Landscape Composition and Retouching Secrets Part 1 of 2

Every day you are walking past places that hold amazing compositional opportunities hidden within them. Read this article to find out how to start capturing these hidden masterpieces.

Hello and welcome to this daily tip!

I think it’s important to start this off with something I overheard the other day. A man was walking by a woman with her child and said “Wow! What a beautiful child!” The mother turned to him and said, “That’s nothing, you should see his photograph!” (Ba-dum-dum!)

It’s often our job as photographers to capture life realer than most people casually perceive it. We have to reach out into it and grab a moment and distill it’s essence and put it on something that someone can look at and have an emotional reaction to, completely unaware that often they walk by it every day not noticing it at all.

Well, photography is also a lot like life. Sometimes you can get so lost in the dozens of tiny details and problems of something that you can forget to step back and focus on some of the most important, major details. And in photography you could argue that there are three major components that make up a great photograph:

  1. Exposure
  2. Composition
  3. Message

Sure there’s tons of other little things that help it stand out, but you can miss on many of those and if you have done really well on the above three, you are pretty much guaranteed to have a hit.

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So today, let’s talk about composition as it relates to Landscape Photography. It’s a distant cousin actually. (You’re right, it was a terrible joke, but what can I say, the more you think about it the funnier it gets. And trust me that joke gets even better with a few glasses of French wine.)

Here’s the first thing you need to realize about finding good composition as it relates to landscapes, you have to be willing to walk and try shots until you get the angle and balance in the frame that is most pleasing.

I was in Florida near a small lake and surrounded by trees and I wanted to find a great photo in that location. Here we have a tree. It’s pretty but doesn’t really have anything special to it.

I took this photo but I thought that it was boring and also I didn’t like the portrait orientation of the photo. So I rotated my camera and then I saw there was another tree in front of it that had some interesting features so I moved onto it.

I liked this photo better and I took a second photo that would be good with this tree because there is reflection from the water that I really like:

But it didn’t feel quite right. So I moved around the tree and I took this shot:

I like this shot but the tree is too dark and the eyes goes to the brighter part of the photo so that would be the tree in the back.

I kept going around the tree and taking different shots, I backed up, and here are some shots that I took:

I was still not happy with the composition.

Let’s take a moment to talk about another part of the photo that relates closely to composition, and that is the message. We are in an area that is crowded with potential messages, there are swing sets, lakes, straight trees, bent trees, blue skies and so many things that we could focus the shot on to find a composition around.

How do you know when you find the right shot? Well when it starts telling the message that you want it to tell and for me I was going for an idyllic, almost surreal moment of childhood being recaptured. So I had to keep moving until I got a composition that felt like it was going to help me tell that message.

So I kept going and I did some HDR and kept trying different angles. Look at just a few of the photos I was taking:

So it took me quite sometimes before I found exactly the feeling that I wanted to communicate with the photo. Some photos had other trees that cut across the one I was photographing and interrupted what I wanted the photo to say.

But I finally found the angle which I felt had the best composition and I took two photos to capture the width of the tree because I was shooting on a 35mm lens.

With those two photos it shows the perspective of the tree, the size and strength of it and how it not only dominates the frame but also directs the attention in the frame which I always love. Now I know this is a strong composition, but you won’t really start to get the impact of it until we retouch it.

Some people want to know my secret for amazing compositions. Do you want to know it? I know many people see really beautiful photos and think that the photographer must fart magical fairy dust that somehow miraculously gives them amazing compositions. Well, it’s not true! I don’t fart magical fairy dust!

Here’s my secret: I find a setting that I like and decide what message I want to communicate about it and then I try every possible angle until I hit one that feels true.

Now I do have grounding classical composition, but you can get that easily just by studying many of the classical painters who were masters of composition themselves.

So just remember, often it’s taken a lot of work, a lot of walking and testing angles and positions and lenses resulting in dozens or even hundreds of photos to find the perfect composition for a given shot. It’s hard work, and that’s what distinguishes the professional from the amateur: are you willing to put in the hard work to get the professional result?

Okay let’s move on to Part 2 where we retouch the photos. That’s how the photos you just saw above will turn into this:

And for those of you who have read what they wanted to, thank you for looking at this article! I hope it helped you in your pursuit of excellent photography and answered a couple questions for you! Remember to subscribe to the newsletter here: to get the RAW files for this tip and all my other free goodies!

Au Revoir!

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