As a landscape photographer, composition is everything. It is the glue that holds our photos together and it is what separates a great shot from a mediocre shot. Our compositions tell a story, it is our artistic expression of the natural world. Here are some quick tips on composition that go beyond basic principles like the Rule of Thirds.
1. Capture Action
A few things come to mind when I think about what makes some of Earth’s grand landscapes so dramatic. Sure, the sensational mountains, deep canyons, and lush forests are dramatic enough on their own. But, I think about the high winds of the mountains, the rushing streams and waterfalls of the forest, the monsoonal storms of the desert, and so on. Those elements define some of our landscapes and whenever I can, I look to add those elements to my composition. I want to capture the action. It’s a very effective way to strengthen a composition, while also adding a sense of drama.
The below scene is of Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National park. It was a blistery morning with freezing temperatures and 40 mph winds. I wanted to capture the moment as I experienced it so I chose to incorporate the waves on the lake in my composition. I spent hours that morning with my feet in the water, taking hundreds of exposures to capture the wave action I wanted. I think the waves give some reference to the viewer as to how windy it was, and they also offer a nice transition from the foreground to Sinopah Mountain.
Here’s another example from the high country of Glacier National Park, I found myself caught in a brief flurry of snow. Again, wanting to capture the snowfall and dramatic light, I quickly setup and started taking exposures to freeze the snowflakes. You can see how much atmosphere the snow adds to this scene, and the composition is much stronger as a result.
2. Frame Your Focal Point
The wide-angle lens is one of the greatest creative tools we have as photographers. No other lens can naturally distort a landscape like a wide-angle. It can make small objects seem enormous and it can distort natural lines/shapes to our liking. I like to use the unique properties of a wide-angle to find interesting ways to frame my focal point. Framing draws the focus to your subject, and also keeps the eye engaged as the eye transitions between the frame and the focal point. I like to use the wide-angle to my advantage when it comes to framing and I refer to my technique as ‘looking smaller’. An example is this shot from the Hoh Rainforest of Olympic National Park.
The dangling moss was just inches away from my camera, and because my lens was so close the moss appears much larger than it was. The gap between the moss was only a few inches across, but I was able to use my wide-angle lens to accentuate the gap and use it as a frame for my composition. I also framed the furthest tree with the two staggered trees. Looking for small scenes like this can really lead to some dynamic framing opportunities. The only downside is that because you have to get so up-close and personal, you frequently will be required to focus stack exposures to ensure the entire scene is in focus.
In this shot, I was flat on my back shooting handheld so I could get a perspective of the branches framing Sinopah Mountain. In an ideal world, there is fall foliage in the bottom right-hand corner to provide additional framing, but the negative space also works as an entry point for the viewer.
3. Reflect Your Focal Point
Reflections can result in powerful compositions. When I think about an idyllic reflection, a vast mountain range reflected in a large alpine lake comes to mind, but I stress again to look smaller. Subtle, smaller reflective scenes are all over where there’s water, you just have to look for them. If you do find those scenes, the symmetry between the subject and its respective reflection often results in a fantastic shot. When I explore water worlds, I always keep in mind that even the smallest pool can be used as a reflective element.
In this shot from Banff National Park, the pool in the foreground is very small, probably around 1 foot by 1 foot, I again used my wide-angle lens to magnify the scene. My camera was almost touching the pool of water and I needed to get it as low as possible so that the reflection was visible. The key is getting your camera almost level with the reflective surface so that a reflection is possible.
Our compositions tell a story and to tell that story you have many techniques you can utilize. When you add elements like these to your landscapes your visual story becomes more compelling. To learn more and to practice these techniques and others join me for an 8-day workshop and cruise in Alaska aboard the Motor Vessel David B.
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