See Like Your Camera // [Part 3] Creative COMPOSITION in Landscape Photography

Wouldn't it be nice if your photo looked just like the mental picture in your mind? As any photographer can attest, it's not that easy.  

One of the biggest challenges in photography is learning to see like a camera.  How we perceive a scene in person differs from the way the camera can record it.  As photographers, it is incumbent on us to know not only what we wish to express, but also how to do so within the constraints of this photographic medium.  

“The photographer’s most important and likewise most difficult task is not learning to manage his camera, or to develop, or to print. It is learning to see photographically—that is, learning to see his subject matter in terms of the capacities of his tools and processes, so that he can instantaneously translate the elements and values in a scene before him into the photograph he wants to make.” — Edward Weston

The late-morning light worked perfectly to highlight my subject while allowing the background to fall into darkness.

The late-morning light worked perfectly to highlight my subject while allowing the background to fall into darkness.

Welcome to Part 3 in this series on Creative Composition in Landscape Photography!  Today is all about learning to see like our cameras to express ourselves more creatively.

If you haven’t read the first two posts in this series, you’ll want to check them out first: Part 1 and Part 2.

Recap.  In the first post, we got in touch with our artistic vision by taking a look at what inspires us, and why.  Then, we discussed some ways to spark our creativity.  We learned that one of the best ways to get our creative juices flowing is to embrace challenges, so with that, let's dig in.  

What you see is NOT what you get 

As we come across a scene we deem photogenic, our brain sends signals to our eyes to scan objects of interest.  Then, our brain "records" the continuous visual stream from our eyes and subconsciously interprets and stitches each piece into our overall perception of the scene.  With a photo, all we have is the one static image.  Pointing a camera at your subject, no matter how attractive, does not guarantee that the resulting photograph will engage the viewer’s mind or emotions.  A camera has no way of discerning what’s interesting and what’s not — we do that with conscious, creative, deliberate composition. 

Let's now take a deep dive into some of the challenges we face in fully communicating our experience and perspective through our photos:

  • Selective Attention

  • Depth

  • Missing Senses

  • Contrast & Dynamic Range

  • Field of View & Aspect Ratio

  • Focal Length

  • Flat Sensors

  • Resolution

Selective Attention

As we go about our day, our brains filter out most of the non-essential visual information we encounter. Photo Credit:  Kaique Rocha

As we go about our day, our brains filter out most of the non-essential visual information we encounter. Photo Credit: Kaique Rocha

Real-world scenes have a torrent of information.  Our brain manages this complexity by guiding our visual attention to important scene regions in real time.  In our day-to-day lives, our brain registers that which is essential to our current situation (survival) and subconsciously filters out most visual information.  There’s just too much to pay attention to it all.

Even when we focus on one scene intensely, our brain is incredible at selectively focusing on the things we're attracted to while filtering out most distractions.  We get sucked into the subject and overlook everything else.  Then, when we get back and upload the photos in Lightroom, we are shocked at all of the unsightly distractions we missed in the field.  That well-known tree growing out of somebody’s head in the photograph is a case in point. 


“Artists must look at a three-dimensional scene with their two-dimensional retinas and then generate a two-dimensional image that appears three-dimensional to viewers who look at it with their two-dimensional retinas.” — Margaret S. Livingstone

If a picture is worth a 1000 words, how much is video worth? Photo Credit:  Donald Tong

If a picture is worth a 1000 words, how much is video worth? Photo Credit: Donald Tong

It's clear that there is a massive difference between our mind's perception of depth and the depth, or lack thereof, of a 2D photo on screen or print.  Contrary to what most people think, each eye only "sees" in two dimensions.  A subconscious part of the brain assembles the two 2D streams in such a way as to extrapolate the depth of the 3-D scene. Wow!

Movement.  To further help our minds perceive depth, we move our head and bodies left to right, forward and back, or up and down.  By doing this, we can fill in the gaps of how elements are spatially related to one another.

It is your responsibility as a photographer to figure out how to best represent that third dimension through lens selection and clever use of the compositional tools.  

Missing Senses

Another limitation is that when we experience the world, we do so through all our senses. We not only see the landscape, but we also feel the warm rays of the sun, hear the birds, smell the rain.  Naturally, there's no smell filter or taste plugin for our cameras.  Think about how you can hint at some of these other senses with your photos.

Blue hues in the foreground make the viewer feel cold, while warm light in the background pulls you in to the subject.

Blue hues in the foreground make the viewer feel cold, while warm light in the background pulls you in to the subject.

Contrast & Dynamic Range

Humans eyes continuously dilate or constrict their "apertures" (pupils) in response to brightness, allowing us to appreciate details in all but the darkest shadows and brightest highlights without the conscious awareness that we are even doing so. But in 2017, a camera is several photographic stops short of accomplishing this. In recent years, that gap has narrowed significantly, with improvements in both sensor technology as well as post-processing methods, but even the best modern day cameras still fall short of our incredible eyes, especially when it comes to subtle tonal gradations.

