Wide-Angle Landscape Composition Tips and Ideas for Photographers
Travel and landscape photography presents a number of unique challenges, but having the privilege to interact with our environment and share its beauty in unexpected ways makes the effort all worth it. Like most photographers, the best travel and landscape photographers rely on (and sometimes break) general rules of composition to enhance their photography. In that sense, landscape composition tips will sound familiar if you’ve studied composition in photography, although there are some unique applications.
They also choose the camera gear that will help them create the best results, such as wide-angle lenses, which we’ll focus on below. Unlike most photographers, however, travel and landscape photographers immerse themselves in their environment and must understand the nuances of their surroundings to make the most of their locations, oftentimes places they have never been to before, and may never visit again!
That is part of what makes travel & landscape photography so exciting, though. To help ensure your success on all fronts in these genres, we’ve broken this article down into two distinct sections: wide-angle composition, and genre-specific tips.
Travel and Landscape Composition Tips and Ideas for Photographers
- Use (and Break) the Rule of Thirds!
- Look for Leading Lines
- Create Balance with Lines, Textures, Shapes, and Colors
- Add Depth With Dynamic Foregrounds & Backgrounds
- Think Outside The 2:3 Box; Know When To Crop And Stitch
- Understand How To Create Scale
- Use A Tripod For Focus Stacking
- Stick Around After Sunset (For Blue Hour)
- Un-Set The Sun(set)
- Explore a Location Without Your Camera
- Check For Celestial Alignments
- Brave the Bad Weather
Wide-Angle Landscape Composition Tips for Photographers
When photographers take an interest in landscape photography, they tend to look first at gear, particularly at lenses. This is a natural first step and it’s actually one of the most important decisions a landscape photographer can make. After a bit of experimenting and asking around, they more often choose at least one wide-angle lens, which often becomes their favorite, and spends a lot of time on their camera body!
Equally important to the lens we choose for landscape photography, however, is how we use it. Wide-angle lenses work well in general for landscape photography, because we are so often capturing “grand vistas” and “sweeping views.” However, they also allow us to create truly dynamic, creative landscape images when we understand and take advantage of landscape composition techniques that go beyond “zoom out!”
That is why we’re going to focus on wide-angle landscape composition tips for photographers. Of course, you can apply these tips to other focal lengths (and genres) as well.
1. Use (and Break) The Rule of Thirds!
The rule of thirds is all about balancing lines, subjects, basically anything! Divide your composition horizontally and vertically into three equal sanctions, creating nine equal-sized boxes. Many cameras now have a grid overlay to make this even easier.
This may have been the very first rule you learned in photography, but it really does work! However, it is also a very general, vague rule, one that is easy to bend or break. In fact, if you “nail it perfectly” with 3-4 strong lines that fall exactly on the rule-of-thirds lines, your landscape composition might actually start to look too forced and uncreative. So, don’t try too hard to follow this rule perfectly, just keep it in mind and remember to vaguely consider the different zones of your image when placing subjects. You usually want the final result to appear relatively organic and natural.
The best thing you can do is to experiment with each scene you photograph and capture a few different variations of the framing. Do you like being very strict about precise subject placement? Do you only use this rule in subtle ways that are less obvious to viewers? Or, do you sometimes feel your creative vision is telling you to just completely break this rule?
As long as you are making conscious choices regarding your framing and balance, you’ll be improving your artistic eye.
2. Look For Leading Lines
Nothing draws a viewer’s attention into a scene like literally having a line to follow through the image. It could be a distant curving river, or an up-close rock formation; either way, if you have something that can lead the viewer’s eye from the bottom edge of the photo (usually) and directly towards a distant subject, then you’ll have a successful landscape image.
3. Create Balance with Lines, Textures, Shapes, and Colors
There are many other aspects of an image that can add to its impact. Not just leading lines, but also strong textures, prominent shapes, or very vibrant colors. All of these elements can really help your landscape photographs stand out!
However, if your image contains too many of these elements, or if they clash with each other and create imbalance, the viewing experience can start to feel overwhelming. Sometimes, therefore, you might want to just simplify your image! If the colors are clashing or causing imbalance, try converting the image to Black & White. If there is too much of a particular texture in your landscape composition that is distracting a viewer from the main subject, try re-composing the shot to create better balance and/or emphasis.
Again, start by simply creating a habit of noticing all of these major elements before you even click the shot. With practice, you’ll instinctively know when to compose your image to emphasize a certain color scheme, texture pattern, or other shapes, lines, or objects.
4. Add Depth With Dynamic Foregrounds & Backgrounds
A whole lot of “top tips” articles will tell you to frame a distant landscape subject with a foreground, and it’s a good idea to always consider using a foreground.
However, many landscape photographers forget the real key to creating a truly dynamic image, and that is, to maintain as much of a visible connection as possible from the foreground through the image to the background. Even if there isn’t a strong leading line, it still can be incredibly powerful for a viewer’s eye to actually see how a foreground connects to the rest of the scene. Otherwise, it might just look like two random subjects unnaturally forced together. (This is, of course, yet another great rule to break, once you are aware of how the visual tool works!)
5. Think Outside The 2:3 Box; Know When To Crop And Stitch
Your viewfinder’s framing isn’t the only way to frame a scene. Sometimes, cropping from the native 2:3 aspect ratio to another common ratio such as 4:5 or 1:1 is a perfect way to remove distractions and/or accentuate a main subject!
Other times, cropping (or stitching) to a panorama, such as 16:9, 1:2, or even 1:3, is the best way to view a scene.
