Posts Tagged ‘composition’

Does a Landscape Photograph Need a “Subject”?

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015


Of all of the terms that typically appear in discussions of photographic composition, the word “subject” may be the most confusing. In typical explanations, a photograph has a subject when it presents a main feature as being distinct from its setting, which is everything else in the image. These explanations usually assert that the lack of a subject will cause the eye to become restless as it searches for something to lock onto, making the viewer lose interest quickly. Without a subject, they say, the viewer will be left wondering what the photo is ‘about’.

While there is some real value in this concept, the use of the word “subject” to describe a compositional feature conflates the realms of form and meaning, making it potentially confusing for anyone who would like to apply the concept in their own photography. The main problem with applying the term is imagining its opposite, the idea that a landscape photograph could be devoid of a subject. We are likely to see the river, the desert, the ocean, the chain of mountain peaks, or whatever feature might have inspired us to press our shutter button, as the subject of our resulting image—after all, aren’t the features in the image what the photo is ‘about’? What follows in this article is an attempt to answer that question by cutting the cake a different way, to provide an alternative framework for understanding the ideas behind the typical usage of the word “subject” and for determining when these ideas might be relevant for a given photograph. This framework can be explained with three simple concepts: Hierarchy, Intention, and Meaning.

Hierarchy: Providing a Sense of Order

In a previous article for the Photo Cascadia blog, I discussed the concept of visual hierarchy and provided a brief explanation of what it can accomplish and why it is not the only mode of organization that can result in compelling photographs. The use of the word “subject” in discussions of composition aligns closely with what I described as the primary point of interest in an image—the locus where the eye knows to stop between explorations of the frame. While there may be other points of interest in a photo, the primary one will stand out from all else and will generally provide a sort of terminus for eye movement in the composition. Light, color, texture, mass, or form may all contribute to establishing visual hierarchy, but the result will be the same: the eye will have a home base where it can rest, and the overall image will seem well resolved.

Although hierarchy is only one possible organizing principle, it is essentially what discussions of the proverbial subject aim to describe. A common alternative term is “anchor”, a label often given to any compositional element that has the most visual weight in an image. While that term nicely avoids the suggestion of meaning, it comes with its own set of potentially confusing implications. An anchor stops movement, yet it is something that is connected to the ground and that has great mass; therefore, it is an awkward term to use when describing something like a sunstar or a crashing wave that may be at the top of a photo’s visual hierarchy. Regardless of what you call the primary point of interest in a photograph, it will help to provide a sense of order. Besides hierarchy, schemes that can establish order include, patterning, connecting forms, visual echoes, and dualities, among others.


Pearly Gates

“Pearly Gates”: This photo has two strong points of visual interest, the mountain and the cluster of flowers. The sunstar, bright sky, window of mist, and lines of the cliffs all emphasize the mountain as the primary point, but the flowers register as an important element too. The size of the cluster of flowers relative to the mountain encourages eye movement between them and suggests meaningful connections.


Intention: Providing the ‘Aha Moment’

But is order really necessary? What do we gain from it?

The main benefit of any organizational scheme is that it makes the decisions that went into a composition seem intentional: order indicates the will of the photographer who found or created it. Without any such scheme, a photo is likely to seem random and unresolved, leaving viewers to wonder what they are supposed to make of its various elements. Therefore, a lack of order tends to be less satisfying than compositions that indicate a high level of intention. When a viewer recognizes a clear photographic motivation, they have a satisfying ‘Aha Moment’, which will secure their interest and will encourage them to appreciate the other merits of the photo more fully.

So while there may be artistic arguments in favor of compositions that seem arbitrary or accidental, the most compelling images tend to be the ones that allow viewers to make sense of what they are seeing so that their appreciation can extend to deeper levels.


The Connection

“The Connection”: A clear organizing principle can provide an image with a strong sense of intention.


