What is the best lens for scenic photography?    

With all its colours fall is creeping into onto the hills in my part of British Columbia photographers are grabbing their cameras, tripods and jackets to wander out to record the beauty.

This past week a young couple visiting my Kamloops shop asked my opinion of the best lens to take along on their next excursion to photograph BC’s inspiring landscapes.

That’s a good question, especially from those new to photography that are spending hard earned money on pricy modern lenses. Personally, I like versatility and convenience, and there are a lot of great zoom lenses available for someone that doesn’t want to carry a heavy bag.

I might suggest lenses like 16-85mm, 24-70mm, or even 18-200mm. Gosh, there are so many lightweight and easy to carry choices. However, instead of recommending a particular lens for scenic photography, I’d rather think about perspective.

My decision after stepping out of the car to photograph some grand vista would be whether I wanted a wide angel or a telephoto. A wide-angle lens has a curved front surface allowing for a wider view. A telephoto has a flatter front surface and a narrower view.

For example, using a 18mm focal length lens when photographing along a fence will make the first post big and the succeeding posts smaller and smaller. Whereas, a 200mm focal length will give a tightly compressed view, and distances between the fencepost in the foreground and those further back won’t seem as distant as with the wider lens.

In a more practical example, when one is photographing a boat on the lake shore with mountains in the background a long focal length like the 200mm will be compress everything in the final image with no subject gaining significance over another. Yet, an18mm lens will make the boat large, and mountains in the background small and distant. Both may be good photographs of that scene, just different interpretations.

The most appropriate lens depends on the perspective and how the photographer wants to interpret the final image, and because the focal length adjusts the visual relationships of the objects within the picture, one must think about the image front to back and how much of the scenic is important as a wide, or a narrow final image.

It comes down to the personal vision of the photographer and what he or she wants to say about the landscape. Famous photographer, Ansel Adams said, “problem solve for the final photograph”.

Like Adams, photographers should be thinking about how the final photograph will be used and how to accomplish that.

If one thinks of a photograph as a series of problems to be solved there will be a smooth transition from initial idea to final print. For example one could begin by thinking about the subject and its environment. What is the background and how will that affect the subject? What is in the foreground that will interfere with that subject?

I don’t believe that there is one lens that can be termed a “scenic or landscape” lens. Any lens might be used as long as it meets the photographer’s vision. That might be to include a wide vista with a wide-angle lens, or on the other hand, a tighter cropped image created with a telephoto lens might be visually more powerful. The choice of lens for scenics comes down to what the photographer wants the viewer to feel and see.

 

 

 

 

Why Is The Concept of Depth Of Field So Elusive?     

depth-of-field-2

d-of-f-1a

d-of-f-2a

 

The topic of Depth of Field just keeps coming up and I suppose it deserves a revisit for this year. There must be a reason why Depth of Field is so elusive to photographers.

I wonder if it is because modern cameras have computers that focus, balance the colour, and control the exposure. All are impressive functions that make new users believe all they need to get a good photo is to point and shoot.

I have discussed Depth of Field in my blog numerous times. And find myself constantly explaining how depth of field works to photographers that visit my shop. I must admit that many photographers just smile and nod like they understand what I am talking about. However, unfortunately, when I see their photographs I realize otherwise, and I expect most would have been much happier if I just told them the reason their picture wasn’t really sharp was because they needed a new lens. (Buying a new lens is so much easier than taking a class in photography.)

Understanding of the concept (and I guess technique) of depth of field will make their photographs better and save them money, as they did not really need a new lens.

This past week, I viewed an image a photographer posted online. He wrote that he was proud with his creative and unusual view. The overall exposure was fairly good, the colours were close to reality, and the centre of the picture was in focus. Nevertheless, other than that small, in-focus, central area the rest of his subject wasn’t in focus at all. The foreground was blurry and the background was blurry.

The definition of depth of field is, “that area around the main subject, in front of and behind, that is in acceptably sharp focus”. In application the wider the lens’ aperture is the less the depth of field, or that area of sharp focus, around the main subject will be. Practically, the depth of the field of focus will be 1/3rd in front and 2/3rds behind the subject.

