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Landscape composition explained – Part 1: Masses and lines

Landscape composition explained – Part 1: Masses and lines

Landscape composition explained - Part 1: Masses and lines 1

An interesting viewpoint on Fagradalsfjall Volcano, Iceland, showing one of the vents in the center, sending rivers of lava in various directions. What makes this composition appealing?

DJI Mavic 2 Pro, F7.1, 1/30 sec, pano stitch, April 2021.

When it comes to landscape photography, composition reigns supreme as the single most important factor that determines the appeal of a shot. It’s a complicated subject, and people have different views and opinions about it. But over my career as a nature photographer, I’ve found that a few key ideas can summarize a big part of the considerations one should keep in mind when trying to compose a landscape shot, and in this series, I will try to explain them in the clearest way possible using many examples and simple explanations. I will try to apply a divide-and-conquer method in building my arguments about composition, first getting you to understand how I see compositional elements, and then, in future articles, explaining how to treat and use these elements to create a good composition.

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A bird’s eye view of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. What are the main elements in the shot? What aspects of it are balanced and pleasant to the eye?

DJI Mavic II Pro, F8, 1/40 sec, ISO 100, vertical pano stitch.

To begin, I’d like to introduce a way of thinking of an image as consisting of different elements viewed as abstract shapes. These shapes can then be used separately and together in order to make a balanced composition, i.e. a whole whose components work nicely, and in a balanced way, with each other. The shapes aren’t only big or small, thick or thin: they have additional properties which change the way we treat them and place them in the image. This essentially means that I don’t see the components as clouds, rocks, mountains and lakes, but as round or elongated, smooth or rough, detailed or lacking detail. Also, this method of thinking regards color not only as something beautiful that attracts the eye, but also as a property of a compositional component, which can differentiate it from its surroundings.

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Can you make out the main components in this image? What properties do they have? In what way are they differentiated from their surroundings? What draws the eye? Is there any direction in the composition?

Canon 5D4, Canon 16-35 F2.8 MkIII, 30 sec, F13, ISO 200
Laguna Amarga, Torres Del Paine NP, Chile

Alright, but what kinds of abstract shapes are there? A helpful way of seeing it, is to divide the shapes into masses and lines. The masses are usually the discernable objects in the image, the composition’s anchors, so to speak. They are prominent, distinguished and differentiated from their surroundings by having different features (such as color, shape or texture – a good example is the bushes in the image above, which are different to their surroundings in all these traits), and serve a big part in drawing in the viewer’s eye. The lines are what usually connects the masses and enhances the interplay between them, but sometimes there’s more to them: they can create a better sense of motion, flow and direction in an image, make it more dynamic and interesting.

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Can you see masses and lines in this pair of images?

Canon 5D4, Canon 11-24mm F4
1/13 sec, ISO 100, F10
Lake Tasersuaq, Uummannaq, Greenland

The two compositions are a bit similar. What does differentiate them in terms of lines and masses in the composition? Does this selection of lines and masses make a significant difference between the two shots? Is one better composed than the other?

Flakstad Fjord, The Lofoten Islands, Arctic Norway
Canon 5D4, Canon 16-35mm F2.8
ISO 100, 1/20 sec
Focus stack

Some images only have masses. Some only have lines. Some have both, and these are usually the most interesting. It’s often quite easy to find the masses and lines in an image, especially after some practice and thought. But in some cases, masses and lines are harder to distinguish, and things are open to debate. This isn’t a mathematical theory but rather a guideline to help develop one’s thought process, and experience proves that it does work well in improving compositional ability. These terms will prove very useful once I start applying them together with actual compositional methods that will enable you to build your landscape shot.

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To improve our understanding of compositional elements, the first thing we need to do is go though a few examples and establish what the masses and lines in an image are. I’m sure you have an intuitive sense, but let’s have a go just as an exercise. Before scrolling further down, try to look at each composition and figure out for yourself what the main masses and lines in it are.

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An aerial view of Kawah Ijen Volcano, Indonesia

DJI Mavic II Pro, 1/25 sec, F8, ISO 100

What do you think – are there masses and lines here?

As I see this image, it contains three main masses: the main crater on the bottom (Kawah Ijen itself), the steeper peak on the left (Gunung Ranti) and then the 3 further volcanoes (Pendil, Raung and Suket). It’s good to also note that the foreground mass is largest, and has the most interesting features – shape, color, level of detail. One could call it the “strongest element” in the composition.

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Why do the furthest three volcanoes act as only one mass even though there are clearly 3 peaks? That’s because they overlap each other, and moreover since they are harder to distinguish one from the other, compared to the clear difference between the other volcanoes. The viewer’s eye doesn’t perceive them as separate elements, but as one locus of information. I will discuss the power of element separation in a future article.

