As a landscape photographer, composition is everything. It is the glue that holds our photos together and it is what separates a great shot from a mediocre shot. Our compositions tell a story. They are our artistic expression of the natural world.
But what exactly is composition? This is a constant conversation among photographers, but oftentimes it can be quite elusive and difficult to understand.
In landscape photography, composition usually involves two key components – a focal point and the available elements in a scene. The goal is to arrange those elements so that the final image offers a smooth, visually pleasing transition to the focal point. That’s composition in the most basic sense. How you include (or don’t include) those elements can make or break your composition. My goal is to shed some light on how I approach composition, using it to create dramatic photographs. Most of us are familiar with the rule of thirds and the incorporation of leading lines. Those are some of the first compositional techniques we learn during our progression as photographers. I’m going to dive a little deeper here to discuss some of the lesser discussed techniques/resources that I use in my quest to create compelling compositions.
Pre-Visualization – Finding a Focal point
When I think of a focal point and the elements of a composition, I almost think of them as having two different magnitudes. I refer to these magnitudes as macroscale and microscale. Macroscale refers to the general location of a place and the available focal points, while microscale refers to the smaller elements within that location. Think of macroscale as the jagged mountain peak and micro scale as the stream flowing at the base of that peak. In this section, I will mainly focus on the macroscale aspect of composition.
To create a great composition you need a great foundation. That means your focal point needs to be exceptionally strong. If you don’t have a strong focal point then your composition is bound to fail. But, finding a powerful focal point can be difficult. Especially when you’re looking to get a shot from a remote area or of a spot where few people photograph. Not all of us have an unlimited amount of time to scout new locations and travel as much as we’d like so I’m going to show you some resources I use to find great focal points in a short amount of time.
My most powerful tool is Google Earth. Google Earth’s 3-dimensional view is one of THE most useful resources for me as a landscape photographer. It’s great for scouting locations you’ve never been. It gives you the information you need to determine if a certain location has a good focal point and ultimately if it has the potential for an exceptional composition.
For instance, the picture below shows a 3D view of Oregon’s Mount Hood. After flying through the area via Google Earth, I found what I thought to be a spot that had a lot of potential to produce a great composition. Mount Hood is the clear focal point of the scene. The ridges below Mount Hood form a nice U-shaped bowl and frame the mountain. There’s even so much detail in the 3D imagery that I could see a glacier-fed stream flowing down the valley too. Just from a few minutes of scouting on Google Earth, I had an idea of what this spot could offer, what the focal point would look like, and even what microscale elements (the stream) I might be able to incorporate in my final composition. I also believed that the greenery shown in the alpine valley might harness wildflowers.
A few weeks later on my trip, I did visit this spot to photograph. You can view the result below, but this composition was almost entirely generated from finding a focal point I liked via Google Earth. I had never seen another picture here or been to this spot before.
Here is another example of a spot I have scouted on Google Earth but have not been. The scene below has great potential. You can see the massive glacier flowing into the valley below. I recognized the glacier as a strong leading line instantly. I also like how the peaks to the left and right of the glacier are very prominent and keep the eye locked into the valley. I have never been to this spot, but judging from the macroscale elements, I think a fantastic composition could be created here. I would use an app like PhotoPills (which displays useful information like where exactly the sun/moon will set and rise) to determine when the sun would set right in the saddle of the valley. The foreground and microscale elements are still a bit of mystery, but I have a good grasp on the macroscale elements that are available for composition. Can you see it? All that information was digitally gathered from just a few minutes of searching around a mountain range in Alaska.
Capture The Action
A few things come to mind when I think about what makes some of Earth’s grand landscapes so dramatic. Sure, the sensational mountains, deep canyons, and lush forests are dramatic enough on their own. But, I think about their respective climates and natural elements as well. I think about the high winds of the mountains, the rushing streams, and waterfalls of the forest, the monsoonal storms of the desert, and so on. Those elements define some of our landscapes and whenever I can, I look to add those elements to my composition. I want to capture the action. It’s a very effective way to strengthen the composition, while also adding a sense of drama and awe.
The below scene is of Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park. It was a particularly blustery morning with freezing temperatures and 40-50 mph winds. I wanted to capture the moment as I experienced it so I chose to incorporate the waves on the lake in my composition. I spent a full hour that morning with my feet in the water, taking hundreds of exposures to capture the wave action I wanted. I think the waves give some reference to the viewer as to how windy it was, and they also offer a nice transition from the foreground to Sinopah Mountain.
