In landscape photography composition can be everything. Get it right, and it will leave a lasting impression on the viewer

Beginner

Landscape photography is one of the most popular genres of photography. But also, one that can be incredibly frustrating when your images do not turn out as intended.
Like any outdoor photography, composition is one of the most important factors in the anatomy of a great landscape photo. So, to help you capture those stunning landscape shots here are 7 composition tips to follow.

1 Decide your main point of interest


One of the easiest mistakes to make in landscape photography is being overwhelmed by the magnificence of the overall scene in front of you–and subsequently not composing around a main point of interest. The point of interest for example, could be a mountain range in the background or a subject in the mid ground or foreground.

Once you know what the main focus of the photo is going to be, you can begin to build your composition around that subject. Decide this, and it will be much easier to work out what to crop out and what to include to complement the main subject.

Landscape composition of the Willows of Glenorchy, New Zealand, on a moody rainy morning
In this image, we are immediately drawn to the trees on the right-hand side, the main subject of the image. The reason for this is the clever placement of the log in the foreground. The mountains and the mist in the distance serve as an atmospheric background. Image by Anupam Hatui
Sunset at the Three Monoliths, Dolomites, Italy, with a floral foreground interest
Here the main subject is the striking mountain range, with the flowers in the foreground complimenting the overall scene. Photo by Giorgio Collatina

What to avoid:

Landscape with an undefined focal point
Landscape with an undefined focal point of interest
Make sure you have a clearly defined point of interest in the scene. These two images do not–what are we expecting the viewer to notice?

2 Lead the viewer through your image


You have probably already heard of the term leading lines. It is a compositional technique to guide the viewer’s eyes through and around an image. Leading lines are incredibly useful in landscape photography to draw the viewer to a point of interest in the frame. Without leading lines, it can be difficult for the viewer to determine where to look in the image.

The image below is a perfect example of how a leading line can help the composition in a landscape photo. In this image, the path leading from the foreground helps the viewer navigate to the lighthouse in the distance and beyond to the horizon.

Colourful sunset at Nugget Point lighthouse; Otago, New Zealand
Landscape composition with leading lines guiding the viewer to the Lighthouse
Image by Jarryd Bravo

Keep in mind that leading lines do not always mean an actual line, they can be many other elements too. For a more in-depth guide on how to use leading lines in your compositions, see our dedicated Focus article here.

What to avoid:

Landscape scene without foreground interest or leading lines
Landscape without a foreground interest or leading lines
These images are two examples that would have benefited from having leading lines to avoid the dead space in the foreground. For example, a jetty or some rocks could have helped lead the viewer's eye into the distance

3 The rule of thirds


This age-old photography composition technique is one of the easiest and most effective composition rules to implement in your landscape shots. You simply need to divide your scene into a 3 x 3 grid and place important elements on or close to the intersecting points of the grid. This will mean avoiding placing points of interest in the middle of your photo–which, strangely enough, creates a less balanced scene.

See the image below:

A patch of light illuminating the church at the lake, Switzerland
Compositional layout showing the rule of thirds in the scene
Placing key areas of your frame around a grid of thirds will help you get a more balanced image that is pleasing to the eye. Photo by Dominique Dubied
LCD view of a composition on the back of a digital camera with a Rule of Thirds overlay
Most digital cameras and smartphones have a grid overlay feature, that when enabled, appears on the LCD screen to help you with your composition

4 Think about the horizon line placement


Another reason why the rule of thirds is such a useful composition tool for landscape photographers is that it can help you think about the horizon line as well. As a general rule, most of the time you should avoid putting your horizon line right in the middle of the composition. This can make the image feel too uniform and uninteresting. So, try to either position your horizon line higher or lower than the centre line. If you use the rule of thirds gridlines, you can place the horizon line on (or near) the top or bottom horizontal lines.

The best way to decide which to go with comes down to the scene. If you have striking cloud formations, place your horizon line lower so that more of your image  is composed of the sky. On the other hand, if you have a dull sky but an interesting foreground, place the horizon line higher so that more of the foreground is in the frame.