Using a wide aperture can increase the exposure in limited lighting conditions; but, along with the benefit of additional light reaching the camera’s sensor, the resulting effect is reduced depth of field. Creating a field of focus behind the subject of 4 inches or so might look really good when making a portrait, but it is not effective in a scenic.

The smaller the lens aperture the more the area of focus around the subject will be. I prefer using a small aperture for scenic photography. I am concerned with all elements in the photograph, front to back, of being sharp and in “acceptably sharp focus”.

The Internet is packed with information on scenic photography, and there are thousands (millions?) of books on photography that are easy to read. I expect that any discussion on scenic photography will include a full discussion of Depth of Field.

Viewing Scenic Photographs   

 

seagulls and boat 2

Falis Pond 2

Wolf ranch

I enjoy looking at photographs that seem to have been made with the goal of saying something about a moment in time or place. Sometimes I even get a sense of the struggle the photographer had while trying capture a particular mood and how hard it was to convey that mood to the viewer. I think creativity takes a lot of effort.

This week I thumbed through a hard cover book I have had for years by one of my favorite landscape photographers, Eliot Porter. The book, entitled Intimate Landscapes, is from an exhibition of fifty-five color photographs by Eliot Porter, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I enjoy how he eliminates those elements that add nothing to the composition and selects those that add meaning to his visual statement. He had an amazing awareness of how colors create mood. A review I read went on to say that his photographs, “reflect the standards of excellence that are Eliot Porter’s greatest contribution to the field of color photography. Upon seeing these photographs, the viewer is immediately struck by the artist’s distinctly individual and intimate interpretation of the natural world.” His photographs are different and specific, and have a personality that I think come from the experiences of the photographer.

When I finally put down the book I thought about how many of the scenic photographs that populate photography forums I currently read are mostly documentary type photographs, and I wonder if the photographers believe that any vista with lots of space and colour is worthy of photographing. They might be of the opinion that all it takes is a wide-angle lens to miraculously convey the feeling and emotional reaction they personally felt at that moment. Perhaps that is why the viewers’ responses they get are sometimes limited to, “nice sky and good composition”.

My long-time friend, Bob Clark, used to critically suggest that all one needs for people to like your landscape or scenic photo was to have a “National-Geographic-sky”, a magazine that was filled with pretty pictures of places from around the world with blue skies and billowy white clouds.

I prefer scenics that make an impression on me and convey a mood. I want to look at a photograph that allows me to find a story in it; or at least be able to search for one, and hope for a photograph that I can respond to on some level. A photograph should try to accomplish something, and should have a strong sense of self-expression. Photographers should look for something in the landscape that is unique, and that will set their photograph apart. As photographers we should try to express our personal viewpoints and hope to summon an emotional response from those who view our photographs.

Depth of Field

I have included a few examples that show the technique.

I have included a few examples that show control over the technique.

D of F 2

hoodo and fence 3

Plowing the field

Shoot'n the sunrise 1

A smaller aperture for more depth of field.

Shoot'n the sunrise 2

A wider aperture for less depth of field.

Heron

Blue Freighter Frog

Brewster copy 2

Truck in the meadow copy

River Sandon BC

 

A topic that I recently discussed in my classes, that I repeatedly explain to photographers that come to my shop complaining about what they believe are lens focusing problems, and have written more than once about is “depth-of-field”, but it still seems to be an elusive concept for many. However, it is really important and photographers should make the effort to grasp it even though it appears difficult.

I pondered this last Thursday when a local photographer showed me an image she had made during a wedding. She showed it to me proudly and commented that she has chosen that lens because it let in more light when photographing in low light, but complained that the expensive lens she had didn’t seem all that sharp.

The image showed a view of the central aisle of the church with pews left and right, leading up to the bride in the distant centre, approximately 20 feet from where the photographer was standing. The overall exposure shot at an aperture of f/2.8 was fairly good. However, what that photographer saw was the lack of sharpness everywhere, except for the bride standing in the aisle.

The definition of depth-of-field is “that area around the main subject, in front of, and behind it, that is in acceptably sharp focus”. In application the wider the lens’ aperture is set the less will be the depth of field, or that area of sharp focus, around the main subject will be.

