Whether you’re holding your smart phone or have a top-of-the-line rig on a nice camera tripod with a perfect wide angle lens, eventually you are going to find yourself unable to ignore a stunning sunset or powerful combination of ancient architecture and natural beauty. Pulling off awesome landscapes is more difficult than it might seem. These six framing and composition guidelines can help you take the shot you see in your mind’s eye.
Think about your foreground.
Although we may imagine them as “flat,” landscape photos need to show depth. The best ones make you feel like you’re standing on a mountain pass looking out over the valley, experiencing distance and depth. One technique to help do that is to include objects in the foreground to provide a visual reference for the viewer and establish depth. Think about the foreground and what you’re including in that part of the frame as you compose your shot.
Put objects of interest in the shot on thirds and have a focal point.
Most stunning photos have specific details that give the shot character, as opposed to a flat, bland composition lacking color and texture. Imagine a secluded beach at sunset with a lone figure walking into the distance in front of the jutting peninsula. That lone figure helps bring character and emotion to the landscape so it tells a story, and it creates a focal point on what would otherwise just be a beach. Even shots that only include plants and nature offer countless opportunities for you to direct the viewer’s eye to one interesting detail.
If you aren’t sure where to put your focal detail within the frame, use the rule of thirds as a guide. Imagine two horizontal and two vertical lines on your viewfinder, cutting the screen into three equally sized vertical columns and three horizontal rows. The places where those lines intersect are the most pleasing and balanced to the eye, making them the perfect area to situate objects of interest. Using the rule of thirds is just one example of how to choose your composition deliberately, something you should always have in the back of your mind.
Use diagonal or converging lines.
Lines such as those formed by a path, a row of trees, and the bank of a river all add dynamism and structure to landscapes. Whether you use a diagonal line cutting your photo in half or find an old country rode that converges to the horizon, incorporating lines gives shape to your landscape.
Situate horizontal lines with purpose and think about the sky.
The horizon is a powerful visual element. It emphasizes the immensity of the sky and sometimes you can’t help but want to photograph it. Be thoughtful about how you use the sky in your photo. Sometimes the right shot is 80% sky and clouds with just a sliver of land or water. Or you may want to flip the balance the other way. Cutting your shot exactly in half with the horizon can even be the right decision. Remember the rule of thirds and the story you want to tell. Take the photo both ways a few times if you aren’t sure. You can pick the best one at home.
Put objects on the edge of the frame to “frame” the shot.
Although we discuss what you see in the photo as “in-frame,” you can also create a literal frame. The classic example is shooting under a tree and using the trunk on the side and a branch top of the shot to put a wooden frame around your subject and background. Rocks in the foreground corner, a canopy of leaves or overhanging roof, and even the edge of kayak paddle can all create a frame. The texture adds another dimension of character to the shot.
Plan for your light.
There is a best time of day for light. It’s called the “magic hour” and it runs from half way through sunset until about 30 minutes after sunset. During this period, light is warm, soft, and forgiving, creating gentler shadows and more pleasing textures. Earlier than that you get strong shadows from the setting sun, which can be great but are extreme. Later and you’re approach dusk and full dark. Plan your landscape photography with the light in mind. Will it be cloudy or sunny, noon or early morning? How will that affect the scenes you have in mind?
Camera tripods make for reliably good landscape photos. However, if you want to get the shot that will have even you oohing and aahing for years to come, you must also consider framing and composition.