Dramatic light and a unique subject alone do not make for a great photo. A good composition that binds the two together is also necessary. In this article, I’ll give you six tips for improving your photo compositions and dealing with different lighting and subjects.
I present the tips below in no particular order. There is no advice more important than the others. Think of them as a selection of techniques that you can apply in different situations.
Pay attention to your common ground
I love my wide angle lens. It’s the most cliched landscape photography lens, but I don’t care. It can be used to get close to the ground and close to any foreground element, and the distortion it creates can draw the viewer into the scene.
When doing so, don’t just focus on the foreground. In the photo below you can see coastal flowers on the left side of the frame. These are very characteristic of the Cornish coast. But I refrained from going down with my camera to get closer to them. The reason is the middle ground.
When composing your photos, you should always pay attention to them. If you mount your camera too low, items in the middle take up less space, or they completely disappear behind items closer to the camera. It’s not always bad, and you can use it to hide things you don’t want the viewer to see. But you will also lose depth.
In the example photo, I wanted to keep some separation between the rocks in the foreground and the sea stacks on the left side. This way the rocks and sea stacks appear as repeating shapes throughout the image. I also wanted to allow the viewer to see where the path leads. The green slopes on the right side would have been lost if I had gotten closer to the ground with my camera.
Find a good foreground
I try to create a balance in my photos. It’s about finding foregrounds that harmonize with the different skies I encounter. A clear sky, for example, does not go well with a chaotic foreground. If you don’t have clouds in the sky, try to find a clean foreground instead.
In the photo below, I’m using a flat meadow as the foreground. It blends well with clear, magenta skies due to its yellow-green color and small pools that reflect the colors of the sky. With clear skies, less is more in terms of foreground.
If you happen to have clouds in the sky like I had at Land’s End in Cornwall a few years ago, that’s different. Try to find a foreground containing structures and shapes that mimic what you see in the sky.
The diagonal orientation of the high clouds over Lands End is well captured by the shapes of the rocks in the foreground. You can also find some of the colors of the sky in the foreground. This helps tie the photo together.
Guidelines come in many shapes and forms, and it may take some practice to find them. If you walk around and look at the scenery at eye level, you’ll often miss them. That’s why you need to get your camera out and move around while spotting: duck down, move right and left, and explore every angle you can find.
To create dynamic compositions, look for diagonals that you can use as guidelines. If you find curved lines, even better. And be careful with the placement of these lines: you want leading lines in the photo that point towards your main subject. Avoid those that draw the viewer out of the frame.
In the example photo I am using a blend of leading lines. I went very low to capture the ebb of water, which created lines coming from the bottom left of the frame. As the water flowed around the rock in the center, it created a curved guideline. He enters the image from the bottom right and leans towards the sea stacks in the background.
Layers can be a powerful way to structure your images and bring order to your compositions. Especially when shooting with a long lens, I pay close attention to how the elements in my photo stack up. Once I have identified different layers, I try to line them up in a rhythmic way that allows the viewer’s gaze to wander easily through the frame.
Here it helps if you can achieve a composition where the intersecting lines between layers form an angle. This makes the photo more dynamic. Think of these intersections as guidelines: diagonals and curves work great.
In the photo of the rice terraces in Vietnam, you will notice three main layers: the rice fields in the foreground near the camera, the rice terraces in the center, and the hill in the background, which houses even more rice fields. The different size of these terraces creates a great feeling of depth in the photo. The intersecting lines form an angle as the rice fields curve across the image.
Use the rule of thirds to your advantage
When I compose my photos, I often start with the rule of thirds. As I wrote above, I strive to create balance in my images, and this rule gives me a good foundation. But applying it strictly would be limiting. Once I get a rough alignment of the important frame elements using the 3×3 grid in my Canon R5’s live view, I start moving it around. Now I just rely on what my eyes tell me to be pleasing.
Sometimes the end result follows the rule of thirds, but often the elements are aligned differently and no longer obey any particular rule. In the wooded photo, the trees on the left and the light on the right are balanced. This balance was not achieved by placing them exactly on the vertical lines of the 3×3 grid.
I started the composition this way, but then moved the camera around until the distribution of visual weight in the photo was balanced. Since the trees on the left have a strong visual weight, I had to bring them closer to the center of the frame while bringing the soft light source on the right closer to the edge. Think of a scale: to balance a heavy object with a lighter object, you need to move the heavy object closer to the middle and the lighter one farther away.
You can apply the same principle to balance elements of different visual weights in a photo. But like using scales, you have to start somewhere, and that’s where you can use the rule of thirds to your advantage.
Give your subjects space
Before you start composing your photos, find your main subject. It can be just one item or you can have several important topics. Once you have identified them, try to give them space in your composition. You don’t want them to merge with other elements in front or behind them. Create a contrast between them and their surroundings and give them the visual weight they deserve.
In the example photo, I am standing on a ridge overlooking the coastal mountains of central Crete. I made sure to place my camera high enough to create a good separation between my head and the mountain ridge in the center of the frame. The light helps to separate me from the landscape. The mountain in front of me is in the shade and provides the perfect backdrop.
Whenever you want to highlight your main subject, do so by positioning your camera correctly and working with the light in the scene. Often this just means moving your camera a few inches left or right, up or down. But sometimes you might have to climb a mountain to get your camera high enough. In the overview video, I talk more about the different composition techniques and give you additional examples from the field.
I have to mention something very important: although the text above looks like a selection of composition rules, don’t treat it that way. Think of it as a selection of composition techniques that will help you create good compositions in many situations. But at the end of the day, trust what your eyes tell you and what feels good to you. I talk a lot about balance, but maybe you don’t want a balanced shot and want to create tension between the elements of the frame. It’s perfectly fine. You might then want to compose your images differently than the examples I show above.
But whatever your preferences, it’s always good to know the rules and techniques that other photographers follow. Then just pick the ones that meet your specific needs.