OP – The Blog

July 28th, 2011

Photo Critique Series: Patterns, Focal Points, and Telephoto Compression in a Palouse Country Landscape

Posted By Michael Frye
"Steptoe Beauty" by Greg Speasl

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.

Light

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.

Composition

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.

Black-and-white version, showing the patterns created by the shadows

Black-and-white version, showing the patterns created by the shadows

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.

With the top and right edges trimmed

With the top and right edges trimmed

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.

A vertical crop

A vertical crop

Technical Considerations

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.

Conclusions

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.

Your Comments

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.

If you like these critiques, share them with a friend! Email this article, or click on one of the buttons below to post it on Facebook or Twitter.

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

Related Posts: The Third Dimension in Photography; Does Size Matter?

See all the critiques here.

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.

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Please leave a comment

  1. Vivien Stevens Says:

    Agree with your whole critique, Michael, particularly the minor crops, which make a major difference (damn, but you’re good!). I also prefer the portrait version. It’s tighter, constraining my eyes to travel deeper into the image, tending to roam from side to side, as the landscape encourages.

    Do you think, Michael, that a light touch of selective burning in the lower right quadrant of the B&W version would compensate for the loss of definition and serve to contain that area more?

    I very much like Greg’s calm, yet vibrant image, so rich in colour, patterns and subtle textures. I enjoy the subdued play of warm-cool colours, echoed in the stronger light-shade patterns, reinforcing the play of opposites. The photo is deliciously warming on this chilly winter’s day in Brisbane! Thank you both.

  2. Vivien Stevens Says:

    …typo para 1 – should read: ‘constraining my eyes to travel deeper into the image, RATHER than tending to roam from side to side, as the landscape encourages.’

    Sorry :-)

  3. Michael Frye Says:

    Vivien, my mind filled in your missing word, so no worries (how do you like that Aussie lingo?).

    The black-and-white version I show here is meant to illustrate how the shadows define part of the pattern, so it’s not optimized to be the best black-and-white image it could be. Burning that lower-right corner might help, but even better would be a different black-and-white conversion that retained more contrast between the golds and greens. I think I would take this into Photoshop and actually use two black-and-white adjustment layers: one that’s similar to what you see here for most of the image, the other with more contrast between green and gold for just the lower-right corner.

  4. Michael Frye Says:

    Also, I agree with you about the vertical. It actually has more depth somehow, I think because the curving lines lead your eye into the distance.

    Thanks, as always, for your participation!

  5. Vivien Stevens Says:

    Ahh, yes, layer masks! Thank you, Michael! Your comments are so very helpful. I really appreciate you taking the time to post them. I’m currently learning to use CS5 layer masks (rather than relying solely on Lr3 and Nik Software). So, I get what you’ve said about using two black-and-white adjustment layers and also about retaining more contrast between the golds and greens (I wondered why you hadn’t been more contrasty with your version above, missed the point you were illustrating).

    Michael, I’ve only been photographing (full manual, except for focus) and processing for a year, on dual vertical learning curves throughout. Absolutely worth it. I regularly shoot landscapes with my very talented son (he 38, me almost 66 years old). We refer to you so often. Just yesterday, we were photographing a mountain (small, compared to yours) in a rural setting, in patchy golden hour light, when he suddenly said, ‘Hmm, what would Michael Frye do?’ I want you to know that your posts are truly valuable to us (and obviously to many others).

    I salute your agile mind for filling in my gap. Glad you agree about the vertical crop; I pay very careful attention to ratios and crops. Love your Aussie lingo (…mate) 😉

  6. Michael Frye Says:

    Hi Vivien –

    Sorry for the late reply, but sometimes I forget to check the comments here at OP (I don’t get emails when they come in). But anyway, I really appreciate what you said above, and you made me smile with the story about your son’s comment!

    Cheers!

  7. Photo Critique Series: Patterns, Focal Points, and Telephoto Compression in a Palouse Country Landscape | TheWorld365 | Nuno & Debora Photography Says:

    […] Posted date:  August 8, 2011  |  No comment GD Star Ratingloading… 1 This week’s photograph, titled “Steptoe Beauty,” was made by Greg Speasl in the Palouse […]

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