10 Tools for Your Landscape Photography Composition Toolbox

When it comes to landscape photography composition, so many articles describe so called “rules of composition,” but there are so many “rules” out there, it becomes difficult to know how to compose a photo. Rule of thirds, leading lines, framing, layering, golden ratio, and many more photography composition rules all seek to provide landscape photographers with advice on how to take the perfect landscape photograph. The problem is these photography composition “rules” are presented as “use this technique to compose the perfect landscape photo,” but then it is almost always caveated with “rules are made to be broken!” So how does a photographer know when to break a rule or when to follow it? Rather than thinking of photography compositional rules to follow, let’s instead start thinking of compositional tools in a toolbox that work individually, or combined to form the perfect landscape photograph.

Individual Tools

Just how a handyman carries around tools in a toolbox and uses the right tool for the job, landscape photographers can use the same philosophy when approaching composing a photo. When a handyman begins to fix a problem, he or she analyzes the situation and decides on the best tool to use for the job. Landscape photographers can apply the same approach. When arriving at a scene, one can ask themselves, “what compositional tool do I use?” To answer this question, it will depend on the scene, the lighting, and what the photographer wants to capture in the photograph. The tools below all have their places and can be used individually or combined with others.

1. Leading Elements

To help direct the viewer’s eye when looking at a landscape photograph, leading elements, sometimes referred to as leading lines, provide interesting paths for the eye to follow into the subject of the photograph. Leading elements can be lines, curves, or even shapes to direct the viewer’s eyes through the photograph.

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In the photo above, the mountains are the subject of the photograph, and the river is used as a leading element to draw the eye from the bottom of the frame up into the mountains. Leading elements can be almost anything that provides a path for the eye. Some common examples of leading elements are water (either bodies of water such as a river, or lines in water from long exposures), shorelines, roads, and the list goes on and on! For more examples of how I use leading elements as a compositional tool, check out this article!

2. Geometric Shapes

The geometric shapes compositional tool is not always easy to visualize when on location, but with practice, it can be perfected. This tool combines naturally occurring geometric shapes in nature to help direct the viewer’s eye through the photograph and help distinguish the main subject.

May 30, 2021

In the photo above there are four main triangles that point to the convergence of the colors in Grand Prismatic Spring. The first triangle is formed by the brown area in the bottom right, and then two triangles formed by the orange color, and the final triangle is formed with the sky and the ridge line. All these triangles point to the main subject, which is the convergence of the bluish-green, yellow, and orange colors toward the center of the photograph. For more information on using geometric shapes in your landscape compositions, check out this article.

3. Scale Elements

Including elements in a photograph of a known size can help emphasize the scale of other objects in a scene. As a photographer on the scene taking pictures, it is easy and natural to see the entire landscape in front of you and appreciate the scale and grandeur of the location. Because viewers of your photograph were not present to take in the entire scene, they may need some help to determine the scale of elements in the image. To show scale, including elements of a known size, such as a person, animals, trees, buildings, etc., can all be used.

The picture below uses a camel lying down to provide an idea to the viewer how massive the walls of Petra are and how massive the treasury is. This helps the viewer to understand the photograph better and provides more of a wow once they realize the scale of the photo.

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The picture above uses a camel lying down to provide an idea to the viewer how massive the walls of Petra are and how massive the treasury is. This helps the viewer to understand the photograph better and provides more of a "wow" once they realize the scale of the photo. For more examples of how to use scale elements in your landscape photography compositions, have a look at this article.

4. Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is one of the most common landscape composition tools for composing your landscape photo. The rule of thirds compositional tool divides the photograph into three equal parts in the horizontal and vertical axes of the photo. When composing a photo using this method, the goal is to place items of interest along the inside axes and the four corners of the inside box as shown by the white lines and red circles in the photo below.

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As you can see above, the horizon is placed along the top white line and place items of interest at the corners of the inside box: the sun, the Lone Cypress Tree, and to a lesser extent, motion in the water and interest on the rocks. The placement is not exact, but it is close, which is acceptable. The items do not need to be exactly on the corners, just close. By placing interesting elements of your photo along the inside lines and corners of the intersecting lines, it adds interest to your landscape photo. Most cameras include a setting to turn on a rule of thirds grid overlay on the back LCD screen for ease in composing landscape photos. Cropping in post-processing can also help to make this compositional tool work for a landscape photo. Check out this article for more examples of how to use this tool!

5. Golden Spiral

The golden spiral is derived from a mathematical relationship commonly found in nature that is visually pleasing to the human eye. When used in landscape photography as a compositional tool, it can effectively lead the viewer’s eye through your photograph. The golden spiral compositional tool aims to place interest along the white line shown in the photo below.

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Looking at the picture above, if we start in the lower left-hand corner and follow the general curve of the coast, it leads the eye up to the star trails, which naturally lead the eye around to the center of the star trails. This way of leading the eye through your landscape photo can help keep the viewer’s interest longer in your photograph, which makes it more interesting. To use this compositional tool requires some visualization while on location for your photoshoot because it is not immediately intuitive. One way to visualize it is to think of overlaying a 9 on your scene to see if this compositional tool fits the photo. Additionally, cropping in post-processing can help make this compositional technique work. It is difficult to find photos that conform exactly to this golden spiral, but this tool is used as a guide rather than a rule to help create an interesting photograph. For more examples of how to use the golden spiral, this article explains this tool further.

