THE ART OF COMPOSITION
Think of a landscape photograph as a jigsaw puzzle, with
dozens of different pieces demanding your attention. If you arrange all
those pieces in the right order you'll end up with an organised,
structured image that makes sense and looks good. But if you put them
together any old way, the end result will be a muddled mess of shapes,
colours and details that's difficult to make sense of.
That, in a nutshell, is what composition's all about -
arranging the elements of a scene in your camera's viewfinder so they form
something visually interesting to look at; something that will hold the
attention of the viewer and take their eye on a journey around the frame
from the immediate foreground to the distant background.
Every time you raise a camera to your eye you're composing
a picture - the very act of deciding where to point it is based on a
conscious or sub-conscious decision about what you want to include in the
picture. The trouble is, many photographers don't spend enough time
thinking about that composition before firing away, and nine times out of
ten the end result is unbalanced and unstimulating.
Often the main subject is too far away and marooned in a
sea of empty space, or there are annoying distractions in the frame. Many
pictures have no obvious entry point, so the viewer's wanders around
aimlessly, and lack any sense of depth or scale so they look as flat as
the proverbial pancake.
Painters are one up on photographers when it comes to
composing a picture, because if the scene before them isn't ideal they can
move elements around on the canvas until it is. We just have to accept
what's there and make the best of it.
Fortunately, this isn't as
difficult as it sounds because by using different lenses, choosing your
viewpoint carefully and thinking about which part of the scene you want to
capture on film, it's possible to create successful compositions every
time. There are also many compositional 'rules' and devices that can be
used to help you take more interesting pictures, and the more pictures you
take, the better your natural sense of composition will become - until it
becomes and intuitive act, rather like driving a car does when you've been
behind the wheel enough.
Include foreground interest
Scenic pictures can often be improved dramatically simply
by including something in the immediate foreground. Not only does
foreground interest help to create a strong feeling of depth and scale,
which is vitally important, but it also tightens-up the whole composition
by pulling together the different elements in the scene, and provides an
obvious entry point into the shot - the bottom is a natural place for the
eye to start with conventional picture formats.
All kinds of things can
be used as foreground interest - walls, rivers, rocks, hedges and trees,
fences, roads, paths, flower beds and so on.
Wide-angle lenses are invaluable for emphasising
foreground interest . By moving in close with a 24mm or 28mm lens you can
make even small features dominate the whole shot, and exaggerate
perspective to create powerful compositions with the foreground looming
large and the rest of the scene stretching off into the distance.
Wide-angle lenses also offer the added benefit of extensive
depth-of-field. By stopping down to f/16 or f/22, everything will come out
sharp from less than a metre in front of the camera to infinity.
Use the rule-of-thirds
This is the oldest compositional trick in the book, and
one that's used by both painters and photographers to create a visually
Imagine you're shooting a landscape and there's an
isolated farmhouse in the distance or a single tree in the middle of a
field, acting as the main focal point. Most photographers would stick this
subject in the centre of the frame - which can work in some situations.
However, you will generally get a more pleasing sense of balance if you
position it using the rule-of-thirds.
To do this, divide-up your
camera's viewfinder into an imaginary grid using two horizontal and two
vertical lines. The focal point is then placed on or near any of the four
intersection points created by those lines.
The rule of thirds can also
be used to help you position the horizon. It's tempting to stick it across
the centre of the frame, but unless you're shooting a symmetrical scene,
such as reflections in a lake, the result tends to look very static and
A much better approach is to place the horizon one third from
the top or the bottom of the frame, so you're emphasising either the sky
or ground. To help you achieve this, divide the viewfinder into thirds
using two imaginary horizontal lines, then compose the scene before you so
the horizon falls on one of them.
You should never force a picture to
comply with the rule-of-thirds, but when used with care it can work well
and after a while you will find yourself naturally dividing the scene into
thirds to aid the position of important elements.
Make the most of lines
Lines just can't be beaten when it comes to adding depth
and dynamism to a picture. As well as creating a strong sense of
direction, they also carry the eye through the scene so it takes in
everything along the way.
If you keep your eyes peeled when shooting
landscapes you'll see lines appearing everywhere: roads, rivers, railings,
avenues of trees, road markings, telegraph poles and railway tracks
slicing through the countryside, raking shadows cast by the evening sun
and so on. All these and many more can be used to improve the composition
of your pictures.
