Simplifying Composition in Landscape Photography

If there is one thing I say to all students who attend my landscape photography workshops, it is – keep it simple. But keeping it simple seems to be one of the hardest thing for digital photographers to do.

Let me explain. About 5 years ago, the majority of students attending my workshops would turn up with a low to mid-range camera. Nothing was too complex and we focused our attention on capturing images in the best light. Fast forward about 3 years and the scenario is somewhat different. Students now turn up with ultra high-end DSLRs, and with the expectation that their cameras will make them better photographers. This of course is no fault of the photographer. On the contrary, it’s the advances in technology and spin from camera manufacturers that convince photographers their images will become better.

The downside of these advances in technology mean that students become obsessed, confused and distracted by that same technology and their images often suffer as a result. For my part, I find myself spending more time explaining and answering questions about histograms, ISOs, white balance than I ever have before and it’s really not productive. Much as I would like to, I can’t halt the sun mid sunset so a student can tweak his white balance or shifts his histogram before taking the shot.

But what effect has technology had on the way we compose photographs? From my experience at least, comparing images from workshops I did 5 years ago to those from workshops recently, there is a noticeable change. Previously, students would know the limitaions of their camera and compose knowing shadows would be – well shadows and be happy with the result. But now, advances in cameras mean that photographers shoot knowing that they can post process their images to extract impossible detail from shadows and they compose to include as much clutter in the image as possible. (Photoshop will sort it out is the new mantra).

The following images illustrate this further.

Rules on acid
Photography rules on acid

This image is typical of what I am seeing more and more from high end DSLR owners. There is a pre conceived notion that because the camera record a wide range of detail that the composition must include a wide range of detail. The student then sets about looking to include every texture, every nook and minute cranny in the knowledge that they can recover or push details in Photoshop. As you can see, the image is pretty much like a composition on acid with every “rule” of photography having been applied.  Start with foreground interest, add some lead in lines, a focal point on the rule of thirds and some dramatic sky and viola – you get a complete mess. And when you see a flood of similar images on  Facebook and Flickr, you may be forgiven for thinking these photographers went to Narnia for the weekend.


Shadow detail gone mad
Shadow detail gone mad

The second image is somewhat better in composition terms but it is ruined by the processing of the digital image. The composition has been affected by the digital editing. Namely, detail has been pulled from the shadows which has reduced the overall contrast of the scene, resulting in a flatter image.  In this case,  introducing too much detail detracts from the path the eye will naturally want to follow. The image on the right is the same composition, but is more pleasing because the dark areas and contrast focus our attention on the path of the stream and towards the castle on the horizon.

Less is more
Less is more

The third image gets it right. The “rules” are still evident but the overall effect is much more subtle and pleasing to the eye. The single pebble in the foreground is highlighted on its wet surface. This provides the entry point of the scene. The eye then moves to the textures of the sand. Despite there being no water visible, the lines formed by the sand point towards the horizon and the mind can fill in the gaps that a wave has just receded. The eye is then lead to the final focal point of the island where it can rest and complete the journey. The bland sky is not given any attention due to the high position of the horizon in the uppermost part of the frame.

At the end of the day, if you can get into the habit of keeping things simple, both on location and in the the digital darkroom then your images will improve.

And as the saying goes…less is more.

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