Visual Flow

Off the Beaten Path

Nature photography has a unique power to move people. The best nature photographs use composition to transport viewers into a scene, giving them a sense of being there side-by-side with the photographer. Composition is what separates the photographers from the mere shuttermonkeys, transforming pretty scenery into compelling imagery. Composition is the key to successful photography, but arguably it is the most difficult aspect of photography to master.

In my new eBook Chasing the Light, I discuss the concept of “visual flow,” which is a way of leading a viewer’s eye through the scene using composition, tonal transition, and color. Visual flow is a way of creating the illusion of three-dimensional perspective and motion over time in a two-dimensional static capture. It is a way of creating energy and a sense of visual excitement in your photographs. Visual flow helps capture the dynamic forces of nature at work, creating an illusion of movement and vitality. 

Incorporating what’s right in front of you—something we call foreground—into your images can be very effective in leading a viewer’s eye through the scene, and giving the viewer a sense of perspective, of being there. A foreground element provides a visual reference for the viewer, a place to start their journey through your image. But not just anything sitting at your feet will do. An ideal foreground should be interesting, and should lead a viewer’s eye into the photograph. Some of the strongest leading elements are leading lines, curving or zig-zagging shapes, or a progression of elements that lead the eye from one element to the next. Leading lines and shapes can be very powerful, so it is important that they lead the eye somewhere important. Leading elements that lead outside of the image frame, or somewhere unimportant, will likely confuse viewers and ruin the effect.

What follows are examples of several techniques used to create visual flow. In the image below, a foreground element (the small rock in the stream) acts as a “visual anchor,” a place for the viewer’s eye to start its journey. The strong leading diagonal line of the stream takes the eye from foreground to background. This visual progression is aided by the transition from darker tones in the foreground to lighter tones in the background, where light from above the canyon has been reflected into its deep interior, resulting in a warm glow.

Liquid Light

The following image also uses leading lines, albeit more subtly. Once again, a foreground element (the small plant) acts as a visual anchor, whereas the flowing grass acts as a leading element directing the eye through the image. An illusion of three dimensions is created by tonal transition, from the darker tones in the foreground to the brighter tones of the fog-shrouded trees in the background. The placement and spacing of tree trunks throughout the middle-ground and background of the image also creates compositional structure and interest, particularly the two leaning trees on the left and right edge of the frame, which create diagonal lines pushing down from the top corners of the image, focusing attention within the image frame and creating radial symmetry.     

Patience and Persistence

In the image below, the progression of curving shapes in the foreground creates visual flow, leading the eye to the lone hoodoo in the middle-ground and then to the stone cliffs beyond. A gradual transition of tones from cool to warm also aides the eye’s journey. This image was shot on the edge of morning twilight, when light was just beginning to appear. The sky above the eastern horizon began to glow with light from the incipient sunrise (still a half hour away), casting a faint warm glow on the distant rocks, barely visible to the eye but recorded by a 30-second exposure. The rest of the scene was illuminated by light reflected from the dark blue sky above, and thus is rendered with cool tones. Shooting on the edge of light can help you find tonal and color transitions that can be used to create visual flow.   

Front Row Seat

These three images are just a small sample of the many ways that one can create visual flow in nature images. By always being on the lookout for strong compositional elements that will encourage a viewer’s eye to wander purposefully through your photographs, you can make images that will attract attention and hold interest over time.

Chasing the Light: Essential Tips for Taking Great Landscape Photos is a 62-page downloadable PDF eBook filled with informative text, stunning full-color images, and plenty of insights and inspiration.

Free online tutorials on my website:

Selecting the Best White Balance for Nature Photography

How to Photograph Rainbows

Using Live View for Nature Photography

Preparing Photos for the Web Using Photoshop