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
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
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
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
- 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.