Landscape Photography – Learning Composition


I remember the first shot I took on my DSLR and it was a memorable one. It was a flashing rectangle of whiteness. The image was overexposed to a point where that bar thingy was heavily leaning to the right, leaving the left hand side empty. I had no idea what I had done. I also knew at that point that this new expensive toy was either returning to the shop or something that I was going to invest my time in. This story is about the time invested, in particular my progression of what makes a good image rather than the technical side.

I believe the technical side of photography is a class room learning environment, composition teaching however is the more practical and suited more to the outdoor environment which as a young spotty teenager was my preference at school. I am no academic, my strengths are more aimed to the creative and design side. My career however has not gone down either route. Landscape photography has been reserved as a past time and a hobby and one I love.

Lets talk about where I was and where I am now but rather than bombard this post with the written word, I am going to take you on this journey of composition progression with a selection of my images I’ve taken from my archives to the present date. My interest in landscape photography started in 2007 when I had a basic understanding of what made a good picture and also a lack of knowledge for what made it better.

An introduction to the rule of thirds – 2009

From an early stage of my learning process into this newly discovered art from, the main component of a good image was using the rule of thirds. Lets take a look at these shots that I took back in 2009.

Its fair to say that none of these images will be entered into any competition. They do however qualify for good examples of placing elements or objects on a third. The issue here however is that these objects are not guiding you into the rest of the scene. They are not allowing the eye to move on and around the frame. At the time however I believed they worked. As I type this article, I can see how extreme cropping of 2 of these images would result in better compositions. Can you spot them?

The rule of thirds is of course one of the best and most effective compositional tools to hand. It does however need to be used correctly and more often than not act as part of the image. Notice I used ‘more often than not…’ which is a get out clause to say that not all rules have to be followed of course. The fact is that this simple rule has been used in art form for hundreds of years and can be seen in pictures of master pieces, graphic designs such as logo’s and architecture.

Working with lines – 2010

I must admit that from an early stage in my compositional progression I became quickly familiar with the concept of using lead in lines. In these 2 examples shot in the Isle of Skye in 2010, lines are used in the bottom part of the frames which then lead the eye into the scene

The road in the first image takes you on a diagonal heading out of the frame but quickly angles into the third of the frame and the mountain beyond. The image would not have had as much impact without the left turn. The sheep of course are the main focus. The second image uses the waves and coastline to again bring the viewer in. The main subject of this image however is the sun and the lines take you away rather than towards the focal point. The suns rays helps as a counter object which again introduces additional lines to the composition.

Framing – 2008 & 2009

Framing a scene is similar to composing. The 3 images below would have been improved by simply stepping back or using a wider focal length. It is clear what the subject is but in these examples, the subject needs to breath. Lets first look at the first image which was taken in Cadiz, Spain in 2008, approximately a year after I first started landscape photography. I can remember exactly what I was thinking, the boats lines would be used to lead the eye to that blob in the background. The boat is far too domineering, taking up around half of the frame and not creating any depth. The blues and oranges work together well but I imagine the scene would look better if I could have got above the boat and placed more of it in the lower third of the frame. Image 2 is a waterfall.

Looking at the third image taken in 2009 in Scotland, it is blatantly obvious what is wrong. Isn’t it? The colour palette works with the subtle greens and yellows. The trees branch is nicely positioned in the middle of the hill in the background. There is some nice detail in the clouds giving the shot some mood. The tree however has asked for a short back and sides and come away with a skin head. The top and right hand sides are missing and a there is no separation. Image 2 is a waterfall but imagine the potential if the surrounding foliage was included.

Clutter – 2007 & 2014

Reviewing the selected images below, if I am honest, I am not quite sure why I thought they worked. These are good examples of a scene that can be broken down into several sections, each disposing of elements that distract rather attract the viewer.

Lets look at Image#1 of Malham Tarn. The light is beautiful and the colours are very appealing but where does one rest their eyes. There is no clear evidence of using the rule of thirds with the foreground. The rocks are not balanced in the frame. A number of these rocks have been cut at the edges with no freedom to breath. This is a good example of the right elements but too many and in with no order.

Image#2 is an Autumn scene where again the colours of the deep oranges and blacks work very well. There are several cascades adding to the drama but there are too many, fighting for attention. There potentially several crops within the frame that could work better and be easier on the eye. See how many you can spot.

The last image is of the Southern end of Loch Lomond. This has a very sentimental impact on me as this was my first landscape photography holiday. Back then all that mattered was getting really low and include foreground interest. Similar to image#1, there are several rocks looking for attention and positioned too randomly. The image needs cleaning up. A better option would be to recompose and use the pool in the foreground and leave out the rocks to the left of that.

2019 – Gradually finding light

Some may argue that an image with light or part of is the key to a successful photograph. I agree, light is a very important factor but without the building bricks of a good composition it maybe a distraction. Look at it as the final touch, the icing on a nicely baked cake, the oak picture frame of a mounted piece of art. It’s often that factor that brings the makes the image pop. If you follow my You Tube channel you will find in past videos that I have attempted to either compose with splashes if light in the frame to add interest or the light itself if the main area of focus.

The concept of light being such an important element has only recently hit me within the last few years and I still find that a lot of my images today are lacking that that added ingredient. This is due to my inflexible shooting opportunities. Unlike a number of professionals, I cannot always plan to shoot due to being in full time employment. It is important to take advantage of my times with the camera and act on opportunities to capture that fleeting light. I often find the best sunrises are on other days. Days when I am doing other things. There have been times however and there will be more.

I am still hooked to this day and glad it wasn’t a passing phase like my stamp collecting and plane spotting were. I have since learnt that that bar thingy is one of the most important tools I have and I am glad to report that there is no longer a flashing rectangle of whiteness on the back of my LCD screen. Please have a look at my ever changing portfolio for my on going progression into this art I love.

4 thoughts on “Landscape Photography – Learning Composition

  1. Very interesting progression. I came across your YT channel in a TalkPhotography discussion on composition and location selection. I have now subscribed.


  2. I like the progression and development show. I came across you when you were mentioned on the TalkPhotography discussion about location and composition. I then found your YT channel and subscribed


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