Follow these three basic steps for harmony and balance in your landscapes.
Composition in art has provided a topic of discussion—and controversy—for millennia. From the ancient Greeks to present-day digital photographers, design theories, rules, and formulas attempt to define and quantify that elusive concept of aesthetics: What looks ideal? Rather than tackle the problem head-on, I’ve come up with a few basic guidelines that can yield a profound improvement in your landscape photographs. In fact, it’s as simple as A, B, C: Angle, Balance, and Crop.
Find the Right Angle
The most common enemy of good composition is impulse: A subject attracts you, you make a few exposures, then you move on to continue the hunt. Chances are, though, your angle won’t be ideal at the precise moment you discover your subject. So before shooting, slow down!
Examine the scene you want to photograph to determine where best to position yourself relative to both the subject (your perspective) and the direction of light. This is often a simple matter of just walking and observing. Consider how your angle aligns other elements in the scene with your main subject. Look for leading lines you can exploit by changing your position, or distracting objects that you can leave out of the frame with a change of perspective. See if the angle of the light will be more favorable in a different spot at another time of day.
In the landscape at top right, I chose an angle that prevented the distant rock formations from being obscured by other elements, and cropped so that the arch frames the scene.
Balance the Element
Your photo is more than just your main subject. Balance is about finding the best placement of all the elements in the frame relative to each other and to the edges. A balanced composition is one where all of these are in harmony.
Your major adjustments here will be the subject-to-camera distance and the direction of the camera. Look for visual relationships— elements that are larger or smaller than one another, colors and tones that complement or clash, or elements that share lines and contours. A tripod that allows camera placement anywhere from ground level on up is an invaluable tool here.
To draw attention to a particular area, make sure it stands out, whether in size, color, or placement. But, at the same time, make sure that one side of the frame is not disproportionately “heavier” than the other, and that important elements have sufficient breathing room.
In the photo on the opening spread, I included repeating patterns in the dark areas to balance out the bright area at top right.
The Rule of Thirds can help you with balance: Divide the frame into three equidistant sections along each axis, and place key elements along these division lines or at their points of intersection. In the photo above, imagine a tic-tac-toe grid formed by connecting the index marks, and note how the sun and chair fall at intersection points.