Break The Rules in Landscape Photography


Rules, Rules, Rules..... Guidelines?

When we first take up photography, we’re very keen to learn everything that we can. In the process of learning we’re bombarded with information from everywhere, whether through workshops, YouTube, Facebook, blogs and so on. We’re seeking information to help us learn and to improve our photography, and we don’t know what we don’t know, and I was no different.

We seek information from the technical information on how to take an image, to the compositional information on how to “correctly” compose an image to the editing and how we get the most out of our images. We soak it all in, practice what we’ve learned and start creating images that we’re proud of. This whole process, depending on how much time you invest, can take years of practice. We might even end up being one of those that offers advice on the best way to shoot, compose and edit images.  

“To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk.”
Ellen Von Unwerth

So, as an exercise I did some internet searches on the technical and compositional aspects of Landscape Photography to see what is still being talked about as rules or guidelines, and here is a list of many of the things I found:

Compositional Rules (Guidelines)

  • Rule of Thirds
  • Golden Ration
  • Add Foreground Interest
  • Show A Sense of Scale
  • Leading Lines
  • Patters & Lines
  • The Right Light
  • Create Balance
  • Use Negative Space
  • Frame You Image
  • Geometric Shapes
  • Avoid Horizons in the Middle
  • Use Horizon in the Middle if There are Perfect Conditions
  • Avoid Merges
  • Don’t Place Subject in the Middle
  • Look For Symmetry
  • Eliminate Distractions
  • Create a Vanishing Point
  • Use Diagonal Lines
  • Stepping Stones
  • Foreground, Middle, Background
  • Work in Odd Numbers
  • Don’t Over Dominate the Foreground
  • Shoot Low or High
  • Simplify?? – How Can This Be True After That Long List??

After reading and studying all of these compositional guidelines, how in the world are you meant to understand how to compose your shot. Even more importantly, how can you be creative when your mind is full of all these rules? Then there is the technical…..

Technical Rules (Guidelines)

  • Deep depth of field (f11 to f16)
  • Use a tripod
  • Use a cable release or self timer
  • Use a wide angle lens
  • Focus 1/3rd of the way into the scene
  • User hyper focal distance
  • shoot at sunrise or sunset (golden hours)
  • Shoot at a low ISO
  • Research and plan locations
  • Shoot at the sweet spot of your lens
  • Use a polarizing filter
  • Expose to the right
  • Balance histogram
  • Use aperture priority
  • Shoot in manual
  • Set your white balance
  • Bracket your exposures
  • Turn off image stabilization
  • Use filters
  • Lock you mirror up

Now all of these rules or guidelines have been developed to help anyone new to photography start to create quality images, and they do that. We shoot and get decent compositions, interest in our images, and they are technically perfect. 

“Photography, as a powerful medium…offers an infinite variety of perception, interpretation and execution.”
Ansel Adams

Below are some examples of the types of images that I used to shoot. As you look through these images you will start to see a common theme, they all use very similar settings and all follow the compositional guidelines that we’re taught.

I was no different, I went through all of these phases of learning the craft of Landscape Photography and finally reached a point a couple of years ago where I didn’t feel that my photography was improving and I’d reached a point where I wasn’t sure how to elevate my skills any further. The fact was that I couldn’t improve my technical skills, once you know how to operate a camera and understand all of the exposure settings like the back of your hand, this aspect of photography isn’t going to improve.

So if I couldn’t improve the technical aspect of my photography, the changes had to come in the way I applied that technical understanding and in the way that I composed my images. This is when the light was turned on, I was blindly following all of these rules (guidelines) that I had learned, and creating pleasing results but I wasn’t creating any imagery that stood out. In fact, as I look back through all of my images from a few years ago one thing did start to stand out, they all looked the same.

I knew that I needed to change the way I approached photography if I was going to start revealing my own personality in my images. It was almost an immediate switch, I changed only three things in my photography, and they were:

Shoot With Emotion

Prior to the switch I would wander around locations looking for the perfect compositions that met the criteria I had learned rather then looking for the things in a scene that excited me. I stopped looking at just the entire landscape and started to focus my attention on the intimate landscape, the small things that jumped out at me as interesting and started to photograph those.

Ignore Compositional Rules

Changing the way I shot compositionally was actually pretty easy. Because I was eliminating the larger landscape for the most part in my images, there was less clutter to concern myself with. I would then look through my viewfinder or in live view and shoot the scene in a way that felt right without any consideration for rules, and yes it is a feeling. There are now only 2 things I consider compositionally when I take photos, and they are:

  • Balance: Does the image feel balanced, or evenly weighted. This is pretty straight forward when there aren’t many subject in the scene. Sometimes it may still not feel balanced, so I start to think about post processing and whether I can add something in the image later to give it balance. This isn’t something I do often, but it’s still a consideration, especially if I have an interesting subject.
  • Room to Breathe: I make sure that I give my main subject/s room to breathe in the image, meaning I don’t put them on the edges of the frame.

Ignore Technical Rules

This part is actually a lot of fun and it is a real eye-opener. Typically, when we’re learning we shoot with wide angle lenses with a very deep depth of field. I used to shoot my landscapes almost exclusively with a 16-35mm or 14-24mm lens, doing this actually reduces significantly what I can photograph. Instead I now use my telephoto lenses 24-70mm and 70-200mm to shoot most of my landscape to help remove distractions by focussing in on the real interest. I also don’t hamper my ability to capture the image I want by needing a deep depth of field or even a tripod on many occasions. As I am shooting an intimate landscape much more often, the depth of field becomes less important, opening up many more settings and techniques.

This has resulted in a major shift in the look of my images. Below you will see several examples of the work I am creating today. You will notice a major difference in the focal length, depth of field and some techniques. Now you may find my earlier work more pleasing, and that’s ok, we all have different taste. But, these images for me better reflect my emotions while I’m shooting and I believe are more representative of me as a photographer.

There is no escaping the fact that you need to understand the technical aspects of photography, just that the rules (guidelines) that are typically talked about are not overly relevant. It’s important that you understand the ins and outs of of your camera and lens capabilities and then decide from there what is important to capture the image you want.

I’m also not advocating that everything that has been taught in relation to Compositional Rules (Guidelines) is a waste of time. What I am trying to say is these are more designed to help you get your feet in photography and start creating good results. But, if you want to find yourself as a photographer and start creating work that reflects you as a person you’ll need to step outside of the traditional teachings to find you as a photographer.

So am I saying that you should ignore all of the rules (guidelines)? ……..YES, shoot with emotion and what excites you.

“The only limits in our photography and creativity, are those that we put on ourselves.”
Aaron Dowling