Landscape Photography – Break The Rules


Breaking Landscape Photography Rules

RULES, RULES, RULES…. Guidelines?

When we first take up photography, we’re very keen to learn everything that we can. In the process of learning we’re bombarded with information from everywhere, whether through workshops, YouTube, Facebook, blogs and so on. We’re seeking information to help us learn and to improve our photography, and we don’t know what we don’t know, and I was no different.

We seek information from the technical information on how to take an image, to the compositional information on how to “correctly” compose an image to the editing and how we get the most out of our images. We soak it all in, practice what we’ve learned and start creating images that we’re proud of. This whole process, depending on how much time you invest, can take years of practice. We might even end up being one of those that offers advice on the best way to shoot, compose and edit images.  

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“To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk.”
Ellen Von Unwerth

So, as an exercise I did some internet searches on the technical and compositional aspects of Landscape Photography to see what is still being talked about as rules or guidelines, and here is a list of many of the things I found:

 Compositional Rules (Guidelines)

  • Rule of Thirds
  • Golden Ratio
  • Add Foreground Interest
  • Show a Sense of Scale
  • Leading Lines
  • Patterns & Lines
  • The Right Light
  • Create Balance
  • Use Negative Space
  • Frame Your Image
  • Geometric Shapes
  • Avoid Horizon in the Middle
  • Use horizon in the middle if there are perfect reflections
  • Avoid Merges
  • Don’t place subjects in the middle
  • Look for Symmetry
  • Eliminate Distractions
  • Create a vanishing point
  • Use Diagonal Lines
  • Stepping Stones
  • Foreground, Middle, Background
  • Work in odd numbers
  • Don’t over dominate the foreground
  • Shoot low or high
  • Simplify?? – Seriously, how can you say this after listing all of these other things

After reading and studying all of these compositional guidelines, how in the world are you meant to understand how to compose your shot, and even more importantly how can you be creative when are minds are full of all of these rules? Then there is the technical…..

Technical Rules (Guidelines)

  • Deep depth of field (f11 to f16)
  • Use a tripod
  • Use a cable release or self timer
  • Use a wide angle lens
  • Focus 1/3rd of the way into the scene
  • Use Hyper Focal Distance
  • Shoot at sunrise or sunset
  • Shoot at a low ISO
  • Research and Plan Locations
  • Shoot at your lens sweet spot
  • Use a polarizing filter
  • Expose to the Right
  • Balanced Histogram
  • Use Aperture Priority
  • Shoot in Manual
  • Set your white balance
  • Bracket your exposures
  • Turn off Image Stabilization
  • Use Filters
  • Lock Your Mirror Up

Now all of these rules or guidelines have been developed to help anyone new to photography start to create quality images, and they do that. We shoot and get decent compositions, interest in our images, and they are technically perfect. 

“Photography, as a powerful medium…offers an infinite variety of perception, interpretation and execution.”
Ansel Adams

Below are some examples of the types of images that I used to shoot. As you look through these images you will start to see a common theme, they all use very similar settings and all follow the compositional guidelines that we’re taught.

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I was no different, I went through all of these phases of learning the craft of Landscape Photography and finally reached a point a couple of years ago where I didn’t feel that my photography was improving and I’d reached a point where I wasn’t sure how to elevate my skills any further. The fact was that I couldn’t improve my technical skills, once you know how to operate a camera and understand all of the exposure settings like the back of your hand, this aspect of photography isn’t going to improve.

So if I couldn’t improve the technical aspect of my photography, the changes had to come in the way I applied that technical understanding and in the way that I composed my images. This is when the light was turned on, I was blindly following all of these rules (guidelines) that I had learned, and creating pleasing results but I wasn’t creating any imagery that stood out. In fact, as I look back through all of my images from a few years ago one thing did start to stand out, they all looked the same.

I knew that I needed to change the way I approached photography if I was going to start revealing my own personality in my images. It was almost an immediate switch, I changed only three things in my photography, and they were:

Shoot with emotion: Prior to the switch I would wander around locations looking for the perfect compositions that met the criteria I had learned rather then looking for the things in a scene that excited me. I stopped looking at just the entire landscape and started to focus my attention on the intimate landscape, the small things that jumped out at me as interesting and started to photograph those.

Ignore compositional rules: Changing the way I shot compositionally was actually pretty easy. Because I was eliminating the larger landscape for the most part in my images, there was less clutter to concern myself with. I would then look through my viewfinder or in live view and shoot the scene in a way that felt right without any consideration for rules, and yes it is a feeling. There are now only 2 things I consider compositionally when I take photos, and they are:

  • Balance: Does the image feel balanced, or evenly weighted. This is pretty straight forward when there aren’t many subject in the scene. Sometimes it may still not feel balanced, so I start to think about post processing and whether I can add something in the image later to give it balance. This isn’t something I do often, but it’s still a consideration, especially if I have an interesting subject.
  • Room to Breathe: I make sure that I give my main subject/s room to breathe in the image, meaning I don’t put them on the edges of the frame.

Ignore technical rules: This part is actually a lot of fun and it is a real eye-opener. Typically, when we’re learning we shoot with wide angle lenses with a very deep depth of field. I used to shoot my landscapes almost exclusively with a 16-35mm or 14-24mm lens, doing this actually reduces significantly what I can photograph. Instead I now use my telephoto lenses 24-70mm and 70-200mm to shoot most of my landscape to help remove distractions by focussing in on the real interest. I also don’t hamper my ability to capture the image I want by needing a deep depth of field or even a tripod on many occasions. As I am shooting an intimate landscape much more often, the depth of field becomes less important, opening up many more settings and techniques.

