Are Your Landscape Compositions Lacking? Try This

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“Another article on composition?” Yes, but I promise not to babble about the merits or drawbacks of the rule of thirds.  I bet you already know plenty about compositional tools. Understanding what tools to use is crucial and grants you tremendous artistic power.  But it’s not enough. You need to know how.

It’s not your fault.  Too often, the books, articles, and videos on composition start and stop with the tools.  But you must use the tools like a chef uses ingredients—you don’t want to throw everything into the pot and hope it tastes nice.  You must deliberately choose and balance the different ingredients in a way that achieves a cohesive taste. Or in our case…a cohesive story.

With photography, that can sometimes mean, for instance, that a natural frame should be discarded for the sake of simplicity. Or maybe a more intimate scene captures the mood better than a grand vista. Your vision is your anchor. It’s the starting point from which all decisions should follow.  In this article, I’ll share my process for creating cohesive and deliberate compositions that are rooted first and foremost in you as the photographer.

Imagine this… As you open your car door, the wind blows rain straight into your face.  It’s pouring. It’s cold. It’s dark. A golden hour sunrise is off the menu. You consider turning back, but you’ve traveled hours to get here, you’ve brought the right gear, and you’re already awake.  So you push on. As twilight lifts the veil on a new day, you spring into action. A short, steep hike up a rocky trail reveals a valley coated in fog. You’re now running! Tripod, remote release, filters, air blower for the raindrops—the race is on to find a composition.  Soon, you’ve found a spot and begin racking off frames.

For the first ten minutes, that was me. I ran around like a crazy person looking for the “right” foreground tree. It wasn’t until I slowed down and questioned the focal point that I saw how the two gnarled trees complimented the two streams of the river.

In a situation like this, how would you have chosen what to include and exclude from the frame?  

Are your compositions as good as they could be?

Before we get into solutions, let’s look at common reasons you may struggle with composition:

  1. You look for the same compositions you saw on social media. @matt343328 covered this topic in detail here.
  2. You get caught up in the scene’s excitement, especially in challenging conditions like cold, wet weather.
  3. You look for compositions with your camera on your tripod.
  4. You focus too early and too heavily on the tools of composition instead of composing a deliberate and cohesive story.
  5. You aren’t really sure what you’re trying to say.  

I’m guilty of all the above.  A few years ago, I decided I needed to do something different. So I collected my thoughts and notes on composition and typed a set of prompts to use in the field.  I printed it out to place behind my camera’s LCD and digitized it to my phone. If I look back, it wasn’t the ‘leading lines’ I needed help to remember, it was slowing down and tuning in.  I now share a digitized copy with my workshop participants, and I’ve found it has made a big impact on how they approach a shot.

How to improve your composition

Composition: Your Three Jobs

  1. Tell a cohesive story through the deliberate choice of characters.
  2. Separate, arrange and balance the characters.  Assign them the proper space and visual weight based on their roles in the story.  
  3. And in grand landscapes, communicate the depth of the 3d world in a 2d medium. I’ve written some in-depth articles on this here and here if you want to read more!

The compositional tools address #2 and #3 above. Chances are, you’ve got those covered. We’ll focus on #1–telling a deliberate, cohesive story.

Be deliberate

There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.

Ansel Adams

The creative path begins with you.  It’s your job to write the story. The moment you see something you want to shoot, you owe it to yourself to tune in and find your voice.  Listen, trust your intuition. Do so and you will have a deeper place from which to create your art.

Resist the urge to grab your camera.  You must explore your subjects before you have meaningful things to say about them. Study the details and the relationships between the different elements in the scene. Train your eye to the full potential of your subject.

  • What made me stop?
  • What is the mood?
  • Describe the scene in one sentence.
  • What is unique, interesting or meaningful?

Create cohesion

Power is mass multiplied by cohesion.

–Edward Luttwak

Decide what your photo will say and then choose how best to communicate that message.  The focal point is not your composition.  Your view on the focal point is the composition.  It isn’t what the scene looks like, it’s what you say about it.

Each decision you make in the field should take into consideration your unique viewpoint.

  • Is there a primary focal point
    • What is it?
  • Who are the supporting characters?
  • How important is the sky and land to the story?
  • Rank the foreground, midground, and background by order of priority.

Work the scene

Even when you’re in the most familiar situation, you can look for new opportunities.

–Corey Rich

Now, grab your camera (without the tripod) and work the scene.  Use the compositional tools to help tell the story.

  • What tools direct attention to the focal point? (If one exists)
  • How should I separate, arrange, and balance the characters?
  • What lens and camera settings tell this story the best?


Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.

John Maeda

Each character in your composition should have a role that adds to the story.  Our brains are good at looking past distractions that will show up in the photo.  Move in closer, zoom in, or change positions; remove everything from the frame that doesn’t contribute to your story.

