Composition for Landscape Photography, Part 1: Framing

The following is adapted from Creative Landscape Photography, an e-book by Guy Tal.

A visual composition is the arrangement of elements within a frame. In this post we’ll cover some essential guidelines and “rules” of composition that may help guide your thinking and provide you with options to consider in your landscape photography.

Remember though, there is only one true rule to a good composition: it either works or it doesn’t.

In many cases, a composition may be intuitive and feel obvious once you identify it. At other times, you may find yourself stumped, surrounded by beauty but unable to compose it coherently. Here, articulating the individual characteristics of a good composition can be very useful.

Let’s pay particular attention to three interrelated considerations: framing, perspective, and balance.

The Importance of Framing

Writers often state that the first sentence in a book is the most important, as it serves to grab the reader’s attention and set the stage and tone for the ensuing story. Framing is the compositional equivalent to a story’s first sentence and a critical compositional decision for a photographer to make up front.

Framing is the deliberate choice of best possible placement of the frame’s boundaries. When making an image, you are cutting out a small piece of a larger scene and removing it from its greater context. The frame boundaries determine what is kept in and what is left out and should be placed with surgical precision.

Your framing decision should encompass all the elements that are essential to the scene and to the mood or message you wish to convey. Keep in mind that the viewer may never know what else was at the scene if excluded from the frame.

Note the precise framing, placing the left border to include the complete shadow, and the right border to fit the curve in the sandstone. If either were placed incorrectly, the composition would abruptly end, leaving the viewer wanting.

Other than placing the frame appropriately, the photographer also should pay close attention to the frame borders themselves as visual elements in their own right. Make sure to place them so that they do not cut through other important elements and that no rogue objects (branches, shadows, your tripod’s feet) peek in. Also account for sufficient “breathing room” between the frame boundaries and any important elements within the frame.

Pay special attention to lines. The borders act as reference points for vertical and horizontal lines (such as trees or horizons), and the corners work well for intersections with diagonal lines.

Though it may take practice, train yourself to frame your composition without looking through the viewfinder. Use your fingers or other compositional aids (L-brackets, empty frames) to form a rectangle to help you visualize the best placement prior to pointing the camera at the scene.

This method offers multiple advantages: it is more convenient in the field, saving you the time and risk of having to reach for your camera; it enables you to consider elements that may otherwise be blocked when looking through a viewfinder; and it liberates you from the camera’s built-in aspect ratio, which may not always be ideal. It would be silly to assume that the correct aspect ratio for every single image is 2:3, as is the case with most 35mm SLRs, or any other pre-determined setting.

There is nothing wrong with cropping your image post-exposure to achieve the most favorable aspect ratio or with stitching together multiple exposures for the same purpose.

Four Quick Tips

Here are some useful framing tips:

  • Slow down!
  • A good technique to identify rogue elements is to stop down the aperture to around f/11-f/16 and use the camera’s Depth-of-Field Preview button on models that offer it. This has the effect of closing down the aperture and making visible those items that otherwise may be too blurry to see clearly when the lens is wide open. If your camera does not have a preview feature, make a test exposure and review the boundaries of the captured image on the camera’s LCD screen.
  • Do not try to force a composition into a frame. Instead, try to see the composition first and fit the frame around it.
  • If you plan to print and mat your work, pay special attention to elements of interest that are very close to the frame’s borders. Consider expanding the borders out a bit to allow for slight cropping around the edges that may be needed to accommodate a mat.

Tomorrow: perspective and balance

3 Responses to “Composition for Landscape Photography, Part 1: Framing”

  1. I was glad you mentioned your fourth tip. One very popular printing option these days is the gallery wrap. It requires two inches on each side to accommodate stretching around the wooden frame. Allow a little bit of breathing room on all sides when you're composing your shot, and this should be no problem.

  2. Some very good tips in this article. Looking forward to reading the perspective and balance one too.

  3. Good tips, especially regarding leaving some extra room for matting. As Rick said this rings true when doing a gallery wrap, it's also nice to have some extra image if you are ever doing a book cover.

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