This has resulted in a major shift in the look of my images. Below you will see several examples of the work I am creating today. You will notice a major difference in the focal length, depth of field and some techniques. Now you may find my earlier work more pleasing, and that’s ok, we all have different taste. But, these images for me better reflect my emotions while I’m shooting and I believe are more representative of me as a photographer.

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There is no escaping the fact that you need to understand the technical aspects of photography, just that the rules (guidelines) that are typically talked about are not overly relevant. It’s important that you understand the ins and outs of of your camera and lens capabilities and then decide from there what is important to capture the image you want.

I’m also not advocating that everything that has been taught in relation to Compositional Rules (Guidelines) is a waste of time. What I am trying to say is these are more designed to help you get your feet in photography and start creating good results. But, if you want to find yourself as a photographer and start creating work that reflects you as a person you’ll need to step outside of the traditional teachings to find you as a photographer.

So am I saying that you should ignore all of the rules (guidelines)? ……..YES, shoot with emotion and what excites you.

“The only limits in our photography and creativity, are those that we put on ourselves.”
Aaron Dowling

This entry was posted in Creative.


  1. Carol December 15, 2016 at 9:04 am #

    A wonderful post. Mind you I love your original photos as well. You have always had a wonderful eye for photography. But I must say the later images are more evocative. I look forward to working with you in 2018 and hopefully I will start to “see” in a fresher way. Merry Christmas to you and Tiffany and all the best for 2017.

    • Aaron Dowling Photography December 15, 2016 at 3:11 pm #

      Hi Carol, thank you for the compliments. I do still like my earlier images as well, but I think as time goes on our eye changes. For me my favourite image is always the next one that I take, so there’s no doubt next year they’ll look different again.

      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you as well, and I’m looking forward to exploring the Rockies with you in 2018.

  2. Dianne December 22, 2016 at 8:59 am #

    Hi Aaron, A really insightful post Aaron. All your work is inspiring but I find the later images resonate with me more. I find them more emotive in particular the mono shots.
    I am really excited about the trip to Canada next year with you and Tiffany.
    Happy Christmas to you both and all the best for your relocation to Canada.

    • Aaron Dowling Photography December 22, 2016 at 11:31 am #

      Thanks Dianne, I’m glad that you find the newer work more emotive. I feel much more attached and invested in my later work, it’s no longer about trying to create pretty images that people may like, and instead focussing on what I want out of my images.

      Canada next year is going to be fantastic with a great group… we’re looking forward to it as well.

  3. Richard Deeble December 22, 2016 at 10:16 am #

    Great article Aaron, I note thar B &W is dominant it is hard not to use this medium, it cuts out distractions. I do believe that you can use passion with your capture and sometimes even more passion when processing – seeing the photo in a slightly different way on reflection e.g. cropping, changing focus, if in colour muting & enhancing. Looking forward to the update.

    • Aaron Dowling Photography December 22, 2016 at 11:36 am #

      Thanks Richard, that’s absolutely right. I tend more towards B&W or desaturated images where the subject has to be much stronger because you don’t have colour to act as a distraction in the images. Shooting this way also makes you think much more about the subject you’re photographing.

      Post processing always plays an important part, helping to turn your vision into reality. This can also mean composites from time to time as well. I’m looking forward to getting the new panel up and running as well.

  4. DSJ February 3, 2017 at 7:04 pm #

    I’m a photography student and I’m working on a project. Your article has really helped me with my research and inspired me to ‘Break a few rules’. I’m going to explore this and see what I come up with. Thanks!

  5. Peter Evans February 9, 2017 at 4:57 pm #

    G’day Mate,
    Great article and congratulations on the AIPP Awards thats a bloody awesome effort Aaron.


  6. David Nissen February 12, 2017 at 1:05 pm #

    Aaron, this is a breakthrough observation for me. For image-making (rather than snapshots) I mostly shoot landscapes. I hadn’t realized how much I was trapped in the 16-35 mm frame. I put it away and took out the 70-200. (Shooting things is like cooking chicken. Only comes alive with the sauce.) Look for what the light is doing. Then, texture comes from specificity and light.

    • Aaron Dowling Photography February 12, 2017 at 1:43 pm #

      It’s funny isn’t it. I had the same thing in my mind for a few years, my wide angle lens ruled my thinking. The problem is then you start looking for landscapes that suit the lens, rather then seeing the landscape for what it is.

  7. David Nissen February 12, 2017 at 2:12 pm #

    Aaron, We watch your videos to learn two kinds of things:
    – what to do,
    – how to do it.

    Your standard videos focus on “how to do it”. Your new video, Challenge Azza 1, is a wonderful lesson in “what to do”: foreground/background contrast, color correction, dodge local contrast,purpose-built vignette. More please.

  8. August 31, 2017 at 2:21 am #

    Keeping just a few simple guidelines in mind, and breaking the rules when inspiration strikes, will help you to create landscape photographs that contain within them all that you felt by being out in nature.

    • Aaron Dowling Photography August 31, 2017 at 4:12 am #

      Absolutely, the clutter we can have in our minds when we’re in the field the better we’ll see the landscape and the more creative we’ll be in our capture.

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