Concepts and Better Composition Composing of Landscape Photography

Landscape photography, like any other genre, has its many-what I will call-“unofficial rules”.

There are rules about how to expose a scene using methods such as the zone method developed by Ansel Adams, exposing to the right to get as much detail as you can from the shadows, or even bracketing multiple exposures and creating HDR (High Dynamic Range) images. And then there are rules for composition. The most famous of which-and one you probably learned of first-the Rule of Thirds.

The basic definition of the Rule of Thirds is as follows (Thanks Wikipedia):

“The rule of thirds is applied by aligning a subject with the guide lines and their intersection points, placing the horizon on the top or bottom line, or allowing linear features in the image to flow from section to section.”

©2016 Jamie A. MacDonald

The rule of thirds is a very simple concept to wrap your head around, and will by nature, and some strange trick of the human subconscious, render you a more pleasing image. No one fully understands the reason for this, but it has been shown that images, paintings, and even things like the arrangement of objects, when done with this Rule of Thirds methodology end up more pleasing to humans than not. The image shown here is one which I shot very wide to encompass this whole scene, but later in Lightroom cropped to fit a Rule of Thirds composition. While the horizon isn’t “perfectly” on the lower third, we are close enough to fit the Rule of Thirds format.

If we don’t want to do this in post, many cameras, like the Olympus OM-Ds that I shoot with, allow you to have a Rule of Thirds grid overlaid onto your viewfinder. Talk about an easy way to compose!

But we are not here to talk about playing by the rules! After years of shooting and playing within the comfort zone of what is known to produce pleasing images, I decided it was time to start breaking those rules. Getting outside my comfort zone and challenging what I thought I knew about composition. Below I will share a couple images that I think go against the norm and still work to provide the viewer with an interesting and hopefully pleasing image, despite the rule breaking.

Let’s start with this image titled “Sunrise To The Left”

©2016 Jamie A. MacDonald

In this shot I have placed the horizon line nearly in the center of the frame. Remember that Rule of Thirds would have it on the line for the bottom or top third, not in the center. But by placing it just below the center of the frame we create a scene where the viewer feels that they are half way to the end of the image. We are on a long empty road which guides our eyes to the “end” of the image where the focal point in the sunrise. And this slightly offset horizon gives them the impression we are halfway to the end of the road.

In this shot we used what are known as Leading Lines to guide the viewer through the image. The leading lines were the road, the tree line to the right, and the contrasted frosty edge between the road and the grass. These all guide you down the scene and into the lightest part of the image, the sunrise.

You see what we did there? We used another compositional technique to override our breaking of the Rule of Thirds. Keep this in mind when venturing out beyond the comfort of the rules.

Another way to shoot a landscape, which is my favorite way, is to make the landscape play second fiddle to the skies above.

©2014 Jamie A. MacDonald

In this photo I have dramatically skewed the composition to achieve a couple of things. The first thing I have done is made the sky larger than life. I took advantage of some clouds from an approaching rainstorm and made them a key player in this image by panning up high and leaving only about a 8th of the image for the ground. Another thing I have done, which is something I LOVE to do, is shoot this in portrait orientation. I abandoned dedicating myself to landscape orientation for landscape images a few years ago and haven’t looked back. This style of composition can add a lot more drama to a scene than a standard Rule of Thirds approach.

And keep this in mind when trying out this method for composition, you can go in the opposite direction with it to emphasize interesting foreground elements. The image below was shot on the shore of Lake Michigan during the winter when the sand gets sculpted into otherworldly shapes by the wind and waves and ice. I wanted to show off this natural sculpture so using the mZuiko 7-14mm PRO I got very close to the subject, and composed this way to make it the center piece of the scene.

©2015 Jamie A. MacDonald

I’ll close out this article with an image that adheres to no rules I can think of at all, and yet has been one of my most popular images for 2016.

©2016 Jamie A. MacDonald

So why does it “work”. There is no Rule of Thirds in use, no Leading Lines, no singular focal point at all really.

Sometimes it is simply the subject that matters. My take on why this image did so well online for me is that many people have never seen the Milky Way. Many people have never visited a lighthouse. How many people have seen the two together? Sometimes simply photographing the uncommon can allow you to get away with breaking the rules as people are just excited to see the subject matter. You should still follow some very basic rules when exploring this route. I did make sure my horizon line was straight. Some rules even I won’t break.

I hope this offers those interested in landscape photography a different perspective from which to approach their craft. Keep in mind that rules more often than not will help make a great photo, but sometimes it is just more fun and rewarding to bend, or even break them.

Now get out there and change your perspective!


All images shot with the OM-D E-M1 or E-M5 MkII and the mZuiko 7-14mm PRO.

The MilkyWay photo was shot with the E-M1 MkII + 25mm f/1.2 PRO

Jamie MacDonald

Through my photography, I have been fortunate enough to have had my work featured in ad campaigns for magazines such as Popular Photography, Digital Photo Magazine, Esquire, Outdoor Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Popular Science, and many more in addition to being used in several guide books by Rocky Nook.