So far in my landscape photography series, I’ve talked about compositional elements, their weights and how to use their properties to balance the composition by imagining a balance of torques around the middle axis of an image. I also discussed balancing of negative space, the perception of subject direction and the often-overlooked importance I reserve to the separation of elements. I then discussed the perception of depth and how to use sky in a landscape image.
To start this article, I’d like to go back to the elements of composition, and talk more about tying compositional components together, in hope that it ties all the points I made in my seven prior stories together.
Tsingy Rouge, Northern Madagascar.
Canon 5D III, Canon 11-24mm F4
Remembering some of the previous articles, we know that compositional masses counterbalance each other. If we arrange the elements well, these masses will be separated without overlapping, and have proper negative space around each of them proportional to their compositional weights. All this might sound like it means that the different elements of a composition are disconnected. But in a good image, compositional elements are anything but disconnected. I’d like to solve this ostensible discrepancy by explaining how compositional masses can be tied together using shapes and lines.
The Dunes of Sandwich Harbor meet the Atlantic Ocean, Namibia.
Canon 5D III, Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6
Even when acknowledging the need to balance the masses around the central axis, I would claim that that alone often isn’t enough to determine the best arrangement of the frame. There are many degrees of freedom, in the sense that there are many compositions in which the masses are arranged in a way that satisfies the balance we so desire. There is room, therefore, to consider additional ideas for arranging elements relative to each other in a way that’s most pleasing to the viewer’s eye.
|What is it, other than the main masses being well-balanced around the central axis, that makes the different elements in this image work together as a whole and not as differentiated points of interest?|
The first of these ideas is that we should consider the overall shapes created by the main elements (masses and lines) in a composition. To do that, we can imagine the image as devoid of any information other than these elements, and create a sort of mental diagram (or graph) depicting the interactions between them. The aim should be for the main elements to create some sort of flow, a continuum that makes sense to the eye and to the mind; this contributes to making the viewer connect with the photographer’s feelings and vision when creating the image.
A very straightforward example of this is framing. When some of the elements in the composition form a frame around others, they form a connection: the frame accentuates what’s inside it, focusing the viewer’s eye on it and giving it more importance.
This beautiful rock arch forms a frame to focus the viewer’s eye on the mountain and double rainbow. Spitzkoppe, Namibia.
Sony A7R, Canon 16-35mm F2.8 II
This glacial cave opening framed the background mountains, but also has the shape of a bird. Mýrdalsjökull, Iceland.
Sony A7R, Canon 17mm F4 TS-E
But the shapes you can compose out of the main compositional elements are not limited to frames. There are many more examples. S-curves, which connect the main masses with winding lines, also come to mind.
The benefit of an S-curve is that its shape (real or imaginary) winds back and forth, causing the viewer to consider different areas in the composition and creating a connection between them. It also encourages the viewers eye to wander back and forth in the image, giving them the pleasure of exploring it.
The shorelines of the Dead Sea wind back and forth between left and right. Ein Gedi, Israel.
DJI Mavic II Pro
Shapes created by compositional elements can vary. In the image below there is a very nice multi-pyramid shape: not only is the mountain shaped like a pyramid, but the lines of its sides, when continued, form another pyramid with the island as its base, and then yet another pyramid with the foreground trees.
Let’s draw the diagram, just to show this more clearly:
I claim that having this sort of extra connection between the different elements enhances an image a great deal.
Another example is an image I’ve already discussed in the series.
A top view of Fagradalsfjall Volcano, Iceland, April 2021.
DJI Mavic 2 Pro pano stitch
In this image we have several concentric circles, connected by radial lines. The star shape draws the eye into the central subject (the eruption and the pool) and connects it to the outer layers.
Hopefully the ideas and shapes above convince you of the importance of connecting the elements of your image in more than one way. To continue, I’d like to show you another pyramid shape, and ask you what is it about the main elements, other than this shape and the balance around the central axis, that contributes to the composition.
A clear pyramid shape ties the main compositional mass to the foreground using lines. What property do these lines possess that enhances the composition further? Deadvlei, Namibia.
Canon 5D IV, Canon 16-35mm F2.8 III
To hint at what I have in mind, here is a comparison between 2 images from the same place: Skagsanden Beach in the Lofoten Islands.
I claim that these images, though superficially similar, differ in a very important trait. In the image on the left, the lines lead toward a compositional mass, whereas in the image on the right, the lines lead away from the background subject.
Lines are powerful tools in composition. As discussed above, they can be used to connect different compositional masses, creating a composition that works as a whole. But even more importantly, lines are a tool to create depth.
In previous articles I talked about the sense of depth and how important it is for a landscape image. Using wide-angle lenses, separating elements, correct use of negative space – all these contribute to the feeling of depth. But lines can perhaps be more powerful than all of them in making the viewers feel like they are inside the world depicted in the image.
This is not a scientific fact, rather a gut feeling, but I think that when a line connects foreground and background it makes the viewer subconsciously compare them, going back and forth and thus emphasizing the distance between them. A line can also enhance the main compositional masses simply by being an arrow, either pointing to them or emanating from them. Let’s look at a few examples of lines connecting and/or emphasizing masses.
Finally, I’d like to express how important it is when leading lines connect to the bottom of the image. This adds to the sensation of depth, but more importantly it connects the viewer to the scene, making them feel like part of the depicted world.
It’s good to study a counter example to this. Consider the image below.
Paine Grande in morning light. Torres Del Paine, Chilean Patagonia.
Sony A7R, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8
The mountain looks nice with the red sunrise light, which also reflects on the river. Overall I’d say the composition is nicely balanced, even if not spectacular. But my main problem here is that the river does not go to the bottom of the frame, but rather sideways. This flattens the image and compresses it in an unappealing way.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my rather unorthodox ways of thinking about composition. I’ve said this a thousand times but I will say it again: this was not a guide on how to compose in the field, but rather an exploration of different ways of understanding why certain images work and other don’t. Take what you wish from it – the important thing is that you understand that composition is the single most important thing in an image. Because nothing will ever change that.
Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer, photography guide and traveller based in Israel. You can follow Erez’s work on Instagram and Facebook, and subscribe to his mailing list for updates and to his YouTube channel.
If you’d like to experience and shoot some of the world’s most fascinating landscapes with Erez as your guide, take a look at his unique photography workshops in Greenland, Madagascar, Namibia, Vietnam and the Argentinean Puna.
Erez also offers video tutorials discussing his images and explaining how he achieved them.