Horizontal lines divide the
scene in layers and produce a restful effect by echoing the horizon. The
eye normally travels from left to right, and steadily upwards through the
Vertical lines are far more active so they give a picture
tension and a strong sense of vertical direction - think of the towering
trunks of coniferous trees reaching for the sky.
Diagonal lines are more energetic because they contrast
strongly with horizontal and vertical elements and carry your eye through
the whole scene. By suggesting perspective they also add depth. Lines
moving from bottom left to top right work the best because that's natural
way for the eye to travel.
Converging lines created by roads, crop
rows, avenues of trees and railway lines are ideal for adding a strong
sense of depth, scale and perspective due to the way they rush away to the
horizon and seem to move closer together with distance. To make the most
of this effect, look straight down the lines and use a wide-angle lens to
exaggerate perspective. Include the point where the lines meet - the
'vanishing point' - is also a good idea as it brings the composition to a
Finally, lines don't actually have to be
straight to work in a composition. The graceful curves of a meandering
river will carry the eye through a scene just as effectively as a
Use your feet
The late photojournalist Robert Capa used to say, "If a
picture's not good enough, you weren't close enough". He was talking
mainly about war and conflict, of course, but in the landscape his words
still ring true.
Many photographers seem to have a pathological fear of
getting close to their subject, regardless of what it is. They see
something interesting, snap away without a care in the world, then wonder
why the final picture has enough wasted space to drive a Chieftain tank
So, the next time you're about to take a landscape
photograph, stop for a second, have a last look at the composition and ask
yourself if it could be improved by walking further into the scene,
getting closer to foreground interest or finding something more suitable
to fill the foreground. You'll be amazed at the difference this can
While you're feeling energetic it's also worth having a
general look around your subject. That landscape might look rather nice
from the lay-by at the side of the road - and it's a known fact that some
of the most stunning viewpoints in the UK are close to roads - but what
about if you walked around the corner, or up the hill behind you? The fact
is you'll rarely get the best picture from the first viewpoint you find,
but unless you make the effort to explore your subject from different
angles you'll never know the alternatives.
Sometimes all it takes is a
slight change of viewpoint to completely transform the composition.
Walking a few metres in any direction could give you a far clearer view,
get rid of unwanted distractions or provide important foreground
The height from which you shoot should also be considered.
Most photographers take every picture with the camera at eye level, but by
kneeling down or standing on a wall you'll get a totally different view of
the same scene. Many professionals even carry a step ladder for this
purpose (ask Charlie Waite) so they can gain a slightly elevated position
and see much more of the scene they're trying to capture.
feet is a vitally important part of composing a picture, so never be
afraid to wear out a little shoe leather.
Choose the right
Although it's natural to shoot landscapes with the camera
held horizontally in the 'landscape' format, turning the camera on its
side can totally transform the composition.
Upright pictures are far
more energetic because the eye has further to travel from bottom to top.
You can also emphasise vertical lines and height to add tension and
excitement, or capture rivers and roads snaking away into the distance The
horizontal format is much more restful to look at because it suggests
repose, and echoes the horizon itself - that's why it tends to be
preferred by landscape photographers.
Make the most of frames
Using manmade or natural features to frame your pictures
is a great way to tighten up the overall composition, get rid of annoying
details and direct attention towards your main subject.
All sorts of
things can be used as frames: archways, door and window openings, a hole
in a wall, a gap in dense foliage or between trees, the overhanging
branches of a tree, bridges, even the play of shadow on a scene.
make best use of frames you will usually find that a wide-angle lens works
best, allowing you to include the frame without obscuring the scene
beyond. Set your lens to a small aperture such as f/11 or f/16 if you want
the frame to come out sharp. Alternatively, blur it by setting a wide
aperture and focusing carefully on your main subject.
If the frame
casts a shadow over you, step beyond it to take a meter reading, otherwise
the main scene will be overexposed. In bright conditions the frame itself
will record as a silhouette, which can look stunning.
Break the rules
Throughout this feature we've looked at numerous
guidelines and rules that can be applied to improve the composition of
your pictures. However, they're only there as a guide, and should be used
Actors are often told to learn their lines so they can forget
them and improvise. It's exactly the same with composition. Once you know
how these rules work, you can happily commit them to your subconscious and
follow your instincts.
Often you'll get a far better picture by
intentionally breaking the rules - placing the horizon across the middle
of the picture, or your focal point in the centre. The thing to remember
is that whatever you do, make sure you have a reason for doing it. But
most important of all, make it count.