Vibrant blue water and storm clouds roll in over the Remarkables; Queenstown, New Zealand
In this image the interesting part is the foreground, so the photographer has sacrificed the sky to show more of it. See tip 7 on going vertical with your frame. Image by Jarryd Bravo
Dawn at Lake Manapouri, New Zeaand
We see more of the sky in this photo because of the interesting cloud formations. Whereas the foreground is not as exciting so is rightly cropped. Photo by Anupam Hatui
Composition of the Northern Lights over Iceland with a low horizon
The real beauty in this scene is the Northern Lights. So the low horizon line helps maximise the canvas for the aurora. Photo by Paul Shemp Stevenson

What to avoid:

Seascape with a horizon line in the middle
Seascape with a central horizon line
These two images have a central horizon line which make the composition feel uniform and mundane
Top tip:

The one thing that you should ensure in your landscape shots is that your horizon line is dead straight. So, make sure you check your images and correct this in editing software like Lightroom if needed.


5
The middle works… sometimes


As mentioned above, most of the time you should try to avoid placing your horizon line in the middle of the image. However, occasionally putting your horizon line in the middle of the composition can work well and provide wonderful results–often when you have a scene with reflections.

By placing your horizon line in the centre of the image a reflection can create symmetry that mirrors the top half of the image. This can create a very pleasing result for some landscape scenes, see the image below:

Last light at Cathedral Lake, Yosemite National Park, California
A perfect example of how placing your horizon line in the centre of the image and utilising reflections can create a stunning result. Image by Cliff LaPlant

6 Find natural frames


Unlike leading lines and the rule of thirds, this technique requires a bit more creativity and awareness of your surroundings. You may find that you can frame your main point of interest using other elements in the scene. Tree branches, valleys and natural rock arches can provide some wonderful composition opportunities. Again, the key is that first, you need to determine your point of interest and then work out if there is anything that can allow you to frame it.

Sun rising in the distance under Mesa Arch, Utah, USA
Here's a great example of incorporating a natural arch into a landscape shot. Photo by Huntstyle

7 Go vertical


Naturally, most landscape photos tend to be taken horizontally. It makes sense as often the width of the photos can help create a sense of scale that is often important in landscape photography. But you should also always look if vertical compositions are possible as they can provide wonderful results too. In some scenes, you may find that a vertical shot is easier to compose. However, the foreground becomes more important in vertical landscape shots so think about this carefully.

Sunset reflections at Lake Shoji, Japan
This vertical frame landscape works beautifully–as the canoes provide strong foreground interest to lead the viewer to Mt. Fuji in the distance. Photo by JFC Photography

What to avoid:

Landscape at Sant Michael's Mount, Cornwall, England without foreground interest
You should add a point of interest or leading lines to vertical landscape shots to avoid a lot of dead space like this example
Top tip:

Another reason that you should always try to capture portrait versions of landscape shots is that they are more likely to be selected for use on front covers.


Bonus tip:
Simplify your composition


Have you heard the saying “less is more”? Well, it could not be truer when it comes to composing your landscape shots. Often a simple, clean and minimalist composition can make a landscape photo become more engaging. So, look to remove the clutter from the composition by cropping into a specific area of the scene like the example below:

Minimalist landscape of blooming fruit trees among the fields in Moravia, Czech Republic
Make big impact by going minimalist with your compositions. Photo by Cezary Morga

Bonus tip: Get lower


There is no surprise that most landscape photos tend to be taken at eye level. But if you can learn to occasionally change your angle of view so that it is much lower to the ground, you can get an interesting point of view for the scene:

Seascape with a starfish taken from a low vantage point
Get low down to find interesting focal points for your landscape shots. Image by Jeffrey Schwartz

Next steps


It is important to keep in mind that often great landscape photos combine several of these tips. The important thing is to try to use your instinct and your eye to bring across the scene you see front of you in a photo. Don’t worry, as like any genre of photography, the more you practice–the better your landscape photos will become.

Images by Kav Dadfar unless otherwise stated.