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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

10 ingredients of great landscape photos part 7 - embrace simplicity

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Welcome to the latest installment of my new series where I introduce you to my guide to 'The ten ingredients of great landscape photos'. I hope that over this series I will be able to bring you some insight on how you can learn from my experiences and take some practical steps to improve your landscape photography.

Did you miss the previous editions of this series? If so, you can find them here:

The chart below summarises what I believe to be the ten main ingredients that go into making a great landscape photo. In this edition, we look at the importance of the power of simplicity in creating powerful landscape images..

A model for taking great landscape photos, by Devon photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Ten ingredients of great landscape photos

When it comes to landscapes, less is definitely more

Simplicity is a common thread through most great landscape photos, and learning to 'see' simple compositions within in the complex world around us is a key skill to develop as a landscape photographer. The reason that simplicity is so important, is that it helps you to construct a visual journey for the viewer (a topic that we will be covering in part 9 of this series of newsletters). As well as the possibility of 'finding' simple compositions in the natural world, it is also possible to create simplicity through the use of shallow depth of field (blurring parts of the image) and long exposure (to blur the detail on bodies of water).


Start by reducing clutter - keep your edges clean!

One of the easiest places to start is to make sure that you are not introducing unnecessary clutter (the opposite of simplicity) into your photos; what you choose to exclude from your photo can be almost as important as what you choose to include.

As an example, I often see perfectly good images spoiled by a lack of attention to the edges of the photo. It's a simple fact that things on the edge of a photo grab the eye, especially objects sticking into the frame (such as a branch or a person's arm). In simple terms, if the viewer's eye is drawn immediately to the edge of the frame, then you may have lost their attention for good.

So, the last thing I do when I am composing a photo is to check the edges for potential distractions before clicking the shutter. Usually, simply changing your point of view (using your feet and moving) or zooming in a little can be enough to remove potential distractions from the edge of the frame.


Learn to find simplicity in the World around you

In order to explain the challenge of finding simplicity, we will look at one of the most challenging situations; taking photos in woodland. Taking great photos in woodland is one of the most demanding challenges for a landscape photographer; woodlands are highly cluttered with lots going on, and finding simple compositions which can create a great photo and a visual journey (rather than just a 'snap') can be very challenging.

The simple problem is, where do you want the viewer to look? If there are lots of trees as well as lots of ground clutter, there is no obvious way of creating a visual journey for the viewer; the challenge to the landscape photographer is to try and create one. There are a number of tips and tricks that I use:

  • Find a strong focal point (see my earlier blog on focal points) as although this doesn't physically simplify the scene, it can at least draw the viewers eye away from the clutter around it. The focal point might be a single tree in leaf surrounded by the rest which have yet to sprout them, or a particularly distinctive broad leaf tree in amongst a woodland of conifers.

  • Go on a foggy day! Fog is great for woodland photography because it immediately simplifies the scene. You can find an interesting foreground and focal point, and the background is automatically simplified by being lost in the mist.

  • Use a shallow depth of field. Have you ever noticed that when you use your mobile phone to take photos of people, it automatically tries to blur the background? The reason for this is to simplify the scene; by blurring the background, the eye is drawn to the main subject (the person). As we will see later, using shallow depth of field is a powerful tool for simplifying a scene.

Embrace minimalism - the ultimate in simplicity

To emphasise how simplicity can create great landscape photos, let's take simplicity to an extreme by looking at minimalism. According to Google, 'Minimalist photography is a form of photography that is distinguished by austere simplicity. It emphasizes sparseness and careful composition, shying away from overabundance of color, patterns, or information'.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so in order to explain how minimalist approach can produce powerful images, I will just show you a couple of mine that I think work well. In the first, I have used my drone to isolate the lone figures on what was a busy summer beach scene. In the second, I have used the drone to isolate a single tree amongst a relatively uniform field of rapeseed. Drone photos can be a bit 'Marmite' (you either love them or hate them) but having a drone definitely helps to find minimal compositions which simplify the world around us.


A drone shot of surfers on a beach by Devon photographer, Gary Holpin Photography
A minimalist shot of surfers on a beach

Use shallow depth of field to simplify your scene

A powerful technique in landscape photography is using large apertures to create a shallow depth of field (by learning to get off full auto mode and take control of your aperture), which helps to simplify a scene. As an example, in the photo below I have used a large aperture (f2.8) and focussed on the post; this means that the post is in focus, but the trees further away from the camera (and the bluebells nearer the camera) are blurred, as they are outside of the plane of focus. This blurring simplifies the background; an effect which is enhanced further by the fog, making is a much more powerful image.


A misty Devon bluebell wood by Devon photographer, Gary Holpin Photography
Shallow depth of field simplifies the scene

Use long shutter speeds to simplify water scenes

Another powerful technique in landscape photography is using long exposure (long shutter speeds) to simplify scenes which include water (see this explanation on how to use ND filters to create long exposures). In the photo of Paignton Pier below, an exposure of 30 seconds was used to completely flatten all of the waves on the sea. This has the effect of simplifying the scene, so that the viewers eye is drawn to the main subject (the pier) rather than all of the detail of the waves and ripples on the sea.

A colourful sunrise over Paignton Pier by Devon photographer, Gary Holpin Photography
Long shutter speeds removes wave detail from the sea

Summary

Hopefully this brief article explains why learning to see (or create) simplicity in your photos really helps them to move them from 'snaps' towards great landscape photos. Although it's not possible to teach you how to 'see' simplicity (this just takes practice!) I hope I have given you a few tips on how to create simplicity through the use of shallow depth of fields and long exposures.


Want a learn more about my 10 ingredients of great landscape photos?

I now use this model of landscape photography to shape my photography training, and my training classes consistently get fabulous reviews on Google. So if you're a beginner photographer who is local to the South West and looking for Devon photography training , check out my range of 1-2-1 training courses. Alternatively why not make a weekend break of it and attend one of my weekend photography courses - either my beginners landscape photography workshops for those starting out in photography, or my intermediate photography workshops for those who already understand the basics and want more practical help progressing their landscape photography.



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