Meaning: What a Photo is ‘About’

Those deeper levels of appreciation ultimately involve interpretation, the process of deciding what an image is about, which involves more than just recognizing a subject within it. Contrary to what the term “subject” implies, a main compositional element is not necessarily the source of a photo’s meaning. Meaning emerges out of the organizing principle that governs an image as a whole, not merely from any single feature within it. In other words, what a landscape photograph’s various features collectively suggest is ultimately what the photo is ‘about’. If a photo depicts a rainbow over a dried lakebed with arcing mud cracks in it, the photo is not simply about one of those two features or the details within them; the echo of the rainbow’s form in the mud cracks indicates a relationship between the rainbow and the lakebed, and therein lies the potential for identifying meaning, however anyone wants to interpret it. (To read some possible interpretations of the described image, see the article that I wrote about it previously.)


Sweet Nothings

“Sweet Nothings”: While the hill in the foreground is the most dominant element in the frame, it is not necessarily the “subject” of the image.


Putting it All Together

In short, the simple answer to the question posed in the title of this article is no, landscape photographs do not need a “subject”. What they need is to hold the interest of the viewer, and that is most likely to happen when an image conveys a sense of intention. An ordering principle such as hierarchy can get a viewer past the point of looking for purpose and onto deeper levels of appreciation. The age-old term “subject” has earned its place in so many discussions of composition because it attempts to identify what is probably the most common method of creating order. Clearly the term has its shortcomings, but the ideas behind it are relevant for many photographs and are worth salvaging. I hope that reformulating those ideas through the connected concepts above may help more photographers to appreciate the value in the ideas and may help to prevent misunderstandings.

As with any compositional decisions, the time for conscious analysis of these concepts may not be while you’re out in the field, rushing to catch some spectacular light. An instructor once said to me when I was in art school, “Creativity is a messy place.” We don’t always arrive at our best ideas by thinking methodically about them, and compelling compositions don’t always result from stopping to ponder the full implications of our decisions. Nonetheless, analysis is extremely valuable when selecting images for editing and when tricky compositional situations present themselves in the field; if creative instincts alone are not quite bringing about that ‘Aha Moment’, a bit of analysis can help to point the way forward. Also, thinking about composition helps us to internalize ideas about it and to draw upon them later subconsciously.

Can you think of any other compositional terms, like “subject”, that may be confusing to many people? If so, please feel free to share them in the comments below. And as always, your thoughts about this article are also very welcome!


Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at You can also follow her on FacebookTwitter and 500px.

Nature Selfies

Monday, October 12th, 2015

In this online world of the selfie crazed photo posts there is still the more classic selfie of putting up a tripod with camera for setting up the perfect scene. I like to say I have a selfie stick and jokingly point to my tripod. Taking a more old school approach I feel it can tell a better story to the viewer of what the place is like and how it might have felt. I do realize selfie as the word is coined for photos of today means holding the camera yet I am not covering big in your face shots here, it’s more nature self-portraits with purpose.

You might think it’s as easy as setting up the camera for the nature scene in front of you, setting the timer, jumping in front of the camera and waiting for the shutter to trip. Well sometimes it is, yet often it’s not. For those that have done them you know what I am talking about. Many takes to get one image that works well can get frustrating. The angle was off with your body, the way you were stepping on the trail doesn’t look natural, you are too large… or too small compared to the rest of the subjects, and the list goes on.

Why do I take these shots? Simply put because I want a human in the scene for one of a variety of reasons and in these cases I am typically the only one around or the only one willing to take the time to get the image I am after. I am not taking them for an Instagram account filled with selfies although don’t let me stop you if that is your cup of tea.

Here is me and my “selfie stick” just playing around during a hazy forest fire smoke sunset on the Oregon Coast. It usually gets some interesting looks when I use it. A family member off in the distance said “Is that Adrian taking photos with a selfie stick!” There you go… a tripod and selfie stick in one.


Now to more worthwhile information. Here is a list of things to think about I have learned over the years when trying to setup and pose myself into a scene with some example photos.

