The Art Of Composition

Think of a landscape photograph as a jigsaw puzzle, with dozens of different pieces demanding your attention. If you arrange all those pieces in the right order you'll end up with an organized, structured image that makes sense and looks good. But if you put them together any old way, the end result will be a muddled mess of shapes, colors, and details that are difficult to make sense of.

That, in a nutshell, is what composition's all about - arranging the elements of a scene in your camera's viewfinder so they form something visually interesting to look at; something that will hold the attention of the viewer and take their eye on a journey around the frame from the immediate foreground to the distant background.

Every time you raise a camera to your eye you're composing a picture - the very act of deciding where to point it is based on a conscious or subconscious decision about what you want to include in the picture. The trouble is, many photographers don't spend enough time thinking about that composition before firing away, and nine times out of ten the end result is unbalanced and unstimulating. Often the main subject is too far away and marooned in a sea of empty space, or there are annoying distractions in the frame. Many pictures have no obvious entry point, so the viewer wanders around aimlessly, and lacks any sense of depth or scale so they look as flat as the proverbial pancake.

Painters are one up on photographers when it comes to composing a picture, because if the scene before them isn't ideal they can move elements around on the canvas until it is. We just have to accept what's there and make the best of it. Fortunately, this isn't as difficult as it sounds because by using different lenses, choosing your viewpoint carefully and thinking about which part of the scene you want to capture on film, it's possible to create successful compositions every time.

There are also many compositional 'rules' and devices that can be used to help you take more interesting pictures, and the more pictures you take, the better your natural sense of composition will become - until it becomes an intuitive act, rather like driving a car does when you've been behind the wheel enough.

Step 1

Include Foreground Interest

Scenic pictures can often be improved dramatically simply by including something in the immediate foreground. Not only does foreground interest help to create a strong feeling of depth and scale, which is vitally important, but it also tightens-up the whole composition by pulling together the different elements in the scene, and provides an obvious entry point into the shot - the bottom is a natural place for the eye to start with conventional picture formats.

All kinds of things can be used as foreground interest - walls, rivers, rocks, hedges and trees, fences, roads, paths, flower beds and so on.

Wide-angle lenses are invaluable for emphasizing foreground interest. By moving in close with a 24mm or 28mm lens you can make even small features dominate the whole shot, and exaggerate perspective to create powerful compositions with the foreground looming large and the rest of the scene stretching off into the distance. Wide-angle lenses also offer the added benefit of extensive depth-of-field. By stopping down to f/16 or f/22, everything will come out sharp from less than a meter in front of the camera to infinity.

Step 2

Use The Rule-Of-Thirds

This is the oldest compositional trick in the book, and one that's used by both painters and photographers to create a visually balanced picture. Imagine you're shooting a landscape and there's an isolated farmhouse in the distance or a single tree in the middle of a field, acting as the main focal point. Most photographers would stick this subject in the center of the frame - which can work in some situations. However, you will generally get a more pleasing sense of balance if you position it using the rule-of-thirds.

To do this, divide-up your camera's viewfinder into an imaginary grid using two horizontal and two vertical lines. The focal point is then placed on or near any of the four intersection points created by those lines. The rule of thirds can also be used to help you position the horizon. It's tempting to stick it across the center of the frame, but unless you're shooting a symmetrical scene, such as reflections in a lake, the result tends to look very static and lifeless.

A much better approach is to place the horizon one third from the top or the bottom of the frame, so you're emphasizing either the sky or ground. To help you achieve this, divide the viewfinder into thirds using two imaginary horizontal lines, then compose the scene before you so the horizon falls on one of them. You should never force a picture to comply with the rule-of-thirds, but when used with care it can work well and after a while you will find yourself naturally dividing the scene into thirds to aid the position of important elements.

Step 3

Make The Most Of Lines

Lines just can't be beaten when it comes to adding depth and dynamism to a picture. As well as creating a strong sense of direction, they also carry the eye through the scene so it takes in everything along the way. If you keep your eyes peeled when shooting landscapes you'll see lines appearing everywhere: roads, rivers, railings, avenues of trees, road markings, telegraph poles and railway tracks slicing through the countryside, raking shadows cast by the evening sun and so on.

All these and many more can be used to improve the composition of your pictures. Horizontal lines divide the scene in layers and produce a restful effect by echoing the horizon. The eye normally travels from left to right, and steadily upwards through the scene. Vertical lines are far more active so they give a picture tension and a strong sense of vertical direction - think of the towering trunks of coniferous trees reaching for the sky.