6. Create A Sense Of Scale With An Identifiable Subject
Whether you are photographing a grand, scenic view, or a close-up, creative angle, landscape photography can often benefit from having a human element, or any other identifiable subject, in order to create a sense of scale in the scene.
This isn’t always necessary, of course; don’t be afraid to get creative and let the viewer’s eye stay curious about how large (or how small) a subject really is!
7. Use A Tripod For Focus Stacking (Or Don’t, Landscape Photos Can Have Shallow Depth Too!)
With an ultra-wide lens, one of the easiest things to do is, unfortunately, to create a landscape composition with too much depth of field! Even though wide-angle lenses have more apparent depth of field than normal or telephoto lenses, if you place a subject just inches away from the front of your lens, you won’t be able to stop down your aperture small enough to get everything in focus.
Thankfully, stacking software is getting quite automated these days, so all you need is a little bit of patience, and a tripod!
(NOTE: Don’t forget that all tips or “rules” are still breakable! Sometimes, even with landscape composition, it’s okay to let the background and/or foreground be slightly blurry. It helps emphasize the main subject, and creates a better sense of scale for particularly small subjects, too.)
Wide-angle lenses don’t need to be able to focus at “macro” distances in order to create dramatic results, by the way! On the Tamron 11-20mm f/2.8 and 17-70mm f/2.8, for example, their 6-7″ (0.15-0.2m) close focus distance allows you to get truly up-close with a subject.
Want to focus stack such a close-up subject, so that the background is also in focus? It’s quite simple: with your camera locked down, start by checking the difference in focus between the nearest and farthest subject. Can you capture the entire scene with just two frames at f/11, one focused on the foreground and one on the background? Or, what about three frames?
With just a little bit of testing and practice, you’ll be surprised how quickly you get the hang of calculating and capturing a good focus-stacked image.
Additional Travel and Landscape Photography Tips
Now that you know how to make the most of what’s in front of you, here are some tips on how to place yourself in a position to have great options for incredible landscape photos.
8. Stick Around After Sunset (Blue Hour)
One of the most exciting (and challenging) times of day to capture landscape photography is known as “blue hour.” That is, after the fiery colors of sunset have faded, and the stars are just starting to come out.
If you have the patience, and a sturdy tripod that allows you to capture photos at shutter speeds measured in whole seconds or even minutes, you can capture some really unique images.
9. Un-Set The Sun
If you’re doing mountain landscape photography where there are hillside trails and other high-elevation features to (safely) climb up or down, you don’t have to settle for just one sunset per day!
No, you can’t have more than one actual sunset, of course. However, what you can do is, give yourself multiple opportunities to capture the perfect sunstar as the sun sets behind a nearby mountain ridge or other feature. So, frame your landscape composition, capture that perfect split second with the right amount of sun peeking out, and then scramble up (or down) the trail until you are able to frame another shot.
10. Explore Without Your Camera
This sounds counterintuitive, but one of the best things you can do to improve your creative eye is, actually, leave your camera behind! Of course, this works best if you can arrive to a location early, and go on a scouting hike/walk well in advance of the best light or photography opportunity.
Just soak in the views. Make a mental note of any strong subjects, other potential elements that you might be able to add to a landscape composition, and take some time to actually ponder how to work everything together.
Hopefully, by the time the light gets really good, you’ll have one or two solid ideas of which photos you want to capture, and you’ll be back with your tripod and camera ready to go!
Alternately, if you’re running short on time and just don’t want to make two trips to your photo spot, just bring your camera when you first go out, but simply don’t get it out; leave it in your backpack for a while as you soak in a beautiful view for the first time.
11. Check For Celestial Alignments
You may be constrained to a specific date or time if your landscape photography trip is also a family vacation or business trip. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
Always check apps like Sun Surveyor, PhotoPills, or The Photographer’s Ephemeris. These apps will tell you exactly where and when the sun and moon will rise and set, and even where the Milky Way will be if you stick around late at night.
You might not get the perfect moonrise at sunset shot, but you never know when you might catch a crescent moon setting just after sunset, or have an opportunity to line up a perfect sunrise with a distant mountain, canyon, or other feature.
12. Brave The Bad Weather
This might sound like another terrible idea, however, in landscape photography, one of the best ways to create dramatic imagery is to have dramatic light, and one of the best ways to experience dramatic light is to be ready and waiting as some dramatic (or downright nasty) weather is clearing. It could be a summer monsoon or a winter snowstorm, but as long as you have a secure location where you can patiently wait out the storm, just keep a constant watch on the conditions and be ready to head out as soon as it’s safe.
Honestly? Don’t be afraid of a little “bad” weather with your camera gear, either! A little rain or dust is just fine, especially if your lenses are weather-sealed. For example, I used Tamron’s flagship APS-C E-mount lenses, including the 11-20mm f/2.8 and the 17-70mm f/2.8 VC lenses, to capture the photos for this article. Both are weather-sealed, making them more than durable enough for inclement weather.
Of course, sometimes, you might get to a viewpoint and see nothing but grey skies the entire time. It happens! You can’t win every single time you take a risk.
When the conditions do come together, though, you’re in for a real treat! Also, since most other landscape photographers may still be huddled in their homes, cars, hotel rooms, or tents, you’re going to capture some truly unique imagery that few others will get to photograph, or even witness. Honestly, that’s one of the most satisfying parts of landscape photography!
I hope you enjoyed these travel and landscape composition tips for photographers. There’s nothing quite like actually connecting with our environment, and no other tool allows you to create dramatic imagery that achieves this goal, like having a strong understanding of composition.
Because of the uniqueness of travel and landscape photography, there are additional considerations we must take into account for successfully navigating locations. Our goal here is to help you know what to look for and how to find and capture it in an impactful way.