Photo Critique Series: Patterns, Focal Points, and Telephoto Compression in a Palouse Country Landscape
This week’s photograph, titled “Steptoe Beauty,” was made by Greg Speasl in the Palouse country of eastern Washington. The image is an interesting study of how a telephoto lens can compress space and create patterns.
Sidelight is usually a great way to bring out textures, and here the low-angle, late-afternoon sun raking across the fields from right to left brings out the beautiful textures and forms of the landscape. The alternating patterns of green and amber also create a nice color contrast.
Recently I wrote about depth in photography, and how wide-angle lenses can help create an illusion of depth, while longer focal lengths can flatten the perspective and emphasize patterns. This is a great example of the latter—Greg used a telephoto lens (210mm on a full-frame sensor) to zoom in, compress the space, and pick out an intriguing pattern in the sculptured hills. In fact we see two overall patterns here, one formed by the interplay between light and dark, the other created by the color contrast between regions of green and amber.
To highlight the difference, here’s a black-and-white version. I deliberately reduced the contrast between colors here—that is, I tried to make the greens translate to the same shade of gray as the amber tones—in order to emphasize the pattern of sunlight and shadow. This version works too, which is not surprising with such interesting textures and forms. Notice, however, that the lower-right quadrant seems a bit blank. In color, two arrows of green coming in from the right edge define shapes in this area that disappear in black and white.
I probably prefer the color version, although only by a slight margin. But I think it’s interesting to see which parts of the pattern were created by color, which parts by light and shadow.
Most photographs need a strong focal point; without one, viewers don’t know what to look at. This image lacks a clear center of interest—the closest thing might be the cluster of trees (and a building or two) in the upper-right corner. But I think this composition works anyway. If the photograph has a strong enough overall pattern you can sometimes get away without having a clear focal point, and I think this is one of those cases.
There are two minor details about the composition that bother me. While the trees in the upper-right around the buildings fit well into the overall design, the ones in upper-left are an anomaly, a break in the pattern. Cropping the top edge eliminates some nicely-shaped shadows in the upper-right corner, but simplifies the image, so I think the tradeoff is worth it. There’s also that tree in the upper-right that almost touches the edge of the frame—another minor distraction. In the version below I’ve trimmed a little off both the top and right sides.
While I like Greg’s composition a lot (except for those minor complaints I just mentioned), I think there were other possibilities here as well. I tend to see photographs within photographs, and if Greg had stretched his 100-400mm zoom a bit more he might have found something like the vertical version below as well. This one is even more abstract, and not necessarily better (or worse), just different. As my friend Mike Osborne likes to say, when you find a great subject, work it—there’s always more than one photograph there.
One other small nitpick: I understand the need to put a copyright watermark on your images—I certainly do that with all of my photos that go on the web. But for this photograph the watermark should have been in the lower-right corner. Placed as it is here, in the lower-left, the watermark interrupts an important curving shadow line.
Greg used a Canon 5D Mark II, 100-400mm zoom at 210mm, with a shutter speed of 1/15th sec. at f/6.3, 100 ISO. The image appears to be sharp, the exposure is dead on, and the processing looks about right too, with enough contrast and saturation to give the photograph life, but not so much that it looks fake or garish.
Overall I think this is very well done. The low-angle sidelight is beautiful, and complements the scene perfectly. Best of all, Greg used the space-flattening qualities of a telephoto lens create a great pattern out of the curves and folds of this classic Palouse-country scene.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this photograph. Do you think the composition works overall? Do you like the way I cropped the top and right sides, or do you prefer the original? What about converting this to black and white?
Thanks Greg for sharing your photograph! You can see more of his work on Flickr.
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As part of being chosen for this critique Greg will receive a free 16×20 matted print courtesy of the folks at Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques, just upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose. If you’re not a Flickr member yet, joining is free and easy. You’ll have to read and accept the rules for the group before adding images, and please, no more than five photos per person per week. Thanks for participating!
Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBook Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.