Creating Better Compositions: Landscape Lessons from Minor White (Premium)

Minor White would delight in the fact that I’m using his photographs as a lesson for creating compelling landscape compositions. He dedicated much of his life to teaching photography and its principles to students of the medium at a variety of institutions throughout his career, which began in the 1930s and lasted until his death in 1976.

He was fortunate to have met such photography greats as Edward Weston and Alfred Stieglitz, who was the photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York at the time, and spent a lot of time thinking and writing about how to best communicate through pictures. He co-founded the prolific photography magazine Aperture and was its editor for many years. His ideas about image sequences are still some of the foundational principles of fine art photography as taught and practiced, and Minor White is widely regarded as one of the most influential in the history of American photography. He was purely a teacher at heart.

Church in the Sierra Foothills, 1948

Church in the Sierra Foothills, 1948

Sound of One Hand, 1957

Sound of One Hand, 1957

White took photographs of a variety of subjects, weaving narratives in the way he arranged these pictures of earth, light, shadow, bodies, skies, shapes. What is particularly notable about White’s work, perhaps where its true power lies, is the way that he orders the images and combines them with text that show us the underlying interconnectedness of many facets of the natural work, as well as the human world, for that matter. White was deeply influenced by philosophic and spiritual principles, and used his photography as the vehicle to convey this message. His work represents a beautiful perception of the completely interconnected universe. From this diverse body of work though, also comes incredibly poignant single images, which are achieved through a total understanding of photographic techniques combined with a truly visionary eye. Let’s explore some of the visual devices which Minor White used to create photos of the natural world that are truly amazing.

Choose Equipment That Serves You

Minor White sought to shoot majestic views of the world, which when combined with extremely macro views of his experience that he noticed, would weave a story about something magical. He chose his equipment very specifically, and in fact used it in a very specific way to create his dramatic landscapes.

Two Barns And Shadow, 1955 by Minor White

Two Barns And Shadow, 1955

For his landscape pictures, White chose to shoot infrared large format sheet film, which darkened the skies and brightened the planes of the earth, allowing White to create photographs that were full of otherworldly drama. In addition to light on the visible spectrum, infrared film is sensitive to wavelengths near the thermal range, creating large, detailed negatives which showed a world that was different than what is visible to the naked eye.

As a user and teacher of the Zone System, a metering system organized by Ansel Adams, he also had thorough knowledge of how to expose his film to achieve the results in the final image that he desired. Before Minor White pressed the shutter, he considered the focal length of the lens, the rendering of the highlights and shadows, where he would stand and how things would look from different angles– basically every visual aspect of the picture. You can do the same, if you consider how you want your photograph to look before you make it. You don’t need to shoot large format to take thoughtful pictures, but it certainly helps.

Decide The Frame Carefully

If there’s something in particular in the world that you see and want to make a photograph of, take a moment to carefully consider what is going to actually be in the photograph before you make your exposure. If you’re shooting film, you probably are already familiar with this practice of taking a moment to consider the composition, but digital shooters would do well to adopt the habit too.

Poltergeist, 1958

Poltergeist, 1958

The outer elements of the door frame, along with the shadows, create an easy guide for our eyes to see the mysterious figure which White has captured on the wall on this winter day. If more of the scene was included, perhaps the ghostly impression would be lost in the business of the textures. If he had stood closer to the wall, there would be less of these values included and the shot may not have such poetic beauty.

Man and Moon, Matchstick Cove, 1947

Man and Moon, Matchstick Cove, 1947

Know the Value of Value

In visual art, value is defined as the lights and darks that make up an image. Indeed, it is the light and shadows which give us a sense of the the world around us, and it is the very same physical principles which allows photography to work. Minor White payed particular attention to light when making some of his most visually interesting photographs. Exposure is carefully considered to show a depiction of a realm that has a depth to it. The Zone System details principles of development and printing as well as exposure on the negative, meaning he had control over every aspect of the image

In the lead image for this article, White uses his knowledge of light to create a picture which is both visually compelling and more emotionally charged picture. The composition is created in his 1959 Grand Tetons is divided in half by light and dark. The mountains, presumably the Grand Tetons, are rendered in a glowing, heavenly light which pours down from the sky and bounces off the churning river. The illuminated river seems to point to these glowing mountains, leading the eye to the beautiful moment that White has articulated for us.

Still today when working with black and white photography, exposure can be used to create feelings of grandeur or oppression, or to open up or haunt a space. As you’re not dealing with color, you have the freedom to manipulate the values in a picture more freely. When creating images of a landscape, consider how you’d like the viewer to feel when considering it. Do you have a story to tell about this place? Are you taking a picture because you stand in awe?


Devils Slide, San Mateo County, California,1948

Minor White’s work is a great example of carefully considered, absolutely beautiful landscape photographs.

To see the full impact of his work, check out his great monograph Mirrors, Messages, and Manifestations.