Decoding the Complex Landscape

While I enjoy the clean look of simplicity in a landscape composition, I find myself most drawn to the complex both visually and creatively. On a recent private workshop through New Zealand and Australia, a client revealed to me that the way I handled busy and chaotic locations was something he hoped to gain insight into. Just as I enjoy exploring the visual flow and relationship between elements in a well constructed image, I also find solving the puzzle of arranging everything jigsaw-like into a frame particularly satisfying. Often the key to making a successful minimalistic photograph is finding ways to exclude anything that does not contribute to the main message to be conveyed. On the other hand, I find that the best way to make sense of a complex scene is to find perspectives where the most important elements relate to each other in an aesthetically-pleasing arrangement.


A recent suggestion on the Magic Hour Travelscapes Facebook page sparked a dissection of this image, which at the time didn’t seem an overly chaotic scene. The query was why I did not rotate the camera to the right to bring the rightmost stack (5) away from the right edge of the frame which would also have the seemingly advantageous effect of removing some of the empty space on the left. In a perfect world, this rock in question would have been smaller and less dominating. I may end up adding a little more real estate to the right edge from other shots in the series but the reasons why I arrived with this composition are quite complicated. Let me take you through the anatomy of the scene and highlight the various considerations.

The three elements I considered the most important were items 1,2 and 3. The interesting shape of the rock stack on the left and the drawcard of the rainbow made these two the stars of the show, so I placed them on the upper row along points of the ‘rule of thirds’. The  lowest rock (3) was also important, the first of a line of ‘stepping stones’ which form the dominant line (6) towards the key stack (1). Less obvious is another leading line (7) formed by the edge of the pool of water and a cloud reflection which points towards the rainbow. The line of cloud (11) also forms a strong directional element towards the rainbow, especially due to its diagonal vector, like the others. The patch of blue sky (12), I felt was an important inclusion in balancing out the overall warm palette of the photograph. The elements which I felt were lesser focal points, the cliffs (4) and other stack (5), fell into place at weaker compositional positions. As you can see there are already many forces at work here and all of them certainly did not come to me at once. The starting point in constructing the composition was the S shape, formed by the rainbow and continuing along the edge of the pool (10). The rest of the scene was built around this first observation. The horizon line was placed a little more central than dictated by the rule of thirds, reflecting that there were strong elements on both sides of the line. Finally, the exact spot where I set up my tripod was almost entirely determined by that sliver of space (8) between the key rock stack (1) and a more distant one further back. Having the two merging visually would have killed the composition on the spot.

I hope this discussion has provided useful insight to the process of dealing with more difficult locations. Not all of these spatial relationships occur to me at once. I usually start with a single observation as a starting point and then fit everything else in as best as I can.  The end result can be quite complicated in terms of visual flow, balance and vectors. However I think it is important to consider all the factors involved, to be deliberate and precise in composing and avoid randomness from creeping into the equation.

A larger version of this image can be found here.


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