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If you struggle with composition, here are 5 key ways that will help you improve your landscape photography.

As landscape photographers, we are conditioned to put on a wide-angle lens to create an image with foreground, mid-ground and background. It does help create depth in an image, but if you struggle with your compositions, here’s a great way to help improve them and inspire the way you look at the world.

The next time you go out to make photos, just take one lens-a telephoto. This will discipline the way you look at a scene by putting on telephoto eyes, making you look deeper into the scene picking out just the important details. Then the tricky part comes when you arrange those details within the frame. You have to consciously think about how to arrange the lines and where to place the main subject. All of the guidelines of composition still come into play whether its using rule of thirds, leading lines, framing or balance. The telephoto lens makes you use these guidelines with a concious effort. I tend to use the Nikon 70-200mm f/4 and the Nikon 300mm f/4 lenses sometimes fitted with the Nikon TC-17EII 1.7x teleconverter.

1. Isolate the subject

When standing in front of a grand scene like this one in the Canadian Rockies, it’s natural to become overwhelmed by the mountains and snowy foreground. Of course you should photograph this scene, it would be a shame not to. But this is an obvious composition that anyone could see. The hard part is training your eye to ‘see’ elements within the grand scene that would make a good composition.

Banff National Park, Aberta, Canada – Nikon D810, Nikon 14-24mm @ 15mm, 1/125 second @ f/14, ISO 100

Putting on my telephoto eyes, I spotted a single pine tree poking up through the deep snow. The sensuous diagonal lines of the deep snow made a great backdrop to the lone tree. I waited until the sun came out from behind a mountain peak to create a spotlight on the tree that lasted only a few minutes. As the whole feel of the image had a downward flow, it seemed logical to me, using the rule of thirds, to place the tree in the lower third of the frame. I intentionally kept the cold blue tones of the unlit snow to contrast with the illuminated tree. If I neutralised the blue tones it wouldn’t have the same emotion of coldness that I felt was essential to portray. By including anything else in the scene would just weaken the overall impact of the image.

Single Pine Tree in Winter, Banff National Park, Aberta, Canada
Single Pine Tree in Winter, Banff National Park, Aberta, Canada – Nikon D810, Nikon 300mm f/4 lens, 1/500 second @ f/8, ISO 200, Gitzo tripod

2. Simplifying the landscape

Rather than putting as much as you can into the frame, eliminate anything that doesn’t support the main subject. Less is more, thus, will make a stronger composition. This is especially true when you have an expansive landscape such as with the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. Instead of making an image of the entire dune field, I used a Nikon 300mm f/4 lens to simplify the scene down to the S-shaped dune. The inclusion of a couple walking on the dunes help to give a sense of scale. I waited until they walked to the end of the highlighted dune where the sand was blowing, placing them in the third of the frame.

People Hiking Up Sand Dunes, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado, USA
People Hiking Up Sand Dunes, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado, USA – Nikon D850, Nikon 300mm f/4, 1/320 second @ f/8, ISO 400, Gitzo Tripod

3. Architectural details

Whether you live in the countryside or an urban city, you can apply the same techniques. Look for lines and patterns in modern architecture and arrange them in the frame to suit the composition. I normally use a tripod whenever possible, but walking around a city with just a camera fitted with a telephoto lens is very liberating. It allows you to capture spontaneous images. Don’t be afraid to turn the camera to create diagonal patterns. Juxtapose two buildings together to create an abstract image that plays with the mind. Can you tell which building is in front of the other? A longer focal length lens will compress the details.

Modern Architecture Detail, Peterson Automotive Museum Building, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Architecture Detail, Peterson Automotive Museum Building, Los Angeles, CA, USA – Nikon D810, Nikon 70-200mm f/4 @ 190mm, 1/125 second @ f/7.1 ISO 200

I used the Nikon 70-200mm f/4 lens @ 185mm to concentrate on the vertical patterns of Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi, India. Pay particular attention to colours in architecture. The complementary colours of the cyan sari the woman was wearing contrasts beautifully with the orange tones of the building.

Woman & Arches of Humayun's Tomb, New Delhi, India
Woman & Arches of Humayun’s Tomb, New Delhi, India – Nikon D800, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 185mm, 1/250 second @ f/11, ISO 500

4. Close-ups

You may have thought that you could only use a macro lens to photograph details of nature, but a telephoto lens will also work just as well. While it won’t produce true 1:1 macro images, it will work just fine for close-ups. Just like isolating the subject from the grand landscape, the telephoto can isolate small details in close-up. The advantage the telephoto lens has over a macro lens is the minimum focus distance is greater. Because the distance between the camera and the subject is about a metre, you won’t run the risk of disturbing the subject such as an insect. Be careful to keep the plane of focus parallel to the lens so the subject is sharp throughout. Using a long focal length will allow you to throw the background out of focus so it won’t distract from the subject. Using an aperture of f/16, I was able to maintain complete sharpness of the orchid and still throw the background out of focus.

Orchid, LA Arboretum, Los Angeles, California, USA
Orchid, LA Arboretum, Los Angeles, California, USA – Nikon D810, Nikon 300mm f/4, 1/8 second @ f/16, ISO 100, Gitzo tripod

Maintaining focus in a close-up landscape image as with the snow shapes was beyond the capability of the Nikon 70-200mm f/4 lens @ 200mm, so I used the D850’s focus stacking feature and combined 13 images using Zerene Stacker. I exposed each frame at f/8 to ensure critical sharpness throughout.

Snow Designs, Jasper National Park, Aberta, Canada
Snow Designs, Jasper National Park, Aberta, Canada – Nikon D810, Nikon 70-200mm @ 200mm, 1/80 second @ f/10, ISO 100, Gitzo tripod

5. Perspective

Whenever you use a wide-angle lens it makes whatever is in the background such as a mountain range appear much smaller diminishing the impact. But using a telephoto lens will compress the perspective making the distance between the foreground and back ground appear much closer. I used a Nikon 70-200mm @ 112mm to compress the curves in the road with the mountains making them appear much larger.

Winding Road Towards Mountains, Eastern Sierras, California, USA
Winding Road Towards Mountains, Eastern Sierras, California, USA – Nikon D800, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 112mm, 1/500 second @ f/11, ISO 500, Gitzo tripod

It’s easy to use a wide-angle lens for landscapes, but if you want to grow as a photographer try using nothing but a telephoto lens. It will give you a whole new perspective on the world and take your landscape photography to the next level.



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