In all my years of printing and teaching printing workshops, the single most important thing…
1. Learning the Essentials of Composition in Landscape Photography
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.
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!
Please feel free to let me know what you think, and send me your compositional questions too!