As spring turns to summer and the sun makes its long-awaited appearance, you may be tempted to go exploring in the great outdoors. For those of us who love photography, there is an equal temptation to capture the landscapes we discover.
Nature makes a beautiful subject, particularly when wildflower meadows and green mountains are lit by sunset skies. The art of landscape photography is all about framing these sights. It sounds easy, but the best landscape photos are carefully crafted.
To help you find your inner Ansel Adams, we’ve put together this epic guide to landscape photography composition tips – smartphone style.
Find a focal point
In most genres of photography, the subject of your image is blatantly obvious. Portraits focus on people, wildlife images centre on animals, and architecture photographers try to highlight specific buildings.
Landscape photography is different. Even if you have a stunning vista to work with, it is often necessary to define your subject. Many photographers mistake a beautiful view for a great image; as a result, their landscape photos lack a compelling focal point.
In some cases, spotting your subject can be like seeing the wood for the trees. When you’re presented with a beautiful view, try breaking down the landscape into small sections. You can do this through your camera app, or by using your hands to create a frame. When you come to take your photo, make sure your chosen subject is well lit. If necessary, move closer or use a clip-on lens (as discussed later in this article) to make your subject more dominant in the frame.
Shoot in good light
In many cases, light will dictate your subject. In the right light, a lone tree can become an eye-catching focal point. Conversely, even the tallest of mountains can seem ordinary in poor light.
So, what exactly is good light and bad light? The former generally refers to the “golden hours” – an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset. These periods of the day are blessed with warm hues, and oblique light that creates stunning contrast.
Conversely, the middle of the day is a bad time to take pictures. With the sun directly overhead, few potential subjects will be sympathetically lit. In summer, the sun is also very intense during the late morning and early afternoon. As a result, glare can cause problems for photographers.
If you want to shoot great landscape photography, plan to get up early, and spend many evenings watching the sun go down.
Embrace the weather
Weather and light are inextricably linked. But more than this, meteorological conditions can add real interest to your landscape photography.
Embracing all types of weather is important. While blue skies are certainly attractive, storm clouds can be just as pleasing – albeit in a more dramatic fashion. Similarly, foggy conditions can add an air of mystery or perhaps some artistic style.
Rain is probably the most difficult type of weather to work with. It tends to arrive in an unappealing blanket of cloud, and the falling droplets can easily soak your phone. That said, you only need a break in the clouds for a rainbow to form.
Have foreground interest
While the sky plays its part, the lower part of any landscape picture also plays a vital role. Just as the first chapter of a novel helps to set up the story, the foreground of your shot provides an essential introduction to the scene. You want to entice the viewer into your shot, while still leaving the main plot twist for somewhere nearer the middle of the frame.
Foreground interest comes in many forms. You could choose ripples left by the retreating tide on a sandy beach, or a weather-beaten gate on farmland. You could just as easily frame an icy waterfall beneath a towering mountain, or pair a wildflower meadow with a magnificent oak. In fact, there are countless options.
As a rule of thumb, the best foreground elements are complementary to the main subject. In other words, try to ensure your foreground does not outshine your focal point. While bright colors and large objects may distract the viewer, elemental textures and small details will set the scene.
Look for leading lines
As mentioned, an interesting foreground helps to draw the viewer into the image. While any aesthetically pleasing object will do, leading lines offer a more powerful introduction to your photo.
For the uninitiated, leading lines are visual paths that extend from the camera into the middle of the composition. Examples include groynes that fade into the sea, and wooden fences that continue into the distance.
They help to lead the eye into the frame, and can direct your viewer towards the main attraction.
Not every location is blessed with endless leading lines. However, various features of any landscape can perform this role. Footpaths and roads can wiggle their way towards mountains, and lines of planted crops may set the scene for a rural image. A leading line is one of the most valuable tools in your compositional toolbox – so keep looking for anything that could work in this way.
Use the Rule of Thirds
Pick up any photography book, and you are almost guaranteed to find something about the Rule of Thirds. This guideline is so popular that it even has its own Wikipedia entry.
The “rule” works on the premise that subjects should be placed off centre, about one third of the way into the frame. Similarly, horizons should be placed either one third from the bottom of the frame or one third from the top. This technique adds a pleasing asymmetry to your photos. In other scenarios, when there are multiple elements in your composition, the Rule of Thirds helps to “balance” things.
That said, it is important to use the rule with discretion. Placing every single subject on a grid line makes for an exceedingly dull Instagram profile. Think of it more as the Guideline of Thirds rather than the Rule.
Look for symmetry
Symmetry is a good reason to ignore the Rule of Thirds. Nature is inherently chaotic, so any opportunity to frame perfect order within a landscape should be grasped with both hands.
Probably the most common form of natural symmetry is between calm water and the sky. On calm days, you may also be able to capture the mirror image of mountain peaks on the surface of an alpine lake. It can be fun to turn such compositions sideways or upside down, just to keep the viewer guessing.
Man-made parts of the landscape are often vertically symmetrical. Bridges, piers and roads offer the perfect opportunity to split your image down the middle. These scenes are more technically challenging to capture, though, because vertical misalignment is easier to spot. When framing your shot, be very careful to stand dead centre, and enable grid lines in your camera app as a visual guide.
Use Negative Space
Some of the most arresting landscape images are filled with very little. Instead of being bombarded with visual information, the viewer can focus their attention on one, exquisite subject. The unfilled area is known as negative space.
The use of negative space goes against the grain in landscape photography. We are usually told to add more interest to our images, rather than subtract. But negative space offers an important contrast with your primary subject. For instance – while a single tree may get lost in a forest photo, a lone tree on a blue-sky horizon will stand out.
The easiest way to employ negative space in your photography is to look upwards. Keep your main subject in the frame, but fill the rest of your composition with sky. Alternatively, look for plain backdrops within the landscape – still lakes and areas of shadow within a forest can work.
Add a sense of scale
Including negative space in your image can also add a sense of scale. This is important, because it helps the viewer to imagine themselves in the scene. For example – a large area of sky replicates the feeling of standing on a wide-open beach.
Snow-topped mountains speak for themselves, but it is possible to supplement even these giants by adding a human presence. One reason why many popular Instagrammers include themselves in photos is for a sense of scale.
To evoke a sense of scale in any environment, get a friend to stand somewhere in your photo, or find a human-scale object to include in the frame.
Make use of accessories
If you’re serious about taking your landscape photography to the next level, it is worth investing in some kit. Add-on lenses allow you to go wider or pick out distant details. A small tripod will stop the shakes in low light, and filters allow you to take long exposures.
We love Moment lenses for their build quality and crisp optics – but there are many add-on lenses to choose from. In addition, Moment makes a smartphone adapter that works with 62mm filters. For better stability, we would recommend something like Joby’s GorillaPod.
So there we have it – the full guide to landscape photography with your phone. We’d love to see what you do with these tips – be sure to tag us @Mobiography on Instagram.