Find Your Focus

Use the essentials of strong design for better landscape compositions
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Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California


El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California. Simplicity is the key to this image.

Have you ever stood on a high point, soaking in the view, exhilarated by the vast space in front of you? You took out your camera, hoping to preserve the moment—and that’s where the trouble started. The resulting photograph, rather than conveying the majesty of the scene, looks flat and lifeless. There’s a big difference in the way we experience the world and the way a camera records it. Looking out over a vista, you sense the expanse, feel the wind and hear the silence. But the camera only preserves a flat, two-dimensional visual representation of the scene, with no sound or wind effects. A photograph can’t record feelings—only lines, shapes, tones and colors.

So how do you give your photographs impact? How do you convey the grandeur of the landscape in a small, two-dimensional image? You have to find your focus. I’m not talking about turning the ring on your lens—I’m talking about focusing your composition on the essentials and finding a strong design.

Don’t try to show it all. The single most common mistake in photography is including too much in the frame. It’s easy to start adding unnecessary elements: “I like the way the light is hitting that peak, and that tree is interesting, and there’s this log I could put in the foreground, and...” Whoa! Stop! What was that original thought? Oh, yeah, it was the light hitting the peak. Stick with that. Keep it simple.

If you could show only one thing, just one part of the scene in front of you, what would that be? Include only those one or two items in your composition. The rest is just clutter.

Learn From Your Metadata

When film ruled, photography instructors and magazines like OP would routinely remind their students and readers to make notes when they were shooting. How many people do you know who actually did it? When you shoot digital, on the other hand, the notes are made for you in the form of metadata. There’s a lot of useful information that’s recorded every time you take a photo, and it’s all easily accessed in programs like Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture. Take a look at the metadata of a group of your best photographs, and you may find a particular lens or focal length in common. From that, you can decide which is the most important lens to have with you the next time you want to pare down your gear for a hike. Examine images that are destined for the trash, and you may find that they’re all at ISOs pushed too high. These are just a few examples. You can learn quite a bit from the built-in notes on all of your photographs. The data is there. Use it.


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Distant Half Dome provides a clear focal point for this photo from Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park, California.

Draw The Eye
What should viewers look at first? If you can’t answer that question, your composition won’t work. Most photographs need focal points, spots that draw the eye and hold the viewer’s attention. Make what you want people to see obvious.

Where should you place that focal point within the frame? The rule of thirds says that if you divide the photograph into thirds, those lines, and the places where those lines intersect, are good spots to put your main subject or center of interest. This rule is a useful guideline, a reminder that putting your subject in the middle of the frame is usually too static and boring. But the world is infinitely varied, and no rule can fit every image. The rule of logic always trumps the rule of thirds. The rule of logic says that each situation has its own internal order, a way of arranging things that makes sense. If it seems logical to place your focal point in the center, or near the edge of the frame, so be it.

Converging lines emphasize perspective, producing a feeling of depth.

Create Depth
While photographs are two-dimensional, you can create an illusion of depth by exaggerating perspective and scale. By putting a wide-angle lens low to the ground, close to foreground objects, you can exaggerate the apparent size difference between near and far, enhance the sense of depth and make viewers feel as if they could walk into the scene. A vertical orientation usually works best. Be sure to use a small aperture like ƒ/16 or ƒ/22 to keep everything in focus.

Parallel lines that converge in the distance are another classic way to suggest depth and distance. The combination of a wide-angle lens, close foreground and converging lines can impart an almost palpable three-dimensional quality to an image. Many of the world’s greatest landscape images have neither foreground nor middleground. Just look at Ansel Adams’ Moon and Half Dome or Galen Rowell’s Last Light on Horsetail Fall. If the foreground isn’t at least as interesting as the background, leave it out. The foreground and background also need to complement each other, with similar lines, shapes and colors, otherwise the image will look disjointed, like two different photographs stuck together.

Beware of strong horizontal lines that cut across the image and interrupt the eyes’ movement through the frame. On the other hand, lines that lead toward the background, that direct the viewer’s eyes from bottom to top, can unify the composition and tie the foreground and background together.

Lower Calf Creek Falls, Utah. Despite not adhering to the rule of thirds, the composition seems natural and logical because it’s well balanced.

Find Balance
Balance is a key part of a photograph’s internal logic. An object on the left side of the frame needs to be balanced by an object on the right. A focal point at the top needs a counterpoint at the bottom. But keep in mind that everything has its own visual weight. A small spot that contrasts with its surroundings may carry as much weight as a large object that blends in. Dark areas usually have more visual heft than light ones. A large mass of empty space may offset a prominent subject on the other side of the frame.

With the camera turned to a vertical orientation, it’s difficult to push the main subject left or right of center because there’s little room to balance it with an item on the other side of the frame. Centered subjects usually look static and boring with horizontal compositions, but seem natural and logical with the camera turned sideways.

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Death Valley National Park, California. A 300mm lens flattens perspective and isolates the strong zigzag pattern.

Zoom In
While wide-angle lenses are essential tools for landscape photography, they’re not the only choice. Telephoto lenses crop out extraneous clutter, bring the background closer and make distant objects appear large and dominant. But their most powerful feature is their ability to flatten the perspective and create patterns.

Composition is defined as “an arrangement of parts of a work of art so as to form a unified, harmonious whole.” There’s no better way to unify and harmonize a photograph than with patterns and repetition. A single tree is just a tree. Placing two similar trees side by side creates visual rhythm—order out of natural chaos.

Finding patterns takes practice. Make a conscious effort to look for patterns everywhere—at home, on the drive to work and, of course, anytime you’re behind the camera.

Communicate Your Vision
Photography is about communication. Clarify, in your own mind, what you’re trying to say, what you find interesting or moving about the scene in front of you. Then make sure people get your message by simplifying, finding focal points, creating depth and looking for patterns.

Michael Frye is a widely published nature photographer and a contributor to the OP Blog at See more of his work at


    I love that picture of half dome and the Merced!! It has been a long time since I’ve seen something different from that spot! The contrast and drama of the first light breaking through are fantastic!

    Excellent article with very effective examples. I especially like “Draw the Eye.” One point Mr. Frye didn’t state explicitly (and I’d like to know his opinion of what I’m about to say) is that the center of interest in a photo should also be the point of sharpest focus.

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