Conquer Composition

How to create depth and dimension for dynamic photographs
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A hiker soaks in the spectacular view of Dead Horse Point at first light. Proper subject placement is key to engaging and holding the viewer's attention.

There's a reason why so many people in this world enjoy picking up a camera and capturing the magic that lies in front of them. We all see in our own unique way, and when executed correctly, this individualistic vision is manifest in magical, memorable imagery that transcends all else and exposes our inner workings as landscape and active-lifestyle photographers. This vision comes forth through the way we compose a scene. I believe composition to be the most unadulterated expression of who we are as photographers and visual artists. Technique can be taught and equipment can be bought, but vision is singular. It's how we see as individuals.

Composition is an intricate balance between the inclusion, exclusion and arrangement of diverse subject matter and other rudimentary elements within the photographic frame. Just as shutter speed and aperture form the technical foundation for each image we produce, well-executed composition is the creative glue that holds our images together.

Layers of fall color abound in Utah's Big Cottonwood Canyon. Search for layering components within your frame when shooting longer-lens landscapes.

A well-composed image will exhibit the following:
The inclusion of key elements within the frame that send a clear and concise message to viewers.
These key elements should be those parts of the image that both draw the viewer in and retain or hold his or her attention.

The exclusion of all other elements or parts of the image that may detract from the key elements.
These elements are beyond secondary in nature and can be manifest in anything that consciously or subconsciously distracts the viewer from cycling smoothly through the visual journey of each image.

The proper arrangement or balance of primary and secondary subject matter within the photographic frame.

Dynamic Composition
Our greatest challenge in photography is to transport the viewer "there." Where is there? It's Yellowstone National Park in the winter with crisp, early-morning light and bugling elk. It's an aquamarine waterfall in a paradisiacal locale, cascading ever so gently over travertine pools and under lush jungle canopy. It's perched on the edge of vermillion cliffs, overlooking a vast otherworldly expanse of grottos, plateaus and canyons. Are you getting the picture?

Our perception of reality is based upon depth and dimension, and that's the largest obstacle we must overcome in capturing a three-dimensional wonder and placing it in a two-dimensional medium. It can be done by finding three-dimensional compositions that create the feeling that one could step right into our photographic frame.

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A barrel cactus lights up with the last rays of sunlight outside of Tucson, Arizona. Creating a near-far dynamic in your wide-angle images will help to parlay a feeling of realism to viewers.

Perhaps the most useful tool we have when constructing an unforgettable image is simple contrast. Our world is filled with contrasts—in color, texture, tone and subject matter. These contrasts engage our senses and cause us to explore that which finds itself in our frame of view. Search for contrasts, and craft ways to implement them in your imagery.

We also have a useful guide in how we arrange the elements within our frame. The rule of thirds is an elementary guide for arranging elements within the frame. Divide your frame into horizontal and vertical thirds, and you have a virtual overlay for placement of key elements within your frame. Generally, it's best to stay away from the static approach of dividing your frame in half, or placing primary subject matter smack-dab in the center of your frame. For landscape photography, pay extra attention to where you place your horizon. Even just the slightest positioning of your horizon line above or below the halfway mark will make a huge difference in the overall look and feel of your image. Try it!

The exclusion of distracting elements is a big part of maintaining focus on the important parts of your image. Pay special attention to the edges of your frame. Look for intruding elements and clutter like stray rocks, sticks, trees, bushes or even strange areas of contrasty light or color that feel out of place compared to the image as a whole. After shooting, take a moment to review it on your camera's LCD display and look for the minor distractions that you miss when looking through the viewfinder. Additionally, take care not to overtly clip or cut off anything of significant importance in your frame.

Glassy reflections and mountain peaks are two of the main attractions at Beavertail Ponds Overlook in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Give your images proper balance with proper primary and secondary subject matter.

Think of your photographic frame as the party you've been planning for months. Your one and only desire is to have people attend—and stay—at your party, enjoying all it has to offer. By carefully assessing the edges of your frame, you'll be holding the attention of those party guests until they're ready to leave instead of watching their eyes drift elsewhere, yearning for something more.

Tackling Wide-Angle
As landscape photographers, the wide-angle lens has long been one of the sharpest arrows in our quiver. It's an indispensable tool in translating expansive, all-encompassing vistas into meaningful photographs. It's exactly that trait of all-inclusion, however, that also makes the wide-angle lens such a challenge to use successfully.

When done correctly, there's no better tool in conveying the sense of realism that we strive for in scenic imagery. Perhaps the most important aspect of wide-angle shooting is that you must engage the viewer immediately. With so much space within the frame to wander about, it's the photographer's job to direct traffic and literally guide the viewer through our image.

