More of us have cameras in our hands everywhere we go these days than ever before, and many of us fancy ourselves as photographers as a result. I am not immune to this trend, and believe myself to be a far better photographer than I know deep down I actually am.
Determined to change this and take my photography to the next level, I swapped my phone camera for my dSLR and headed out into the Brecon Beacons with Creative Photography Wales to see if professional landscape photographer Nigel Forster could teach me the art of creative composition.
First things first — I had to switch my camera off aperture priority mode (which I usually use, my safety net) and tackle the full manual controls. Similarly, I would have to make sure that I was shooting in Raw, rather than just jpeg. When you shoot in Raw the camera captures far more data, meaning that when it comes around to post-processing there’s far more for you to play about with. This is particularly useful in landscape photography if you’re trying to rescue detail from an overexposed sky.
Perspectives, Light And Rules
Our first stop of the day was the Guardian mining memorial where we had to try and capture the statue from the most interesting perspective without losing too much context. I got down in the grass to try out a couple of the tips Forster had given me. If you get down and shoot from a low angle, you can almost squash the middle ground that would run horizontally through your shot completely out of your picture. If you shoot in portrait, you can also strengthen the relationship between the foreground and background objects.
I also used a small aperture to get a starburst shot using the statue and sun. It worked, which I was pleased about, but the composition wasn’t ideal, what with you not really being able to get a good sense of what the monument was about. Using a wide aperture to capture all of the names looking up at the statue worked a little better, I felt.
I was really glad to find out that Forster was so keen on getting us to break the rules. The rule of thirds, for example, is something that many photographers swear by, but he pointed out that there are occasions on which your photographs will benefit far more from actually ignoring it altogether.
Forster says he never turns up at a location knowing what photo he wants to capture and finds that this enables him to react to what he finds spontaneously. “Lots of landscape photography is light dependent, so a moment can come and go in a flash,” he says.
Sadly on the day we were out taking photographs, the light wasn’t ideal. Bright blue skies are nothing to sniff at in Wales, but moody clouds can add so much more drama and atmosphere to landscapes. This particularly affected us when we were at Blaenavon Ironworks, where we were challenged with shooting a photograph that captured the essence of the place. I took many, many photos while I was there, but only one I was remotely pleased with. Forster’s advice from the morning came back to me: “If you don’t know why you’re taking the photo, don’t press the shutter button.”
Angles, Lines And Focus
The effectiveness of some techniques, including depth of field and angles, come down to personal preference, but Forster is particularly keen on strong lead-in line and diagonals. “Think of composition as organising features,” he told me. I kept this in mind when we visited the ironworks later in the day and earned his praise with a shot of the mill wheel on a slant.
One recommendation that will particularly stick with me after the day is his recommendation to decide on a theme and take a series of photos that reflect that theme. Preferably it would be something abstract like a shape or a colour, but the idea is that it will give you focus and direction and you will likely take better photos as a result. I probably took some of my best photos of the day when I tried out this challenge (I focussed on circles) and found that rather than shooting anything and everything indiscriminately, I was far more thoughtful in my approach.
I asked Forster for his top five tips for people who wanted to improve their landscape composition no matter what camera they use.
Here’s what he said:
- Don’t stick rigidly to composition “rules” — photographic composition is about visual balance, proportion, simplicity and individuality. So don’t just go to well known viewpoints and locations to take your landscape pictures. Explore with your camera and create your unique images.
- Experiment with your point of view; in particular simplify your image by using a low viewpoint and portrait format. See how much simpler your compositions become.
- Keep it simple — decide what inspired you to take the shot and only include what you intend to. Exclude any distracting features or objects.
- Think of composition as organising features in the frame and think of the visual effect of everything in the frame. Try using diagonals in your compositions.
- Think of your image as a visual journey — an arrangement that takes the viewer through the image.
If you want to take landscape photos like a pro, however, you’re going to need some more advanced kit. Here are the items (camera aside) that Forster would never leave home without:
- “Use filters to control the quantity and quality of light into your camera”, he says.
- A Neutral graduated filter is essential for balancing exposure between bright skies & dark foreground and making sure you retain sky detail.
- Neutral Density filter allowing you to create movement by lengthening shutter speeds
- Polarising Filter to reduce glare and increase colour saturation on reflective surfaces.
- Do NOT buy any other special effects filters — if you want to do this do it in post processing and keep your original image protected as you saw it.
Get a sturdy tripod — essential for long exposures and using small apertures. Don’t buy a cheap one and try using a pistol grip ballhead for ease of use.
Don’t just use a wide angle and ignore your telephoto lens — it’s great for simple abstracts and isolating part of a scene.