Composition is probably the most overlooked aspect of photography. Composition and visual design are deeply embedded into how we see and appreciate photographs but are perhaps under appreciated because of how viewers look at the entirety of the image altogether. However, composition plays a much bigger and more encompassing role in what we appreciate in photographs. The simplest and most common understanding of composition is how we place a subject within a frame.
However, it is evident that in landscape and cityscape photography, we are not limited to just a singular subject. Some would say that the subject in landscape photography is the location, some would say that it is the light and environmental condition, however it is safe to say that landscape photography deals with all of those factors which is why a deeper and more analytical way of understanding composition and visual design is the key for better photographs.
To execute better composition and visual design in landscape photography, the most important aspect is strict attention to even the smallest details. Composition in this sense concerns every single visible element in the entire photograph and being able to identify how a single visual element interacts with other parts of the photograph will be a great step towards masterful artistic intent. The way we use empty spaces, rough and smooth textures, shadows and light, all make up the general visual design and play a huge role in how viewers perceive our images.
Symmetry and Geometry
One way to achieve striking visual design in your landscape photographs is to create a satisfying visual experience. It is said that the human eyes perceive random patterns and try to make sense and order out of it. By achieving near-perfect patterns in your images, you give your viewers a satisfying experience when looking at your photos and this is done through various ways.
Symmetry is one of the most commonly used compositional techniques that give a satisfying viewing experience. The meticulous execution of framing that achieves proper balance of visual weight on two halves of the frame provides resolution to the visual experience. Doing this requires a lot of attention to detail. However, the presence of symmetry in landscape photography is almost impossible to perfect especially in natural locations.
The easiest way to achieve symmetry in landscape photography is to make use of reflective surfaces in the foreground. The most common of which would be a still body of water. By using low camera angle to emphasize the foreground, you can achieve a satisfyingly symmetrical composition given the right lighting conditions. This is commonly easy in well-lit environments.
However, sometimes the conditions have to be managed with exposure techniques to fine-tune the surface and give more emphasis to the reflection. This can be done by using a circular polarizing filter. A CPL filter (when not pointed towards the sun) can help enhance contrast in the sky by intensifying the blue hue.
At the same time, this contrast also enhances the intensity of the reflection of the surface of water. When shooting bodies of water with significant current, it is best to make use of a heavy ND filter and shoot longer durations of exposure to achieve a smooth surface where the reflection is pronounced. Using a camera remote trigger such as the versatile MIOPS Smart trigger allows you to set and control the exposure length to execute such a specialized process. The mobile app that connects your camera to your phone also aids you in estimating the right exposure given the current lighting condition and your ND filter of choice through the ND filter exposure calculator.
Another possible option for achieving satisfying compositions is emphasizing patterns in the landscape that may or may not be readily visible. These patterns can be obvious solid structures that create lines or shapes to fill the frame, or alternatively they can be patterns created by repetition of many small visual elements such as rocks, trees, street lamps, traffic lights, or other foreground elements that come in multiple numbers naturally in an outdoor setting.
By emphasizing and showing these patterns from a particularly unique point of view, the image can be impactful because it shows the viewers something that they may not have realized to be there and at the same time allows their subconscious to find resolution in making sense of a seemingly random scene.
Negative Space and Direction
Every genre of photography deals with isolating a certain fraction of a perspective of the world and finding the best angle to capture it in. This means that the game of composition relies so much on eliminating other details as well as empty spaces. Framing is defined by this aspect of photography. By selecting that perspective out of all possible angles, one is able to find the one that translates into an effective visual design.
Proper use of space is crucial to any kind of photography and this is even more emphasized in photographing landscapes and cityscapes. Empty spaces can be used both to emphasize subjects as well as to direct the flow of the visual experience towards a certain direction. By being able to use space with artistic intent, your landscape and cityscape images can successfully tell stories and convey emotions. The direction, progression, and resolution of visual patterns, much like in a story or a song, gives the viewer something to experience and interpret into their own version of a story.