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Fog settles into mountain valleys outside of Whitewater, British Columbia. Scenes with numerous elements of interest stacked front to back in a scene make for great long-lens landscape candidates.

Engage the viewer immediately with foreground subjects that beg for attention. Use this foreground subject as the anchor in your frame—one to which the viewer will return often, studying and digesting its every last detail. Remember to utilize the other compositional zones to give a realistic, three-dimensional feel. Separate your frame into foreground, mid-ground and background zones by using subject matter, color and tonal contrast.

If you can't find a foreground subject you were searching for, consider using leading lines to draw the viewer deeper into your frame before finally resting upon majestic mountain peaks or a golden sun star. These leading lines can be found in striated rock, patterns in the sand or flowing water as just a few examples.

Long-Lens Landscapes
I find myself reaching for my longer lenses more and more these days, passing up the traditional wide-angle view. My technique for finding good compositions with telephotos is to look through the lens, and scan back and forth for the picture that speaks to me in an intimate manner. Few people "see" in telephoto, so I strongly recommend you try this technique. You will get results!

Generally, scenes most easily composed through longer lenses are those with significant elements stacked front to back. Think of the scene as a three-dimensional loaf of sliced bread. How many slices of bread hold your attention or stack up well? If the answer is "a lot," consider throwing on a long lens to compress the scene. Search for layering within the frame and pay attention to areas of highlight and shadow that will help to convey depth. Also, look for crisscrossing ridgelines and other intersecting elements that guide the eye through the frame.

Summer storm light hits hard above Devil's Castle at Alta, Utah. Utilizing leading lines in your wide-angle images will help to take the viewer into and through your images. Reward them with a climactic display of subject matter, color, contrast or light.

Balance Is The Key
Perhaps the most understated and overlooked fundamental of dynamic composition is ensuring proper balance within your image. Balance is tough to define, but you'll immediately know if your image is out of whack or off-balance—you'll know it when you see it. Think of your photographic frame as though it's balancing on a fulcrum—each subject or area of interest within the frame will cause the image to lean to the left, right, front or back. Our goal as photographers is to keep this image from falling off that fulcrum.

Pay attention to where you place primary and secondary subject matter. If you've placed your foreground anchor in the lower left-hand corner of your frame, consider placing something of lesser importance and visual weight in the upper right-hand corner. The ideal is to ensure it doesn't overpower your primary subject, yet still gives the viewer an alternate part of the image to explore. This also will aid in creating a near/far relationship that conveys depth and dimension. This is what's known as good visual tension—that which causes the viewer's eyes to move about your image in a pleasing manner, eventually resting back on the area of primary interest.

Precision Subject Placement
Regardless of the scene in front of your lens, understanding how and where to properly include subjects within the frame can make or break the photograph. Consider the inclusion of people or wildlife within your images. Give special attention to how they contribute to the image dynamic as a whole. Just having them in the shot isn't enough.

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Take particular care to ensure the subject isn't leading the viewer out of the frame. Generally, viewers want as much context as we can pack into each image. We want to see where that animal is headed or what that fly fisherman is casting to. This means making sure the subject is looking, walking or positioned into, and not out of, the frame. Give your subject breathing room around the edges of your frame. Crowding or clipping leaves viewers uneasy and seldom makes for a good composition.

Quick Tips For Stronger Compositions

1 Get low or climb high. Resist the urge to shoot at eye level. You'll be amazed at how an image can transform itself from even just a slightly different perspective.

2 Slow down! Take a moment to study the scene in front of you before clicking away.

3 Use a tripod. This gives you a stable platform, and it also will help you study the smaller, more subtle nuances within your scene.

4 Know your location. More importantly, know where the sun will rise and fall each morning and evening. This will help in finding ideal shooting locations for your preferred composition. Suunto's new Ambit adventure watch allows you to find that perfect spot using the latest in GPS and digital compass technology. The Photographer's Ephemeris is a great tool for predicting how the light will change on a scene (

5 Use Live View. It's extremely helpful for scrutinizing the corners and edges of your frame for clutter and distracting elements, and for studying the overall look and feel of your image. You also can use a grid overlay that will assist in leveling the camera and employing the rule of thirds.

Think about the rule of thirds and, more specifically, about the four points where the rule-of-thirds grid lines intersect. Place your subject, or the most important part of your subject, on those points. Study the exceptional images of other photographers, and you're sure to notice a general trend as to where they place their primary subjects. Finally, our eyes naturally travel to the areas of highest contrast within an image, so look to place your subjects in those spots. This may require moving your subject, if possible, or changing your shooting position. Small adjustments can make huge differences in accentuating a shape and separating it from its surroundings.

Remember that creative composition is your signature stamp on each and every image you capture. Commit to searching within yourself to create unique and stunning imagery that speaks to your own individualistic vision.

See more of Adam Barker's photography at


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