Tips on Composition in Photography


Last night I finished watching Steven Spielberg's most recent movie, The Fabelman's. In it, the story follows a young man as he comes of age and falls in love with film making. The movie is filled with compelling characters, advice and warnings for artists, and in the end following your passion. In the final moment of the show, Sam, our protagonist meets a famous movie director and the director gives Sam a bit of advice. If you have not seen the show here is the clip:

Boring as Shit

I find two major take aways from this short clip that is applicable for Landscape and Nature Photographers. First is his statement on why. That in the end is the big eternal question we should all ask ourselves. The second is his advice on composition.

"When the horizon is on the top, it's interesting. When the horizon is on the bottom, it's interesting. When the horizon is in the middle, it's boring as shit."

This right here may be some of the best advice you can be given as you begin your journey into landscape photography. Often it is simply states as rule of thirds. But that is a stupid name that should be renamed as the Fabelmans Rule- see above quote.

Now don't get me wrong, the rule of thirds actually applies to more areas than simply horizon placement, but it is usually introduced as such. I on the other hand have a few general rules I run by when composing images, horizon placement and so forth.

First- Rule of thirds is still good. If your image calls for it, use it.

A series of yucca on a sand dune in white sands national park

The thing that I really like about this image is the scattered nature of the yucca in the distance drawing you into the image to see what all is there. The front yucca stands on stilts making for an overall interesting image to me.

Second- Its ok to have your horizon be towards the middle of your frame if you subject breaks into that upper third quadrant and is dominate enough to over power the middle horizon. Below is a fairly decent example of this.

The Radio Tower, a large hoodoo with fin like structures protruding from it found in the Vermillion Cliffs National monument.

There are odd structures in the Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness. This one is generally known as the Radio Tower. Distant wildfires tinted the sky a bit red at sunset while dramatic clouds rolled overhead.

Third- "Only" use middle horizon for visual symmetry. The example below is not really a good one for that, but that morning I had a bunch of images that were symmetrical that were nice, but because of the intense color it looked fake, so I had to ground the image by including a bit of the salty earth in the image.

A dramatically colorful sunrise at the salt flats of western Utah

The salt flats are amazing. What more can I say?

These compositional ideas are my general philosophy. No law or rule per-say. But in the future when you are wondering where to put your horizon and how to compose your image, think of the Fabelman's Principle and remember the quote above.

Now get out of my office.

The salt flats in western utah are covered in a layer of water allowing for dramatic reflected light from a colorful sunrise.
Mirror in the Salt Desert

The Salt Flats are kind of an other worldly location. When water is thrown into the mix, the exerpience gets even more wild. Due to the salt adding density to the water, the water becomes stable and very smooth resulting in almost perfect reflections upon the waters surface.