Improve your landscape photography by simplifying your images.
When working with clients on a workshop, the single biggest thing people are looking to improve is their composition skills. Finding a good composition will often result with a photographer being told they have ‘the eye’. This is fine, but it also implies it is a god given talent that cannot be improved upon. I do not believe this is the case. Certainly some are more creative than others but there are still skills and knowledge that can be learned to improve photography composition.
Although it may play a part, simplifying an image is not just about removing items or objects from the picture. What we are really talking about is simplifying the story. For this we must first understand what the story actually is. What are you trying to convey to the viewer? What emotions are you trying to evoke? What is the story? Without this, an image will be a purely technical exercise and will be left lacking. The story can only come from you so there is no prescriptive method. However, when standing in front of a scene, think about how you are feeling, what does the landscape say to you? Is it a beautiful scene? If the answer is yes, then why? Being in touch with your own feelings is vital in making the work personal to you. Aim to tell the story of landscape from your own point of view.
The next stage is to consider the actual composition of the scene in front of us. Rules of composition work. They are often a good starting point once a subject has been established. Identifying a subject is not always easy, but look for the good light, good shapes and interesting features and things should become easier. Subjects can include anything from a rock in the foreground, a tree, a distant mountain or cliff, a sky full of colour or even the whole scene itself. An image can also include more than one subject if the story flows from one to another. Leading lines are a good narrative tool. They tell the viewer where to begin and guide them through the scene and story. The rule of thirds is also worth considering until you find something better and the rule is broken.
To simplify the image, focus down onto the story and use composition and technique to achieve it without distraction.
1. Long Exposure
Take the image above which looks out from the Scottish mainland to the Isle of Skye. There are a number elements that make the image work. Firstly the leading lines of the jetty guide the viewer from the bottom of the image and out over the loch towards the distant mountain. The snow covered mountain is also framed by the two either side of it with more rock than snow showing.
I have then used long exposure to remove detail from the water and the clouds; this literally simplifies the image. The smooth water shows more reflection and also puts more emphasis on the jetty and the mountains and there is no distraction in the sky.
The jetty is in a small village called Glenelg in a remote area of the West Coast of Scotland. The people living there have to be resourceful and do things for themselves in order to get by. This creates a functional industrial feel to the village. The jetty, which is clearly old and not designed for recreation, hints toward this heritage. The jetty is also in a truly beautiful location and this juxtaposition is shown in the loch and distant mountains.
Further simplification can occur in post-production. The second image shows a test exposure that is an unedited standard exposure.
The conversion to black and white was planned at the time because the colour creates distraction and is not particularly appealing. However the soft morning light was beautiful and where it hits the metal of the jetty, creates some really interesting tones. Finally a blue toner has been added to enhance the overall metallic industrial feel of the photograph.
2. Negative Space
Another way to simplify an image is to draw attention to the subject by using negative space. The image above shows where this can work in a landscape image and produces what is often described as a fine art feel. The white areas of the sky and the bright surface of the sea serve to draw all the attention to the old groins. The image was shot on a bleak beach on the remote and neglected spot of Spurn Point in East England. It is actually a colour image but the natural lack of colour, and focus placed on the groins, support the bleakness and loneliness of the story.
3. Isolate the Subject
Isolating a subject in a photograph is a very common way to simplify a picture and enhance the story. It is the basis of the majority of portrait photography where all focus it put on the model by either blowing out the background with big apertures, or using plain backgrounds in a studio setting.
The same applies to landscape photography where an image can often be described as intimate or a ‘portrait of the landscape’. There are countless ways to achieve this including using a longer lens, capturing a tree in a foggy woodland or using an extreme wide angle lens very close to the subject.
The image above shows a tree growing out the side of a Welsh mountain. For a few moments the sun shone perfectly down a small gully in the mountain and lit up the tree in a very exciting moment. I used the light and natural contrast to isolate the tree from the background to emphasise the fleeting moment the image represented. The second image shows the exact same composition just a few moments later once the sun has passed. You can see how the tree blends back into the cliff face and there is no image at all.
4. Simplifying the Image VS Simplifying the story.
Removing features and items from an image does not necessarily mean we are simplifying the story. Take the two images above of a mountain in Glencoe on a truly stunning day of landscape photography — watch the video now — https://youtu.be/iXyUDwB9sMQ.
In the picture on the right I have removed the road in photoshop. There is a lot I prefer about the composition without the road but it has complicated the story. My location becomes less clear, it deceives the viewer and most importantly it has removed the sense of scale provided by the road in the absence of any other permanent object.
Another example is shown here. The picture on the left is full of detail and colour; there is lot going on in the summer scene consisting of a view dear to my heart. However the photograph works using a number of compositional elements. The heather bathing in the warm light immediately tells the viewer it is the height of summer, the winding curves of the path lead you round and up to Roseberry Topping, which along with the sun, is sitting on the cross sections of the rule of thirds. In the other image I have removed the heather. Very often less is more, but by removing the heather the story is now lost. The composition no longer works, particularly as the light hitting the hill to the right distracts the viewer from the main subject of Roseberry Topping.
The aim is to simplify the story, not just the elements in the photograph.
‘Get it right in camera!!!’ It is a common phrase that I do not subscribe to when it comes to processing an image. However it is more applicable with composition. You simply cannot change perspective in post production. You can however crop. It is always better to plan a crop like a square or a panorama at the point of shooting but cropping can be used in post to remove distracting elements that you missed at the time of shooting. Whether you end up using that particular image or not, use the new found knowledge and hindsight as a reason to re-visit the scene and capture it again.
The images below are an example of where cropping can work. The picture on the left is the full un-cropped frame. It was an incredible evening for a number of reasons (watch the video here — https://youtu.be/6NqDSY2nVu0) but when the sky set on fire I was not totally focused on the photography.
The image on the left is not bad. It just has some distracting elements that do not assist the story. By cropping in, the leading lines of the cliffs and the road become more prominent improving the pathway through the image towards the sky of fire. The horizon now also sits on the rule of thirds which adds to the overall balance of the image. The crop has worked because all the right elements were captured in the original file.
Simplifying an image is just one way in which composition can be improved. Give it a try, work hard and your images will almost certainly begin to improve.