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 presently 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.
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.
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.
THE LAYER CAKE
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.
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.
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 hold 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.
UPDATE: Due to the great popularity of this article, I produced a companion piece in April of 2019 that describes four additional patterns. The additional patterns in the subsequent article all tend to work well with so-called “small scenes” and abstracts,” providing a useful counterpoint to the original article that is presented here.
Erin Babnik is a landscape photographer, speaker, educator, and author. Immersion in the visual arts has been the one constant in Erin’s life, including an extensive background in various studio arts and a doctoral education in the history of art. Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Europe, teaching workshops and giving talks worldwide. Erin is honored to be a Canon Explorer of Light. You can learn more about Erin and her ideas about photography through a variety of interviews with her. | Erin’s Website: www.erinbabnik.com