A good landscape photograph tells a story of the place it describes. And like all good tales, your landscapes should have a catchy beginning (the foreground), an interesting center (the middle area) and a memorable ending (the background). Not every landscape lends itself to this somewhat formulaic treatment, of course, but applying it saves a lot of time and provides you with a solid starting point from which you can improvise.
And by using these classic building blocks, you do more than provide yourself with a handy framework for organization. You also demonstrate that you are in charge of your compositions.
Telling a Story
Rather than just tossing together a random smattering of elements — a barn here, a silo there, some trees over there — carefully arranging your images in layers demonstrates that you knew precisely what you were doing. In other words, it shows that you had a plan, Stan.
Just how much emphasis you give to each of the three regions of a particular design is a decision you’ll have to make for each scene. And honestly, that’s one of the toughest concepts to master in landscape photography.
In the above garden shot, taken at the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park in New York, creating three levels of design was easy, because I borrowed three elements from the garden design: the foreground bed of wax begonias, the taller cannas in the middle, and that interesting tree at the top of the frame. I used a tripod to compose the scene, and it was worth the effort of carrying it. When you start to compose landscapes carefully, it’s nice to have a tripod to help you frame things.
Composing with Confidence
In this harbor shot from Stonington, Maine, the rocks in the foreground act as the first level of the shot, the boats are the middle area and the shore in the distance helps to “end” or frame the shot. Not every landscape has three such clearly defined steps, but when you see them, use them!
Eventually concepts like this become second nature and you’ll use them more by instinct than by forethought, but again, knowing they exist and consciously practicing them will help you compose scenes faster and with more confidence.