What makes a strong composition? Let’s talk about how you can achieve striking landscape photos in which less is more. Here’s a practical set of tips for minimizing clutter.
1. Clean Up Your Foregrounds
When you’re really close to your foreground (and I mean close to minimum focus distance of your lens), the foreground becomes a prominent part of your wide-angle landscapes. So why not spend some time to clean up your foreground a little? When we’re this close, all those bright, dead blades of grass that point in every conceivable direction work as neon signs that read “Look here, now.”
Take for example a strong foreground, rich with colorful wildflowers. Pebbles, debris, and dead plants can and will distract from your flowers and sometimes even compete with the mountains in the background.
Take note of the brightest parts in your foreground. Especially those small specks of dead grass and unfortunately placed rocks. Then decide if they can physically be removed without harming the environment. If not, then the Clone tool in Photoshop is your friend.
2. Extend the Shutter Speed: Not Just for Water
Using neutral density filters and long exposures are familiar techniques to make clouds streak along the sky or make the surface of ripply water appear flat as a mirror. But in landscape photography, I rarely see a longer shutter speed used to convey motion due to stormy conditions.
If you’re looking to simplify your composition and there’s even the tiniest of movement in your foliage, you can greatly exaggerate the effect by choosing a much longer shutter speed.
Neutral density (ND) filters help to reduce light, so you can expose an image even longer. A polarizer helps to reduce light up to three stops too, but you can always wait until dusk to increase the shutter speed naturally.
More often than not, I see the use of a long exposure used as nothing more than a cool effect. But there is something deeper going on in relation to composition when we choose our shutter speed. In landscape photography, one of the most underappreciated aspects of composition is “kairos,” our ability to act on and to capture the right (but fleeting) moment.
3. Use Negative Space
Where painters add stuff in, photographers take stuff out. If you intentionally leave an area of your image blank, then everything outside of that area will command twice the attention. Use this knowledge to simplify an image of a tree, a blue hour seascape, or an intimate shot of a beautiful mountain shrouded in mist.
4. Centralize Your Composition
A central composition is the description we give to art that uses a central placement of the subject as a primary means of communication. It can feature negative space on either side or top and bottom of the subject, but it doesn’t have to. This is just about subject placement.
Place your subject in the center of your image to instantly make it simpler. But aside from making them more simple but powerful, there is a caveat. Central compositions are easy to look at. That means that these images are often looked at for shorter amounts of time.
5. Use a Telephoto Lens to Select
Remember that “less is more.” Using a lens with a longer focal length will force you to select a part of the bigger landscape. If you’re a beginner in landscape photography, it can be difficult to change to extreme lenses on either end of the focal range. This is because you need to learn what can be seen with a telephoto lens instead of the big picture you build up with your own eyes.
A telephoto lens is the perfect tool for training your composition skills. But as with everything in photography, any new technique takes some getting used to. Especially when you are experienced in this field and have been holding cameras outdoors for longer. As a beginner, you certainly have the edge here.