I can’t stress enough how important a high-quality tripod is when you strive to capture action and dramatic scenes. Most of the time you will find yourself in less than favorable environmental conditions. I consistently find myself shooting in fast-moving water, in high wind situations, and in extreme temperatures. That’s why I choose to use Really Right Stuff products. A Really Right Stuff rig makes a difference for me because most of the conditions I capture only show themselves for a brief moment. That gives me little time to set up a stable platform that I know won’t fail on me. My current configuration has worked out awesome for those situations. I use the TFC-14 and BH-30, it’s a great rig for travel photography since it is ultralight.
Now, here is another example from the high country of Glacier National Park. During an afternoon hike to Grinnell Glacier, I found myself caught in a brief flurry of snow. Again, wanting to capture the snowfall and dramatic light, I quickly set up and started taking exposures at 1/90s to freeze the snowflakes. If you can visualize the scene without the snow, the composition is relatively basic. However, you can see how much atmosphere the snow adds to this scene. The viewer can almost feel the snow falling and the composition is much stronger as a result.
Two more examples are below. I commonly like to incorporate the movement of water into my compositions. The flow of water can easily be used as a natural leading line and it also gives the viewer a sense of action. In the first photo, I waded into this small stream flowing down a drainage by Mount Chephren in Banff National Park. I used the curvature of the stream and the fast-moving water to draw the viewer’s eye into the mountain. In the second shot, I tried to use the rapids of Panther Creek as a transition to spectacular Lower Panther Creek Falls.
Frame Your Focal Point
The wide-angle lens is one of the greatest creative tools we have as photographers. No other lens has the ability to naturally distort a landscape like a wide-angle. It can make small objects seem enormous and it can distort natural lines/shapes to our liking. I specifically like to use the unique properties of a wide-angle to find interesting ways to frame my focal point. Framing is a common compositional technique. It immediately draws the focus to your subject, and also keeps the eye engaged as the eye transitions between the frame and the focal point. I like to use the wide-angle to my advantage when it comes to framing and I refer to my technique as ‘looking smaller’. An example is this shot from the Hoh Rainforest of Olympic National Park.
The dangling moss was just inches away from my camera, and because my lens was so close the moss appears much larger than it actually was. The gap between the moss was only a few inches across, but I was able to use my wide-angle lens to accentuate the gap and use it as a frame for my composition. I also framed the furthest tree with the two staggered trees. Looking for small scenes like this can really lead to some dynamic framing opportunities. The only downside is that because you have to get so up-close and personal, you frequently will be required to focus stack exposures to ensure the entire scene is in focus. Having a solid tripod setup also really helps with this method. You really have to contort your tripod legs into odd configurations to get an angle on some of these smaller scenes. I’ve had many times where my tripod has one leg fully extended at 90, one leg collapsed at 45, and another somewhere in between that. Not all tripods can do that and remain stable.
In this shot, I was flat on back with my tripod over my body so I could get a perspective of the branches framing Sinopah Mountain. I wish there was some more fall foliage in the bottom right hand corner to provide some additional framing, but the negative space also works as an entry point for the viewer.
This cave can be found in Olympic National Park and it is actually quite small. I got as close to the walls as I could to magnify the size of the cave. This frame works particularly well. The movement of water draws the eye right to sea stack and the frame of the cave keeps the eye fixed on the stack.
Reflect Your Focal Point
Reflections can result in powerful compositions. When I think about an idyllic reflection, a vast mountain range reflected in a large alpine lake comes to mind, but I stress you again to look smaller. Subtle, smaller reflective scenes are all over where there’s water, you just have to look for them. If you do find those scenes, the symmetry between the subject and its respective reflection often results in a fantastic shot. When I explore water worlds, I always keep in mind that even the smallest pool can be used as a reflective element. Here are two examples.
In this shot from Elowah Falls, the pool in the foreground is very small, probably around 1’x1’, I again used my wide-angle lens to magnify the scene. My camera was almost touching the pool of water and I needed to get it as low as possible so that the reflection was actually visible. After some tough setup, I was in the right position and was able to create this final image. The key is getting your camera almost level with the reflective surface so that a reflection is possible. Another reason I love my RRS setup, I know I can get my camera as low as I want with the right leg configuration.
The shot below is of Mount Chephren. The reflective pool was about the same size as the example above. Once again, I got as low as I possibly could to enlarge the pool and get the mountain to reflect.
All of us are after that one great shot that shows our skill, wows our peers, and exemplifies our artistry, but shots like that are hard to come by. However, all of us can get closer to getting our ‘best’ shot by working on our compositions. No matter how you process your work composition is the foundation of landscape photography. Without it, we have nothing.
I hope these tips help you on your quest for your best shot, I know that I am still searching for mine! We discuss all of these tips and more on Backcountry Journeys Workshops, and there is no better way to learn than in-person at some of these actual locations. Consider joining us for a future workshop!
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image. Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world. As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals. You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com