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Four Steps to Finding Compositions in Landscape Photography

Four Steps to Finding Compositions in Landscape Photography
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Episode 8: Do you struggle to find compelling compositions in a grand landscape?  This week’s Tidbit Tuesday episode was inspired by one of our podcast listeners who wanted some tips for creating compositions of wide-open scenes.  I share a four-step thought process that helps me to identify unique and compelling images, regardless of whether it is a grand landscape or a small scene.  I hope it helps you out as well!


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You're listening to the outdoor photography podcast, episode eight in today's Tidbit Tuesday, I'm going to share a four-step thought process to help you find compositions in landscape. So stay tuned. 

Hi, I'm Brenda. Petrella the creator of outdoor photography school. Join me as I sit down with top landscape and nature photographers and outdoor industry experts to chat about creativity, composition, photography, tips, and techniques, essential gear safety in the outdoors, respect for nature, and so much more tune in every week to learn how to create compelling and impactful images while exploring and enjoying the natural.

[00:00:41] Welcome to the outdoor photography podcast. Hey everyone, Brenda Petrella here, here to help you create better images and reconnect with nature. I hope you're all doing well out there. And thanks for tuning in and spending a little part of your day with me. Today's Tidbit tuesday was inspired by one of our listeners named Denise who reached out to me with some questions around finding compositions in landscape photography.

[00:01:06] In particular, she's been finding it difficult to find compelling compositions when faced with the big wide open landscape. Whereas she's actually finding more success with creating compositions in smaller scenes. And so she would like to know some tips on how to find compositions in the grand landscape.

[00:01:23] So thank you, Denise, for this question. And I hope my recommendations will help you and others. Now, if you have a question you'd like me to answer on a Tidbit Tuesday, just click the link in today's episode description, or go to outdoor photography, forward slash podcast. And you'll be able to record your short message.

[00:01:43] And I look forward to answering it on an upcoming episode. So first off, I think it's interesting to consider that many outdoor photographers start with the grand landscape as their primary focus. And then over time, begin to transition their portfolios to include more intimate nature scenes and may actually find it challenging to find compositions in these smaller scenes because they can feel so chaotic.

[00:02:11] So in a way, Denise is kind of finding herself in the opposite camp, in that she's more comfortable creating images of smaller scenes than of the grand landscape. And I'll be honest. I also find it challenging to identify compositions in wide open scenes, partly because I've spent the majority of my time as an outdoor photographer, photographing Vermont, which is very conducive to small scenes and not so much known for its wide open vista.

[00:02:39] Now some may argue that it's easier to make an image of a grand landscape because the scene itself is magnificent. So a beautiful scene should make a beautiful image, but it's not always that simple now is it. I'm going to share with you a four-step process that I have found to be helpful when finding compositions and I invite you dear listener to chime in as well and share your thoughts and experiences on this subject, in the comments section of the show notes, which you can find at

[00:03:10] And I think the more ideas that we can share with each other, the better we'll all be. So I hope you chime in. Now, before we dive in further, I also want to point out that I don't mean to sound formulaic by simplifying the process of composing landscape images down to just four steps. I believe the study of composition is something that is lifelong and our abilities to find unique and compelling compositions is a process of continuous evolution as a result of time spent doing the work.

[00:03:41] So just keep in mind that these four steps are just launching points for your own exploration and are ways that I have found to be helpful when I'm feeling stuck in the. Okay. So the four steps are one connect to take inventory, three positioning and four eliminate. So what do I mean by these? Well, let's break them down now.

[00:04:07] So step one: connect. Elliot Porter said, quote, photography is an art of observation. It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them. And I think the first step and being able to identify the way you see something or how you see something is to first connect with the scene.

[00:04:30] So this really means slowing down your process. So before you even take your camera or tripod out, really try to connect with the scene. To do this. It helps to be curious and to tune into your senses. So an exercise that can be helpful with this is to try to make a mental list of five things. You see four things, you can touch three things, you can hear two things you can smell, and if you really want to take it a step further, perhaps one thing you could potentially take.

[00:05:02] Now you don't have to find those exact numbers, but the point of this exercise is to simply get in touch with your senses because it will help you start seeing and experiencing the landscape in a different way. And your brain will start to tune into things like light contrast and colors and things like that, which you may not have noticed right away.

[00:05:24] So step one is to connect and be curious. Step two is to take inventory. And again, this is before you take out any of your gear. So many grand landscape images have a foreground mid ground and background. And so to determine whether you want to compose your image in this way, it's important to start identifying what could be your potential foreground mid-ground and background.

[00:05:52] So, what do you look for besides the spacial relationships between these regions of the grand landscape? Well, this is where taking inventory comes into play. So start looking for compositional elements that will support your main subject, which is often the background. So compositional elements could include things like lines, textures, shapes, patterns, the characteristics of light colors, contrast, and so forth.

