Landscape Composition – Part 10: Servants to Composition: Digital Photography Review

One of the many beautiful waterfalls of Caño Cristales, Colombia.

Canon 5D3, Canon 17-40mm F4, Lee filters
Exposure stacking of 3 images at 36mm, ISO 100, F16 and F11, 1 sec and 2 sec

So far in my landscape photography series, I’ve talked about compositional elements, their weights and how to use their properties to balance the composition by imagining a balance of torques around the middle axis of an image. I also discussed the balancing of negative space, the perception of subject direction and the oft-overlooked importance I reserve to the separation of elements. I then discussed the perception of depth and how to use sky in a landscape image, and finally how to connect the elements in a way that makes sense. Finally, I suggested one idea to guide the photographer when composing in the field.

This time I’d like to discuss long exposures and the rule of thirds and to show how these techniques reflect in the ideas I’ve previously proposed. This would in turn mean that the ideas presented in this series can be seen as a generalization of seemingly separate ideas into one framework of thought. I think my discussion also has a chance to redeem these techniques, which are on one hand often abused and wrongfully implemented, and on the other hand are sometimes the subject of contempt from more advanced photographers.

This image of stranded icebergs on Breiðamerkursandur beach, southern Iceland, is a very good example of well-known compositional principles and ideas. Can you say what they are? How did I enhance the composition and the image as a whole by using these principles, and how would you translate this into the ideas I’ve discussed in this series?

Canon 5D3, Canon 16-35 F2.8L II
16mm, F16, 4 sec, ISO 100

Long Exposures

Ahhh, long exposure. The first trick any photographer learns is to make “magical-looking” shots. What else triggers people more than silky, fluffy, marshmallow-like waterfalls and mirror-like lakes with perfect reflections?

I’d like to claim that more than a way of making an image look magical or dreamy, long exposures are a tool to serve composition.

To support this claim, let’s go back a bit in this series to article number 3, Negative Space, and to article number 5, Separation of Elements. In these articles, I basically claimed that the compositional masses in an image need to have negative space around them, and need to be properly separated from each other and from the edge of the frame. This in turn comes from the need to understand what exactly one is viewing in the image, and in order to create depth and better represent the 3-dimensional reality in a 2-dimensional medium.

What does the long exposure contribute to this image? Try to answer both with regard to composition and to other aspects of the image.

Canon 5D4, Canon 11-24mm F4
13mm, F14, 13 sec, ISO100
Goðafoss Waterfall, Northern Iceland

When shooting a landscape that contains a lot of moving, chaotic elements such as clouds and water, it often happens that the chaotic elements create unwanted visual noise in the image. Choppy waves take all of the attention from the beautiful rugged rocks in a seascape, for example. The chaos also makes the elements harder to distinguish and separate, which deeply hurts the sense of depth in the image. This is, according to what we have learned in this series, a huge no-no, and we thus need to avoid creating noise between the elements.

The long exposure allowed me to both separate the different rocky masses in this composition, and to expose much more detail in the foreground element.

Canon 5D3, Canon 16-35mm F2.8L II
16mm, F13, 20 sec, ISO400
Anse Source d’Argent, La Digue Island, The Seychelles

What a long exposure usually does to chaotic elements is average them out. Waves are high at one point in space, and lower at another, but a second later this is reversed. Exposing while both of these moments occur causes the water to appear flatter and have less detail, and the composition to have less visual noise between the main elements, the elements which we actually want the viewer to focus on. Long exposure thus serves to create proper negative space around the subjects and separation between them, and thus in turn depth.

These beautiful shapes in the rocks would not have been so apparent if it weren’t for the flattened water.

Canon 60D, Canon EF-S 10-22mm F3.5-4.5
10mm, F11, 30 sec, ISO100
Palmachim, Beach, Israel

The long exposure caused streaks that point away from the waterfall. How does this complement the composition, according to what you’ve read in the previous articles?

Canon 5D3, Canon 16-35mm F2.8 II
18mm, F16, ISO 50, 5 and 15 sec HDR
Aldejyarfoss, Iceland

The Rule of Thirds

Oh dear, the rule of thirds. The most used “rule” among beginner photographers, but also the most hated among the advanced. Allow me to let you in on a secret: the reason advanced photographers hate this rule is that it’s really wrong and terrible when interpreted plainly. But on the other hand, you must admit that it usually feels better to have the subject on the third than to have it centered, or very close to the edge of the frame.

The actual bad thing about the rule of thirds is that one rule simply can’t accommodate all the scenarios and works with all the different compositions one can shoot. Change the size or direction of a foreground subject and the position it should occupy in an image should also be changed. But the real essence of the rule of thirds is that subjects should progressively be positioned at opposite sides of the middle axis of the image.

According to what we’ve discussed in this series, this stems from compositional weight and subject direction and also causes the viewer’s eye to skip from side to side of the composition, which contributes to the sense of depth. Another advantage of positioning masses at the thirds is that they are not too close to the edges of the frame – which forces separation from said edges. Two for one – not a bad deal with just a few words to remember.

The main subject of this image, the erupting fissure, is positioned more or less exactly at the third. The line emitting from it (the lava river) contributes to the perception of it facing toward the right – and so I had to give it more negative space on that direction. if I had positioned it more toward the right, there would be too much dead space on the left, whereas if I had positioned it more toward the left, separation from the edge of the frame would be compromised.

Holuhraun eruption, Iceland, 2014.
Canon 5D3, Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6
1/1250 sec, F4, ISO 3200

When discussing the balancing of compositional weights, I said that the higher the weight of a certain compositional element, the more “torque” it holds and the closer it needs to be to the middle axis to counterbalance the weights of the other compositional masses in the image. The rule of thirds can be viewed as a simple rule of thumb to represent the distance from the middle axis that fits a “usual” subject, i.e. one of average compositional weight, which comes to balance other subjects of common weight. Granted, we know better after the discussions in this series, but it’s still useful to understand where the logic behind this often misunderstood “rule” comes from.

There are countless examples of when the rule of thirds doesn’t apply. In this image, the subjects aren’t placed at the thirds. after reading and digesting this series, the avid reader should understand that my thought process was as follows:
1. The relative symmetry of the background caused me to place the main subject (Uummannaq Mountain) close to the center and slightly to the right (due to the subject’s direction).
2. To counterbalance this, I had to place the foreground subject (the cracks’ intersection) slightly off-center to the left.

Canon 5D4, Canon 11-24mm F4
1/13 sec, ISO 100, F10
Lake Tasersuaq, Uummannaq, Greenland

Do you agree with my claim that my way of compositional thought generalizes these common rules? Can you think of any other widely accepted ideas which fit what you’ve read in this series?

Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer, photography guide and traveller. You can follow Erez’s work on Instagram and Facebook, and subscribe to his mailing list for updates and to his YouTube channel.

If you’d like to experience and shoot some of the world’s most fascinating landscapes with Erez as your guide, take a look at his unique photography workshops in Svalbard, Greenland, Madagascar, Namibia, The Lofoten Islands, Vietnam and the Argentinean Puna.

Erez also offers video tutorials discussing his images and explaining how he achieved them.

More in The Landscape Composition Series:

Selected Articles by Erez Marom:

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