Rethinking landscape photography: composition over complexity

A while back, I heard photographer Michael Frye speaking on the Improve Photography podcast saying his favourite lens for landscapes was the 70-200mm f/2.8. The host was as surprised as I was: traditional landscapes are shot at wide focal lengths, typically 15 to 30mm. This follows painting’s love of sweeping vistas, and also makes it easier for everything to be in focus. I wanted to have a go shooting landscapes with a long lens, so I set out last week with my own telephoto lens to see what all the fuss was about.

My intention was to try and focus on (forgive the pun) minimalist composition, especially around lines. My aim for this year has been to concentrate more and more on minimalist principles, by working on decluttering the composition.

The fields this time of year are often a different shade to the bushes that mark the boundaries, so it was often straightforwards to compose around lines. I started at 450mm and immediately one of the challenges was the wind. For ISO 100 and f/11, I was shooting around 1/40s on a tripod and the wind was too much on top of a hill. Below is a first attempt at composition by line: it’s blurred due to the slow shutter speed (1/8s) and the wind:Lines

I used the strong diagonal in the bottom of the frame to create a more dynamic composition, and desaturated the greens, yellows and oranges to make them less distracting. The house is placed to be a natural resting point for the eye, but it’s really too obscured to make a real focal point. The focal length for this shot was 345mm.

Moving on from there, I tried to isolate more and more while zooming out. The sun streaming through the clouds in the shot below made an obvious shot, and I had noticed the trees earlier. Black and white works well with the tones and silhouettes, and emphasises the lines. I removed some more distractions on the horizon in post. This was shot at an equivalent of 225mm.

Playing with simple lines

I really like the way the angle formed by the horizon and the light streams.

I turned my attention to the power station, as I was intending to capture some landscapes for my local portfolio. A sweeping band of textured grass made for a natural sweeping line that leads the eye up through the photo towards the static and heavy towers. I only isolated two of the towers from my position, with one sitting behind. In future I intend to look for angles that isolate all three. This was shot at the widest angle on the lens, 112.5mm. This image actually feels more complex than the previous two, even with a telephoto focal length.

Sweeping lines

Once I’d had enough practice with the longer lens, I went back to my 10-20mm lens and used the whole sweeping line of that textured grass to lead straight to the power station. I cropped top and bottom to make a more panoramic frame. I also completely disregarded the rule of thirds and placed the horizon in the middle, which doesn’t feel wrong in this composition and actually contributes to a balanced feel. I wish the towers were a little bigger in the frame but otherwise I’m happy with the final result.

Sweeping

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