Diagonal lines are more energetic because they contrast strongly with horizontal and vertical elements and carry your eye through the whole scene. By suggesting perspective they also add depth. Lines moving from bottom left to top right work the best because that's a natural way for the eye to travel. Converging lines created by roads, crop rows, avenues of trees and railway lines are ideal for adding a strong sense of depth, scale and perspective due to the way they rush away to the horizon and seem to move closer together with distance.

To make the most of this effect, look straight down the lines and use a wide-angle lens to exaggerate perspective. Including the point where the lines meet - the 'vanishing point' - is also a good idea as it brings the composition to a satisfying conclusion. Finally, lines don't actually have to be straight to work in a composition. The graceful curves of a meandering river will carry the eye through a scene just as effectively as an arrow-straight canal.

Step 4

Use Your Feet

The late photojournalist Robert Capa used to say, "If a picture's not good enough, you weren't close enough". He was talking mainly about war and conflict, of course, but in the landscape his words still ring true. Many photographers seem to have a pathological fear of getting close to their subject, regardless of what it is. They see something interesting, snap away without a care in the world, then wonder why the final picture has enough wasted space to drive a Chieftain tank through.

So, the next time you're about to take a landscape photograph, stop for a second, have a last look at the composition and ask yourself if it could be improved by walking further into the scene, getting closer to foreground interest or finding something more suitable to fill the foreground. You'll be amazed at the difference this can make. While you're feeling energetic it's also worth having a general look around your subject. That landscape might look rather nice from the lay-by at the side of the road - and it's a known fact that some of the most stunning viewpoints in the UK are close to roads - but what about if you walked around the corner, or up the hill behind you?

The fact is you'll rarely get the best picture from the first viewpoint you find, but unless you make the effort to explore your subject from different angles you'll never know the alternatives. Sometimes all it takes is a slight change of viewpoint to completely transform the composition. Walking a few meters in any direction could give you a far clearer view, get rid of unwanted distractions or provide important foreground interest.

The height from which you shoot should also be considered. Most photographers take every picture with the camera at eye level, but by kneeling down or standing on a wall you'll get a totally different view of the same scene. Many professionals even carry a step ladder for this purpose (ask Charlie Waite) so they can gain a slightly elevated position and see much more of the scene they're trying to capture. Using your feet is a vitally important part of composing a picture, so never be afraid to wear out a little shoe leather.

Step 5

Choose The Right Format

Although it's natural to shoot landscapes with the camera held horizontally in the 'landscape' format, turning the camera on its side can totally transform the composition. Upright pictures are far more energetic because the eye has further to travel from bottom to top. You can also emphasize vertical lines and height to add tension and excitement, or capture rivers and roads snaking away into the distance. The horizontal format is much more restful to look at because it suggests repose, and echoes the horizon itself - that's why it tends to be preferred by landscape photographers.

Step 6

Make The Most Of Frames

Using manmade or natural features to frame your pictures is a great way to tighten up the overall composition, get rid of annoying details and direct attention towards your main subject.

All sorts of things can be used as frames: archways, door and window openings, a hole in a wall, a gap in dense foliage or between trees, the overhanging branches of a tree, bridges, even the play of shadow on a scene.

To make best use of frames you will usually find that a wide-angle lens works best, allowing you to include the frame without obscuring the scene beyond. Set your lens to a small aperture such as f/11 or f/16 if you want the frame to come out sharp. Alternatively, blur it by setting a wide aperture and focusing carefully on your main subject. If the frame casts a shadow over you, step beyond it to take a meter reading, otherwise the main scene will be overexposed. In bright conditions the frame itself will record as a silhouette, which can look stunning.

Step 7

Break The Rules

Throughout this feature we've looked at numerous guidelines and rules that can be applied to improve the composition of your pictures. However, they're only there as a guide, and should be used as such. Actors are often told to learn their lines so they can forget them and improvise. It's exactly the same with composition. Once you know how these rules work, you can happily commit them to your subconscious and follow your instincts. Often you'll get a far better picture by intentionally breaking the rules - placing the horizon across the middle of the picture, or your focal point in the center. The thing to remember is that whatever you do, make sure you have a reason for doing it. But most important of all, make it count.

There are many different rules of composition that photographers can follow, but ultimately it is up to the photographer to decide what looks best. Experimentation and practice are key to finding out what works well for you. Breaking the rules can sometimes result in more interesting and creative photos, but still it is important to know the rules before you start breaking them!