So far in my landscape composition 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 often-overlooked importance I reserve to the separation of elements. I then discussed the perception of depth and how to use the sky in a landscape image, and finally, how to connect the elements in a way that makes sense.

DJI Mavic III Classic
f/5.6, ISO 100, 0.6 sec
Mata Jitu waterfall, Moyo Island, Indonesia

This time, I'd like to discuss an idea I came up with over the years while guiding photographic workshops. This idea, although seemingly simple and easy to throw out there, has enough depth to describe a lot of the guidelines I've covered over the course of this series. It is also a very useful way of critiquing your own work in the field since it's succinct and doesn't include any complicated arguments. Experience shows that even though I have my workshop participants read this series as preparation for a trip with me, it is this one idea that holds most of what I have to say when helping them create better compositions. It also does wonders to help people understand how to approach composition in sometimes-overwhelming landscapes and create order in nature's chaos.

Sony A7R, Canon 16-35 f/2.8
16mm, f/16, ISO 100, 2 sec (focus stacked)
Spitzkoppe, Namibia

So let's get right down to it. The idea I'd like to propose is the following: saturate the composition with the interesting parts of your subjects.

Saturate the composition with the interesting parts of your subjects

Ok, sounds good, albeit short, but from this to encompassing notions expressed with thousands of words in a long series about composition is a bit of a stretch, isn't it? Yes and no. While I think the entire series has merit, remembering this idea allows the photographer to easily withdraw the correct notions from it and apply them in the field. I'd like to use the rest of this article to explain exactly how that is. To avoid the feeling of 'hand-waving', I'll do my best to include a large number of examples.

What are the subjects in this image? How would you say they complement and counterbalance each other, based on the previous articles in this series? What else could you say about this image? Do you feel like the subjects are large enough in the frame? Do they satisfy your need to see and understand their details, and at the same time don't take too much space and leave some 'breathing room' for other subjects and for the foggy ground?

DJI Mavic III Classic
f/4, 1/25 sec, ISO 100
Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, West Java, Indonesia

The subjects

When approaching a piece of landscape and wanting to create an image of that landscape, the photographer needs to decide what the subjects in this image are. It may sound easy, but in reality, the opposite is often true: in many situations, it's very hard to decide what to include in an image, and the fuller the landscape is with information, the harder it is to wrap one's mind around it and decide what elements to use.

4 volcanic fissures erupting at the same time, surrounded by mountains, hills and lava rivers. It was challenging to decide which elements to include in the composition, not to mention how to combine them into one frame.

If you look carefully, you'll see that even though it's a good image, there are some issues with it: the dead space on the top left and the lack of sufficient negative space on the bottom right. This goes to show that the more information the landscape has, the harder it is to 'solve the puzzle' and place all of the compositional elements in a way that pleases the eye and follows the guidelines given in the previous articles.

DJI Mavic II Pro
1/3 sec, ISO100, f/11
Fagradalsfjall, Iceland, 2021

A certain arrangement of the elements may look good to the eye when scouting in the field, but when turning the live view on and looking at it on the screen, other elements may protrude and disturb the feel and balance of the composition, rendering it unusable. Moreover, an element may lose its appeal when you try to include its entirety, for example, if it forces you to move back and make the other elements less massive or give them too much negative space. Background mountains may become too small if the desired arrangement of foreground elements forces the photographer to use an ultra-wide angle lens.

Shooting at an ultra-wide angle forced me to render the mountains almost too small to be usable as background subjects.

Canon 5D IV, Canon 11-24mm F4
Focus stack at ISO 100 | 1/20 sec | F11

I would therefore claim that the first order of business when trying to determine the composition is not only understanding what the main subjects are but making sure they work together on the camera screen. Determining the main subjects refers to both foreground and background subjects, even though it's usually much easier to decide what background elements to include. A huge mountain is simply there, whereas we can move around and change the foreground drastically with ease.

It was very easy to determine what the subject and its interesting parts were when I approached this amazing iceberg. What was left to do was to fill the image with its beautiful detail in a way that works well with both the clouds (see how the contour of the clouds matches the location of the left 'tower') and the background icebergs and maintains enough negative space around it.

Disko Bay, Greenland
DJI Mavic II Pro | ISO 100 | 1/30 sec | F8

In this image, it was much harder to determine what to include. Both the foreground (bottom-left) and midground (highest part of the iceberg on the top-right) subjects are different compositional masses (and different subjects) with different traits and have to be treated as such, disregarding the fact that they are part of the same iceberg.

Using a drone with a fixed focal-length lens meant that I lost one of the ways to control the composition in a landscape shot - choosing the focal length and, thus, the ability to control perspective.

Disko Bay, Greenland
DJI Mavic II Pro | ISO 200 | 1/40 sec | F9

The interesting parts of your subjects

There is a subtlety in the wording I chose. I didn't say you should saturate the composition with your subjects but rather with their interesting parts. In many cases, the entirety of the subject is interesting and relevant, but sometimes, including the whole subject is a bad idea. It's not always intuitive what part of the subject is interesting, but figuring it out enables the photographer to create the best composition possible under the existing conditions and often makes the difference between a good shot and a bad one.

