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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

10 ingredients of a great landscape photo part 2 - composition

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Welcome to the second installment of my new series where I introduce you to my guide to 'The ten ingredients of a great landscape photo'. I hope that over this series I will be able to bring you some insight on how you can learn from my experiences and take some practical steps to improve your landscape photography.

Did you miss the previous editions of this series? If so, you can find them here:

The chart below summarises what I believe to be the ten main ingredients that go into making a great landscape photo. In this edition, we look at the importance of building a focal point into your photos.

Mastering composition is the easiest way to take better photos

Whenever I teach a new photography students I always start with composition – the simple reason being that whatever your camera, the quickest and easiest way to improve your photography is to improve your composition.

I’m sure like most people, you’ve stood looking at a beautiful view, taken a photo, and then when you’ve got home you’ve realised that the photo is boring and simply doesn’t do justice to the beautiful view. This is because we are used to seeing the world in all its 3-dimensional beauty, and by converting it to a 2-dimensional image, we often lose the essence of the view and end up with a dull photo.

One of the easiest ways of improving that photo is to use one or more little tricks, often called ‘composition rules’ to make the image more interesting to look at, and help to do better justice to that beautiful view. Although they are called ‘rules’ they should NOT be considered as strict rules; I like to consider them as more of a mental checklist. If you’re looking at that beautiful view, and want to try to take a photo that does the view justice, go through your mental composition checklist and see which ones might help to make it a more interesting photo.

Composition rules are largely based on how the human brain works, and how we like what we see; interestingly I have trained a chef at River Cottage, and a flower arranger, who both said that the recognised some of the photography composition rules, as they also used them in their professions too!

Although there are loads of composition rules (just Google it and you will find hundreds!), here are just three of what I believe are the most powerful ones to have in your mental checklist, and that I teach on all of my training courses.

So, how do we make photos interesting?

To make a two dimensional landscape photo more interesting, it's necessary to use a number of tricks, to build interest into the image. In a 'point and shoot snap' of that beautiful view, there is likely to be little to grab the interest of the viewer, and they are more than likely to glance at it and then look away (which equals boring!). Instead we want to move away from making a snap, and move towards composing an image which grabs their attention and pulls them into, and through the photo. This journey forces them to look longer at the photo, and immediately makes it more interesting to look at. We'll be looking at improving your composition and creating visual journeys in later editions, but as having a focal point is so important to making landscape photos interesting, we're starting with this as the first key ingredient of a great landscape photo.

1 The rule of thirds

Although most people will automatically put their main subject and focal point (a church, lighthouse, person or the family dog) smack bang in the middle of the photo, it’s actually more visually interesting to look at if you use the ‘rule of thirds’.

Split the photo up into 9 boxes, using two equally spaced horizonal and two vertical lines, and use this to place the key elements in the photo; E.g. putting the church on the left hand vertical as shown in the image below. In this case, the church has been placed on the intersection of the grid, which can be very effective. If it’s a photo of a person, putting their eyes on one of the corner intersections of the lines also makes a more compelling composition. If there is a horizon in the photo, then this should be placed on either the upper or lower horizontal line. I tend to decide based on whether the sky is particularly interesting; if it is then I may place the horizon on the lower horizontal line so as to include more of it in the frame.

Most cameras (even camera phones) will have an option in their menu to switch on the 3x3 rule of thirds grid, so do have a look!

A foggy Honiton morning, by Devon Photographer, Gary Holpin Photography
The rule of thirds grid

2 Lead in lines

Another powerful composition technique, and one that really helps to make a photo more pseudo 3 dimensional, drawing the viewers eye into the photo, is the use of lead in lines. These can be any linear feature, either man made (roads, paths, fence lines etc) or natural (ripples in the sand or the sweep of a beach), which can be positioned at the edge of the frame (usually the bottom) in order to draw the viewers eye into the photo. Lead in lines can be especially powerful if they lead the viewers eye towards the main focal point of the image, as is the case in the photo below, where the path leads the viewers eye directly to the tree. Notice how the tree has also been placed on a 'third'?

Lone tree on Porlock Marsh, a black and white photo by Devon photographer Gary Holpin Photography
A path leads the eye to the tree

3 Foreground interest

One of the main problems with a 2-dimensional picture is that they can appear quite ‘flat’. One way to get over this is to try and avoid too much empty space in the foreground of the photo, by intentionally including some foreground interest. For example, in the image below I have intentionally included the tuft of grass as foreground interest, so that the foreground isn't just plain and white. This also serves as a focal point (see last week's edition on how important these are) and you will also notice that I have placed it on the bottom corner of the rule of thirds grid, thus making it an even more powerful compositional element.

A snowy morning in the Barle Valley, Exmoor,  by Devon Photographer Gary Holpin Photography
A snowy Exmoor morning

Just these three rules can improve your photos

Although there are many more composition rules, just having these three as a mental checklist when you’re trying to compose a photo, will start to make your photos more visually interesting. So, next time you are looking at a beautiful view, think about the rule of thirds, look for lead in lines and make sure you include a foreground element.

In next week's edition, we will move on to the third ingredient of what makes a great landscape photo, and look at the importance of understanding light.

Want to learn more about my 10 ingredients of great landscape photos?

I now use this model of landscape photography to shape my photography training, and my training courses consistently get fabulous reviews on Google. So if you're a beginner photographer who is local to East Devon and looking for training in photography, check out my range of 1-2-1 training courses. Alternatively why not make a weekend break of it and attend one of my weekend photography courses -either my beginners landscape photography workshops for those starting out in photography, or my intermediate photography workshops for those who already understand the basics and want more practical help progressing their landscape photography.

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