Tips for Better Composition in Seascape Photography

Francesco Gola
Improve your seascape photos with several fundamental rules of composition.

In photography, I do not believe there are absolute rules of composition. But it is undeniable that certain compositions work better than others.

Why? Probably because our brain is the result of millions of years of evolution, and as in two dots and a line we recognize a face – if don’t believe me have a look here – in the same way, we recognize some images as more pleasant to look at than others.

So let’s look at a few compositional tips to keep in mind during your next visit to the seaside to capture wonderful seascapes.

Start Following Rules

Before trying to break the rules, try to follow them.

Start with the rule of thirds: divide your image into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines. Then place important compositional elements along these lines or their intersections. The result will be that your photo becomes more balanced.

In a seascape shot, for example, try to put a lighthouse on one of the vertical lines and the horizon on one of the horizontal ones.

Choose the Leading Actor

If you follow the rule of thirds, you’ll never again put the horizon in the middle of your image, and that’s a great thing unless you have a perfectly symmetrical reflection.

Decide next if the leading actor of your seascape is the sky or the sea, and place the horizon line accordingly. For example, if the leading actor is the sea, the image portion under the horizon line will be 2/3 of the whole image. Don’t undervalue the sky: if the weather condition is unique, don’t be afraid to leave just 1/3 to the sea.

The tower on the promontory is positioned according to the rule of thirds, while the sea and coastline are the leading actors.

 Photo ©Francesco Gola

Use Leading Lines

An image is like a book, and to really enjoy it you should be able to read it from the beginning to the end. To do that, try to use lines and curves to guide the eyes through a path.

You can use a road or the natural line of the coast for example. Keep in mind that you should avoid interrupting that path because it’s like skipping a line in a book: you lose the sense of the story that you’re telling. Also, try to avoid lines that guide the eyes of the reader outside the image. You want attention given to what is inside the image, not to what is outside.

Add Dimension and Scale

When I started taking seascape pictures, I was a purist: no humans or human artifacts were allowed inside my frame. If humans are still not allowed to join, sometimes I think it’s a good idea to put some artifacts in my composition. The main reason is that even if you exact the dimensions of the rock formations in front of you, viewers of your image may have no idea if they have never visited that place.

When you look at an image, your brain tries to immediately define the dimensions comparing the unknown with something known: help it and use something like a lighthouse, bridge, church to give an idea of scale. A reef is even more beautiful if it is perceived as high and massive.

The lighthouse gives scale to the whole scene while the attention is driven to it thanks to the coastline leading line.

 Photo ©Francesco Gola

Use Negative Spaces

Negative space is a powerful compositional technique in landscape photography. In practice, it means surrounding our subject with “absence”. In this way, our subject will stand out more as the emptiness around it will help emphasize its importance.

When you use the technique of negative space be very careful where you place the subject because it will immediately jump to the eye, so if placed not precisely it could become an element of visual disturbance.

Dare With Symmetry

Symmetry in landscape photography can really help us create images that are visually very appealing. There are two types of symmetry: vertical and horizontal.

The vertical one involves placing the subject on the central axis of the image. It is normally more difficult to use as it requires the subject to be very strong, and therefore this composition is often used in conjunction with negative space.

The horizontal is more common and normally involves placing the horizon on the central horizontal axis. It works very well when we have a mirror effect, given perhaps by the reflection of our subject or of the top area of the scene. Be careful: it is necessary to be very precise in the positioning.

A vertical symmetry with the use of negative space emphasises the contrast of the tiny sea arch in the middle of a storm.

 Photo ©Francesco Gola

Photographic composition is definitely one of the most complex topics we will face. This doesn’t mean that we should be intimidated and that we can’t get well-composed and balanced images right away. Try to follow these practical tips from your next outing in the field and remember that the eye is like a muscle: it requires training.

Francesco Gola

Francesco Gola is one of Out of Chicago’s diverse team of world-class photographers. To learn more about Francesco and the photography conferences he’s teaching at, click here.

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