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Get your composition right

[kom-puh-zish-uh n]  – Noun – the act of combining parts or elements to form a whole.

Through out photography, you’ll hear this phrase bounded around when discussing what we see in front of us, or when critiquing someone else’s photograph. So, what is it, what does it mean and what do we need to do.

Before we break this phrase down, we’ll quickly talk about this in its basic meaning. When we refer to composition, we are talking about the overall layout of the photograph, how the various different aspects are laid out to complete the overall photograph.

If we take a photograph, and examine the overall shot, there are usually three main different parts in landscape photography, which are :-
•Middle ground

Each of these three aspects are vital to make a photograph “work”. There are more aspects to this such as leading lines etc which we’ll go in to more detail later. Just to say this and get it out of the way, there are times when some of what I talk about wont always work and we have to break the golden rules of photography if we are taking a “detailed” photograph, such as a close up of a waterfall, a flower etc. I am known for bending and breaking the rules, its a judgement call when you assess whats out in front of you.

When we refer to the “foreground”, we are looking for an aspect which is closest to the camera which adds that initial bit of interest to start the eyes journey through the photograph, which leads the eye through to the “middle ground” like rolling fields in a valley, which then leads up to the mountains in the “background”. All these three parts all interlink together. If they don’t, then your eyes unknowingly will be randomly wandering through the photo and just looking at randon points of interest. This is a good place to mention “Leading Lines”. Our eyes naturally follow lines when we look at a photograph, be it a road, tree line or wall for example. Photographers use these lines to take the viewers eyes on a journey “through” the shot, usually starting in the foreground through to the end of the photo which is normally a point of interest like the setting sun.

So, its about time we broke composition down, lets get into the nitty-gritty details of what this is all about.

Leading Lines

A picture paints a thousand words, so, look at this photograph (Winnats Pass, near Castleton, Derbyshire) and I can near enough guarantee that your eyes will be drawn to the road as it winds through the shot to the sunset at the horizon. Click the photo for the larger image.

This photograph is good example of how a leading line can work. Because the road is central in the photograph, your eyes are drawn straight to it and naturally follow this into the cloud inversion. I used the road as the leading line so that I could take you through the photo. I also used the “V” shape of the two natural slopes of the hillsides to also drag your eyes down to the road itself (just in case your eye was forced to wander).




Rule of Thirds

For me, this is one of them rules that can be broken at will and you should think of this as a guideline rule when your composing a shot. That being said, I do believe that if your going to break a rule, you should first have a understanding of why that rule was there to begin with and what it can achieve and then its your choice to either adhere to it or break it. The idea behind the “Rule Of Thirds” is that you have an imaginary grid over the landscape in front of you, divided up into thirds. There are four points on this grid that intersect and these are the supposed power points in the shot. When you compose, you should be placing the main focal points along these lines and at the intersecting points. In this example below, I’ve overlaid a 3 x 3 grid over the photograph of Mow Cop Castle (Staffordshire, UK) to show how I have lined up the aspects in the shot.

Rule of Thirds Composition – If you look at the right hand vertical, you can see how I have aligned the tower to this third and intersections, then look at the lower thirds line and see how I have used the row of houses of the foreground. Why have I done this? Well, studies have shown that our eyes naturally go to these spots when we look at a photograph, so it makes sense when we compose that we purposely put our points of interest at these lines or intersecting point. In this shot, the main focal points where the tower on the right and the contrasting light behind the row of houses in the lower third line.

The Rule of Thirds is a very debatable one and has been the topic of many debates over the years as to whether it holds true. Ultimately, its down to each individual to either employ it, or toss it out of the window. It is a rule that I break quite often in landscapes as it really does not fit. However, there are few times when I will use it, like when taking a shot of a flower or there is a little waterfall in a forest scene.


Being a landscape photographer, depth to a shot is very important to me (along with the level of sharpness throughout). Without depth, a photograph can appear to be very flat and you feel like your looking at a 2D picture. We use depth to give the viewer the feeling that they are actually there, looking out over the landscape as you were when you took the shot. Of course, there are times again when this can be broken. An example of this is when your taking a landscape shot and you only what the focus of attention to be on one particular spot in the foreground and you adjust your “depth of field (aperture)” to control what is in focus.

We can employ depth in many ways, be it rows of walls going off into the distance, different tree lines etc. Its going to be whatever works for what’s in front of you. In this photograph below, taken up at The Roaches (Staffordshire, UK), I’ve used the different hill tops to provide the feeling of depth, rather than just concentrating on the main rocky area in the foreground.





Fill up your Frame

A real pet hate with photographers is empty space or negative space. This is where you have a large area in a photograph with nothing in it, be it open sea, a bland open sky. This aspect alone can easily ruin what could of been a very good shot and can leave it without any impact and your subject will get lost when looking at the overall shot. Two genres of photography where this mainly applies is portraiture and vast landscapes. The portrait folks amongst us chose to use bokeh (making the background out of focus with via depth of field) to produce an aesthetically pleasing and unobtrusive background to a shot. An example of bokeh (pronounced boh-kay) is seen below

You can see here how I have intentionally blurred the background and leaving the focus just on the flower in the foreground which helps central your vision straight to the point of interest, but the background is “interesting” and not bland, yet the whole frame is filled up.
A landscape photographer tends to minimise any bland sky by shooting with a very minimal or no sky showing in the shot either by positioning yourself in such a manner, or by making the most out of your lens and zoom in to eradicate that sky or area. Below are some examples of when to fill the frame and when not too.

Fill negative space composition
A good example of when to fill up the frame. I put the tree line in the centre of the frame and then  used the foreground body of water and the sky as the upper and lower thirds, using the water for reflections to cover any potential negative space.

This is an example to show a lot of negative space, with all the dead / bland area of the sky which has no cloud, nor bold colours.





A poor example of a landscape shot – Landscape cropped to fill frame. I’ve then taken the above landscape failure and cropped out the negative sky space, keeping the crop just up above the hillside on the right and keeping the low level band of cloud for sky interest.

As I’ve already mentioned, they may be some of the golden rules of photography, but, that does not mean you should stick to them at all, think of them simply as guides and pointers on the overall composition of your photograph. Ultimately, your the person in control of the camera and self expression is key. Be yourself, do what you think makes the shot. Each of us has to find our own style and approach to photography with the view that we could maybe stand out a little from the crowd and not be a follower. That’s part of the reason why I “chose” to break some of the photography rules, because what I want to show the viewer is how I want them to see it, and not so it conforms with photographic society or trends ( hmmm…trends…don’t even get me started on that recent trend of twirling…what’s that all about? ).

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this article on composition and how the different aspects of it can either make or break a shot. The points I’ve gone into above are what I perceive to be a selection of the important ones, but I could go on and on with others such as symmetry, simplification, balance and patterns to name a few more, but you have Google at your finger tips to go away and do some further in-depth reading on this specific point. Always remember, photography is subjective and every photographer will have their own take on specifics such as composition, these are just my own personal thoughts on the subject.

By all means, feel free to ask any questions that this article may pose either in the comments, on my Facebook page or via the Contact Us page.

Happy photography. Just remember, your in the only hobby where you can shoot people, frame your friends and hang your mother in law and not go to jail.

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