Simple Secrets to Better Landscape Photography:

Basic Composition Rules Lend Skill to Art

Successful landscape photographers stick to a few rules of composition and balance that set their works apart and make for striking images.

In certain respects, shooting a good landscape or seascape isn’t too different from painting one. Composition, angle, light, positioning of subject matter and, of course, originality are all important factors. The better one manages each factor, the better chance the photo has of being memorable. The trick — which is actually a skill — is to learn to visualize the 3-dimensional landscape as a 2-D photograph.

The Rule of Thirds in Photography and Painting

This most basic guideline of composition dictates that a painting or photo should be divided into vertical and horizontal thirds. The lines such a division would make constitute a grid on the surface of the image; objects within a well-composed photo will be arranged loosely along this grid. The brain subconsciously finds symmetry pleasing, and the rule of thirds provides basic symmetry to any photo.

Foreground, Middle Distance, and Background In Landscape Photography

The 3rd Dimension. While the rule of thirds informs the 2-dimensional layout, the depth of a landscape photo can also be divided into 3 major divisions: foreground, middle distance, and background or far distance. Each area should be defined and separate, or mostly so.

Foreground. Sharply rendered objects close to the viewer make an image compelling. A foreground object is often something particular and concrete in a photo that expands into the infinity of distance, an anchor in the expansiveness of the background. It’s crucial that these foreground objects are crisply focused, so using a tripod is important, as is depth of field. The secret is to have the foreground as sharp as the far distance. Wind (which can cause motion and blurring of foreground grass, for example) and movement within the image (of people, animals, boats, etc.) may demand a higher shutter speed.

Movement. In the best photos, the viewer’s eye is led from the foreground, into and around the middle distance, and ultimately to the background. Being aware of contours and other lines within the image can facilitate this process. The camera can be repositioned laterally and, sometimes, vertically to optimize lines and contours along which the eye moves.

Balance Within a Photo

To work well, a photo must be “weighted” well. That is, there should be a balance among the objects within the photo. For example, if the foreground bushes, the mid distance rocks, and the background mountain are all on the left, the image will probably be weighted to the left. Objects should counterbalance each other so that the general feeling is equilibrium, which is another quality — like symmetry — that the brain recognizes and enjoys, especially in a landscape. That’s why, by the way, most landscapes are horizontal, not vertical.

Watch the Edges

Nothing spoils a photo more quickly than sloppy edges. Extraneous people, things, or goings-on will detract from the image. They should be eliminated by moving the camera, waiting until later, or other means; if they can’t be, perhaps the image isn’t viable. In fact, the perimeter of the photo, controlled by lens length or camera position, should be determined at the outset, before the rest of the composition is considered.

Self Criticism

Once the image is captured, the successful photographer is his or her own harshest critic. A few things to remember:

Learn from successes as well as mistakes. Photography is problem solving. Any single flaw or shortcoming usually means the photo doesn’t work.

An unsatisfactory image doesn’t mean the idea isn’t a good one. Rethink, reposition, reshoot. Some photographers come back to a favorite site for years before they get the image they want.

Compare yourself to the best, because your viewers will. If you photograph Yosemite Valley, your viewers will compare you to Ansel Adams, whether you want them to or not. Which leads to…

Originality is a necessity. Almost every landscape has, in a way, been made before. But originality is certainly the hallmark of any artist. Just the right light or an unusual angle can lend freshness to an image and make the viewer see it anew.

Rules Are Meant to Be Broken

These rules aren’t laws, they’re guidelines. Asymmetry, imbalance, and disequilibrium have been used effectively and dramatically by many photographers, but seldom have they been used accidentally. Most photographers strive for an understanding and a command of the traditional rules before trying to break them.