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Author Topic: Composition in landscape photography  (Read 4146 times)

Vieri Bottazzini

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Composition in landscape photography
« on: February 24, 2019, 05:25:07 am »

Hello everyone,

how about talking about composition for a little Sunday fun?

As a Fine Art landscape photographer, I consider myself an interpreter. Nature and the landscape in front of me are the score, and my photographs are my interpretations of it. Personally, I think that mastering composition is fundamental to create your interpretation of a landscape, and sadly it's much overlooked these days. Out of the thousands images I see every day online, perhaps only a dozen or so are well-composed. Composition is the first pillar on which a great landscape photography stands, and it deserves more attention than that.

From the spatial relationship between different elements in the frame, to near-far compositions, to the compositional effects of changing shooting point, to using different focal lengths, to the compositional effect of choosing different shutter speeds and different diaphragms, the composition of a great image is the result of organizing the available elements of a scene in the best possible way.

To improve our ability to compose our own images, a vast "visual culture" is fundamental. That means studying the masters of visual arts: first and foremost, painters. Studying the masters of photography, of course, but without trying and replicate their shots; studying great cinema; and so on.

To start this discussion, let me offer 5 tips to improve composition in your photography.

1. Wait. When you arrive on location, don't start photographying immediately. Take your time to explore the location, compose first in your brain and then fine tune your compositions with your camera. Great compositions need time to organise and prepare, don't rush it. Wait, take your time. Then, when you are ready, start shooting.

2. Forget the rules. Knowing the rule of thirds, Fibonacci, Spyrals, Younameit, is fundamental, sure. Not fixating on them when you work, however, it is even more so. The rules should be working for you in the background, without taking center stage, not the other way round. They have to be there, but you don't have to apply them mechanically: that is almost surely going to result in contrived, non-creative compositions.

3. Corners and borders. Check your corners and borders: eliminate stray branches, control that you didn't cut off a piece of something that needed to be fully in, and so on.

4. Simplify. Composition, for me, is a subtractive process. Like in a good story, where you need to tell the reader everything he needs to know but nothing more, don't try to squeeze everything in your photographs: think rather if you really need all that you are framing to tell your story.

5. Experiment and enjoy. As with everything, practice makes perfect - or, at least, better. If you don't go out and photograph, it is very difficult that your compositions will improve. If you don't make mistakes, if you don't throw away images, it is nearly impossible.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts! Have a great Sunday, best regards

Vieri
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luxborealis

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #1 on: February 24, 2019, 07:53:17 am »

Bingo, Vieri! Well said.

I recommend using a framing card; I still use one from my 4x5 days (although, at times, I find I’m using my iPhone as a surrogate, but don’t tell!). Rather than standing there zooming in and out for the right composition, photographers need to actively move around the scene, pursuing a dynamic composition that draws the viewer in, moves them around and speaks to them.

My students often ask, “How do you know when you’ve nailed it?” I remember Fred Picker of Zone VI Studios answering this: “When the scene is looking back at you.”

This advice may sound cryptic, but as one spends the 10,000 hours learning and practising the craft, as you have done, it begins to make complete sense.

Thanks for the lesson and reminders.
« Last Edit: February 24, 2019, 08:15:53 am by luxborealis »
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Alan Klein

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #2 on: February 24, 2019, 08:00:27 am »

Good suggestions. 

Eric Myrvaagnes

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #3 on: February 24, 2019, 12:43:59 pm »

This is the best summary of basic composition that I have seen.
(Edward Weston's "Composition is simply the strongest way of seeing" is just a little too terse to be useful for most of us.)
Thanks for putting it out here for us, Vieri.
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Mark Nadler

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #4 on: February 24, 2019, 03:46:26 pm »

I agree with everything Bottazzini states.  However, a compositional issue still gnaws at me.  I recently attended a presentation
by a well known landscape photographer and he showed a few images that he liked but stated they were poorly composed because
they lack a strong focus point.  For me, I enjoyed the overall feeling of these photographs even though they lacked a single point of focus.  In fact,
I have taken similar photographs myself.  So my question is this: can a (let's say) landscape photograph have overall merit without
having a single point that grabs the viewers attention?  Why is it a sin for the viewers eyes to be drawn hither and thither over an image?
Cannot the message of the image be in its overall zeitgeist?

