Ten Quick Landscape Composition Guidelines

A quick tip, a short reminder or a checklist is good to carry around

A quick tip, a short reminder or a checklist is good to carry around. In landscape photography, there are so many aspects to remember that it's nice to have a list of prompts so you don't overlook that one factor that breaks an image. Below are 10 reminders to use while out in the field.

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Filter It. Two filters I never leave home without are my polarizer and graduated neutral density. The polarizer saturates a blue sky and removes glare. Without it, my skies lack contrast and my colors aren't as rich. The graduated ND allows me to create a perfect exposure of a bright sky and shadowed foreground. A two-stop soft edge is the most versatile, although I own other variations.

Rule of Thirds. I prefer to call it the Guideline of Thirds in that there are times when you can break it successfully, but for the majority of photographic situations, it will help. Get the main subject out of the center of the picture. If your camera has an option to show the rule of thirds grid, turn it on. On many new cameras, it's available in live view.

It's All About the Light. The most dramatic light occurs at sunrise and sunset. The color is warm, it reveals shape and texture due to the low angle, and if there are clouds, the colors can be spectacular. To arrive at sunset isn't much of a sacrifice, but to get up at the crack of dawn can be a struggle. But if you don't, you'll miss some of the best light of the day.

Think Small #1. Landscapes are commonly photographed with wide-angle lenses to take in the grand scenic. This works the majority of the time, but don't overlook the intimate landscape that lies at your feet. Look to the right, to the left and down. The shot of the day may be a macro just 12 inches from your big toe.

Think Small #2. As stated above, wide-angle lenses are great for the grand scenic. But quite often, there's a picture within a picture. For these shots, it's time to break out the telephoto. Zoom into the small slices that are just as appealing as the grand view.

Avoid Mergers. Mergers are created when key subjects overlap each other, touch another key element, or touch the sides of the frame. Examples of mergers are a tree growing out of someone's head, a harbor scene wherein you can't tell one ship's mast from another or a large group of animals wherein those that are placed along the edges of the frame lack legs, heads, wings, etc. If you detect a merger, move to your left, right, or get higher or lower. More often than not, it will eliminate the distraction in the background or foreground.

Touch of Color. Color is powerful. A touch of color is even more so. Make compositions where a single color jumps off the page. Look for situations of opposing colors on a color wheel. For instance, in a photo that's predominately blue, find a yellow subject. Regardless of its size, the viewer will fixate on it. Think about yellow aspen leaves against an autumn sky—the leaves pop.

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Balance: If a photo is weighted too heavily on the top, bottom, left, or right, the viewer's eye fixates on that area and has difficulty going to other sections. The problem with this is that the section where the viewer's eye isn't attracted is still part of the image, but it lacks importance. This becomes wasted picture space and results in a faulty composition. If you can create an imaginary triangle with the compositional elements, all is good.

Wise Use of Depth Of Field. If you want foreground to background sharpness, strap on a wide angle, stop it down to ƒ22 and focus one third into the image. This works great for showing the vast landscape. On the other hand, if you want a single flower to be the focal point, do the opposite. Strap on the telephoto, focus on the given bud and open the lens up. This will create a selective focus look wherein just a single plane is sharp, which leads the viewer to that spot.

Leading Lines: Leading lines bring the viewer to the primary focal point. They can be zigzag, bending or diagonal, but should relate to the context of the overall image. Use them to guide the viewer's eye through the picture. For instance, a country road, a footpath through aspen trees, a shadow line, or anything else that courses the eye to a key subject can be used.

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