Creative Composition: Natural Frames

by Scott Setterberg November 01, 2019

Creative Composition: Natural Frames

Lately I've been thinking about composition and how important it is to create unique images.  With landscape photography, so many times we arrive at a location that's super popular and overshot, and if we shoot like everyone else, from the same spots as everyone else, we end up with the same images as everyone else.  To get around this, I encourage clients to get off the beaten path and look for different ways to create unique images. 

One thing I love to do is frame shots with natural elements like trees, rocks, and foliage to create a natural vignette.  Sometimes it's subtle, sometimes it's pronounced, but using this technique adds depth and drama to your photographs.  If you look at the featured image above of the three waterfalls in Bajos del Toro, Costa Rica, you will see how I used the tree branch overhead and rocks on each side, to create a natural vignette that draws your eye into the center of the image and showcases the falls.

Another example of this technique is shown below in the image of La Fortuna Waterfall in Costa Rica.  Before I found this shot, I was struggling to find a great composition, and it was only after I made the decision to get in the middle of the waist-deep water that I was able to create this image.  See how I used the trees on both sides of the rainforest waterfall to accentuate it?  Notice the heart shape formed by the trees?  That's what I'm talking about.  Once I found this perspective, I knew it was the shot of the day, and in that moment, a rush of excitement coursed through my body.  Those are moments I live for.

La Fortuna Waterfall, Costa Rica
This incredibly colorful sunset at Lake Arenal in Costa Rica didn't need any help to be spectacular, but looking through the trees created a vignette, adding contrast and another dimension to the vibrant scene.

Lake Arenal Sunset, Costa Rica
Llanos de Cortez is one of the best waterfalls in Costa Rica and stands as wide as it is tall.  Most visitors are content with capturing the stunning straight on view of this cascade, but because I've been there numerous times, I always look for a new perspective.  This time, I found a couple trees off to the side and lowered my viewpoint to use their trunks and a curved branch to vignette the falls. 

Llanos de Cortez Waterfall, Costa Rica
On one of our Oregon photo tours, we hiked to Fairy Falls in the Columbia River Gorge.  Along the pathway, there are opportunities to photograph the fast-moving stream below the waterfall.  For this shot, I used the moss-covered tree branch overhead to push the focus down onto the rushing water below, and the bank on the right side to contain the stream through the center of the image.

Fairy Falls Stream, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
Catarata Bajos del Toro is one of the tallest waterfalls in Costa Rica and plunges 300' into an ancient volcano crater below.  Having been to Bajos del Toro multiple times, I knew I needed to find a different perspective.  On the trail to the bottom of the falls, there's a lookout where everyone stops to shoot.  From that spot, there's very limited open space to see the tropical waterfall, as well as a fence in the foreground to guard against falling.  So what did I do?  I got as low as possible, only a few inches off the ground, and shot underneath the fence using the natural surroundings to create a tunnel effect that pulls your eye directly to the waterfall. 

Bajos del Toro Waterfall, Costa Rica
I hope these examples show how easy it can be to create natural frames using existing objects found in nature. It's often necessary to get further away from your subject matter to find natural vignettes, and doing so will frequently get you off the beaten path and force you to find a unique composition.  This simple technique will add drama and depth to your photographs which is crucial in creating images that are different from everyone else.

If you're feeling inspired and want to try using natural frames in Costa Rica, registration deadlines for our exceptional, all-inclusive 2020 Costa Rica Photography Tours start expiring November 15, 2019.  Click the link above, check out the different itineraries, and book your spots before they're all sold out!

Scott Setterberg
Scott Setterberg