Composing a Landscape Shot

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It's easy to take forgettable landscape photographs.  I've done it many times.  We see a pretty scene, twist some dials, focus and start clicking the shutter.  Then we get home and wonder why the results are so disappointing.

There's a better way.


We're likely to take better landscape photos if we slow down, look at the scene critically and think through the composition.

The process of composition begins when we see a scene that grabs the eye.  When that happens, it's important to think about why the scene is appealing.  What are the visual elements in what we're looking at that make this scene worth photographing?  Consider this photograph.  While I was visiting a relative in New Mexico last spring, an overnight snowfall left the landscape looking fresh and lovely.

The visual elements in the scene that caught my eye were, first, the wagon and, second, the isolated tree in the background.  Those were the elements that I wanted to be the focal points in the picture.  I needed a composition that made both look their best and excluded extraneous details that might compete with the wagon and the tree for the viewer's attention.

Once you know what you want in a photograph and what you need to exclude from it, the next task is finding the best spot to place the camera.  That sounds simple but it isn't if you do it right.  I walked around the snow-covered landscape, taking care not to leave footprints in the area I meant to photograph.  I watched how the arrangement of the wagon and the tree in a viewer's eye changed.  Even a few steps to the left or right made a significant difference in the composition.  I knelt.  I squinted.  If I could have examined the scene from a higher point of view I would have.  I was looking for the right perspective from which to take the photograph.

How do we know when a composition is right?  I don't think that there are any neat and tidy answers available except for bad ones.  I've read and studied several books on composing photographs.  They help.  I've attended classes where more experienced photographers explained their views on composition.  That helps.  We should all learn the rule of thirds and then follow it or ignore it at will.  We should understand that a composition with strong diagonal lines will usually be more dynamic than a composition with only vertical and horizontal lines.  Usually I avoid placing the horizon in the middle of a composition.  In this case, though, I did.  In the end, we can't use formulas to compose a photograph unless we want formulaic-looking photographs.  Taste must be our guide.

When a composition is right for me, I don't reach that conclusion through a conscious application of any principles of composition.  My brain's Photo Detector beeps and buzzes.  There's the photograph!  My Photo Detector has often been wrong but it gets more accurate with practice. 

In this instance it, the visual elements clicked into place when I stood where this photograph was taken.  I set up the tripod and the camera and adjusted the settings.

Choosing a lens is a compositional decision.  The same scene can look quite different with different lenses.  With practice, we develop a pretty good idea of what each of our lenses will see in a scene.  In this instance, I knew I wanted my Tamron 10-24.

Setting up the tripod involves compositional choices.  What the camera sees will differ depending on whether it's three feet above the ground or five feet.  The answer should depend on what's best for the photograph rather than what's most comfortable for the photographer.

When the camera and tripod have been set up, the process of composition isn't quite over.  I've learned the hard way to study what appears in the viewfinder, paying close attention to the details.  It's frustrating to find a piece of trash or some distant power lines in a shot only when you're back home and can't change the composition to correct the problem.  Besides, the camera will often needed to be moved a little to frame the scene optimally.

When all is right, I click the cable release.  That's the easy part. 

Some might think that an ice age could pass while a photograph is composed in this way.  It takes much longer to write about these steps than to perform them.  From start to finish, it took me about two minutes to compose photograph this scene, including the walking around, kneeling and squinting.

Some might think I'm way too persnickety about all this.  I don't think I'm careful enough.  I once attended a class taught by Jerry Sieve, whose beautiful photographs have adorned a number of covers of Arizona Highways magazine.  He recounted how he had taken a particular photograph of cactus blossoms with a looming mountain in the background.  The particular variety of cactus was blooming all around.  He drove up and down a dirt road, however, looking for the very best blooms he could find.  When he found the right spot, it was midday, so he decided to come back late in the afternoon to take the shot.  He did.  There was a high overcast and he didn't like the light.  He didn't even set up the camera.  He left for a few days and tended to business elsewhere.  Then he returned, found that the light was right and finally took the photograph.  That's persnickety.  Listening to that account made me feel inadequate as a photographer.

My photograph of the snow-covered wagon looks very simple.  The shots I like often look that way.  We get better photographs, though, if we're deliberate and methodical about finding and refining that simple composition.

Don Peters is an amateur photographer who lives in Phoenix, Arizona. See a gallery of more of his work at  http://cornflakeaz.smugmug.com/

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 I enjoyed this plain english explanation of composition and am sharing it with my contacts on Facebook.  I totally agree with using the rule of thirds as a guide and then breaking it when need be.  Like you, I look around for just the right perspective, but probably am not persnickety enough.

I couldn't agree more.  Living in South Florida, I have been spending a LOT of time lately in the Everglades doing shoots.  In my case, I take shots from several different angles and attempt to get the exact shot of the feeling I am trying to convey. And I whole-heartedly agree about looking carefully at the composition of the photo in the view finder.  There is nothing more frustrating than taking the "perfect picture" and after looking at them at home finding a styrofoam cup or jet trail in the shot. 

Great article. The horizon being more centered in this case works and it was important in keeping the nice cloud over the tree too. I agree, the rule of thirds sometimes needs to be broken. I prefer to not shoot with rules, but what feels right and this article was very helpful as landscape photography is not something I do often.

All the best,

Sara

Did you use ND filters to balance the exposure of the white snow and to keep the sky blue and snow to now over expose?  Wide angle lens? Did you use a larger aperature usually? Thanks

jimmy

jimmy, I don't have an ND filter.  It's on the wish list along with many other items.  I think I used a polarizer but the EXIF data won't reflect that.  The exposure was f/18 at 1/100 with a wide-angle lens set to 10mm.  I darkened the sky slightly during processing by reducing the luminosity, but in general this one didn't take much processing.  Don

This was really helpful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on composition.

buen trabajo, usted debe ser un buen maestro. gracias! 

Gracias, Carlos, pero no soy maestro.

Thanks to all for the comments.  If this was helpful to some of you, that was the idea.

Good advice for many types of images, not just landscape.  Many thanks!

JDK.