One of the hardest things about nature photography is that we have so little control over our subjects, the weather, and the light we have to work with. Despite these challenges, we do have control over the subjects we choose to work with and how we choose to arrange them within the four borders of our photographic frame. This makes composition one of the most important and personal aspects of photography, as our composition choices help us convey our interpretations of nature to everyone who views our photographs.
I think of composition in simple terms: the arrangement, interaction, and flow of elements within the four borders of a photographic frame. Through composition, we get to decide which elements of nature call out to us the most, and what to include and exclude as we craft our photographs. For my photography, this often means focusing on nature’s smaller scenes, including intimate landscapes, abstract renditions of natural subjects, and portraits of plants and flowers.
Below, I share five composition concepts that I find to be essential when I am out photographing small scenes in nature. These are flexible ideas that you can apply to a broad range of scenes in different ways, depending on your visual preferences, your subject, and your goals for a photograph. I hope you find each of these ideas as helpful as I do.
Concept #1: See Beyond Your Subjects
Fresh spring leaves. Nearly bare trees. Colorful foliage. These are the literal subjects of the photograph you see above. If we go beyond these literal subjects, we can instead see abstractions like layers of colors, repetition, balance, and framing. The green layer of plants in the foreground anchors the composition to the bottom of the frame. The next layer of color adds an element of repetition by repeating the shape of the green layer, just in a warmer color palette. The spring trees with early leaves on each side add a frame around the bare tree in the middle. Also, that central bare tree in the middle attracts attention because it is different than everything else in the scene.
Learning to see abstractions like these will help elevate your ability to arrange the chaotic elements of nature into a cohesive composition. Of all the composition concepts I have learned and apply in my own photography, I find this one to be the most helpful. And, when I am teaching composition to photographers who are just getting started, this is an idea that often leads to creative breakthroughs. By seeing beyond the literal subjects in front of you to see the more abstract elements of nature, you will find many more ideas from which a composition can form.
Concept #2: Balance
Because I seek harmonious compositions, I spend a lot of time thinking about balance. While a composition does not have to be balanced to be successful, I often seek out balanced scenes because I find them to be visually appealing. One way I think about balance is by mentally dividing a scene into quadrants, either in a grid or in four vertical sections. Then, I think about how my subjects fill the scene as a whole and each individual quadrant. For example, is one quadrant more visually heavy than the others in a way that is unappealing or introduces uncomfortable tension?
The photo above shows consistent balance throughout the frame. The tiles are similarly sized and spaced pretty equally across the scene. Most of the cracks are visually similar. Each quadrant, whether divided in a grid or vertically, contains a similar mix of tiles. Thus, this scene feels balanced and harmonious. Going through this kind of exercise with your own photographs can help increase your awareness of unappealing imbalances and then address them to improve a composition.
Concept #3: Direction
Many of the subjects we photograph in nature have an inherent direction. We can use these directional cues to our advantage when creating a composition (and thinking about direction is another way to see our subjects more abstractly). In the example above, the literal subject is a large network of cracks traveling through bubbly winter ice. If you look beyond the literal subject (ice), you can also see lines that are traveling from the upper right to network out across the scene.
If I had placed the core network of cracks more centrally in the scene, it would likely feel more static. By thinking about the direction of the cracks and then choosing a careful placement in one corner, I could create a scene with a more energetic feeling. Next time you are out photographing, study the directional cues in your subject and consider how you can use those cues to improve the flow of your composition.
Concept #4: Repetition & Patterns
My vision of the natural world focuses on finding grace and elegance among the chaos of nature. This means that building compositions around repetition and patterns is a common theme in my work. I think of repetition as some kind of repeating element within a composition, ranging from very subtle (like repeating colors in the background of the last photo below) to very obvious (like the repeating tree limbs in the photo directly below). A pattern is a more consistent form of repetition, like wallpaper or a sheet of repeating stamps. Each photo in this article has some element of repetition. If you do not naturally recognize repetition in nature, study each photo included here to see how many forms of repetition you can identify. Then, next time you are in nature, you will have some ideas of where to start in looking for similar ideas.
In the example above of sand dunes seen from a high vantage point, the repetition of layers and organic shapes is the composition. Because repetition is the core concept behind this composition, I was careful to exclude elements on the edges of the frame, like bushes and patches of mud, that would break the repetition. Finding repetition and patterns, and then organizing them with balance in mind, is a primary way to organize the messiness of nature into cohesive, calming, and harmonious compositions. I encourage you to take some time to look for and then incorporate these ideas into your compositions.
Concept #5: Structure
Lastly, I find the idea of structure to be especially helpful in taking a chaotic scene and organizing it into a cohesive composition. Structure can take on many different forms depending on the scene. In the simplest terms, I think of structure as the organizing principle behind the composition, or how I arrange the dominant forms of a scene to promote order. In the example above, the dominant tree limbs provide the structure for the photograph. Once I saw this basic structure while working in the field, I could then build on it by arranging the limbs in a pleasing and balanced way, letting the other elements of the scene fall to the background.
When working on a composition, I sometimes find it helpful to think about what a sketch of the scene might look like. If you were to take out a pencil and piece of paper, what elements of your scene would you sketch first? These first sketches may be the core structure of your scene. By stripping away the rest of the details, you can identify the core elements of your composition and then use that structure as the foundation of your composition.
Want to extend your learning about composition?
If you are looking to accelerate your learning and improve your composition skills, you might enjoy 11 Composition Lessons for Photographing Nature’s Small Scenes, which is now available in the CaptureLandscapes store and builds upon the ideas shared in this article. 11 Composition Lessons takes a practical approach to teaching versatile composition and design concepts – tools for your toolbox that you can apply in a wide variety of scenarios to a broad range of subjects. The course includes a 131-page PDF ebook with more than 160 example photographs, video case studies to help bring the lessons to life, and a PDF field guide for your phone.