Ancient and worn, the Appalachians are considered to be the world's oldest mountain range. I learned that capturing the essence of this magnificent landscape required a bit more attention to the details than photographing their impressive western cousins, the lofty snowcapped Rocky Mountains. Instead of sweeping vistas at every bend of the road, the Appalachians are a bit more subtle in displaying their personality and beauty. The photographer truly has to see the forest for the trees.
The Appalachian landscape nudges the photographer to get closer to the subject, offering an invitation to explore the intricacies of its forests. So to capture a true Appalachian sense of place, the wide-angle lens isn't always going to be the focal length of choice. This is where isolated scenics prove to be an invaluable technique. Isolated scenics, or as George Lepp calls it, optical extraction, is simply a landscape composition created by using a longer focal length. Isolated scenics accentuate the composition by selecting only a portion of the landscape. For me, this technique becomes indispensable when photographing in an Appalachian hardwood forest environment. Here are some suggestions for adding this technique to your tool kit.
From One Scene, Learn To See Many. Regardless of what focal length is used, the key to creating an effective composition is to explore the scene first. Before pulling out the wide-angle, determine if portions of the scene can be "isolated" for a more dynamic image. You may discover that several portions of the overall composition can be optically extracted from the typical wide-angle composition. Our eyes and brain are capable of segregating a scene into several segments. We do this subconsciously, visually breaking up the scene into several views, each emphasizing a few strong elements. Remember to explore first, isolate second.
Isolate. After discovering several subscenes, determine which ones to emphasize. While wide-angle focal lengths open up a scene, emphasizing its vastness, longer focal lengths compress the elements, resulting in a more intimate image. With their narrower fields of view, focal lengths of 80mm and longer transform the complex and busy into the simple and selective, often helping to fashion a more well-defined composition.
Sunrise, Sunset. In some situations, I'll use focal lengths in the 300-400mm range. These longer focal lengths compress much more of the scene. I particularly like these focal lengths when photographing sunrises and sunsets, because they ensure the sun (and sometimes even the moon) becomes the primary element in the composition. I'll even use extreme focal lengths in the 500mm or 600mm focal length to emphasize the power of the sun. Use an element that adds depth or drama to the composition, such as a bank of clouds, a series of mountain ridges or a silhouette.
Try Backlight. Autumn's magnificent reds, yellows and golds make great subjects for backlit-isolated scenics. Select a colorful tree, such as a sugar maple, and use backlighting to highlight the yellow leaves and the branches as silhouettes. Adjustment to the camera's exposure reading may be necessary since the direct light hitting the camera's meter may risk underexposure.
Decide Arrangement And Position Of Primary And Secondary Elements. After determining the point of interest and focal length, decide the arrangement of the primary and secondary elements. You want the viewer to take a trip through the image, so placement of these elements in the composition becomes important. With the exception of a strong vertical composition, centering the primary point of interest frequently fails to create a powerful image. Placing the point of interest off-center may entice the viewer to take a visual journey through the image, discovering the composition's secondary, supporting elements. Background colors become important secondary elements, so make sure they're complementary to the primary subject.