Mark

 
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bwana

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #5 on: February 24, 2019, 10:25:31 pm »

I have come across this 'you need a focus' mantra often. And it takes various forms from tonal gradations, to color transitions, to content selection (for example ' a pattern interrupted'). But I have also come across 'tell a story'. Rembrandt's paintings (when they are not portraits of some rich patron) use light and story .  Certainly images like Breughel's 'The fall of Icarus have buried the focus in obscurity and it almost becomes a 'Where's waldo' kind of puzzle. And then there are visual puns and jokes (trompe l'oeil) also seen in the drawings of Escher. Simplicity of composition certainly adds impact to an image and can move it into the realm of contemporary abstract art. But it seems to me, that the 'success' of a photograph often is related to its ability to fall into a familiar and recognizable style with good technical execution (tonal range, color grading,etc) yet present an original vision. For example in a recently posted beautiful image from the Isle of skye, my eye wanders all over those alternating bands of light and dark. The image defies a single focus and partly because everything is in focus.
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BAB

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #6 on: February 25, 2019, 03:28:46 pm »

I was just watching some of Damien Lovegrove's video BTS and he really has such a fascinating sense of COMP. really make all the difference in the image. I would give another nod to the Fashion photographer Albert Watson http://www.albertwatson.net really a perfectionist these guys came from a strong Graphic Design background.[color=var(--ytd-video-primary-info-renderer-title-color, var(--yt-spec-text-primary))][size=var(--ytd-video-primary-info-renderer-title-font-size, 1.8rem)][color=var(--ytd-video-primary-info-renderer-title-color, var(--yt-spec-text-primary))][size=var(--ytd-video-primary-info-renderer-title-font-size, 1.8rem)][color=var(--ytd-video-primary-info-renderer-title-color, var(--yt-spec-text-primary))][size=var(--ytd-video-primary-info-renderer-title-font-size, 1.8rem)]
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MattBurt

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #7 on: February 25, 2019, 04:29:49 pm »

I often try most of what you suggest when I'm out shooting. Although sometimes I rush an initial shot if the conditions may be fleeting and may not wait for me to thoughtfully compose. But then I'll try for a more calculated approach if the conditions last. I try to plan better than that too but it doesn't always work out that way. :)
I was a painter in college and studied a lot of master works as well as breaking down a lot of compositional elements in both works we like and ones that we didn't. I feel like that has given me a good sense, but a little analysis can improve what I already feel. Like I often look for the lines I may want to use or avoid after I compose based on instinct. The may already be in the right place or pretty close and a small adjustment can get it just right to generate interest or guide the eye.
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luxborealis

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #8 on: February 26, 2019, 08:19:42 pm »

I often try most of what you suggest when I'm out shooting. Although sometimes I rush an initial shot if the conditions may be fleeting and may not wait for me to thoughtfully compose...

That’s what the 10,000 hours are for. But you know that already, Matt, a profit from it. This comment is for the many people with cameras who just don’t get it. Dynamic composition doesn’t just happen. It takes work!

And, if I hear from yet another ‘photographer’, “Well, that’s the way it was” as an excuse for poor (lifeless) composition...!
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Vieri Bottazzini

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #9 on: February 27, 2019, 05:54:26 am »

Thank you very much everyone for your contributions :)

About the "focus" point (or lack thereof), to me there isn't a set "rule" for that; well, I don't like "set rules" as a principle, so I guess that is consistent. If an image works, it works, even if it lacks a clear "focus point / subject / center of attention / etc"; my suggestion in this case perhaps would be to analyse it to try and understand why it works, vs (i.e.) other images without a focus that do not work.

About the "get the fleeting moment" vs "deliberate" composing, Cartier-Bresson and his reference to "Zen & archery" comes to mind; for street photographers, the idea would be to "shoot the arrow with eyes closed" to stay in the archery reference - sort of "knowing" without really paying attention to the framing, sort of "framing instinctively" and so on. In landscape, we have the luxury of more time (at least, we do most of the time), but - at the same time - as we put in the work, we start to "see better" so to speak, "see earlier", and "see faster", somehow we'll find better composition faster, we'll get to an instinctive / automated framing process. At least, this is what I found happening with myself during the years. Still, I love to take my time and deliberately compose my shots, in the hope / idea that this will still add something even to the "improved by experience" first look at a scene; and that this will help me improve and fine tune my compositions even more - and so on.

Best regards,

Vieri
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stamper

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #10 on: February 27, 2019, 09:39:40 am »

After a few years the composing becomes second nature. Vieri's post is common sense but stating it is a timely reminder. Well said!

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #11 on: March 05, 2019, 09:53:24 am »

Quote
"get the fleeting moment"

That would be an interesting topic. 

Regarding composition, I would say get to know your subject by developing a sense of place.  If I'm not dealing with fleeting light, I will walk around the area without my camera thinking of where I might want to return. There is something to be said to photographing a landscape over time.  After getting over the initial Wow, I can then just look at light and shapes filling the frame. 
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TippHex

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #12 on: March 10, 2019, 07:33:57 am »

That would be an interesting topic. 

