Light & Shadow

Elements of Composition

Ed Heaton

“Learning to capture light will make extraordinary images from ordinary subjects”

I coined this saying when I first started my photography career. I’m a full time professional master landscape photographer and I’ve been teaching photography workshops going on 20 years. It’s been an amazing journey and I’m thankful for my many sponsors and clients over the years. Remember it’s never too late to strengthen your photographic foundation.

Composition” is the term used for the arrangements of the elements in or the subject matter of a photograph. A successful composition draws the viewer in and pulls their eye across the whole photograph so that everything is absorbed and finally settles on the main subject of the photograph.

The “Elements of Composition” in photography are used to arrange or organize the components in a way that is pleasing to the photographer and, hopefully, the viewer. It helps to provide structure to the layout and the way the subject is presented. It also encourages or leads the viewer’s eye to roam around the whole photograph, taking in everything and ultimately coming back to rest on the main focal point.

There are many ways to show a sense of movement in a photograph, such as the arrangement of objects, the position of shapes or the flow of a river.

When it comes to compositional elements there are more lines than any other element in the photographic world. Lines in photographs provide a path that lead the viewer’s eye from one element to another and, hopefully, keep the viewer in the photograph.

There can be several types of lines in a photograph and I’ll touch on a few:

f/22, 1 sec, 34mm

Vertical lines” – standing proud, like a tall grove of Aspens or a giant Redwood. They imply balance and strength.

Some of the most pristine Aspens trees can be found in Colorado. My goal here was to find a clean stand with ferns in the foreground and a sunburst shining through the trees. Seems like an easy task but to get things just right requires deliberate thought and execution.

f/16, 1/8 sec, 92mm

Horizontal lines” – tend to be peaceful and calming.

It’s hard to beat old charm that South Carolina offers. For this image it was an easy job composing the bridge directly in the center allowing for a mirrored reflection and calming effect on the viewer.

f/16, 20 sec, 30mm

Diagonal lines” – Imply motion, depth, tension, imbalance, and movement.

One of my favorite locations to photograph is in the Great Smoky Mountains. The combination of pristine rivers and weathered mountains round out this area to a complete package. I composed this scene so that the creek ran from the top right to the lower left allowing for a sense of movement.

f/16, 1.5 sec, 46mm

Curved lines” – they provide a path for the eye to follow. “Curved lines” are found everywhere in the natural world: the curve of a leaf, the curve of the shoreline or a river bend, the curves in sand dunes and rainbows. S-curves can be very effective, acting as a natural path to lead the viewer into the picture.

Spending time in the slot canyon is a special treat and I’m incredibly excited every time we visit. It’s hard not to feel the rhythm when you’re in the slot canyons. I find it best using a wide-angle lens (Nikon 14-24mm) that allows you to capture as much beauty as possible in the very tight spaces.

f/16, 30 sec, 30mm

f/16, 4 secs, 34mm

Any of these lines can be “absolute/real” or “suggested/implied”. Fences, roads, and power lines are real and actually exist as lines in the image. Implied lines aren’t really there but because of the way elements in the frame are arranged, the viewers’ eye will complete the line, like connecting the dots.

These lines can be used in various ways.

f/16, 1 sec, 35mm

Leading lines” – moves the viewer’s eye towards the subject. Depth is created when these lines are diagonal. Leading lines that intersect with the image’s edge, especially a corner, will be more noticeable further drawing attention to the subject.

f/16, 1/6 sec, 130mm

Converging lines”- Imply distance and depth.

Spark’s Lane is an iconic location and from this image you can see why. Getting on location early is key and will greatly enhance your odds of capturing good light.

The “horizon line” is a very special line in landscape photography. No matter the circumstances, it must remain level! 

Lines can also create geometric patterns like circles and triangles. Circles can be found in rocks or dewdrops, triangles in leaves or mountaintops. Circular shapes can be calming; triangles can lend a sense of stability. If you repeat graphic elements in the frame, you can establish connections and rhythm. The triangular shapes of mountain peaks can be repeated in the triangular shapes of treetops, creating a connection between the mountains and the trees. By repeating the curves of rolling hillsides or the lines of receding ridge lines, you create rhythm in your image.

I love the repeating lines in this image from Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains. Creating depth in your image will take the viewer on a journey!

When creating movement in a photograph, think about the strategy of the process, what you are revealing to the viewers and what is being left to the imagination. A photograph should be a question, not an answer. Calling to the audience’s imagination allows different viewers to interact in different ways, which is why it’s recommended you always leave something unsaid in a photograph, to give the audience the chance of a unique interaction.

Anyone that knows me will tell you I’m a firm believer in a solid tripod and I use one to create all of my images! My tripod of choice is the Really Right Stuff TVC-34L with a BH-55 ballhead attached. Gear you can trust is essential for any landscape photographer and mastering your craft is vital for your success.

Best of Light,


I’m an award-winning, internationally published full-time professional master landscape photographer /creative mentor /educator and lecturer residing in Pennsylvania. Along with being a OP/Tech USA , Singh-Ray and a Hoodman Ambassador, I’ve been hailed by Outdoor Photographer Magazine as a “Landscape Master”. For almost two decades, I’ve been teaching workshops, seminars and classes, which truly reflect my passion for education and the art of photography. With my extensive knowledge of composition, light and technique, I am able to create extraordinary depth in my images exhibiting the mastery level of my artisanship.