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Post Series: Essentials of Composition

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Yesterday I gave a talk at the BH Event Space titled “Essential Composition in Landscape Photography,” and I wanted to share some of it here on the blog. As I prepared for the talk, I realized how daunting it was to try and cover all the different approaches to composition, and at the same time make it clear and simple to understand. So I relied on the best definition of composition I have ever heard:

“To compose a subject well means no more than to see and present it in the strongest manner possible.” – Edward Weston

I love this definition because it is specific yet so empowering at the same time. It promotes a personal approach unencumbered by rules, formulas, or popular opinion.

Composition is my favorite part of landscape photography.

There is nothing I enjoy more than bringing the camera up to my eye, and discovering a whole new world inside the artificial window of a viewfinder. And even more exciting is that I get to compose what others will see in this window. I would imagine it’s the same for you.

So when I say it’s equally challenging, frustrating, and ripe with failure, you know exactly what I mean. When you get it right, it opens a doorway to new ways of seeing, and the exploration starts all over again.

Composition is the essence of any visual artwork. It establishes the relationships of the objects in the frame, and relationships are everything in photographic composition. The compositional toolbox includes, but is certainly not limited to:

  • lines – lead the eye through an image
  • shapes – define visual weight and subject matter
  • forms – create depth and dimension, make an image more immersive
  • light – the fundamental ingredient to any successful image, the “glue” that holds everything together

How these elements relate to one another defines the context by which the viewer is going to interpret an image and its meaning. Meaning is what gives life to an image, what connects the photographer to the viewer, what makes the creative act worthwhile.

Image Analysis

Land of Rock

Hi-lights and shadows lead the eye diagonally across this image. The blue strip of sky balances the color and provides relief to the starkness of the background. 

The Challenges of Composition

Landscape and nature photography poses many unique challenges, all of which I’m sure you’re familiar with. Making good compositions is hard, really hard. In my experience as a teacher and photographer, I think there are three fundamental challenges we struggle with every time we venture out into the field and “consider” a specific composition. These are:

  • Managing complexity – not letting images become too busy, or having too many competing elements in an image (sound familiar?)
  • Understanding human vision – understanding how we see and react to our environment or a particular subject vs. how a camera “sees.” This is the bridge that gets us from capturing a “vista” to telling a visual story.
  • Improving our intuition – learning and then internalizing the basics of visual design, expanding our visual literacy, and practicing over and over again.

These are big topics, and they come before any discussion of focal length, perspective, or selecting a subject. But coming to grips with these challenges will do more to improve your photography than any other thing I can think of.

Improving Your Composition

Over the coming weeks, I will be discussing each of these in-depth, providing you with a basic framework that you can use to explore composition in a way that is meaningful for you. No formulas, no rules (at least none that you can’t break at will), and lots of room for discussion.

I’ll talk about music and composition, landscape painting, gestalt theory, and many other concepts that I hope will help you think more creatively. There will also be a chance to join an online course on composition I hope to announce soon!

Subscribe to our newsletter and be the first to know when it launches. 

Please feel free to let me know what you think, and send me your compositional questions too!

RR Jr

Experience your work in the real world. The Printmaker Masterclass is live and growing! Learn more here.

This Post Has 11 Comments
    1. Hi Peter – unfortunately B&H did not record the presentation due to technical difficulties. However, I plan to make the presentation again as a free webinar soon…stay tuned 🙂

      RR

  1. I can’t agree with your statement when you say, ‘ … discovering a whole new world inside the artificial window of a viewfinder.’ I have a problem with you implying that the viewfinder window and/or the scene being reflected through the lens are somehow ‘artificial.’ There is nothing artificial about either the camera, a physical object, or the (real) scene in front of you. In the case of a dslr the scene is a real reflection as opposed to, in the case of a compact camera, a real projection. The camera, the reflection and the scene are all real in time and space. The lens, through which you view the scene, always provides you with a specific view of the scene in time; changing the lens presents the scene differently to the eye and affects what your brain perceives the scene.

    1. Hi Nick – thanks for the feedback and comment! I think you misunderstand what I mean (or I should have been clearer) when I say the camera creates an artificial window. I did not mean to imply that the camera or the scene being captured are artificial. On the contrary, that would make the whole exercise meaningless for me. In fact, most of what I talk about is the fact that we must make a connection to the very real and physical world we live in.

      But there is no question that the camera imposes a certain limited view of that reality, one that is artificial by nature because we do not see the way a camera sees. Leaving things in or out of the frame change the entire perception for the viewer, and that is created by the tools we use. That’s not a bad thing, in fact I quite like that aspect of photography as I mentioned in the article.

      When you say, “the specific view of the scene in time,” that is what I’m talking about, and I’m in total agreement with you. The ability to change that scene by the use of a camera is powerful and offers many creative possibilities.

      I hope that clarifies it a bit, and never would I imply that everything we experience in the field is not real. It most certainly is…

      RR

  2. G’day Robert, Been following your blog for the last 6 months. Not a big conversationalist but do enjoy your insights. I’m very much into landscapes, flowers and birds – with a bit of portrait and real estate thrown in for bread and butter (country towns force greater flexibility to be able to eat). My point is that, until 6 months ago, I mainly focused on flowers and birds, and with some landscape work cause I love it but not always happy with the results. Since reading your blog I have been inspired with the simplicity of your work, and I now love sitting on a rock or fallen tree and just staring at the moving light. Your technique resonates with the way I see light in the world around me, and while I don’t doubt the beautiful talent of so many professional landscape photographers out there (some incredible work on the web) I really appreciate the way you present the information.
    I’ve just purchased an Epson 7880 and your printing ebook and about to embark on a new and exciting adventure. I will now have complete control over everything I do from camera to sale – I will sink of swim by my own effort and experiences and the experiential help of people like yourself.
    God willing and me listening all will go well.

    Thanks for your willingness to share your experiences with all.

  3. Hi Robert, this blog is so helpful. Sharing your insight and how you work is very inspiring for me. I’ve even started reading some of your suggested books. I’m excited that you will be taking the time to put more of your thoughts, techniques along with an online course on this blog. It’s really great to have an opportunity to see and understand how you work especially to a new photographer.

  4. Hi, Robert;
    I follow your wonderful works and blog. Your sharings are definetly very helpful and inspiring for me. I am looking forward your next free webinar. Thank you very much. Have a great new year.

    Best wishes

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