  1. You will want the basics. By basics I mean setup of camera, tripod and timer remote is essential. Without these you may find it very tough to impossible to get what you are conceptualizing.
  2. Does it look natural or too set up, the composition just like without people in the photo is critical to get right. Ask yourself how the scene balances with you in the shot and where you plan to stand, sit or do some awesome jumps!
  3. Besides composition of the scene the placement and body stance is very important. It should look pretty natural. If it looks overly posed or contrived you won’t be as happy with the photo in the end. You won’t know what this feels like until you practice and look at the results.
  4. Are you using newer equipment that allows you to see the scene in  real time such as apps on phones with WiFi or Bluetooth. This way you can stand a ways from your camera to click the button when it  looks right on your phone instead of setting a timer, running and stand still just in the nick of time for ‘click’.
  5.  Show a much more of the scene and a lot less of yourself. You will see in the many examples below I am only a fraction of the scene. Sometimes you can see it’s me and other times I am small enough you can’t tell.
  6. Look away from camera vs always looking at camera. A viewer will tend to look more into what the image is about and what you are looking at if you are not staring at the camera.
  7. Bright colors might be better or worse depending on what you are  after yet it’s good to think about this before you head out. Are you looking to stand out or blend into the scene.
  8. Buckles, straps, zippers should be checked before taking the shot. I  can’t count how may times I looked at the image after the fact to  find I had undone sagging buckles or straps that drew attention to  what I was wearing or carrying not in the way I had hoped.

Golden Rays – While teaching a workshop a number of years back I was showing participants how putting themselves in the photo might be another composition to think of. I kept a strong composition with leading lines from the bottom corners with the road, placed myself in the power point and let it snap when it was to a natural looking position in my walk.

The Heavenly Road

Mount Rainier – This is a case where color helps. It is an amazing scene yet if I had a pack that blended in the scene it would not be as dramatic. Notice the way I am positioned at an angle towards the mountain with a step up on the edge of the trail.

Hiker and Mount Rainier

Alvord Desert – Notice where my right foot is placed. It’s right where the larger crack starts giving it a stronger look. The cloud also appears to stretch from the top of my head. These combined with my stance I feel provide a stronger image than simply standing anywhere on this playa.

Wild Hairy Sky


Mount Adams – It was a fine morning along this lake and I wanted to capture what I was feeling eating breakfast and drinking coffee. Again I positioned my self in a power point and looking towards the mountain making sure none of the trees are spearing my head. This is a case where I used the app on my phone to look at the composition and then clicked the 2 second timer on my phone, very handy!

Hiker and Breakfast in Backcountry

Broken Top – The intent here was to keep myself small and have a big open sky as I was staring off into it just day dreaming . I don’t like I how left the branch of the tree poking in the back of my head yet it’s less of an issue with how small I am in this image.


Walchella Falls – Notice I placed myself in one corner and the falls in the opposite corner to help create balance from those two sides. Notice the un-clipped buckles on the left side of my pack. I forgot in this case and did not notice until later.

Soaking It In

Abiqua Falls – This was a tough one. I wanted to get myself in the stream of the falls get the side stream in the foreground. It took a number of takes to line myself up right. How did I avoid standing in the same spot each time in a sea of rocks that look at the same and about 40feet from the camera? I purposely marked each spot with a wet rock before I went back to my camera so I knew if it didn’t look quiet right to move slightly next time.

Standing In The Way

All of these images and others I have taken of myself, other objects and people can be found in my adventure gallery. If you have further thoughts to add around this topic please share them here for others to see.



Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

by Zack Schnepf

In the Field Composition Workflow Part 2 – Landscape Photography Workflow

Recently, on the Photo Cascadia blog; Erin Babnik posted a really excellent article about compositional patterns to look for in nature, I thought it was one of the best articles on the PC blog in a while.  Here is a link to her article:

I wanted to continue with the theme of composition.  In part one I’ll talk about how I simplify my field technique to allow me to focus on composition in the field.  In part two I’ll talk about what I look for in the field to build strong compositions, and the tips and tricks I use to help me build compelling compositions in nature.  Composition is the most challenging part of photography for me, it’s also one of the most important aspects of a compelling image.  It’s so easy to get distracted in the field and get bogged down in settings.  Organizing a nature scene into a compelling composition is always a struggle and takes a tremendous amount of focus and it’s made much harder if you are trying to juggle ten things at once.  To help me focus on composition, I try to remove distractions and simplify other aspects of working in the field.  There are several tips and tricks I use to help simplify my workflow and allow me to focus more on composition.

Master the technical functions of your camera.  This is the first step to being able to truly focus on composition in the field.   This goes for your lenses, tripod and other equipment as well.  When you can operate your equipment without having to think much, you can start to focus on composition.  This takes some commitment and you have to be really consistent, otherwise you forget how some functions work and have to spend time in the field trying to figure it out all over again.  This is obviously more for someone who really wants to take their photography to the next level and is willing to put in the time and effort, but once you have mastered the technical side of photography you are free to focus on the artistic side.

Shoot using the manual settings on your camera.  This seems counter intuitive for many people and it is until you’ve gotten comfortable shooting manually.  For me, when I shoot manual it simplifies my field workflow and gives me much greater control.  It also allows me to use the following tricks to keep things simple in the field.

Shoot manual focus and use the focus markings on your lenses.  This takes some practice, but once you master this technique it takes aperture out of the equation in a lot situations.  On the top of most high end lenses is a set of focus markings that gives you approximate distances for focus.  For landscape photography I typically like to have everything in focus, unless I have a specific reason to use selective focus.  This actually makes it really easy to generalize focus and take it out of the equation.  For instance, my general rule of thumb for a typical scenic landscape shot using a wide angle lens without a close foreground is f/13-f/18. In this situation I can keep things very simple, set my aperture to f/16 and set my focus meter to the inside of the infinity line.  If I have a subject that is closer to the camera and I want everything in focus I generally set my aperture to f/22 and set the focus to the general distance of the foreground element using the focus meter on the lens.  This is very effective until you have a subject that is 3 feet or closer to you.  At this point you will have to abandon this technique and start problem solving, either using multiple focal point blending, or another technique. On my current camera system the Sony A7r, the Sony lenses don’t have this on the top of the lens.  Instead there is a digital read out on the LCD that shows up when I try to manually focus a lens.  I still use the digital version to help approximate focus distance.


Shoot raw and don’t worry about white balance.  This is a really easy one.  If you’re shooting in the RAW format you don’t have worry about white balance, save that decision for when you are working in post production.  This is just one less thing to have to have to think about in the field.

All of these techniques help remove small distractions in the field, leaving you with less things to mentally juggle.  This allows my mind to focus on the artistic side of photography.  In part two of this series, I’ll talk about my own artistic techniques I use in the field and how I use them to build compelling images.



Five Compositional Patterns Worth Finding in Nature

Monday, May 25th, 2015

By Erin Babnik

Landscape photography entails a variety of challenges that can make a successful outing feel like a real triumph, but chief among them may be the task of ‘organizing’ nature through image composition. Nature’s many forms typically coincide in haphazard displays until an act of framing and alignment brings a sense of order to the chaos. Fortunately for those of us who are willing to look for them, there are numerous patterns common in the natural world that can give an image some essential structure. The five patterns that I have chosen to feature in this article each work well as a primary compositional scheme, providing an image with strong grand forms that can register a clear sense of intention. While these five are among the more prevalent patterns in landscapes, there are many others worth finding, and creating an exhaustive list of them would probably be impossible. At the same time, even these five patterns have qualities in common, owing to their shared reliance on aesthetic principles. Having a strong understanding of the fundamentals and complexities of those principles will always provide the greatest foundation for making compositional decisions, but recognizing patterns can be an excellent aid in thinking abstractly and in responding to visual stimuli.