  • What can I exclude or deemphasize that’s not part of what I’m trying to say?

The first couple of times you answer these questions, it may seem weird, even pointless.  But if you try it, you will tap into creative energy buried deep in the subconscious. If you’ve been at this for a while, you already consider some of the prompts above.  Still, if you slow down and make every step deliberate, I promise you’ll improve your results.

Put it to work

Composition is the most crucial skill to develop in photography.  And unlike weather and natural light, composition is under your control. If you sign up for my mailing list, you can download a PDF of the above prompts and a bunch more. Save it to your phone to use as a reference before your next shoot.

Like many creatives, you may view structure and process as inhibitory.  While free-thinking and a non-linear approach benefit creativity, some structured prompts help you execute.  Part of this amazing craft is learning to balance structure and technique with intuition and creativity.

If you take one thing from this… It isn’t what you know, but how you use that knowledge.  You don’t need any more rules. You need a method to discover and extract the parts of the scene with which you resonate.  

That’s all for this one. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.  Until next time, wishing you grand adventure and good light!


A very nice article, James. I don’t get to travel much anymore, but hopefully if I do get out there to get somewhere I can shoot some landscapes, I hope remember some of what you shared, especially “slow down”. Good advice.

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Great article James. I’ve said it before I really love your images and blog posts.

Thanks for sharing.

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Thank you James, exactly the kind of information I am seeking to help me refine my landscape images. I am fairly new to landscapes and need all of the guidance I can get. This is a great way to make the image more personal and help communicate the message I am trying to convey. Much appreciated.

Great article James … really helps to reframe the whole composition struggle. Thanks for asking the right questions. I need to get this in a format for my phone too. :blush:

This is a really well written article with great info, nice job man! I will probably study it a bit as I found it to be quite helpful. Thanks too for mentioning my article.

Great article, James. All really great points that I can everyone can benefit from. Slowing down and conceptualizing the scene is something I really need to focus on. Downloaded your guide and will put it to good use. Thanks for sharing!


A helpful article with beautiful photos to illustrate your points. I have found slowing down and being deliberate to be two of the most helpful practices for my own photography so I heartily second that advice. It is also so refreshing to read a composition article that is about the process, not just the rule of thirds and leading lines. Thank you for sharing your ideas!

Very nicely done, James. Thank you. I am headed to the Sierra tomorrow with fellow NPNer Lon Overacker, so I found your thoughts and ideas particularly timely.

Very nice images as illustrations, too.

Thanks, Shirley. One of the things I love most about macro work is how it forces me to slow down.

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Hey Chris, good to see you. Thanks again for your kind words, friend.

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@Preston_Birdwell that’s awesome that you are linking up with Lon for a joint trip to the Sierras! We look forward to seeing some images after you two get back!

@Sarah_Marino thanks, Sarah, so much for your kind words, glad it resonated with you!

@ChrisNoronhaPhoto thanks, Chris, I’m glad that you will put this information to use.

@Matt_Payne thanks, Matt, appreciate that. I’ve gained a lot of insight from your articles so I’m happy to mention for others to see too!

@Mark_Zane thanks, Mark, you’re right. I can get caught up, so it helps to have a process for reframing.

@laurasputman thanks, Laura. So glad you’ll be able to put some of this info to work in your photography! We look forward to seeing more of your work,

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Great article and beautiful images. For me, in the compositional sphere, it is good to indulge instinct and be guided by it. Studying the composition is fundamental, but it can be reached with experience in the field. It is a mistake to go on the field and lose all concentration and wonder of the landscape in front of us, to forcefully seek a composition. Instead, it is good to take a long breath, look around and know how to satisfy instincts and have good adaptability; in this way all that we have learned from our studies on composition, from the images of other authors, even of different genres, will unconsciously come to our aid. Congratulations again

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I uploaded the composition field guide to my phone and really felt my composition skills grow yesterday in the Forest while shooting. Wow! It was overwhelming and slightly paralyzing at first, after telling myself just apply what you can, I saw things from a composition level differently! Thank you for sharing!


Very good article, I went out Sunday morning to take a few landscape photos at a marsh, I was disappointed with the results. The photos had no focal point to draw attention, then I read Alex Noriega’s article on intimate landscapes, your article also reminded me of that, I am going out this weekend to the marsh once again with a fresh approach, and hopefully I will have better results.

Thanks, Antonio. You’re right. Sometimes I have to remind myself to look at the landscape first with my eyes, mind, and heart before I use my camera. Cheers!

I’m so glad you found the guide helpful. Forest scenes are challenging for me. I’ve found that rather than moving around a lot, it helps to find one area and stay there as the light changes.

Hey Tim, that’s so great that you are giving it another go. What draws you to the marsh area? How can you capture how that area makes you feel? Have fun out there.