Landscape Photography Composition: The Ground Dominant Image
By Bob Killen
For many of us, Creative Landscape Photography Composition is not an intuitive skill. It is something that I work at each time I go to the field such as on this rare windless morning in Mojave National Preserve. Through the viewfinder on my Canon 5D Mark III with a 24-70 lens, I see how the sun selectively lights the garden of Yucca’s, Cactus, and Indian Rice Grass allowing each of them to appear in a jumble of high-frequency chaos, posing as a perfect example for a Ground Dominant Composition. I adjust my point of view by raising and then lowering the legs of my Induro tripod until I can isolate and find the grand gesture that will tell the story of this desert garden.
Between capture sequences, I pause and make entries into my journal, noting to myself that I need to lower the sky in post-production to provide visual cues and give the image a voice through a limited focus. I make more notes, word associations this time that will guide the rest of my shooting and influence my post-production work: “isolation, new green life in the plants and succulents, warm gold foreground, texture juxtaposition exists between sky and ground, lower sky and add background drama.” I also make a quick sketch with possible crop lines to make the wild garden scene come forward in the image.
I continue to shoot and make several compositional choices with camera angles as I examine the sky ground relationship and then as the sun moves higher in the sky, I stop shooting for the light has lost its low slant, and the shadows now have a hard edge.
The Ground Dominant Image
I teach landscape photography composition structures to our National Park Photography students and encourage them to choose a sky or ground dominant perspective because the choice can make a profound difference in emotional connections and cognitive perception. In my last blog, I discussed Sky Dominant images and the perceptive effects of a dominant sky. Now let’s look closely at the Ground Dominant image.
Ground dominant images have more ground than the sky, and just as with a dominant sky image, we eliminate the split horizon effect which generally (but not always) makes an image unfocused. However, just because we have more ground in our landscape composition that does not mean that the visual emphasis is on the ground, though it could be. Often ground dominance provides balance to the image in furtherance of an underlying theme or image narration, and we can use the sky to create a visual counterweight.
Example and Process
Let’s work with what I saw and captured as described above.
The out of camera RAW image captures the plant life and the red tones of early light. The image is intentionally underexposed to capture the sky colors which are brighter than the ground, and I made several images while on the tripod for completing stack focus work in Photoshop to ensure front to back sharpness. Using a Canon 24-70 mm lens at 70 mm I purposefully emphasized ground over the sky, but I recognized that in the post I wanted to foreshorten the sky another 10-15% to emphasize the ground composition.
The Post-Production Plan
The first act of composition for landscape photographers is to isolate the subject, clarify the emotions and apply a limited focus. In other words, less, is more, but you need to have the right less.
The Planning Stage
From my previsualization and journal notes there are several good spatial and tonal cues that I want to accentuate:
- I want to reduce sky height to allow for more emphasis on the ground. By lowering my sky view and raising the horizon line, I create a stronger ground dominant composition. This offers a larger foreground, which has the potential to carry the viewer’s eye across a greater length of space — especially if there are spatial cues in the foreground that imply recession which the Yucca plants do. The ascending hill in the background where the bowls meet the volcano forms several triangles that carry our eye up. By cropping the sky slightly, I can impose a limited focus and provide an opportunity for the viewer to feel the elements of the garden before moving further in the composition.
- I need to add drama to the remaining sky to create a dramatic juxtaposition and to provide a sense of volcanic time.
- Accentuate the yellows, oranges and cool greens in the foreground which will broaden the emotional range.
- Relieve the shadows in Lightroom to provide cinder cone detail in the bowels.
- Relight individual elements in Photoshop to add visual voice and personal style.
Every compositional and previsualization choice I make is to bring greater depth and emotional range to the picture. This will still be a ground dominant image, but the purpose of the slightly lower sky is to provide a stronger vanishing point for the horizon.
Lightroom Process Stage
In Lightroom, I performed my basic Lightroom adjustments to “dial in the image.” I could also crop the image in Lightroom, but I prefer to leave this step to the end of the Photoshop workflow because as I work through the relighting process, I will get a better sense of the exact crop point. This helps me make sure that my work is building in the emotional navigation that I felt when I captured the images.
In the Photoshop stage, I accented specific colors to create a light, fairyland garden look and added drama to the clouds with a motion filter and dramatic relighting. Using selective color tools allows me to extend the tonal as well as the emotional range. I lifted detail in the cone shadows and worked in some further mid tone contrast just as I had noted in my previsualization notes. And finally, I used a series of curves and masks to relight the garden with highlights and shadows.
A Vision Beyond Documentation
I have my aesthetic senses and choose particular looks to reproduce what I feel and see as a vision beyond what the camera documents. The RAW image provides the words, but I rearrange them to tell a story as I want my audience to proceed past visual documentation and narration, and to navigate the image with their own feelings. It is beyond the scope of this blog to detail the Photoshop work, particularly how to relight and emphasize the structure. Suffice it to say that emphasizing highlights and relieving shadows in the cinder cone adds depth and life. Bringing forward the foreground plant life adds emotional contrast and warmth as a counter balance to harsh cinder cone structure.
Some thoughts about Sky and Ground Dominant Photography Compositions
There are overarching metaphors attached to the sky and ground dominant compositions. Sky dominant images have a heroic tone in American Culture, such as Big Skies, Big Sky Country, and often God Light affirmations in some sky compositions. Blue skies imply peace, cleanliness, truth, escape and serenity while gray or stormy skies seem sent to punish, lightning to frighten, thunder to humble, tools used by mythological deities to battle one another and to help or hinder humans.
Ground dominant images are more involved with subtexts such as the moral high ground, flinty, chaotic, dirty, barren, soil rich and imply blue collar labor such as ‘salt of the earth’ to suggest a few. A slight tilt of the camera or a strategic use of the crop tools will create a limited focus, which is the first rule of Landscape Composition. Yes, this rule, or strategic sense if you will, applies to all genres, be it a still life, an interior, or a fashion figure, but for the landscape photographer, some portion of the ground sky elements must be excluded to create a focused composition with an extended emotional range.
As Hans Hoffman, the distinguished abstractionist noted, “we must eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”
Exploring in your viewfinder the merits of ground and sky compositions will intuitively limit your focus and improve your pictorial structure, open you to spatial illusion and tone refinement possibilities that will extend the emotional range of your work. When you, the photographer looks through a viewfinder or plays with cropping tools in post you are, in effect, testing various possible compositions. The choice you make is a selection of boundaries.
Sky and ground dominant compositions are critical visual cues. Each adds an essential ingredient in landscape composition — variation. When the two primary masses within the composition have different visual weights, you create greater interest. Add to that, an emphasis on the perspective cues that suggest a recession, vanishing horizons you will have an essential starting point for an image that can deliver an extended emotional range.
Finally, is this image that I used for this post complete? Not quite. I will print the image at scale and then make final adjustments to account for light beyond the computer and texture. Maybe then… perhaps, it will make to the final portfolio.