Regarding composition, I would say get to know your subject by developing a sense of place

Jem Southam is an acclaimed landscape photographer who really doesn't 'do' traditional landscape. His work challenges what landscape is in many ways. Here is an Interview of him by Martin parr.
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KenS

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #13 on: March 12, 2019, 02:22:50 pm »

I think it's interesting to compare the thinking of someone like Marc Muench (The Art of Seeing, Outdoor Photographer, March 2019) to say Adam Gibbs (http://www.adamgibbs.com/, also see his Youtube videos).  Muench stresses the importance of composition in his opening remarks: "Subject, light and composition make up the trinity, and the fuel that fires it is timing".  On the other hand, Adam Gibbs emphasizes the importance of light over composition.  They both make great images!

Vieri Bottazzini

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #14 on: March 22, 2019, 06:07:51 am »

I think it's interesting to compare the thinking of someone like Marc Muench (The Art of Seeing, Outdoor Photographer, March 2019) to say Adam Gibbs (http://www.adamgibbs.com/, also see his Youtube videos).  Muench stresses the importance of composition in his opening remarks: "Subject, light and composition make up the trinity, and the fuel that fires it is timing".  On the other hand, Adam Gibbs emphasizes the importance of light over composition.  They both make great images!

Sorry about the delay in answering - I am still on the road leading WS and have been doing so non-stop since late January, with poor internet and very little time.

Back to the topic, I am more in the camp of composition over light, I think that you can make great images even in poor light if they have a strong enough composition, whereas the other way round - to me - doesn't work as well. The fact that people with different views can all make great images, as you said, perfectly proves the point that there are many different ways to get to the same result :)

Best regards,

Vieri
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luxborealis

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #15 on: March 22, 2019, 02:41:32 pm »

I think it's interesting to compare the thinking of someone like Marc Muench (The Art of Seeing, Outdoor Photographer, March 2019) to say Adam Gibbs (http://www.adamgibbs.com/, also see his Youtube videos).  Muench stresses the importance of composition in his opening remarks: "Subject, light and composition make up the trinity, and the fuel that fires it is timing".  On the other hand, Adam Gibbs emphasizes the importance of light over composition.  They both make great images!

Excellent point Ken. Both light and composition weigh heavily in the relative success of photographs of all kinds. And many photographers forget the control we have over light: choosing, when possible, the time of day or atmospherics in which to create photographs, then moving around a given subject or moving to another scene that provides the opportunity for more creative lighting.

I must admit to starting with the light, often backlighting when I have the choice, then working the composition from there. However, Vieri makes a very good case for composition first: when the light may not be ideal, a strong, dynamic composition can save the day.
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Vieri Bottazzini

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #16 on: March 24, 2019, 03:08:19 pm »

... And many photographers forget the control we have over light: choosing, when possible, the time of day or atmospherics in which to create photographs, then moving around a given subject or moving to another scene that provides the opportunity for more creative lighting.
...

Not to mention the possibility of using Grad ND, ND and polariser filters to "create" our own light, at least to some extent :)

Quote
... However, Vieri makes a very good case for composition first: when the light may not be ideal, a strong, dynamic composition can save the day.

Indeed!

Best regards,

Vieri
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MattBurt

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #17 on: March 25, 2019, 11:06:01 am »

Excellent point Ken. Both light and composition weigh heavily in the relative success of photographs of all kinds. And many photographers forget the control we have over light: choosing, when possible, the time of day or atmospherics in which to create photographs, then moving around a given subject or moving to another scene that provides the opportunity for more creative lighting.

I must admit to starting with the light, often backlighting when I have the choice, then working the composition from there. However, Vieri makes a very good case for composition first: when the light may not be ideal, a strong, dynamic composition can save the day.

I think we need to be able to consider both approaches in our toolsets. My problem is sometimes I find the light and can't come up with a decent composition before it's too late. I've either not taken or not kept those images that only take light (and/or interesting atmospheric conditions) into account because the composition just didn't come together. Same for ones where the composition was good but the light just wasn't there to support it. I might take the shot to remember this place for when conditions are better but if it's dull I'm probably not going to show it to anyone.
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Vieri Bottazzini

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #18 on: April 02, 2019, 08:03:03 am »

I think we need to be able to consider both approaches in our toolsets. My problem is sometimes I find the light and can't come up with a decent composition before it's too late. I've either not taken or not kept those images that only take light (and/or interesting atmospheric conditions) into account because the composition just didn't come together. Same for ones where the composition was good but the light just wasn't there to support it. I might take the shot to remember this place for when conditions are better but if it's dull I'm probably not going to show it to anyone.

Hey Matt,

I completely agree with you, the more tools we have to create great images, the better :) Generalising never works for all situations, since one will always find some location + weather conditions where one approach would work while the other won't, and vice-versa. Best regards,

Vieri
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Lightsmith

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Re: Composition in landscape photography
« Reply #19 on: April 02, 2019, 03:16:00 pm »

Step one is to ask what about a particular scene is worth photographing. I see too many images where it is not clear what the photographer is trying to convey. A snap shot is just that regardless of the camera and lens used by the photographer. If I do not get a visceral reaction at the onset with an image, including my own images when reviewing them at home, then the image is not worth keeping.
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