Landscape Photography Composition: My Thought Process

What could be easier than photographing a waterfall? Let’s follow Simon’s thought process…

By Simon Burn – subscribe to Simon’s YouTube channel

Recently I discovered a new waterfall location online that I decided to explore and shoot. It was a few hours north of Toronto, and if nothing else, it would make a good excuse to go out for a nature walk.

I’ve shot quite a few waterfalls and they can present a number of challenges.

Waterfall Photography Challenges

Let’s consider the various types of waterfalls and the difficulties that each presents:

  • When photographing really big waterfalls like Niagara Falls, you’re often restricted because you can only shoot from a few locations and the images are already so familiar to everyone. The challenge here is finding a unique way of showing the falls. (Hint: get there before sunrise)
  • Photographing a smaller waterfall in a deep gorge can also present access issues, so it’s likely you’ll only be able to shoot from the top and at an angle. It might not be the most dramatic view of the falls. Maybe a drone shot?
  • When you’re photographing a smaller, more accessible waterfall, access is relatively easy. That’s the problem. Easy access means it’s been shot a million times – how do you bring something special to it? That’s the challenge I had on this trip.

Research is an Important Aspect of my Photography

Today, image search combined with Google Maps and Google Earth make it easier than ever to research any location for waterfall and landscape photography.

Combine that with apps like Photographer’s Ephemeris to show you where the sun will be at any time, and you’ve got everything you need before setting out.

For this trip to Hogg’s Falls, I knew what to expect before I got there. Most importantly, I had seen what everyone else had shot.

Some of the shots were obvious and easy, others seemed to take more effort. What was I going to do?

Most people shoot from the side of the river. I don’t like the rock face on the left. This was my composition starting point.

Go Beyond the Typical Shots

From my research, I saw that many of the shots were from the path near the top of the falls. That was the easiest shot because access is a quick walk from the parking lot.

Some shots were from the river banks below the falls and others were from the middle of the river looking straight back at the falls. Getting those was a bit more work since the only way down to water’s edge was by letting yourself down a rope.

Before discounting any of these locations, I scouted them out and took some test shots. Sometimes you can get fresh images even from the most common vantage points.

I soon determined that the best way to capture these falls was from the middle of the river, looking back at them.

This was the least typical shot. Why? Because you had to walk into the river. Either you brought boots with you, or you were going to get your feet wet. I would get my feet wet for this shot.

The third most popular spot is in the middle of the river. Expect wet feet if you don’t have waders!

For Waterfall Photography, Composition is Everything

When you’re out in the field, it’s easy to forget the basic rules of composition. Once I decided roughly where I was going to shoot from – the middle of the river – I kept the rules of composition in mind.  Well, my top four “rules” anyway, that I always consider.

The Rule of Thirds – Always a Great Starting Point

You don’t always need to position the focal point of your image using the rule of thirds. But I find this is the best starting point when I’m framing up a shot. I know I can move away from it, but more often than not, I use it.

Leading Lines Direct the Viewer’s Eye to the Main Subject

As often as possible, I try to find leading lines that help viewers focus on what’s important.

In this case, once I was down in the river, I worked with rocks and leaves to direct the eye.

It doesn’t always work though. You’ll see how I tried to use a log that was stuck in the river as a leading line, and it didn’t work. It seemed so obvious as it pointed right at the falls, but once I studied the image, I discarded it. You’ll see why in the video.

Watch the video to learn why I didn’t like this composition. See if you agree and comment below.

Good Images Have Balance and Flow

I like to create a flow in my images if I can, which means not to include too many elements with the same physical size or visual weight. I find this unsettling.

I like to create a visual hierarchy in a composition. I’m looking for balance, so the image doesn’t look off-kilter. My goal is to lead the viewer’s eye through the image in a comfortable manner.

I try to have a starting point like a section of foreground interest, some leading lines, and an end point further back into the shot – the subject, or focal point, of the shot.

Most Great Landscape Photography Features Foreground Interest

This is not easy and sometimes not achievable, but foreground interest often helps to tell the story in the photo.

In this waterfall shot, having a couple of leaves on a foreground rock, and some water cascading over rocks at a fierce pace tells the viewer that many of the trees in the background are maples, and that they fall into the river and are taken down-stream by the river’s current.

The shape of the maple leaves also points up to the waterfall, helping to move the eye in the right direction. (Question: do landscape photographers sometimes stage shots a bit? Like putting leaves where they want them? It’s been known to happen…)

It’s starting to take shape, but the polarizer makes things look flat and lifeless, don’t you think?

How a Polarizer Filter Affected My Composition

When I started shooting, I was using my polarizer filter to cut the glare. But the image looked flat and uninteresting. To resolve this I lowered my camera closer to the water to get a more dramatic angle, and took off the polarizer and used the water’s glare to create contrast in the image. I wanted to capture the life in this fast-flowing river, and now there was some energy in the shot.

There was a second benefit to removing the polarizer. It also let me include just a bit of sky above the trees. Without the glare, the sky area wasn’t the only bright patch in the image and wouldn’t direct the eye away from the focal point.

Combining Two Images

I was shooting with a 24 mm wide-angle lens, yet I still couldn’t get the top of the falls in the frame, in addition to the rocks in the foreground, because of my close proximity to the falls. I couldn’t move further back because the river was deeper and fast-flowing.

To solve this, I took two shots. The first of the falls and the trees and sky behind, and the second of the foreground rocks.

This one I’m happy with. Dynamic low angle, and more energy without the polarizer.

Finally, the Edit Helps Concentrate the Image

Capturing the photo with the right composition is the starting point for most landscape photographers.

The other half of the job is the edit, generally in Lightroom or Photoshop.

After the images were seamlessly combined into one shot, I cropped the image for greatest effect. 

Have a look. See what I was thinking as I was shooting. You may learn something. You may agree with my process, or not. That’s one of the joys of photography – everyone has their own perspective.

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Simon Burn

Simon has been a photographer and creative director in the UK and Canada for over 25 years.

He worked with Andy for multinational corporations and brands before veering off to work on travel, tourism, food and lifestyle projects. Simon has travelled all over North America and Europe, working with consumer brands, tourism associations, and resorts. His work has been published in books, graced the covers of magazines, featured on TV; and he’s also worked with other photographers in the role of creative/art director and photo editor for publications and brands, in addition to being a photography competition judge.

In 2018, he started his own YouTube channel to share his love of travel and landscape photography and filmmaking.

ExploreDiscoverShoot is borne of Simon, Andy and David’s combined creative, business and technical skills, a strong entrepreneurial flair, and passion for photography and content creation.

The opportunities to work with other creators, share ideas, and promote creativity and knowledge, is a driving force with infinite possibilities.

Simon Burn

Simon has been a photographer and creative director in the UK and Canada for over 25 years.

He worked with Andy for multinational corporations and brands before veering off to work on travel, tourism, food and lifestyle projects. Simon has travelled all over North America and Europe, working with consumer brands, tourism associations, and resorts. His work has been published in books, graced the covers of magazines, featured on TV; and he’s also worked with other photographers in the role of creative/art director and photo editor for publications and brands, in addition to being a photography competition judge.

In 2018, he started his own YouTube channel to share his love of travel and landscape photography and filmmaking.

ExploreDiscoverShoot is borne of Simon, Andy and David’s combined creative, business and technical skills, a strong entrepreneurial flair, and passion for photography and content creation.

The opportunities to work with other creators, share ideas, and promote creativity and knowledge, is a driving force with infinite possibilities.

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