• Thu. Dec 1st, 2022

So far in this series, I’ve talked about compositional elements, their weights and how to use their properties to balance the composition by imagining a balance of torques around the middle axis of an image. I also discussed balancing of negative space, the perception of subject direction and the lead room given to match this direction.

I ended the last article with the image below, and asked the readers to guess what I dislike about it. Let’s have another look:

The snowy Goðafoss Waterfall, Iceland

Canon 5D3, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 30 sec, F13, ISO100

It appears as though there’s nice light and colors, good overall balance, enough space around elements and enough lead room in the direction the waterfall is facing. But to the experienced photographer, there is one thing that immediately strikes the eye and virtually ruins the composition: the lack of separation between compositional elements.

Did you spot the problem here?

Separation of elements is something some photographers don’t even consider, but I believe it’s one of the most important things to keep in mind when creating a shot to avoid potential eye-sores in a composition. Even in an otherwise perfect composition (perhaps more so in a near-perfect composition), a point of unnecessary overlap can draw a large amount of attention, distract the viewer, sabotage the perception of depth and seriously hurt an image.

We thus need to understand which elements we need to separate, to what degree we need to separate them and what else to keep in mind in that context. This can be tricky, especially when shooting in the field under time pressure, so dedicating some time to think about it can extremely benefit a photographer’s process.

A nice image from a beautiful morning in Laguna Torre, but it suffers from a serious lack of separation between its elements: the tree overlaps the rocks in the foreground as well as the mountain on the left. Moreover, the right-hand mountain’s reflection lacks the space it deserves, and isn’t separated from the foreground. Unfortunately, there was no way I could’ve shot this from a higher elevation, which might have solved the problem.

What bothers you more – the lack of separation between the tree and the left-hand mountain, or that between the tree and the reflection of the right-hand mountain? Why do you think that is?

Canon 5D4, Canon 16-35mm F2.8 III, 1/4 sec, F14, ISO200
Laguna Torre, Argentinean Patagonia

Separation of elements is closely related to negative space (or lack thereof). After all, we often separate elements by putting negative space between them. While true, separation is not always achieved using negative space. This means that we need to explain the concept a bit further. My idea of a definition for separation of elements is using photographic and compositional tools to help the viewer distinguish the different elements of the composition. The aim is to make the viewer see the intended composition more clearly, and more similarly, to what the artist had in mind when creating the image.

The main compositional elements in this image are properly separated, and this makes it easy for the viewer to understand what’s going on.

DJI Mavic II Pro, 1/3 sec, F11, ISO100
Fagradalsfjall Volcano, Iceland

If two elements overlap, they could potentially be perceived as one element, which inherently changes the fundamental order in a composition. There is also considerable variance in how apparent the overlap is. My feeling is that the greater the similarity between compositional elements, the more an overlap between them disturbs the composition. So, the first rule of thumb would be to maintain separation – in the form of negative space between similar elements which are hard to distinguish otherwise. The more similar the elements, the greater the need for physical separation. Let’s look at two extreme examples:

The view from El Peñón de Guatapé – a gigantic rock in Guatapé, Colombia. The different compositional elements, i.e. the islands in this reservoir, are very similar, and so the overlap between them is highly disturbing to me.

Canon 5D3, Canon 17-40mm F4, 1/6 sec, F8, ISO100

The example above shows a case where lack of separation seriously hurt my composition by overlapping similar, yet distinct elements. This caused the image to be tense, and not in a good way. In the image below, the situation is quite the opposite. There’s no problem with the overlap since the elements are very different in shape, color and brightness. You could say that the elements are separated by their properties, rather than by negative space. All this comes to show that physical separation isn’t always a must, and the photographer needs to consider if an overlap helps or detracts from the comp.

The quiver tree and the sun are extremely different, and so the overlap between them is not problematic – separation is achieved by other means. For me, the overlap actually enhances the composition and makes it much more interesting.
Note that the top of the left-hand tree and the rim of the cloud above it aren’t different enough and thus need to be physically separated, like I did.

Sony A7R, Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6, 1/8000 sec, F11, ISO100
Giant’s Playground, Namibia

As nature photographers, we can use natural elements to create separation where there wouldn’t be any otherwise. Consider the image below. Without the fog, there would be little to no separation between the dunes, which would make it hard for the viewer to distinguish between compositional elements, and to judge the amount of depth in this image. I hope you agree that the fog serves a critical role here.

I can’t stress enough how important the ability is to judge if elements even need physical separation. Overlap is very often positive and can help create depth – one of the foremost goals in landscape photography.

Since the rainbow is so prominent and different to the mountain in its background, there’s no need for separation, even though both are main compositional elements. I chose to locate it specifically in front of a darker part of the mountain, because the contrast in brightness contributes to the sense of depth in the image. Recalling a previous article, you could also claim that the rainbow and the mountain are facing each other, which serves the composition. What additional elements/aspects in this composition help create depth and make the image self-contained and interesting?

Sony A7R, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 1/320 sec, F8, ISO400
Torres Del Paine NP, Chilean Patagonia

In comparison, when elements are too similar (mainly in color and brightness level), they might appear to merge, which detracts from the sense of depth. The examples below show this well.

When shooting this night image from the top of the moraine in the Torres Viewpoint, I neglected to notice that the shadow overlaps the stone spire. I really hate this since it connects two elements which are meant to be disjoint (and were far from each other in reality), thus hurting the sense of depth in this otherwise-good comp.

Canon 5D4, Canon 16-35mm F2.8, 15 sec, F4, ISO1600
Mirador de las Torres, Torres Del Paine NP, Chilean Patagonia

This image was taken a bit later, when light from the pre-sunrise sun colored the clouds and in turn, the Torres themselves. The composition is far better without the overlap. I don’t even mind the lack of separation between the moraine and the Torres’ reflection. Do you agree that the moon adds a lot? Why do you think that is, based on what we’ve learned in this series so far?

Canon 5D4, Canon 16-35mm F2.8, 30 sec, F11, ISO800

Sometimes, there is no reason why allegedly-distinct elements should even be considered as separate, and not be treated as one.

The waterfall and the rainbow are essentially one element.

Canon 5D4, Sigma 150-600mm, 1/1250 sec, F6.3, ISO200
Jinbar Falls, Simien Mountains NP, Ethiopia

Below is an example of a badly composed image. There’s severe lack of balance (the image is right-heavy), and the main element lacks separation from similar elements in its background.

Canon 5D3, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 1/100 sec, F8, ISO200
Weissbad, Switzerland

All these examples show you that discretion is needed when deciding where to separate and where to overlap. The more experienced you become, the easier it is to judge.

A few more comparisons:

A terrible lack of separation between similar elements, together with dead space on the top left, makes this comp confusing and unappealing.

Canon 5D3, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 1/320 sec, F10, ISO200
Riisitunturi NP, Finnish Lapland

Much better: the main foreground and background elements are nicely separated. The background elements are blurred because of fog, which helps separate them from the foreground even though there is some physical overlap.

Canon 5D3, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 1/320 sec, F8, ISO200

Again, a pretty terrible image with a serious lack of separation between the two segments of the iceberg. What a mess.

DJI Phantom 4 Pro, 1/80 sec, F5.6, ISO400
Disko Bay, Greenland

Here, not only are the cloud and iceberg separated, but they are separated in a way that really complements the composition: the contour of the cloud matches the location of the left tower.

DJI Mavic II Pro, 1/30sec, F8, ISO100
Disko Bay, Greenland

A beautiful situation, but the image suffers from lack of separation between the Aurora line and the top of the mountain.

Canon 5D4, Canon 11-24mm F4, 8 sec, F4, ISO3200
Flakstad Fjord, The Lofoten Islands, Arctic Norway

All the Aurora lines are nicely separated from one another and from the mountain. Both the mountain and its reflection have enough “breathing room” in relation to the lights and to the image borders.

Canon 5D4, Canon 11-24mm F4, 8 sec, F4, ISO6400
Vik Beach, The Lofoten Islands, Arctic Norway

Separation from the Image Borders

Separation of elements doesn’t only mean separation from one another. Almost as importantly, it means separation from the image borders. This consideration is also ignored by many, and the results are often bad.

In general, the eye wants to see an element in its entirety. From top to bottom, from left to right, the eye is curious and sensitive and doesn’t like being deprived of what it wants to see. Cutting an element in the middle (or in the middle or its interesting part), not including its bottom and placing it too close to the image border (thus depriving an element of proper negative space, which is an extension of that element) are all common mistakes (generally speaking) which can easily be avoided with a bit of thought and awareness.

In the image below, the foreground, textures, clouds and colors are really nice. But it suffers greatly from the rocks on the top-right and the mid-left being too close to the image borders. This is intimately connected to a lack of negative space, but it goes beyond it into the realm of depriving the eye of where it wants to go, creating an uneasy feeling. Recalling a previous article, I’d claim there is some dead space in the middle, also connected to the placing of elements in the frame.

Canon 5D3, Canon 17-40mm F4, 30sec, F13, ISO200
Parque Tayrona, Colombia

The image below has both good and bad examples of separation. I enjoy how the shaded trees are in front of the lit part of the dune, and the lit tree in front of the shaded part of the dune (a nice example of parallelism). But one tree overlaps the shadow of the one on its right, and the leftmost tree isn’t separated from the image border at all. What would you have done in this case?

Sony A7R, Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6, 1/400 sec, F5.6, ISO200
Sossusvlei, Namibia

In the image below, there is significant overlap between the cacti. But that doesn’t detract from its appeal since they are, in a sense, separated by the halos induced by the back-lighting on their thorns. This helps maintain the sensation of depth in spite of the lack of physical separation. The important thing here is the fact that on both sides, the masses are properly separated from the image borders.

Canon 5D4, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 1/125 sec, F14, ISO100
The Argentinean Puna

As usual, here is some homework for the avid reader. For each of the images below, try to judge whether there is proper separation of elements. If there is overlap, is it justified or not? If the overlap is bad in your opinion, what would you have done differently?

Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer, photography guide and traveler based in Israel. You can follow Erez’s work on Instagram and Facebook, and subscribe to his mailing list for updates and to his YouTube channel.

If you’d like to experience and shoot some of the world’s most fascinating landscapes with Erez as your guide, take a look at his unique photography workshops in Namibia, Greenland, Colombia, The Lofoten Islands, Indonesia and the Argentinean Puna.

Erez offers video tutorials discussing his images and explaining how he achieved them.

More in The Landscape Composition Series:

Selected Articles by Erez Marom:

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