Landscape/Mountain composition in the winter : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Over the New Year's holiday I was out cross country skiing and scouting out locations for winter shots in the Rockies. I located some beautiful areas but my fall shooting session has produced some "dull negs" because I am hopefully still cultivating a good artistic eye. After reading a couple of books on composition over the past two months I feel I may be lacking a "focal point" or point of interest when I shoot landscapes especially with my 90mm. Perhaps some of you who are more artisticaly inclined would be able to offer some helpful suggestions for when I go to compose the shot. What I should do to create a main focal point? As a sidebar point of interest when I was out on New Year's day skiing with my daughter, less than 20 kilometers away a 33 year old woman who was skiing was attacked and killed by a cougar. Hopefully this will not distract me from carefully focusing, but I'll probably be glancing over my shoulder every 2 or 3 minutes just in case.

-- GreyWolf (, January 03, 2001


I took a couple great seminars at the Texas PPA in Huntsville and had the pleasure of picking the brains of a couple artistic masters. They all talked about the 30% rule but went a whole lot further into lines and shades being the thing to look for. Mountains are always great to shoot but I think I would find the room for a weapon in the up country. I used to live in the colorado mountains and am familar with running into bears and cougars. Cougars being the more scary because you usually don't see them as soon as a bear. Good luck and be carefull. Doug

-- Douglas Theall (, January 03, 2001.

I find that it helps a great deal to have a mental "focus" for my work, a sense of purpose for making the image, something to express through the scene in front of me. Something to make me or the viewer say "look at that" ! All the compositional rules in the world don't help me if that element is missing

On a side note I have been enjoying reading your posts and questions. Welcome to the forum.

-- Ellis Vener (, January 03, 2001.

Grey, Maybe shift your perspective a little and try to look for lighting instead of just looking at the scenery. This will create those sparkling shots. Good lighting comes-and-goes quickly and will make the difference between a dramatic or dull shot.

I photograph in the rockies as well and i find that I need to really move around and explore the angles in order to frame properly, especially with a fixed lens. With 35mm and a wide zoom, composition is much easier.

I also find that when I am "inside" the mountains, it is more difficult and i have to consider my foreground, otherwise i end up with shots that have many trees rambled everywhere and the photograph looses the focus (...and I sure have made a few uninteresting "tree shots").

Using a MF camera in the mountains has helped me with composition and it's very quick. Because MF is lighter and easier to set up, I do not hesitate to pull out the camera and photograph even if i feel the shot will be a dud...and with 12 shots on a roll, I can really explore angles. Now, i can visualize the pictures better without having to set up and view through the lens.

I guess it all comes down to practice. Composition is subjective, and although the "rule of thirds" is good, i think the shot should just "feel right".


-- Dave Anton (, January 03, 2001.

Grey Wolf, I often try to get a later start and be out around sunset. I scan things on the trip out for what might be a good shot and then return when the light is right on the trip back. This may seem less important in the winter with the sun at a greater angle of inclination, but subtle hints of pink sunset on snow can be good. Seems like some things I would pass by during the day are much more appealing at that time.

I remain a learner myself, but have tried to use the format to my advantage to bringing out the detail and patterns of ice crystals on water, newly fallen snow on pine trees, frosty leaves, knarled trees in the right light, and the like.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but if you are areas where you might encounter hazardous wildlife you would be well advised to familiarize yourself with the proper defenses. I believe when encountering mountain lions the recommended defense is to make yourself appear "big" by spreading your arms or other wise expanding your profile, and not look the animal in the eye. I've always figured that big pack holding all the LF gear might help :).

-- Roger Rouch (, January 03, 2001.

Grey, what you see is what you get. Itís difficult to make something happen when beauty surrounds you. All good landscape photographers have paid their dues. It will take a few years of living in the landscape, much more than you want to. You will become immune to the beauty to the point where you can walk away from a scene that you once would have tried to capture. You will prepare yourself for the fleeting moment. If you can capture one image a day youíre ahead of the game. One great image. One to hang on your wall and view daily.

