Compositional tips for rivers and waterfalls

In understanding better landscape photography composition, for this tutorial I’ll be referring to some of my photographs from Valle Verzasca in Switzerland which were taken across five days in 2018.  As photographers, both the choice of location and our influences at the time of fieldwork, both external and internal, determine our approach to composition. We can photograph the same place in many different ways.

For this trip I had no preconceived ideas about the kinds of photos I wanted and this is important. The only ‘baggage’ I arrived with, was to create a series that was consistent in framing and aspect ratio, built around a week’s immersive solo photography.

Moreover, I view a trip like this, not as a chance to find great stand out shots, but as an opportunity to immerse in a particular way of seeing – to provoke new responses. The one place shoot is a compositional puzzle that reveals itself each day. It’s about developing a new approach in finding form that I haven’t noticed or processed before.

My method in the field is to look for an arrangement of elements in fairly close proximity, that connect in an interesting way. More elements means more ticks but only if they can be controlled. It’s the building blocks of more intimate landscape photography. Through shifting my eye by moving around a subject I can see the possibilities opening or closing down. Being tuned into a couple of focal lengths means I have a sense of how the connections will play out with the lens choice – not dissimilar to a golfer selecting his club. Though the viewfinder I then look to eradicate elements that don’t contribute to my image design.

composing vertically for landscapes

Locations can suggest an approach

The 4:3 ratio suits vertical use, more so than 3:2. By starting with a vertical view I automatically begin to see and encourage depth within the frame, which further makes sense when we think about the directional flow of water.  By choosing a position close to the river, at 45 or 30 degrees, the compositional flow benefits the vertical frame. If we instead view a river at 90 degrees in landscape format, this more objective camera position is potentially less inclined to engage the observer.  At one point I set-up a landscape view, only to later reject the image. Vertical framing is also a nudge in the direction of abstract photography. We are more used to mentally processing wider views based on both our vision and the devices through which we view images. Presenting a vertical frame inclines the viewer to work harder.

With the vertical frame established we can work to encourage both the directional flow of water, but also the flow we can compositionally create using rock structures. The Valle is a remarkable geological site and we can use embedded patterns to lead the eye into and around the frame. In the first example, the S-shaped flow is formed first by the foreground rocks before the third element of water competes the shape. The submerged rock (bottom right) helps add balance to the composition. For the next image, I visually connected the black rock patterns to the dark rock to create a flow.

compositional awareness in the Valle

The entire surface of the frame

As a general rule with landscape photography composition, I see the frame as an area to be filled with tension and interest. With a background in film-making, single images are in comparison such a small area to work with, that it seems mistaken not to consider the complete surface. There are great images with single central subjects but there are many more that fall short of glory and more importantly were always going to, as the central draw was not sufficiently captivating.  In the next image, every small detail is accounted for. The bottom right uses the rock edge to bring the eye in, whilst the top right fall of water arrives from the corner. Using the corners to generate dynamism is one useful tactic that works well in vertical compositions. Crucially as well, the top middle green rock is separated from the rocks below. Always think about your key elements. Should they be separated or not.

Valle Verzasca's striking geometry for compositions

Creating relationships within the scene

During the time spent on one set-up which is usually about an hour, the intimate scene becomes an intense encounter. In every aspect the rock details and shapes offer a bonding experience and through this, compositions can be developed. In the silvery rocks image, I pushed the elements to the very edges. I was aware of the bottom left green patch, the top right receding water line and the bulbous rocking the bottom right, which balances out the clipped top left shape. The more I looked through the viewfinder, the more intrigued I became by the connections and how these could be strengthened if they were pushed to the edges and indeed clipped as mentioned. The result is a photograph I like for its tension. It extends my preference for using the very edges of a frame to place key elements. I almost rarely crop in processing, especially when there is the time to compose in the field.

composing carefully in the Valle

Moving onto compositional new ground

Working to a daily programme across a week, leads to seeing a place in a deeper way. Initially we explore the more emblematic, but in our quest for form, more interesting structures announce themselves.  For example, the image left photo above works well enough but it’s a view that I’ve seen before somewhere. To the right offers something different, unifying rocks and water to create a strong circular flow whereas the first only uses water to create the flow dynamic. Sometimes we need to photograph the more obvious, to open the doors to what we are really looking for. 

Whilst rivers and falls lend themselves to a diagonal compositional flow, circular forms are less easily available and more difficult to find. In fact they are most likely not on our radar, yet we should be open to possibilities of them. Are you open and aware enough to notice elements that will improve your landscape photography composition at the next location you visit?

developing landscape photography composition in verzasca

The final elements

Photography’s transformative qualities, in this case shutter speed, is also a key component. Whilst rock forms can be composed, the element of moving water slowed in camera, creates new relationships and compositional structures.  As a rule 1/4 is a good starting point to show sufficient water movement without distracting peaks, but like most rules it’s only a guide. Where the rock texture is super busy, I would suggest a longer speed to smooth out water, so the two key elements are not competing for attention. 

The lighting conditions were also favourable during this trip. A week of sun and cloud created both diffusion and intensity which lifted shadows to keep highlights at bay. You can read my tutorial for more on lighting in landscapes and view the full set of images from 2018 at Colours of Light.