Traditional Landscape Photography and the sweeping vista

Words/Photographs: Tony Eveling

An exploration into landscape photography and the classic ‘sweeping vista’ composition.

An example of a classic landscape image. Photograph taken at dawn. Hertfordshire countryside, UK
An example of a classic landscape image. This particular photograph was taken at dawn. It is the warm light of the golden hours that makes these images so eye-catching. Hertfordshire countryside, UK

In this article I discuss my take on the classic landscape photograph, what I call the ‘sweeping vista’ composition.

The sweeping vista is a fixed composition that works best with a particular view in a particular light, you scout the location beforehand and wait for the light to perform in front of your lens.

Then I’ll briefly discuss the alternative to this classic landscape photograph, which is to take photographs outside the Golden Hours and think spontaneously too.  Not only will you be more original, you will also learn how to be creative.

The classic landscape photograph

Landscape photography goes way beyond standard compositions like the sweeping vista that you can see in the image above.

The sweeping vista is a fixed and repeatable composition that requires a very specific view in a very specific light.

It means they can only be taken in fixed locations and in light conditions that only happens at certain times of day, namely the ‘Golden Hours’.

This is what photographers often mean by ‘chasing the light’ or ‘waiting for the light’.  These compositions only work as well as they do because of the ‘quality’  of light.

The sweeping vista is a very commercial composition, and is still and always will be in great demand. It’s a great way to practice your technical skills and it is guaranteed to impress your friends with it’s ‘wow factor’.

Just don’t forget the summer storm in the middle of the day.  They can look good too!

This photograph is a spontaneuos photo that is an example of how landscape photographs can be taken in the middle of the day.
These stormy skies warrented a photograph. This was taken in the middle of the day in the middle of summer. A time when some photographers say landscape photographs should never be taken.

Pre-determined compositions in landcsape photography

There are a number of fixed, pre-determined compositions in landscape photography.

I use these as a safety net if the conditions are right, before moving onto something more original and spontaneous. Then I’ll use a more original composition that (in my mind) takes into account the uniqueness of the landscape that I am in at the time.

Classic landscape photograph that uses a pre-determined and repeatable composition.
Classic landscape photograph that uses a pre-determined and repeatable composition.

If I am in a landscape at dawn, looking down into a valley with the sun creeping up above the horizon, then I will try and use the classic sweeping vista composition.

The sweeping Vista composition is the all time classic landscape photograph.

It’s the one with the foreground subject, leading into the middle distance and all the way to the horizon, where the light from the low sun  bounces around perfect clouds.

The whole thing is drenched in beautiful dawn light.

But if the light is dull and the clouds are  steely gray and the light is dull and colourless, then there will still be compositions to be had, you just have to be a little more creative.

In my  example above, the image fits the classic landscape photograph, or what I call the sweeping vista.  I had scouted the location beforehand, and knew the night before that this would look good at dawn.

Example of a landscape photograph taken in the middle of the day outside of the 'Golden Hours'
Landscape photographs don’t have to be ‘classic’ to be compelling and interesting, and you don’t have to take them in the ‘Golden Hours’ either. Be creative.

The landscape photo on the right was a spontaneous shot. I was cycling along at midday and noticed the houses set against the mountains in Kotor Bay, Montenegro.

This Montenegro photo is a good example of composing elements in a spontaneous way without any pre-planning.  It requires an open mind, and a willingness to take landscape photos at any time of day.

Are you new to landscape photography?

If you are new to photography and you are struggling with your compositions then I’d recommend learning compositions like the classic sweeping vista because they look great, they have commercial value (if you are that way inclined), they will impress your friends, and you will learn good technique.

They are also hard to create because you have to wait for the right light and search out the landscape, which takes a lot of effort and therefore concentrates the mind on creating the best photograph.

The sweeping vista is loved by photography magazines too, which provide a great source of information on how to perfect the technique.

Find your favourite photographers and compare yours against theirs!

Find the worlds best classic landscape photographers and then compare your photographs against theirs for composition and impact, colour and contrast etc etc…

And slowly, slowly you will improve your own photography. But don’t forget your own originality. You can apply a pre-determined composition to a specific set of light and landscape conditions (sweeping vista – but you have to wait for the light…and wait…and wait).

Don’t forget that you can create an original composition that exploits the very specific and unique light and land conditions that occur throughout the day, any day, come rain or shine, dawn, dusk, midday or midnight.