There are a number of key elements that go into making a good landscape image. Subject selection, colour (should you happen to work in colour as I do) composition, light and exposure all play their part. Of these elements, composition is probably the hardest to describe and master.
I’ve never been a big fan of compositional “rules”, particularly those that involve numbers. Maybe it’s my background in mathematics, but I’ve always thought that if something is a rule, then it should work all of the time. Hence, if I apply the rule of thirds to my composition, it should always produce a pleasing result. However, I’m sure I’ve produced at least one image over the years (probably more if I’m honest!) where that was not the case, so that can’t be right! This suggests to me that the “rule” of thirds is just a compositional technique, and a very useful one at that, which sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t. There are plenty of other sound ideas out there as well, such as using an odd number of things (trees, people, sheep etc.) which is fine, except when an even number is better, such as a pair. Maybe the rule should be prime numbers instead (2, 3, 5, 7…). Perhaps not. Then we have the “foreground interest” rule – including a lead-in to the main subject of an image, which again works very well sometimes, but other times can be regarded as clutter that would have been better left out.
So how do we know when to use these techniques? Sadly, I can’t tell you, as I think it has a lot to do with personal taste and style, so the great thing (for creative photography as a whole) is that there aren’t really any rules. For me, a more holistic approach to composition has always worked best – when I set up a shot in my viewfinder I can usually tell immediately whether I have a composition that works or one that doesn’t. If looking at the image makes me feel good, and it holds my attention, then it’s probably about right.
I think that working with medium and large format for years helped me understand this better, as I would be looking at my image on a ground-glass screen, which is more akin to looking at a final image in the way it is intended to be viewed than peering through a viewfinder. Now I work digitally, the preview image is useful for the same purpose. Not only can I check I have the correct exposure by looking at the histogram, but I can check my composition by looking at the preview.
On many occasions, I have selected a subject that I want to photograph and have then struggled to get the composition right. On these occasions I’ve generally ended up with something I’m not that happy with in the end, so these days, if I can’t find a composition that pleases me quite quickly I just assume it’s not in me (or not there at all) and give up and try something else.
With a good subject, however, a simple change of viewpoint might be all that is needed to make the difference and find something that works. So, I find it’s important to spend time studying a subject, walking around it and viewing it from different angles and heights before committing to a spot to set up a tripod. With this done, I already have some ideas about which elements of the subject to include in the image and the rough focal length of the lens I might need and my final composition then comes quite quickly.
Composition is discussed on all of our landscape photography workshops in the Yorkshire Dales, so take your pick!