Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to apply a classic technique of landscape photography to create engaging images with many types of subject in the sixth article of his sixteen-part series on composition.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
Demonstrating good compositions in an article like this one will hopefully be helpful in giving you a better understanding of what you need to look for to take successful pictures. The truth is, however, that the real world doesn’t fall neatly into artistic compositions. Sometimes they are hard to find, and you can spend hours looking for something that has impact.
There is a technique that I think can help you do just that. It gives you something concrete to look for when you are outdoors shooting landscapes as well as other types of subjects such as architecture, people, and gardens. I call it the classic landscape technique, and you can see an example of it in photo 6.1. Notice how close the foreground is to the camera position, how much depth there appears to be in the composition, and how there is complete depth of field.
Here is the formula that I use over and over again to produce photographic compositions like this that have impact:
- Use a wide-angle lens.
- Set the lens for the smallest f-stop it has.
- Here is the key: Place an interesting or beautiful element very close to the camera position. I recommend that it should be within 3 to 5 feet.
- Use a tripod.
- Focus the lens about 8 feet into the picture.
To make this technique work, you need two components: a strong foreground and an interesting or beautiful background. For example, look at photo 6.2. The rock forms in the background are interesting, and to make a successful composition I needed a foreground element placed close to the camera position. I chose the striations in sandstone at the far right and placed them about 4 feet from my lens. I did the same thing when I took photo 6.3. The distant hills make up the background, while the cacti in the foreground become the dominant element close to the shooting position. Landscape photographers spend most of their time in the field looking for foregrounds, because usually the backgrounds are easy to find. Once you have found the background, you then concentrate on finding a workable foreground.
If you want to use an ultra-wide-angle lens and get extremely close to the foreground, the resulting images will be very dramatic. Photo 6.4 is an example. The lens was only 2.5 feet from the flowers at the bottom of the frame. Notice how much depth this technique gives a scene, and at the same time notice how everything is sharp from front to back. The disproportionately large bed of flowers makes a compelling element. It looks quite different from what I saw, but photography isn’t necessarily about reproducing reality. It’s art, and as artists we can interpret a scene as we wish. I did the same thing in Georgia when I photographed the Tybee Island Light Station near Savannah (6.5).
As you can see, this “landscape” technique works with many other types of subjects, too. The bottom line is that this is a compositional technique for many kinds of situations and subjects. In a small courtyard Mexico (6.6), I placed the lens about 24 inches from the foreground mosaic. The distant area of the bed-and-breakfast establishment served as my background. Similarly, in Krakow, Poland (6.7), I photographed a wagon in the immediate foreground, and the old town square and distant cathedral form the background. I am using the same technique over and over again to achieve an artistic rendition of each composition.
Interior photography can also benefit from this type of compositional approach. In Venice, Italy (6.8), a costumed model became the foreground and the rear of the room in this Renaissance palace music room was the background. I accomplished the exaggerated perspective by using a 14mm wide-angle lens on a full-frame-sensor camera.
As soon as I put a wide-angle lens on my camera, I think to myself, “Where’s the foreground?” When I visited Missouri Town (6.9), a recreation of an 1855 settlement, I used the split rail fence as the foreground element. This was taken with a 16mm focal length. There are so many scenarios where this technique is applicable, and if you start thinking in terms of using it, you will see a marked improvement in your compositions.
Go to the next article in this series: Foregrounds
Read the full series:
- The Rule of Thirds
- Leading Lines
- Graphic Design
- Classic Landscape Technique
- Moving into the Frame
- Distinctive Perspectives
- Light's Influence
- Negative Space
- Breaking the Rules