In this article I’ll try to outline a handful of the key elements that I look for when composing a photo in the field. The process of composing a photo can be daunting at times, but I hope that some of these tips will help you to lay the groundwork for developing an eye for composition in landscape photography.
Compositional Visualization: See the ball, be the ball
Developing an eye for composition in landscape photography is something that takes a great deal of time and practice in the field. Practice, persistence and due diligence do pay off and over time you will find yourself becoming more comfortable behind the lens.
The Mossy Grotto in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon is incredibly difficult to shoot due to the limited compositional choices. I hiked around for almost 30 minutes before I settled on this composition which had a lot of layering and some nice diagonal leading lines to help to lead the eye to the focal point.
Mossy Grotto, Columbia River Gorge, OR
Sony a7R, Canon 16-35mm F2.8, 16mm- multiple exposures used for focus stacking and water movement.
One thing that I’ve learned over time is that you absolutely have to pre-visualize your shot. This process starts with four key elements – the direction of the light, the focal point, the foreground and the leading line(s).
The focal point is often the first thing that your eye gravitates toward. It could be a waterfall, a mountain or even a stand of trees. If your eye gravitates toward it chances are it may serve as a good focal point to build your composition around. The next step in the process is to look for a leading line that guides your eye through the scene to your focal point.
The ‘line’ is figurative of course. It can be a rock formation, a river, a series of interesting trees, vegetation or foliage, flowers, or even a trail. Choosing the correct leading line can have a large impact on your image. It is important to note though that the leading line may not work depending upon the direction of the light in the scene.
All of the elements need to work together to form a pleasing composition. Let the light guide your eye to the focal point in the image. Shadows and light play a huge role in guiding your eye through the scene and, when used correctly, can add a great deal of depth and interest to your photo.
I chose the Lupine you see here as my foreground because I felt the colors complimented the sky well (blue/purple and yellows tend to work well together) and the light play in the flowers also helped to guide your eye through the scene to the focal point at the back of the image.
Sony a7R, Canon 16-35mm F2.8L II, 16mm, F10, 1/50sec, ISO 100, multiple exposures for focus stacking and sunstar.
Choosing the correct foreground can have a large impact on the success of your image. I always try to choose a foreground that offers a complementary color palette to the other elements in the scene such as the sky or mountains. I also tend to look for elements that add depth and interest to the overall image without overwhelming the viewer- it’s a bit of a balancing act in regard to keeping the image dynamic yet visually pleasing. I also try to choose a foreground that offers a color palette that helps to ‘connect’ the overall image. When colors work well together they can really help to solidify an already aesthetically pleasing image.
Ted Gore recently published an excellent article on color theory that complements this article nicely. Using groups of colors that work in harmony and flow nicely can help to solidify an already robust composition and can add a whole new ‘layer’ of interest to the photo.