Composition for Landscape Photography, Part 2: Perspective and Balance

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 yesterday’s post, we discussed framing, one of three interrelated considerations in landscape photography composition. Today, we’ll look at the other two: perspective and balance.

Perspective: Knowing Where to Stand

Perspective is the spatial relationship between your position – or rather, the camera’s – and the scene being photographed. Positioning yourself in the right spot can make a significant difference in your composition. In the words of Ansel Adams, “A good photograph is about knowing where to stand.”

A common enemy of good composition is the impulse when an attractive scene presents itself to immediately reach for the camera, snap a few quick exposures, and move on to continue the hunt. In reality, chances are your perspective will not be ideal at the precise moment you discover your subject.

Before attempting to make compositional decisions, examine the scene you want to photograph and try to determine where best to position yourself relative to it, accounting for the position of the elements to be photographed, the angle and direction of the light, the proper height for the tripod, distracting elements in your line of sight, etc. In the process, try to identify potential leading lines to take advantage of by changing your position. Consider whether there are unwanted objects that can be kept out of the frame when viewed from a different perspective.

By changing your position you can make some objects appear larger or smaller, closer or farther to/from the viewer or each other. Combined with a choice of focal length, your perspective also can determine how much of the background to include and the viewer’s perception of depth.

Four Quick Tips on Perspective

Here are some useful perspective tips:

  • Slow down!
  • If feasible, walk around the scene to study it from different angles.
  • Identify what element(s) you would like to appear most prominently and command the most attention. Use this information to decide on perspective and focal length.
  • Make sure key elements do not overlap and have sufficient “breathing room.”

Careful choice of perspective allowed for placement of the tree in the crux of the sandstone saddle and the use of the curving rock as leading lines.

Balance: You Know It When You See It

Your composition is more than just your main subject. Balance implies identifying the best placement of visual elements relative to each other and to the frame boundaries.

All items included in the composition have some kind of visual relationship with each other; they can be larger or smaller than one another, their color and tone may be complementary or cause them to stand apart, they may share lines and contours, they may overlap or stand apart, draw attention to or distract from each other, etc. A balanced composition is one where all elements in the frame are in harmony.

If you want to draw attention to any one area, make sure it is given due prominence, whether through size, color or placement. Consider whether one side of the frame is disproportionately “heavier” than the other, and whether important elements are sufficiently separated.

For millennia, artists, philosophers and scientists have attempted to define and quantify aesthetic balance and harmony. Some even tried to encapsulate these concepts in numbers and formulas. While applying numeric analysis may be a wise strategy when preparing your taxes, doing the same with your art will often result in images that appear forced and contrived rather than flow naturally. You would not want your images to share the same aesthetics as your 1040.

Ultimately, visual balance is one of those “I know it when I see it” things. When a composition is out of balance, you will usually recognize it intuitively. Trust your instincts.

The cardinal rule for a balanced composition is to avoid distractions. Benign elements in the frame are rare. Generally speaking, anything that does not directly contribute to the composition will detract from it.

More often than not, the process of arriving at a balanced composition is one of simplification. Eliminate as many distractions as possible and distill the scene to its essentials.

Six Quick Tips on Balance

Here are some useful balance tips:

  • Slow down!
  • When judging overall balance, avoid the urge to focus your attention on just the main or most interesting element(s). Consider the frame as a whole.
  • Identify competing elements.
  • Avoid excessive negative space.
  • Some elements can be used explicitly to balance others by creating visual tension. For example, a simple uninteresting rock in one corner can balance a more interesting object in the opposite corner without distracting from it.
  • Looking at anything for too long may color your judgment. Before releasing the shutter, take a step back, close your eyes for a few seconds, reopen them, and examine your composition anew.

One Response to “Composition for Landscape Photography, Part 2: Perspective and Balance”

  1. Great lessons.

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