The composition is key in photography. It doesn’t matter how good the light is or how much you tweak the image in post-processing; without a strong composition, the image will never be anything other than a ‘nice snap’.
It’s also a difficult topic to teach. There are endless of guidelines and so-called rules but you can’t apply them all at once. In fact, sometimes you shouldn’t apply any at all. That’s why I tend to refer to them as compositional guidelines rather than rules.
As I said, there are many guidelines and many of them build on eachother. I want to introduce you to the top 5 compositional guidelines that I use the most frequently in my photography and that I believe will have a positive impact on yours. You might have heard about a few of these before but hopefully, some of them are new as well.
1. Dark to Bright
This is a well-known technique in the art world but for some reason, it’s one that’s often neglected in landscape photography.
Applying the Dark-to-Bright compositional technique will improve the visual impact and help guide the viewer through the image.
So what exactly does this mean? Well, our eyes tend to be drawn towards brighter parts of a frame, so it’s important that the brighter areas are nearby the main subject of the image. By darkening areas further away, such as the borders of the image, you almost force the viewer towards the bright area.
This is not always something that’s possible to apply in the field; sometimes it needs to be done through careful dodge and burn or other post-processing techniques.
2. Cold to Warm
The second compositional guideline that you should learn to use is similar to the previous but instead of talking about the luminosity of an image, we look at the colors. Studies have shown that the human eye, as with brightness, is attracted to warm tones. This is something we can take advantage of in photography.
By using cold and desaturated tones in less important areas of the image and warm bright tones in the rest, we can help guide the viewer towards the main subject.
Combining this technique with the previous is an efficient way to quickly improve the visual impact an image has.
3. Leading Lines
I’m sure that this is something many of you already are familiar with but it’s one worth repeating: take advantage of leading lines.
Look for foreground elements that lead up towards the main subject. This can be a path, a river, a lodge, a field of flowers or even clouds. There’s a good chance that these leading lines will make a big difference in an otherwise average image.
4. Clean Corners
The fourth tip is perhaps slightly more difficult to implement. For an image to look great, you always need to ask yourself ‘does everything in the frame help the image?’. If there are parts that are distracting they should be removed. This can be done either by moving the tripod, zooming in, cropping or removing it in post-processing.
A good example is the image above. Notice that the rock on the right side is cut in half; this is something that grabs more attention than necessary. By zooming in, cropping a little or making a slight adjustment to our perspective, we can easily fix this.
5. Big to Small
The final compositional guideline we’ll look at is the use of big-to-small or close-to-distant objects. This, combined with leading lines, will ‘suck’ the viewer straight into the image and lead them towards the main subject.
Let’s take the image above as an example. By using a low perspective, I was able to put the emphasis on the cracks in the ice and use these as leading lines to the rock in the center, which appears much smaller due to using a wide-angle lens. The big lines in the foreground serve as a natural place for the eyes to land when first viewing the image and the rock creates additional depth.