6. Layers

Photographing layers in a landscape photo helps to add depth to an image and add dimensionality. Layering involves a photograph with similar shapes or forms stacked in the image with different tones or different colors. Additionally, it could involve an image where there is not a discernible foreground, midground, and background because there are so many layers that transition the eye from foreground to background.

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In the above image, you can see it is hard to distinguish between the foreground, midground, and background because each of the rock outcroppings is a layer that has different tonal and color attributes. Each of these layers stacked on top of each other adds depth to the image and helps the viewer feel like they are in the image. The layering compositional tool is scene dependent and something accomplished on location rather than in post-processing. You can learn more about incorporating layers into your landscape compositions here!

7. Foreground Elements

Like layering, utilizing foreground elements as a landscape compositional tool can help add depth and dimensionality to an image. To use this tool, look for elements in the foreground that help provide interest to the photograph and relate to the background to form a more complete story of the landscape photo.

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In the photo above from Grand Teton National Park, the moss of the pond is used as a foreground element to help tell the story of the reflection in the pond. The color of the moss compliments the pink hues of the reflection perfectly and adds interest to the reflection. This technique works well in wide-angle landscape photos because there are usually foreground elements that can enhance the composition. More examples of how to use foreground elements in your landscape photography can be found in this article.

8. Framing

Framing is another landscape compositional tool photographers can use to direct the viewer’s eye. Looking for ways to frame a scene focuses the viewer’s attention on the main subject of the photograph, while providing interest around the edges of the picture. Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park provides an excellent example of how framing can direct the viewer’s eye to where the photographer wants the subject.

May 22, 2021

The main subject of this photograph is the sunburst and the canyon walls in the background. Mesa Arch provides the frame for the subject and adds some interest around the edges of the photograph. This compositional tool also adds depth to the image and helps give dimensionality to the photograph. Check out this article for more framing examples and additional information on incorporating this compositional tool into your landscape photographs.

9. Symmetry

Symmetry in an image is pleasing to a viewer’s eye, which is why it can be a powerful landscape compositional tool. When most people think of symmetry in landscape photography, reflections come to mind. Reflections are one of the simplest ways to use symmetry in landscape photos. Still water reflects the scene and doubles the interest of the photograph when compared to not having a reflection. Besides reflections, there are other ways to use symmetry in a landscape photo, such as the photo below from Point Reyes National Seashore.

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The trees are symmetrical in the image above as well as the road at the bottom of the photograph. Symmetry in a landscape photo provides interest, but that interest fades quickly. To keep the attention of the viewer, consider ways to use symmetry, but vary one side to provide more interest. In the image above, the trees are symmetrical, but one side has more warmth from the setting sun that adds interest to the photo. This article provides more examples of symmetry and how it can be used as a landscape photography compositional tool.

10. Contrast

Including contrasting elements in a scene can help distinguish the subject and direct the viewer’s eye. Contrast of light is achieved by including a bright subject among darker backgrounds, or vice versa. Contrast of color can be achieved by including a subject of a significant different color from its surroundings, which will attract the viewer’s eye.

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The photo above shows how contrast of color can attract the viewer’s eye to the subject of the photo. The red flowers really stand out amongst the field of blue flowers and attracts the viewer’s eye to the red. By attracting the viewer’s eye to the red flowers, the eye naturally goes to the brightest point of the image, which is around the tree and the contrast of the tree against the bright sky also helps to lead the viewer’s eye to the colorful sunset. Contrast is a powerful compositional tool because the human eye is naturally drawn to areas of high contrast, whether it is light or color contrast. This article has more examples of how to use contrast as a landscape compositional tool.

Combining Tools

To truly master the compositional toolbox and create incredibly compelling photos, combining compositional tools can unlock your potential for creating a spectacular image! Two commonly paired tools are the rule of thirds and empty space, which easily complement each other by placing the subject on one side along the rule of thirds line and leaving empty space on the other side to balance the photo.

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Let’s look at the picture above that shows the treasury of Petra. While the camel provides a scale element to help the viewer understand the size of the scene, the canyon walls also provide layers and contrast to help add interest to the photograph. The lighting on the canyon walls provides layers, which add depth to the image, and they also contrast the red rock of the treasury, which helps the eye focus on the treasury as the main subject of the scene.

As another example, check out the photo below.

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The shoreline provides a leading element that leads the eye into the tropical trees and the colorful sky. The shoreline is also placed along the rule of thirds line, along with the horizon. Combining these compositional tools helps add interest to this photo and tell the story of the beach and palm tree oasis on the edge of the ocean. Combining compositional tools can really make a landscape photo stand out to viewers because it adds so much more interest to a photo.

While compositions are usually taught using “compositional rules," let's start thinking of a compositional toolbox and compositional tools that can be applied as necessary to a scene when on location. When arriving at a scene you want to photograph, keep these compositional tools in mind and pick the best tool for the scene! The tools can be used individually or combined to create interesting and compelling compositions!

What is your favorite compositional tool to use? Did I leave any tools out from this list? Let me know in the comments below!

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