Negative space can either be readily present in a certain scene or it can be created using exposure techniques. Landscape photography deals with the most unpredictability in terms of location, weather, and other environmental factors. Because of that, it is also difficult to manipulate. Commonly, negative space is found in the sky and on bodies of water in the foreground. However, slightly rough textures found in small patches of clouds and in the surface of the water can have such a big effect on cancelling out negative space.
To refine this and achieve a more perfect composition, long exposure effects can be used. If dealing with very minimal water current or small chunks of clouds, exposures of around 10 seconds can be enough to smoothen them out. However, when dealing with strong waves or significantly cloudy skies, heavier ND filters will have to be used to execute longer exposures. With the use of a 10 or 15-stop ND filter, one can do exposures of around 2 to 5 minutes to achieve perfectly smooth surfaces. This can be made more precise by using a smart remote trigger that will help you determine the necessary exposure settings to achieve the effect.
Negative space can also dictate movements within a frame. This is best done with singular foreground elements against a much larger surface. By placing the foreground element on one side, especially if the structure points toward a certain direction, the presence of negative space implies that the flow of the image goes from the foreground towards the larger empty space. This use of scale also gives an impression that the location is much bigger because of the wide space in frame.
As with any kind of photography, substantial visual designs give satisfying viewer experience when the viewer is lead to different parts of the image without confusion and distraction.
Since landscape photography often deals with complex environments with a lot of detailed layers, a piece is satisfying to look at when viewers are guided on how the artist wants them to experience the image and when the image requires no need for instructions or explanation. With the unpredictability of visual elements both in nature and in an urban scenario, the use of both motion and still visual elements to create visual paths to follow, is a highly effective way of doing so.
This is another matter in which long exposure can significantly enhance a landscape or cityscape image’s impact and overall visual design. Through long exposure, a photographer can successfully render motion elements into patterns and textures that are not just pleasing to the eyes but also contribute into creating a visual path in the frame.
On a significantly windy day, moving clouds can be used to create movement in the sky. With the use of ND filters and a remote trigger to control exposure time, clouds moving from side-to-side within the frame can create an additional layer and dimension to the photo. Even more so, clouds moving from front-to-back within the frame create diagonal lines that create virtually infinite depth.
When shooting bodies of water, this can be done depending on the rate at which the current flows. When photographing a flowing river, an exposure of a couple of seconds will leave rough and turbulent textures in the foreground. When shot for 30 seconds or more, the water will be rendered in a smooth and silky surface.
Either way, the effect creates a notion of movement especially when there are still elements such as rocks or vegetation immersed in the flowing water. When shooting from a beach, the crashing and back-flow of water on the solid foreground creates a similar effect.
In the urban setting, there are many visual elements that can be used to create visual paths or leading lines. Aside from the possibility of also using clouds and water when present from a certain urban vantage point, structures such as lamp posts, roads, tunnels, and details from architecture can be used.
Take impossible photos by turning your camera into a high-speed capture device!
Take impossible photos by turning your camera into a high-speed capture device!
However, perhaps the most popular way of rendering patterns in the city is using traffic trails. With the use of long exposure, the light from moving cars can be used to create flowing patterns around and into the cityscape. Doing this depends on your distance from the moving vehicles and how fast they are moving. When shooting very close to the foreground, a few seconds of exposure will leave thick enough trails because of the illuminated surfaces of the vehicles.
When shooting from far away, longer exposures have to be done especially when movement is slow because of heavy traffic, or if there are not enough cars moving to fill the spaces with light trails.
There are many ways that long exposure techniques can enhance and improve both landscape and cityscape images. By looking at the potential of what motion can infuse into your composition, any shooting scenario can be improved with a tripod, some filters, and a good camera remote trigger.
Blog Credit: Nicco Valenzuela
Nicco started his photographic journey in 2007 practicing the craft as a hobby. Currently, he shoots for various local and international architectural firms and construction companies. Out of his love for sharing his knowledge, Nicco began writing about photography and various pieces of gear.