Piece on composition in Outdoor Enthusiast

There’s a short article of mine on some (very) basic compositional ideas in this month’s Outdoor Enthusiast magazine.

For a change it’s completely free to read online here, however I’ll post the original unedited text and images below, as my verbosity may have taken a little snipping to fit it in the magazine 😉


Building a picture

“Well, I struggle a bit with composition….” I can usually guarantee this as a response when asking workshop clients what they’re needing most help with in their photography. Which is understandable given that it’s one of the more creative aspects of photography, the one where the hard facts go out of the window, and there are no real right answers…. wait, come back!

If you don’t know where to begin, keeping a few basic compositional ideas in mind can help you build a more coherent picture, and even help you ‘see’ more potential shots in the first place.

Essentially, composition is how you manoeuvre all the elements of a scene into a visually pleasing array, and also coerce the viewer into seeing the scene the way you as the photographer did. Even if only partially successfully done, it can elevate an image into being something more than just a throwaway snapshot of a location.

Rule of thirds

Many will already be aware of the much – maligned rule of thirds, which is a fairly simplistic distillation of more complex compositional arrangements. However, it can be useful to keep in mind if you don’t even know where to begin.

Split the scene into three both vertically and horizontally, and place important lines along the upper or lower thirds, and key points of interest off centre along intersections of both sets of lines.

With wider views, place the horizon line on the upper or lower third depending on whether your sky or foreground is the more interesting part of the scene.

This is one of the more basic ‘rules’ so don’t try and contrive compositions to stick to it rigidly, and (as with all rules) don’t be afraid to ignore it completely. Place your main point of interest dead centre if it pleases your eye better and has more impact that way.

Foreground interest and leading lines

Photography is of course a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional world and we can’t escape that. The worst results are often crushingly flat and lifeless though. We need to begin to add some depth back.

One way to do this is to start adding more layers – the simplest way is with the nearest thing at your disposal, a foreground. That’s not to say any foreground will do, don’t include anything that is messy and confusing or that adds nothing to the shot. Pick, say, a fifty metre circle and walk around it repeatedly looking for anything which could be complementary. Change your angle of view and get down low rather than shooting from head height all the time.

If including a foreground, don’t be tempted to use an ultra wide angle lens all the time, particularly with mountain scenes. Foreground objects can easily become too large and overly dominant, with distant mountains diminished and overwhelmed.

Instead of looking at the scene for what it is, try and view it as a series of lines and shapes, and look for ways to lead the viewer into and through the shot. Paths, walls, streams, rock strata, they all provide lines that can be used to guide the eye. Diagonal lines and, more subtly, s curves are both particularly useful.

Composing around the light

As most regular hill walkers and wild campers will know, if you spend enough time amongst the landscape early or late in the day or in changeable weather, you will now and then encounter sublime lighting conditions that may only last for a couple of minutes. Isolated patches of light can light up certain parts of a scene whilst the rest remains in shadow.

These patches can almost become the main subject of the shot instead of what you were previously aiming the camera at, so try to react and compose around them accordingly. With fast moving bursts of light on wilder mountain days, try and wait until a particular hill or important part of the view is lit up before clicking your finger.

None of these ideas should be seen as rules, they’re merely aids to try and nudge important parts of the composition into more pleasing positions should you be having problems knowing where to start. The final judgement should always be whether it looks pleasing to your eye, and not whether it conforms to any established idea.

Your compositions can nearly always be improved by taking a little more time and care at the capture stage. Spend some time and really look before you shoot. Check around the edges of the frame to make sure there’s nothing intruding that shouldn’t be; everything that’s within it should be there for a reason, adding to or providing balance to the shot.

Once you’ve managed a few examples that you’re happy with, consider why you think they work and then try and apply the same ideas to new locations. You’ll soon begin to create more visually pleasing and arresting images that viewers will linger over a little longer on a more regular basis.

Winter Sketch, Stob Dearg

 In this image I included the foreground rocks as they were almost a perfect deconstruction of the shape of the mountain in the background. This repetition of shape helps to add depth and connects the foreground and background for the viewer.

Elgol Ebb

The nearest rock immediately points the viewer into the shot, from where you can trace a zig zagging line through the remainder towards Sgurr na Stri in the background. The most distant rock reinforces the connection by being of a similar shape and angle. I waited until the patch of light slowly moved across the scene, timing the shot to catch it as it hit the bay at Camasunary.

Bla Bheinn dawn

The sunlit foreground rocks not only help to add depth and scale to the image, but their diagonal lines also provide a nice entry point for the viewer. The eye is pointed right, then travels back left to the sunlit summit of Marsco, then back right again to Beinn Dearg Mhor and Glamaig.


If you’re interested in learning more about the basics of photography, then feel free to take a look at one of my Lake District landscape workshops.

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