While I chose to feature these five patterns because of their prevalence in nature, they also have in common a tendency to work well in combination with strong hierarchical arrangements: compositions that feature a point of visual interest that registers as the primary one in a scene. Of course, not all successful compositions must employ the principle of hierarchy; for example, some images, especially many abstracts, derive their visual interest from a complete lack of it, presenting instead a kind of patterning that keeps the eye entertained by subtle variations within an otherwise homogenous collection of forms. My own habits favor hierarchy, however, so the examples that I have included here are of that sort.

Before committing to any one of these patterns in the field, it may be helpful to remember some tips for maximizing their effectiveness. Above all, for any of these patterns to read well, they should probably be dominant structures in a scene, clearly expressed and not competing with any other strong forms. Secondly, for them to help to establish a sense of visual hierarchy, they will have to contribute to the overall order of the image, ensuring that the viewer’s attention gets directed towards whatever part of a scene constitutes its primary point of interest. In other words, forms that lead to or emphasize a feature will tend to strengthen that feature visually, playing a supporting role and helping the eye to identify where it should rest between explorations of the frame. Lastly, it is important to keep in mind that lines in nature may correspond with these forms and still not read well if the light in a scene is working against them, so it is never enough simply to find lines—those lines will require light that helps to define them. Indeed, light may be the very quality that creates forms that would not exist otherwise.

With those caveats in mind, we can now have a look at each of these five patterns separately. The icons below summarize each pattern graphically for the sake of clarity and recall, but they are not intended to represent complete compositions or to depict the exact forms that a pattern must take. These patterns are simple components that may appear in combination with other elements, and the icons are merely suggestive of a range of possibilities that exists for each pattern.






Click for more: Example 2 (by David Cobb) | Example 3 (by Adrian Klein)

Compositions featuring this pattern will contain a prominent mass or collection of elements that attract the eye to the foreground and then plunge it into the background of a scene. The form that directs the eye may originate from any area near the bottom of the frame. If the shape of the pattern leads to a clear visual payoff in the background, then it will help to establish that background feature as the primary point of visual interest.



Click for more: Example 2 (by Kevin McNeal) | Example 3 (by Kevin McNeal)

When one prominent element in a scene repeats the forms of another, it creates a visual ‘echo’, as it were. The related elements strengthen each other by association, and if one of them is the primary feature of the scene or else leads to it, then the entire image is likely to have a strong sense of hierarchy and intention. Finding an ‘echo’ in a scene will usually give the viewer that ‘aha moment’ that can make viewing an image particularly exciting.



Click for more: Example 2 (by Sean Bagshaw) | Example 3 (by Chip Phillips)

When overlapping layers have adequate separation, they can create an exciting sense of depth in a scene. Layers that share visual qualities will also provide an image with a certain rhythm that helps to hold it all together. Hierarchy in this case will be established by one layer being picked out in some way, perhaps by light or by it containing a strong element that anchors the entire scene.



Click for more: Example 2 (by Chip Phillips) | Example 3 (by Chip Phillips)

Similar to The Plunge, this pattern leads the eye into the background, but in this case using diagonal lines that may leave room for negative space or for an area of texture in the foreground. The lines may be literal (that is, solid lines) or suggestive (that is, made up of repeating elements that cohere into lines), and they will typically emanate out of the lower corners or else near to them. Whatever area the diagonal lines point towards will become the focus of attention, so it is usually best if the viewer can find something interesting there.



Click for more: Example 2 (by Sean Bagshaw) | Example 3 (by Zack Schnepf)

This pattern is characterized by a multitude of strong lines or forms all converging on a single element. The directional forces may originate in any area of the frame, and there may be any number of them, but a strong element will pull them all together.

As I mentioned above, these five patterns are just a selection that have certain aesthetic principles in common, such as their ability to create directional force or to help establish a visual hierarchy. Are there any patterns that you tend to find often in nature that are not represented here? If so, please feel free to describe them in the comments below.


Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.