A version of this article originally appeared in Landscape Photography Magazine.
From vivid sunsets to grand sweeping vistas, we're drawn to eye-catching landscapes. Yet even to a non-photographer’s eye, there's a noticeable—even if not always conscious—difference between a pretty landscape, and a moving, memorable one. A landscape image that remains with us in our mind’s eye long after the initial viewing.
Creating Works of Art
What is it? What's the difference between a passing snapshot and a lasting work of art? Well, it's a lot of things. But above all else, is composition.
In landscape photography, composition isn't just important, it’s vital.
Of course technical considerations such as crisp focus and a balanced exposure are important too. However, the scenes we remember—the ones we take more than a second to scroll past on our social media feeds—rely on thoughtful composing from their creator.
Strong composition not only forces the viewer to stop and pay attention, but also ensures the work stands out from the crowd. That it holds its own amongst the millions of other images of the Golden Gate Bridge or Yosemite Valley.
Chiefly, composition adds depth to an image—both figuratively and literally. It enriches the photo with additional layers to tell the underlying story behind an image, through including elements of the surrounding environment or conveying the conditions it was captured under.
So how do we apply it to our own work? How do we create memorable scenes like the masters of the craft seem to do effortlessly?
It's something I overlooked for a long time in my own photography (and something I'm still refining).
Time Is Key To Compelling Compositions
The key to killer composition, I’m continuing to find, is time.
Memorable landscape photos aren't rushed, and rarely are they taken on a passing whim. They require—and deserve—the investment of time and careful consideration. Time in the form of a few minutes, or time in the form of returning season after season. But time, nonetheless.
While you might be unable to return to a particular location year in year out in the search for the perfect conditions, you can dedicate time to composition each time you go out to shoot.
It could be something as unobtrusive as arriving an additional 20 minutes before sunrise, or scoping out the location the day before in preparation. Take the time to look, to walk around and explore the area. Consider whether the scene would be best presented in an all encompassing wide-angle shot, or instead whether you should focus in on one or two striking elements.
Look for interesting textures in the foreground or leading lines which guide prospective viewers through the scene. Pick up the tripod and physically move side to side and consider including trees to frame the scene, or strategically using boulders to help obscure distracting elements. Get low to the ground and perhaps use an ultra wide-angle lens to exaggerate cracks snaking through the rocks.
However, be mindful. It’s not just about including additional elements for their own sake. Critique your composition to determine whether they add value to the story behind the image.
Consider this photo I recently took within an unfelled sugar pine plantation. The forest was abandoned long ago and the limbless pines have grown freely for decades. It's a popular location for local landscape photographers—it's easy to see why—and because of that I was determined to capture my own interpretation of the scene.
I planned to arrive at sunrise in the hope of capturing low golden light flooding through the forest. Pre-visualising my composition, I would position a trunk to partly obscure the rising sun to create a sun star with bursting rays illuminating the sugar pines in a warm glow. Unfortunately—to my immediate dismay upon arrival—overnight rain brought with it thick morning fog, which thwarted any chance of morning sunshine lighting up the forest.
Unable to control the weather (as much as we landscape photographers would like), I soon embraced the conditions for what they were and considered how to best capture the eerie scene before me.
I settled upon a wide-angle (20mm), portrait orientation image. This not only exaggerated the height of the bare limbs reaching towards the sky, but also drew attention to the thickness of the fog (which was more dense above ground level) as it snaked through the trees. I took time to wander through the forest floor (looking for the most appealing foreground) and found a twin pair of fallen trunks which lead into the forest. Rather than shoot the fallen trees up close, I pulled back a few steps to also include the two bare trunks on either side which partly acted as a natural frame into the scene.
It’s important to note that strong composition isn't about technical perfection. Rather, it's about capturing the experience when you were there on location. It's about telling the story behind the image to the best of your ability.
Great composition considers the entire scene—the mood, the interplaying physical elements—and respects the time needed to best convey them within a single photo. It focuses on capturing the emotions you felt in the moment, so the final image evokes them in the viewer too.
Great composition transforms simple snapshots into memorable works of art. That’s why in landscape photography, composition isn't just key, it’s king.