[00:06:20] So, which of these are present in the scene for you to play with in your composition and which ones do you think would be the most effective in leading your viewer to your main subject? And it's important to keep in mind that landscape images benefit quite a bit from having a sense of depth to them.

[00:06:37] So how can you use these compositional elements that you've identified to create depth in the image? Are there obvious leading lines or even implied leading lines perhaps formed by contrast or by how the light is playing on the foreground or does the scene lend itself to creating maybe a layering effect either through different colors or tonal contrast, or even the presence of atmosphere?

[00:07:06] Or are there interesting foreground elements that you can emphasize with a wide angle lens that would create a near far relationship between the foreground and background? So these are just a few ways in which you can create depth in a landscape image. So this brings us to our third step, which is positioning.

[00:07:27] Ansel Adams said a good photograph is knowing where to stand. So in step one, hopefully you've identified what it is you're connecting with in the scene and what it is that's making you feel a certain way. You know, something is moving you to create the image. And in step two, you've taken inventory of all of the available compositional elements that you can use to help tell the story to the viewer about what it is you're connecting with and what it is you'd like them to experience.

[00:07:57] So based on those, where does your camera need to be relative to the subject and the supporting characters of lines, contrast, textures, and whatnot. So that everything that is needed to relay your message is included in the frame. This is the stage at which I usually start taking the camera out of the bag and testing various compositions.

[00:08:20] So one thing that I occasionally do that I have found to be super helpful is to use what's called a composition card or comp card. In fact, you may recall that it's something Brenda Tharp and I chatted about briefly back in episode five. And all it is is a cardboard cutout of a four by six frame that matches the aspect ratio of my camera's sensor.

[00:08:45] And the frame itself is thick enough to basically block out parts of the scene to better focus my attention on framing, the composition we're talking low tech here, people, and the nifty thing is that it can mimic a wide range of focal lanes, depending on how far away from your eyes you hold it. So. The closer you hold the card to your face, the wider, the angle of view you'll have.

[00:09:11] And if you hold it at arms length, that will mimic more of a telephoto. And if you're interested in playing around with making your own comp card, I have templates made up for cameras with a three by two aspect ratio sensor that you can print out on a sheet of either eight and a half by 11 or A4 paper, and use that to make the cardboard cutout.

[00:09:34] And if you'd like to download those, just go to You just enter your email and I'll send you the PDF and I'll put a link to that in the show notes as well. Okay. So the last step is to eliminate and no, I don't mean peeing in the woods.

[00:09:56] This is the refinement step. So after you compose your image and take a few test shots now, evaluate what you can get rid of. What is in the frame that is not contributing to what you had connected with in the first place. Is there anything along the edges of the frame that's distracting and could lead the viewer in an unintended direction?

[00:10:20] Are your supporting characters doing their job well? Or should you change your position or maybe even your focal length, anything you include in the scene can be a potential distraction. And a simple message is usually. So this step is to help you bring your attention to things in your composition that may not contribute much or may even be distracting.

[00:10:43] And if so, it's time to recompose the image and like anything in photography, the more you do it. And the more mistakes you make, the better you'll get. So I want to point out that the principles of this four-step thought process can really be used for any landscape or nature image, regardless of whether it's a grand scene or an intimate.

[00:11:05] And lastly, if you're a photographer naturally drawn to smaller scenes, I wouldn't get too hung up on forcing yourself to create grand landscape images. If that's not what inspires you or perhaps use your telephoto lens in the wide open landscape to create. Smaller compositions that may be more meaningful to you and perhaps even more unique because smaller scenes are more difficult to duplicate than compositions of a grander scene.

[00:11:34] All right. Thanks so much for listening to this Tidbit Tuesday as always. I appreciate you, and I hope you got a lot of value out of today's episode. If you'd like to share your thoughts on today's topic, you'll find a comment section at the bottom of the show notes at

[00:11:52] A question for you. Are you enjoying the podcast? If so you can help support the show by buying me a copy through a link in the episode description, you can think of it like a podcast tip jar. It's a simple and easy way to say thanks. And it helps me produce and continually improve the show. And I think everyone who has already supported the podcast so far, I greatly appreciate it.

[00:12:16] We have several exciting guests coming up on the show. Next week we have biologist turned landscape photographer, Robb Hirsch, who shares his experiences, photographing Yosemite and the surrounding Sierra Nevada. And shortly after that, we'll have Texas based nature photographer, Linda Nickell, who is also the host of the Happiness Hour, which is a free weekly seminar series that she started as a way of connecting photographers during the pandemic.

[00:12:43] And I was actually lucky enough to be an invited speaker and it really is a wonderful group worth checking out. So be sure to follow the podcast. So you don't miss out hearing from these amazing people. All right. And I'll be back here next week. So till then get outside my friends and find yourself a little nature.

[00:13:00] Take care.