How the camera captures the scene.

How the camera captures the scene.

How I saw the scene.

How I saw the scene.

Now, dynamic range (DR) deals more with exposure than composition, but DR plays a role in what we choose to include or exclude from the frame.  Of particular importance are areas of high contrast, which will command attention in a photo, whether we meant for that area to be a focal point or not. So while you might see that beautiful lake, despite it being in shadow, your viewer might see the blown highlights on the tree on the edge of the frame that you forgot to exclude.

Field of View (FOV) & Aspect Ratio

The first noticeable difference regarding FOV is that, unlike cameras, we don't experience a scene in rectangle or square frames.  While our eyes can only focus on the center 2 degrees of our panoramic field of view, our periphery fills in the edges, with each eye having up to a 200° angle of view.  This wide FOV makes a scene feel much more immersive.

Learning to create well-composed photographs means you must work within the boundaries of that frame. Be selective about what you include and exclude, so your frame only shows what you want.

Focal Length // Compression & Distortion

Most will agree that human vision sees a FOV corresponding to a focal length between a 35mm and 50mm (on a full frame camera).  This means that the further we get from this "normal" range, the more distorted the photograph will be from what we see with our eyes. 

Telephoto Compression.  Long focal length lenses (> 50mm) tend to compress space, pulling together objects that may be separated.  

Dunes at 500mm.

Dunes at 500mm.

Distortion.  Wide-angle lenses (< 24mm) will enlarge near objects and distort space, separating objects in the photograph that may be closer together in reality.  This exaggerated perspective is the reason your side view mirror has that warning on it.  

Coming back to depth... We can use the characteristics of a wide-angle lens to help imply a sense of depth in our photos. Because wide-angle lenses exaggerate distance, they can create a greater sense of depth.  Position yourself close to an element in the foreground to take advantage of this effect.  Look at the photo below.  Notice how having a big to small transition from foreground through the mid-ground and out to the background creates more of a feeling of depth than the telephoto above.

Dunes at 14mm. Mountains at 50mm.

Dunes at 14mm. Mountains at 50mm.

Wide-angle distortion will also minimize distant objects, like those giant mountains in the background - one of the great frustrations for landscape photographers.  Elements in the distance may be registered so small as to become insignificant in our frame. 

Focal length blending can be used to overcome the wide-angle's proclivity to minimize distant objects such as mountains.  We do this by shooting multiple exposures with different focal lengths (i.e., foreground at 14mm, mountains at 50mm), and then blend the two in Photoshop to more accurately represent our experience.  The blended photo above is an example of this technique.

Flat Sensor, Flat Print/Screen

Our eyes are curved, which means the edges of the retina are about the same distance from the lens as the center. On our flat camera sensors, however, the edges are further away from the lens. Our eyes, therefore, have far less distortion with objects on the sides of our frames.  Just like the curved flat screens already out, there are patents for curved camera sensors leaked on the internet, so this one is a matter of time.

Panoramas.  We know that wide-angle lenses distort things close to the camera.  Panoramic stitching further exaggerates this distortion.  It is a result of mapping a curved view onto a flat surface.  This bending can be corrected in post, or used for creative effect depending on your compositional vision.

The tendency of a wide angle panoramic stitch to bend straight lines was used creatively to exaggerate the curve of the milky way.

The tendency of a wide angle panoramic stitch to bend straight lines was used creatively to exaggerate the curve of the milky way.



There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept. — Ansel Adams

The number of photoreceptors in a human eye is estimated to be 110-130 million, so some claim that we can see at about 120 megapixels. We see this level of detail only in the center of our retinas though, using our estimated 5-7 million cones, with the fuzzy periphery filling in the necessary context.  To some degree, this is another disparity that is just a matter of time.  However, because of how densely packed our photoreceptors are, it is unclear if our cameras will ever be able to replicate such high resolving power into such a small area.  Don't hold your breath, but I wouldn't rule it out either.  

Coming back to creativity and composition, how much does a perfectly sharp image add to the overall emotional impact of a photo?  I'd argue very little.  

So that’s it for today.  Conceptually, seeing like a camera isn’t that hard to understand, but becoming proficient requires lots of practice.  

It's almost impossible to list all of the differences between the way we experience a 3D scene, how a camera records that information, and how a screen displays in 2D that same scene.  And in reality, a photograph will never precisely represent what our eyes and brain perceive.  But understanding some of the differences can enable you to make more powerful compositions.  Learning to "think" and "see" as a camera empowers us to pre-visualize, anticipate, and improvise in meaningful ways that will improve our compositions. 

In the next post, we’ll dive deeper still and look at some more practical ways you can overcome the challenges above.  I'll share with you my in-the-field process for making creatively-inspired compositions.  If you like what you’ve read so far, please subscribe to my mailing list, and share this with your friends. 

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again soon!