “creative trinity.” Subject, light and composition make up the trinity, and the fuel that fires it is timing.

In this three-part article series, I’m going to focus on the one element that deserves most of our attention: composition. Composition is the arrangement of subjects in the scene. There are many techniques to apply when making a successful composition, and there are many so-called rules that you’ve probably heard, such as the “rule of thirds.” The rule of thirds is a very basic technique to help minimize the potential issue of a boring or static composition that conveys no movement. This is just the tip of the iceberg; there are many other compositional rules and techniques to use. I refer to the rules and techniques of composition as a vocabulary. If you learn the vocabulary of composition, you’ll then have the skills to use all the various rules and techniques in your favor.

There are three basic skills you need to develop in order to successfully implement (and sometimes break) the rules of composition:

  • Pre-visualize your composition, so that you will be looking for that specific subject in your mind’s eye.
  • Have the technical skill with your camera to capture the pre-visualized composition in the way that best displays your intentions.
  • Be well-versed in what reality may transform into after you process the image.

Develop these three skills, and you will have the ability to create many great images.

There’s no easy way to acquire all these skills, and each one has a steep learning curve. Sure, it’s possible that with no formal training, and your camera in “P” (program) mode, you could capture an amazing image that needs no post-processing, but the odds are low. If you wish to make this a repeatable process, then you will need to understand why your images were successful. Hopefully what follows will help clarify the concepts and inspire you to build on what you already know.

The Vocabulary Of Composition

If you’re new to the study of composition, a good starting point is to keep your compositions simple. Photography is an exercise in subtraction. When given the opportunity to eliminate, do it! One of the best ways to eliminate unwanted objects from your frame is to get closer to your subject. Later in this article, I will talk about “The Viewer’s Path” in detail. This is the path that leads your viewer to the subject. Help lead your viewer by omitting clutter from the path. Also, keep clutter away from the edges and corners of the frame, and be sure you have chosen your subject as the focus point.

Simplifying a composition can be as easy as moving the camera by a foot in one direction or the other to prevent a foreground object from cluttering the scene.

To simplify even more, I recommend you first develop your compositional skills by photographing in black-and-white mode. Create compositions in black-and-white until you have a grasp on it, then add the color. To those new to photography, this should be a common practice. There’s no need to only shoot in black-and-white all day long, but when learning and considering composition, it’s a powerful way to help train your eye. I still occasionally go back to black-and-white to help me see composition while in the field. Tip: If you want to see your RAW camera files in black-and-white while in the field but keep the color data for later editing, simply change the “Picture Control” setting (or similar, depending on your camera brand) to Monochrome. This displays a black-and-white JPEG of the image in-camera but keeps all the color information in the RAW file.

To help understand the complexity of composition, I’ve listed some ideas below. This list of compositional considerations is very helpful to me when I’m at any step of the process, from conceptualizing an image to setting up the tripod in the field to cropping on the computer. I have listed these compositional elements in an order that makes the most sense to me in the development of the image.

Subject

The most important of the elements of a photograph is the subject. Many will argue that light is the most important, and for certain images that is certainly true. I maintain that the subject is the most important element, and that if the subject is compelling enough, it will engage the viewer—even in bad light. There are times “light” becomes more exciting than the subject, and when this happens, it’s best to take advantage of it.

Defining what the subject is in your landscape scene will help you to compose it, light it and portray it in the best possible way.

With this in mind, finding the subject in landscape photography can be challenging, as it’s not always clear. Of course, if you’re shooting wildlife, then the subject is clear: it is the animal. But for this article series, I’m focusing strictly on landscape images.

The Viewer’s Path

This is my favorite topic.

A powerful element in landscape compositions is leading the viewer along a path of discovery, either to the subject or from it. It’s not necessary for all images, but when composing and post-processing most landscape scenes, it’s my guiding concept.

This is not done with arrows and dotted lines as we find on a highway leading us to our destination, but rather with subtle methods that a viewer might not even acknowledge at first. It’s more like a magic show, where the magicians entertain the audience without revealing their tricks.

Humans will instantly and subconsciously find an order of importance while looking at anything the first time. The predominant attraction in any scene is brightness and contrast, followed by a few other stimulants, such as primary colors, eyes and then shape. This is an instinct left over from years of survival practices, when avoiding deadly creatures and staying alive was the priority. When you consider art and photography, you must realize that all viewers will have this very same reaction to your images. There is an order of discovery in all images, some longer and more involved than others. The order of subjects we view in any scene is what creates the path, leading the viewer from the first to the last. I must point out that the main subject can either be the first read or the fourth, depending on your ability as a photographer. As a landscape photographer, you are building this path in the hopes of giving your viewer a journey.

This is not done with arrows and dotted lines as we find on a highway leading us to our destination, but rather with subtle methods that a viewer might not even acknowledge at first. It’s more like a magic show, where the magicians entertain the audience without revealing their tricks.

Humans will instantly and subconsciously find an order of importance while looking at anything the first time. The predominant attraction in any scene is brightness and contrast, followed by a few other stimulants, such as primary colors, eyes and then shape. This is an instinct left over from years of survival practices, when avoiding deadly creatures and staying alive was the priority. When you consider art and photography, you must realize that all viewers will have this very same reaction to your images. There is an order of discovery in all images, some longer and more involved than others. The order of subjects we view in any scene is what creates the path, leading the viewer from the first to the last. I must point out that the main subject can either be the first read or the fourth, depending on your ability as a photographer. As a landscape photographer, you are building this path in the hopes of giving your viewer a journey.