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The interest in different parts of a subject also depends on their role in the composition. An element used for framing often does not need to be included in its entirety - only enough to create the frame and give it a little 'meat'. On the other hand, we will mostly include all of the main foreground element.

There was no need to include the entirety of the rock arch since it is used to frame the main subjects: Spitzkoppe Mountain and the double rainbow. The mountain definitely needs to be included in its entirety as much as possible.

Sony A7R, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8
f/16, ISO 100, 1/10 sec
Spitzkoppe, Namibia

In this image of the Kawah Ijen crater in East Java, Indonesia, I chose not to include the entirety of the crater as my foreground subject. That is because I preferred to concentrate on the part of the crater covered by the sulfuric gas emitted by the volcano. That is the interesting part of my subject, and as such, I saturated the entire foreground with it.

DJI Mavic II Pro | ISO 100 | 1/25 sec | F6.3

In this image, the main subjects are all part of the same glacier. The thing that makes this a good composition is the fact that I decided on the interesting parts of these subjects, mainly the reflection on the bottom right. If I hadn't made this consideration, it may have been unclear what the foreground should be. I hope you agree that I filled the image with the most interesting parts of the subject in a pleasing way.

Canon 5D2, Samyang 14mm F2.8, 1/25 sec, F14, ISO100, manual HDR processing
Breiðamerkurjökull, Iceland

What the heck does 'saturating the composition' even mean?

By 'saturate the composition', I mean fill it by the correct amount. A landscape image needs to have just the right measure of information so as to be interesting but not overwhelmingly crowded, full of tasteful detail but devoid of unnecessary detail. The compositional elements need to be clear, separated from each other, and large enough in the frame so the viewers can understand what they are seeing (and to avoid dead space), but each element shouldn't attract too much attention as to overshadow the other elements which counterbalance it, thus avoiding tension. The elements should not be large enough to rob the image of desired negative space. In other words, they need breathing room. Particularly, each compositional mass faces an apparent direction and needs to be given proper negative space in that direction and all around it, according to how prominent and detailed it is.

A saturated composition: the frame is full of information and interest while maintaining balance, separation and negative space.

DJI Mavic II Pro
f/8, ISO 100, 1/25 sec
Semermiut, Greenland

My sense is that it's best for the compositional elements to fill as large a space as possible while still fulfilling all of these constraints. The bigger the elements, the more information they expose, the more of nature's detail they allow the viewer to discover, and thus the better the image. 'Saturating the composition' could be seen as a notion of MinMaxing the size of the compositional elements and filling the image with as much information as possible while avoiding anything that could make it feel tense, as specified in the last paragraph and in the previous articles. All of this serves to make the viewers more immersed in the scene, enhancing their attachment and their ability to imagine being part of the depicted natural (or not) landscape.

The interesting part of the foreground dune is the darker area. This dark color is, in fact, iron, which is abundant in the Namib dunes. The dunes shift over the centuries toward the south, and when they reach Sossusvlei, they are red in color - due to the oxidation of that iron.

Canon 5D4, Canon 70-300
f/4-5.6 1/320 sec, f/10, ISO100
Sandwich Harbour, Namibia

I'd like to go back to the first image in this article, the one shot in Mata Jitu Waterfall on the beautiful Moyo Island in Indonesia. I've added some ellipses to signify the main compositional subjects in the image in red (minor elements are in dotted lines).

You can note a few things:

Firstly, the main compositional elements are dispersed in the image. They are separated from each other as much as possible, with most of them separated physically (with distance between them) and the waterfall separated by its different traits (see previous articles for a more in-depth discussion about separation).

Secondly, there is negative space around the elements to further serve the all-important depth perception. Thirdly, and more relevantly to this article, note that even though the trees on the top are main compositional elements, they are not entirely contained in the frame. That is because their interesting parts, the parts that serve in balancing and filling the composition, are all that is needed.

How does one apply all this in practice?

A good scheme of action is, therefore, as follows: once the photographer decides on the subjects, he needs to understand what the interesting parts of those subjects are. He then should treat these interesting parts as the main compositional masses in the frame, and begin the balancing process discussed in the previous articles, following the negative space, subject distance and all other considerations provided in this series.
This all might seem very technical, but it isn't. It's a way of asking one's self what works and what doesn't and being able to explain where our intuitions direct us as artists.

It was near the end of a helicopter flight above the dune field of Sandwich Harbour, Namibia, when I spotted this composition. Naturally, there was no time to ponder the subjects, especially in such a messy scene. But the intuition to notice and include the interesting parts of these dunes allowed me to capture a very interesting and appealing image.

Canon 5D3, Canon 70-300mm
f/4-5.6 1/500 sec, f/7.1, ISO400, 128mm

Saturating the composition isn't an exact science. It's a vague idea, a way of thought that could improve one's photography by making one understand the visual puzzle in one more way. More than anything, it's a short, simple, easy-to-remember saying to motivate, giving extra attention to how the selection of subjects and the understanding of their traits allows the photographer to create a more appealing image and better art.

Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer, photography guide and traveler based in Israel. 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, Madagascar, Greenland, Namibia, 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: