You hear it all the time: It doesn’t matter what the photo is taken on, be it a pro DSLR, disposable, camera phone, Polaroid, what-have-you… a strong, engaging composition creates a memorable photo.
But what is composition?
Think of composition as the arrangement of a picture’s subjects/elements. When it comes to landscapes, however, it can be tricky deciding exactly what in your frame to consider ‘elements.’ We’ll focus on a number that pops up somewhat regularly in photography: 3.
When composing a landscape, try to find at least three different elements in the shot. You’ll have your main subject – the snow-capped peak; a very unique, scraggly tree; the timeless red barn on top of the hill – as your main focus, but then look for two more elements. A fence post or a downed, moss-covered tree could add another point of interest for the viewer’s eye to follow. Once your elements have been picked out, now it’s time to arrange them in an appealing fashion.
An interesting landscape has depth. Distance. A sense of scale. We achieve this through layering the elements in our photo. It can be broken up as easily as foreground, middle ground, and background. Ideally, we would want to incorporate one of our three subjects in each layer of the photograph. The moss-covered log crossing the foreground with the tall mountain peak jutting up from the trees, dominating the middle ground. And the flaring, setting sun on the distant horizon beyond the mountain. Now instead of just a pretty picture of a mountain, you have a visual journey to take your viewer’s eyes on.
But sometimes the eyes need a little nudge in the right direction. We can help out by leading them through our composition with lines. Shoot down the length of the log, with the point where the mountain breaks free of the treetops as the point where the log ends. Catch the sun at a ‘V’ between the sides of our main mountain and another set of peaks in the distance. Our eyes like to follow lines, they like to be lead, and the viewer ultimately feels a sense of impact, of story based on the lines we lead them on.
Rarely, if ever, do all these elements happily arrange themselves on their own for you. Most of the time, it will take a lot of moving around. Take a few steps left. A few steps right. Drop your tripod a foot lower, then a foot higher. This is the essence of composition – it’s in every scene we come across… the joy and the challenge is finding it. It’s quite the rewarding experience to take a normal scene on a hike through a forest trail and present it in a powerful, inspiring image simply through clever composition.
Colin is a 27 year old Central Pennsylvania photographer. He has an unhealthy obsession with trying to photograph the stars at night. See more: