Photography Composition Rules for Success!

Mark Jansen

Mark Jansen

Owner / Operator at Jansen Photo Expeditions
Mark’s interest in photography and love for landscapes constantly draws him into some amazing places. He researches his subjects extensively, sometimes making many trips to selected areas waiting for the perfect light, an interesting approach to the subject, and just the right moment.His goal of "freezing time for others to enjoy" is what drives him to create his visions.

Mark has a passion for landscape and classic creative aviation photography as well as providing large scale commercial installations of his fine art photographic murals and print works throughout California.

He has over 25 years of professional fine art and photographic experience. 

He works with both small and large corporate businesses in helping them project a powerful impact through his images. Mark offers photographic workshops in various U.S. and International locations.

Mark is an expert and personable instructor, expedition leader & award winning, visionary photographer. 

He is also a photography educator with the "Manfrotto School of Excellence" online educational network. 

"This is gorgeous work!", says Christopher Robinson, editor of Outdoor Photographer Magazine.
Mark Jansen

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There comes a time when anyone new to landscape photography hits a wall when it comes to composition. Certainly, their first photos are crisp and colorful, but mostly appear dull and uninteresting. If you follow a few rules for photography composition, your images will be more successful.

Yosemite Photography Workshop

We live in a time when it seems that photography has also been heaped into the pile of instant gratifications. From coffee to Uber to click and buy online. The world seems simple and at our fingertips, with little effort required.

Digital capture has made taking photographs cheap and simple. From smartphones to highly intuitive digital cameras with push and play green program modes, anyone can make great photographs or so it would seem.

With all this constantly evolving technology, I’m amazed at the lack of compelling photography with this high volume of photographs being produced these days. As much as we would like to think that the next generation of camera bodies or new, sharper lenses or editing software will make anyone a great photographer, this is simply not so.

If you don’t have that creative eye, you could be wasting your time, maybe…

The key to creating compelling photographs has little to do with any photographic device. The key to any creative field is to start with the basics.

 Nothing has changed in our modern digital world.

Learning the basics of photography composition is important for anyone thinking of traveling the road of photography and wants more than a wash of meaningless digital impressions filling up their hard drives. When I’m teaching my students, I start by references to the film photography days. For those who remember sorting through rolls of 36 exposure prints and maybe having 1 or 2 keepers out of it, you know what I mean. Nothing has changed. It still takes more than the ability to point a camera and push a button to create a good photograph.

Nurturing the creative eye

If you’re just getting started in photography and you don’t have a creative bone in your body, don’t worry. If you have the passion and you’re willing to work hard, you too can develop a creative eye or perhaps nurture one you never knew you had. The great thing about photography in our modern age is the learning curve is much faster to reach a high level of proficiency. What normally took years for some to achieve has been moved forward dramatically.

The basics

One of the first traps many fall into when taking landscape photographs is that they center their subjects, or place their horizon lines dead center. This is where most frustrations start with newcomers to the photographic arts when they don’t come from a creative background. These photographs are quickly ignored and deleted. They don’t realize that the problem lies with their photography composition.

Rule of thirds

The key to good photography is to excite the eye of the viewer. When the subject is placed in the center of the frame the eye stops exploring the frame. In our western culture, we read from left to right. Subsequently, when you compose a photograph why wouldn’t you visually do the same? The key is to keep the viewer engaged as long as possible.

There is a simple and basic way to do this. I always start by engaging what’s widely know as the Rule of Thirds. This simple and instantly creative tool is key to learn and start your creative journey.

All photographic devices from smartphones to the most expensive digital SLRs have the option of turning on a rule of thirds grid buried in their menu. So stop reading this for a moment and have a look and turn this on option on. It will appear in your viewfinder or on your smartphone’s screen.

You will notice a simple grid appears. You will notice intersecting lines. These intersections are what I call hot spots. In 35 mm frame ( the most common format) you’ll find 4. These points are your first creative keys in assisting with your photography composition.

When approaching a potential landscape, use one or more of these intersecting points and place part of the subject in it. This will be offset to the left or right for the most part and anchor your photograph. From this point, you can start building elements of your composition by adding more features. This would include Foreground 1, Mid-ground 2 and 3, then the Background 4 as seen in the picture below. The more elements that are placed on the rule of thirds grid the better. This excites the viewer’s eyes and invites exploration of the photograph.


Landscape Photography Comosition

Building Elements                                                                              ©


Leading LinesLeading line composition rules

This is one of the simplest ways to engage the human eye. Unlike the rule of thirds which requires a bit more work. Leading lines draw the eye in and carry it through the composition with relative ease. Examples include fence lines, winding roads and pathways.








Balancing Elements

Placing the main subject off center to the left or right, as with the rule of thirds, will offer a more compelling image, but in certain landscapes, it can look empty. Try balancing the weight of your subject by including a less important object to fill in this space.

Balancing elements in photography

Balancing Elements                                                       ©



These are just a few simple and highly effective ways to improve your landscape photography. They will take some effort to learn, and they are not a point and click or green program button away. You must focus on your photography composition.

When you approach any potential landscape photography opportunity, take time to explore your composition options before setting up your tripod. These very important moments of exploration will be worth your efforts.

If you would like to learn more about these skills or are interested in taking a private or group workshop to places like Yosemite, Big Sur, the Eastern Sierra, or Iceland, explore the many options on our website. 

All the best,

Mark Jansen


You might like these other articles on photography and creativity:

Find Meaning in Your Photography

Complete the Creative Circle with Your Photography

Creating Depth in Landscape Photography