Composition – a toe in the water

In there’s one topic that’s almost guaranteed to crop up in any pre – workshop chats with participants about what they struggle with, or what they’d like to learn more about, it’s composition.

I tend to think there are two main steps in the compositional process. The first is visualising or seeing the potential for a shot in the first place, and the second is then choosing how to arrange and fine tune all the elements of the scene into a pleasing and balanced final composition.

The second part of course can be as much about choosing what exclude from the shot as much as what to leave in, but once an overall choice has been made about what should be present within the frame the hard work really starts. Even very small changes in the position of the camera, angle of view and focal length can exert a surprisingly large pull over the composition and the final balance of the image.

I’ll probably write more about some of these aspects on another occasion, but for now I want to concentrate on a few things to keep in mind if you’re really struggling to get anything remotely pleasing to begin with.

If there’s one basic principle worth aiming for, you can do worse than to make simplicity that aim. Some of the most expert compositional work comes from incredibly intricate scenes and complex constructions, but if you begin by trying to aim for simplicity, and achieve it successfully enough and often enough, you can then develop and build layers of complexity from there.

A good way to begin is to strip a scene down to a few basic elements and work out how to lead the viewer’s eye amongst them in a pleasing path. This approach can apply to both grand views and more intimate scenes.

A common complaint amongst beginners to photography is that all their photos look a bit flat – lifeless two dimensional snapshots of what they were actually viewing at the time. The problem with photography of course, is that it IS a flat two dimensional representation of what you were seeing at the time.

There are many ways to add depth to a shot, but more dynamic compositions are often the best way to begin, as it’s one of the variables you as a landscape photographer actually have control over. Probably the most basic compositional trick is to use leading lines to (sometimes rather too clumsily and obviously) usher a viewer through the image. Diagonal lines, or, more subtly appealingly, sinuous s curves are the most commonly used lines.

Another method is to use repeating patterns or shapes, which provide a visual connection through the shot.

One idea illustrated below kind of links to both of these ideas, but is also one that ties into the fundamentals of composition – reducing the scene in front of you its basic building blocks, and viewing it as lines and shapes, instead of looking at what’s actually there.

Instead of containing obvious lines through the frame, the shot below has a front to back connection, and therefore a visual depth, simply by having foreground shapes which echo or mirror others in the background.

It’s not a complicated compositional tool, but is one that tends to work nicely in tune with the main basic aim of simplicity that I mentioned. And despite not being complicated it can still be quite tricky to easily construct successful examples in the field. You can’t do it at every location you come across for example.

Shot from Stob Beinn a’ Chrulaiste looking towards Buachaille Etive Mor, the landscape is already a simpler reduction of its former self due to the cloaking nature of heavy snow and obfuscating cloud.

I adore conditions like this; the lack of direct sunlight means you can shoot in any direction and simply concentrate on the stark form of the landscape, and achieving simple graphic compositions should in theory be more straightforward.

My main focal point is obviously the mountain. If including foreground, it needs to be for a reason. It needs to connect to the background in some way, rather than just being random foreground rocks included for the sake of cheap foreground interest.

There are no obvious lines from front to back. However, with careful camera placement, I was able to arrange the collection of rocks into what is essentially a deconstructed approximation of the mountain itself, giving that front to back connection for the viewer.

I also placed the camera at a low enough angle to allow the rocks to break the ‘horizon’, which can easily become a barrier to the viewer’s eye in mountain photography when shooting from one peak to another.

This Buachaille Etive Mor shot is one of my more successful examples of this compositional idea.

All the aspects of composition I mention above are ideas you learn and assimilate and then apply in the field. Some will work in certain situations, some won’t.

And of course you don’t always deconstruct exactly what you’re doing when out in the field. Often, if having to work quickly, it’s a case of trying to construct a shot that simply looks the most pleasing and balanced to your own eye. As a beginner you don’t have to know exactly why you’re making certain decisions, and composition is subjective anyway. It’s your image and your choice.


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