By the way: can you see why the masses in the above image are ordered as they are? What made me shoot this image from this viewpoint and not from somewhere higher, lower, or the left or to the right (remember it’s a drone shot, I was not limited to a specific viewpoint)? What is it about the arrangement of elements in an image that makes it appealing? This is what you should ask yourself whenever analyzing a composition.

What about lines – do you see any? I see no real lines here – at least not ones that matter in the composition. One might mention the faint line of light connecting the crater to the further volcanoes on the right of the image, but I don’t really think it contributes much to the composition.

Another example:

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A night shot taken in Skogafoss, Iceland

Canon 5D4, Samyang 14mm F2.8, 30 sec, F2.8, ISO 3200

Here, I would say there is one true mass – the waterfall – and perhaps another weaker mass in the ice in the foreground. Note that the waterfall is the more interesting mass, even though the ice takes up more space in the image. In addition to the masses, there are many lines here, emanating from the waterfall toward the ice and toward the sky.

Landscape composition explained - Part 1: Masses and lines 10

Another easy one before we move further on:

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Lava erupts from the Holuhraun volcano, Iceland, 2014.

Canon 5D3, Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6, 1/1250 sec, F4, ISO 3200

One main mass, and two lines I can see. The mass is the eruption, the lines emanating from it are the lava river and the cloud of ash. The rest is filler to keep the balance and add detail and interest. When dissecting a composition, the filler elements can be viewed as existing in another, secondary dimension to the main elements.

By now, I hope you’re beginning to see a pattern: very often, lines come out of the masses, sometimes connecting them and even creating a sense of motion. I can’t stress how important that realization is for composition. More on that later.

Ok, so far it’s been a child’s play. What about this image:

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Lava drops down to the Pacific Ocean in the Kamokuna Ocean Entry, Island of Hawaii.

Canon 5D3, Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6, 1/800 sec, F6.3, ISO 1600

This is much more challenging, but still, I’d like you to try to figure out what you think the lines and masses are here. Try to think what elements, or element groups, draw the attention of the viewer and have some sort of gravity in the image.

As for me – I see two main masses here: the large chunk of lava on the top left, and the four smaller streams on the bottom right. There are lines, too: the lava feeding the larger stream and dropping from it, and the reflections on the water. Have a look at the diagram below and see if you agree with me:

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Do you agree with this analysis?

It might be argued that the four streams on the right aren’t a mass but lines. But I would argue that these streams are a subject which counterbalances the one on the left, and that they are indeed prominent and differentiated from their surroundings as a group. Moreover, this mass counterbalances the one on the left, creating a more appealing composition without one side being ‘heavier’ than the other. The lines on the bottom do the same thing, balancing each other by going in opposite directions. One by one, the ideas behind good compositions are revealed here – I hope you see them, but even if you still don’t, I will discuss them explicitly in future articles.

What about this example:

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Beautiful red rock near Moab, Utah.

DJI Mavic II Pro, 1/20 sec, F4, ISO 200

It seems to me like there are no masses at all here, only lines. There is nothing that stands out as a distinguishable subject (this could be debated), but there is motion, light, color and really nice texture, and there is a direction in the composition. I think the branched nature of the lines in this image compensates for lack of distinguishable subjects.

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lines coming out of lines contribute to the interest.

So far, this has been not more than a nice exercise in photographic vision. But there is a definite point to seeing compositional elements as masses and lines, or as abstract shapes in general. When you adopt this type of vision, it makes it easier to build a good composition and to make sense of the puzzle you face when shooting landscape shots. Next order of business will be explaining what we can actually do with these shapes we found, how to use their properties to arrange them in our image, how to balance them and how to build an ordered composition out of the mess. I intend to do just that in the next articles.

But as a last exercise, have a look at the images below and try to find the masses and the lines in them, if any. Can you begin to develop a sense as to how the masses and lines work together? I’d also like you to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Can you see why I ordered the masses like I did?
  2. Do the main masses in the image ‘face’ any direction? If they do, what does it contribute to the composition, and how does it determine the placement of these and other masses?
  3. How do the different traits of the masses affect their absolute position in the image? How do they affect their position relative to other elements?
  4. What other aspects of each image, other than the masses, are balanced, and in what ways?

If you shoot yourself, it would be very beneficial to ask these exact questions about your own images.

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In the next articles, I will make use of the definitions introduced here, and begin to explain how to use the properties of masses and lines to create good compositions.

Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer, photography guide and traveler based in Israel. You can follow Erez’s work on Instagram and Facebook, and subscribe to his mailing list for updates and to his YouTube channel.

If you’d like to experience and shoot some of the world’s most fascinating landscapes with Erez as your guide, take a look at his unique photography workshops in Namibia, Greenland, Colombia, The Lofoten Islands, Indonesia and the Argentinean Puna.

Erez offers video tutorials discussing his images and explaining how he achieved them.

Selected Articles by Erez Marom:

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