Wide aperture lenses are very popular these days and using a lens at a wide aperture like f/2.8 when making a portrait isolates the main subject and produces a soft, out-of-focus background referred to as bokeh by reducing the depth of field. Bokeh is a pleasing soft blur produced by a wide aperture lens in the out-of-focus area directly behind the subject.

In this instance the photographer was relying on the wide aperture to increase the exposure in limited lighting conditions. That additional light allowed a faster shutterspeed for handholding, but along with the benefit of additional light reaching the camera’s sensor the resulting effect was to reduce depth of field.

Using that wide aperture created a field of focus in front of the subject of a couple feet and only a bit more behind that would be fine in a portrait, however in that photograph of the church aisle with pews on both sides, that included lots in the foreground and much of the background, looked out-of-focus.

Many photographers unwittingly rely too much on their photography equipment to (magically?) make good images, and blame faults in their photographs on that same equipment. Understanding the basic concept of depth-of-field would have made that photograph more to the photographer’s liking.

The smaller the lens aperture number is the less the depth-of-field. I prefer using a small aperture (larger number) for scenic photography and, as in this instance, interiors. The answer to that photographer’s low light problem would be to increase the ISO and use a smaller aperture. (I would be surprised to find a modern DSLR that wouldn’t shoot noise free at ISO1600 or even more)

Assuming the lens isn’t sharp when the real problem is with photographic technique is expensive if the photographer goes so far as to replacing a lens. My recommendation is to spend time learning the basics of depth of field instead of blaming equipment when problems occur.

 

I appreciate reader’s comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com

How about telephoto Lenses for Scenic Photography

           

Last summer I wrote an article entitled, “What is the Best Lens for Scenics?” in which I discussed using different focal lengths, depth of field, and the effect upon perspective, however, I left the answer as to the preferred lens for each scenic location to individual photographers. My opinion then, as now, is that it really depends on what a photographer wants to say about a particular scene. I also said that I regularly used lenses such as my 24-120, or 18-200mm, because I like lightweight lenses if I have any distance to walk. Those two lenses offer lots of focal length choices that will allow me to include only whatever I want in a picture.

I thought about these comments earlier this week as I sold my 80-400mm lens.  My discussion with the new owner was mostly about the lens’ functions; its ability to produce sharp images, and how the vibration reduction mode easily allows handholding.  What we hadn’t talked about was what he intended to photograph with his new lens. I assumed he was into wildlife photography, but as we stood in my shop talking he mentioned that he would be going on a bit of a hike this next weekend and hoped it wasn’t going to be too cold. I mentioned that the cold weather might be good because it kept the bighorn sheep down in the valley west of the city. It was then that he said, “ I am mostly into scenics”.

Many photographers are of the opinion that scenic photography is about the landscape and needs to be as much of panorama as possible, and for that purpose, select wide-angle lenses as they trudge into the wilderness. They aren’t so much interested in what elements make up the scene they capture as to what the overall view is.  However, there are those photographers like the fellow who bought my 80-400mm lens that have discovered how to build exciting scenics with telephoto lenses.

A wide-angle lens has a curved front surface allowing for a wider view. The distance between the foreground and background subjects will seem extended, and objects closer to the lens will look much bigger in relation to those in the background. Whereas, with a long-focal-length lens like the 400mm all the elements will be compressed, depth of field reduced, and in the final image no one subject in the photograph gains significance over another.

Maybe it’s the compressed effect that makes scenic photographs made with telephoto lenses sometimes stand out, and I think the photograph is more dependent on how things front to back are placed. There seems to be more subject selection, or in artistic terms, a more specific visual discussion.

I don’t believe that every scenic photograph needs to be a wide landscape. I do, however, believe that successful scenic photographs need to say something and follow the rules of composition.

Using 300mm or 400mm telephoto lenses almost demands that a photographer slows down, and thinks about what one sees through the viewfinder as the image is composed. I am not saying that one can’t do that with a wide-angle lens, only that it is harder with a tight, cropped, limiting, and enlarged view from a long-focal-length telephoto lens.

If we think that the majority of successful scenic images are those that were photographed from the most interesting view, or where one sets the camera for the most pleasing perspective, why not try the longest focal length lens available, and take the time to move the viewfinder around to fill the frame while maintaining all the rules of composition?

www.enmanscamera.com