It is good practice going out with only one lens which will force you to see things in that particular format. A 90mm on a 4X5 is a marvelous combination. Look for scenes with little clutter in the foreground, something of interest. The background will fall in place. Go to the light table and start cropping the image to see if there is a different angle or another way to see things. It will start coming together. No one really has an answer to your question. Itís what makes our individual work different.

As far as big cats go the lady was probable moving when she was attacked. Itís the hunting instinct of the cat to stalk and attack. Itís also possible she was on her moon cycle and the scent contributed, although I believe that is a myth. A fire arm for the purpose of freighting the cat off only is a sensible idea.

Regards, Steve

-- Steve Gilb (, January 03, 2001.

GreyWolf, I have done a lot of landscape photography in the West & Southwest. My work is in b+w. I am colorblind so I try to look at the scene and mentally convert the colors to tonal ranges of the Zone System from black to white with all the shades of gray in between. I pay close attention to the light, shadows, & contrast. I use the rule of thirds with the viewfinder as stated above. In one of Ansel Adams books there is an example of taking a piece of cardboard and cutting out a rectangle the size of your film, hold it eye level, look at the scene and get a perspective of composition. Give it a try it is pretty inexpensive. It only takes a couple of seconds to look through the cardboard frame. If the scene doesn't stike you in the cardboard don't waste the film on the shot. (It also gives less time to the cougar that may be licking its lips and wondering what photographers taste like.) Good luck and happy shooting. Pat.

-- Pat Kearns (, January 03, 2001.

Grey, I forgot to mention that if you look at the scene with only one eye you knock out the 3D somewhat. I know that sounds a bit strange but it works. If it dosn't look good with one eye move on.

-- Steve Gilb (, January 04, 2001.

Grey Wolf, Great discussion, covering everything from the highest levels of artistic sensibilities to basic survival. Great cinematic potential here. Just think, in the end you could have Roma Downey glowing and explaining to the cougar the error of his ways and the cougar would decide Roma Downey was tastier and the photographer would get that perfect picture - God, what a bunch of deep themes......Sorry, couldn't resist.

I think about composition, more so, when it starts becoming difficult. Most images, for me anyway, seem to compose themselves. But some, no matter how hard I try, never seem to work. And I think the problem is that I get in stuck in my head that a photograph has to be "of" something. Like a rock or a mountain or a lake. And I have to put it somewhere, like at one of the one third points and it should sit there as the subject of the photograph with everything else subordinate.

A photograph can also be about relationships. There is nothing wrong with many different elements vying for the viewer's attention. Brett Weston had a wonderful eye for this sort of thing. As did Elliot Porter. Just plain texture studies are OK too - Try to find the center of interest in a Jackson Pollack.

And don't worry to much about all the stuff you might hear at PPA print competitions. I have been a M.Photog for 20 years and have come to take a lot of it's formulaic approach to composition with a grain of salt. This is an organization with its artistic roots firmly planted in the Dutch Renaissance. Could you imagine what Callaghan's Twigs and Snow would do to a PPA judge?

Compose what you feel like composing and you will never go wrong.

As far as the cougar is concerned....take Roma Downey with you.

Regards, Bruce

-- Bruce Wehman (, January 04, 2001.

Grey Wolf, Being surrounded by so much beutey can be intimidateing. A good approach is to concentrate on what it was that attracts you to a paticular scene in the first place. What caught your eye? What made you get out of the car or step off the trail? It is easy to lose sight of this as we walk around and see so many possililities. But something brought you here and caught your eye in this spot. What was it? And how are you going to show THAT THING to your potential vewers?

-- Bill Lindley (, January 04, 2001.

as mentioned above, it is often the lighting conditions that make the difference between a mediocre image and a great one - even of the exact same scene. obviously the rule of thirds is a good place to start when considering the composition of a shot, and it is always important to recognize that composition with LF is quite a different animal than composition with a 35mm. one of the things that helped me several years ago was studying the work of the early topographic photographers. the techniques they used were patterned after the even earlier topographic artists such as david roberts and hector horeau, and embody many basic classical ideas of proportion and balance. another interesting area worthy of examination is some of the better stereographic photogrpahy, which relied heavily on careful placement and balance of foreground objects to enhance the depth of the image when viewed in stereo - this same technique works quite effectively for 2 dimensional works also.

-- jnorman (, January 04, 2001.

After reading all of the "rules" on composition, go out of your way to break them. Try photographing just the light, let the other things fall where they may. Also, have a look at the negative space, as opposed to what you feel is the subject. As far as the lions and bears go, I find the .44 magnum to offer a bit of comfort...

-- Steve Clark (, January 04, 2001.

Lots and lots of people survive cougar attacks, even children. One little kid outside Missoula fought one off though he got bit pretty bad. He later went on the news urging the authorities not to trap and kill the cat as it was only acting the way it is supposed to, and he was in its home. That kid could teach an awful lot of adults a thing or two if you ask me. Anyway, the trick with cougars is don't move, look big, yell ferociously and fight back. They don't really want to eat you, they just want to play. Go ahead and look 'em in the eye. Bears are different.

Those of us who live and travel in areas where there are animals that can kill us and eat us are blessed because we get a little bit of a taste, every once in awhile, of what wilderness really is. The world would be a much less interesting place without it.

-- Erik Ryberg (, January 04, 2001.

Grey Wolf: Your question tells me you are on the way! artistically of course, not on the way to becoming dessert for a cougar. Just in case you have not read them, Freeman Patterson has two books on seeing which I believe are essential reading and in which you may find answers to your questions or at the very least, stimulating. For those of you that are not acquainted with FP, he regarded as the most creative nature photographer Canada ever produced. In my part of the world cougars are not the problem, it is bears, to which passing reference was made in a last posting. What do you do about bears short of carrying a 12 gauge Magnum? Grey Wolf, your excellent posting has produced some excellent replies that will be saved in my computer for future re-reading. To all, thanks!

-- Julio Fernandez (, January 05, 2001.

Hi Grey Wolf, I think I went through kind of the same thing photographing some smaller hills in Washington. I think those who have meantioned the lighting conditions are on the right track. I haunted the hills from early morning until after dusk to find the right light to model the curves and ridges of the geography to pull out the best lines. Often I found this means shooting into the sun and often across water into the sun, and so I think it helps to get creative with filters. For instance for shooting across the Yakima River into the sun, a shot I'd failed at a lot, the solution was to stack a polorizing filter on a yellow #2 and use a good lens hood. I found by the time the sun was modeling the hills half the time I was battleing flare. Snow was another problem, and I don't think I've ever taken a good shot of snow, but the shots I got that others like were using filters again. Also, I found shortening the tonal range sometimes improved the modeling, for me. As for preditors, I think a guy could work with a Calmulet C1, and that way, if I was attacked, I could take off the back, crawl inside and pull the back, back on. Along the Yakima, the problem was rattle snakes, that made walking through the brush fun. Good luck, David

-- david clark (, January 06, 2001.

Thanks to everybody for taking the time to offer so many magnificent ideas. Having read through each and every one of the answers multiple times I have found valuable suggestions, techniques and guidelines in all of the replies. This has prompted me to print all of the answers and take them with me in the future so that I may review the suggestions when actually viewing the scenery. Sometimes I have felt overwhelmed when reading from books on composition due to the fact that I probably attempt to implement all of the ideas in each shot. Now armed with your favorite methods or experiences, focusing on only one or two ideas per shot will be much easier. When I acquire additional experience maybe then I'll be better able to discern the appropriate factors upon which to focus.

Once again I am very appreciative to have had the opportunity to join this forum that has provided me with so many opportunities to learn and benefit from the many years of knowledge and experience that accumulatively, all of you offer and share.

-- GreyWolf (, January 07, 2001.

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