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. In this article, we’ll provide you with essential landscape photography composition tips and ideas to help you elevate your pictures.
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.
Understand the Golden Spiral and Golden Triangle
These are the Golden Spiral, and the Golden Triangle. The Golden Spiral is also known as the Fibonacci Spiral, after the man who invented it. The Golden Spiral looks like a Nautilus shell, and to get the most effective composition you should place the areas of most interest within the smallest area of the spiral. It’s hard to describe, so the best way to understand is to look at it superimposed over an image:
The Golden Triangle is another way of arranging composition to open up the image and draw the eye along diagonal lines. Again, the best way to understand this is to look at an image overlaid with it.
You’ll find that Photoshop and other image editing programs have crop overlays that include the Golden Spiral and the Golden Triangle, as well as others. Use these when cropping an image to give the best composition depending on the overlay you choose. There are other methods of composition that simplify things further, like the Quadrant System, which divides the image into four equal parts.
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.
Create Balance and Symmetry
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. 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.
Add Depth With Dynamic Foregrounds & Backgrounds
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!)
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.
Create A Sense Of Scale With An Identifiable Subject
Have you ever looked at a photo that was so full of subjects, shapes, lines, and textures, that your eye didn’t know what to look at? ‘Busy’ photographs tend not to keep the viewer’s attention very long, so including a clear subject in your landscape photo goes a long way towards creating a good image.
Decide what you want the viewer to focus on when you choose a composition. Think about the brightness, size, color, and contrast of that subject, and what you want to be the main attraction. Oppositely, look for any distractions that might draw the viewer’s eye away from the main subject, and try to frame the shot to exclude them! Oftentimes, when you see a perfectly “clean” landscape composition, what you don’t realize is that there is a tree or rock or something else just out of frame. We dive deeper into this concept in our minimalist landscape photography article.
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.
Get Closer to the Ground
For an interesting perspective, get your camera down closer to the ground. This lets you include more foreground without having to crop out the sky or the background. This works brilliantly if the foreground has texture, like sand, and it also works well for photographing moving water.
Sometimes, you can even blur the background of your scene to increase the emphasis on your close-up, low-down subject, however, you can also try your hand at focus stacking, if you’re up for a real landscape photography challenge!
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!
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.
Reflections have always been popular in landscape photography composition, and that’s because they work. Remember that symmetry is pleasing to the human eye? reflections are symmetrical by their very nature. The most common reflections you’ll see are in water, of course, but don’t forget you can use windows or any reflective surface.
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. For more info, see our video below.