Focusing On Focal Lengths
One of the questions asked most frequently at my seminars is, What’s the most desirable focal length for landscape photography? I always answer that I use all focal lengths, and I tend to use the extremes—long telephotos and extreme wide angles—quite often. It’s all about perspective. If we can show the scene to the viewer in a different way than they see it on a day-to-day basis, there just might be a reason for them to look at our pictures.
I choose wide-angle lenses to expand the depth and put emphasis on the foreground. This allows me to choose a strong subject, like a group of flowers, and place it in the foreground of its environment, perhaps a plain leading to mountains in the distance. The result shows not only my beautiful subject, but a sense of its larger place.
Used in landscape photography, telephotos place the emphasis where it should be. I call this technique “optical extraction.” The idea is to look around the landscape and see what grabs your attention. Call out that detail with your telephoto, eliminating distracting elements around it. An example might be beautiful light on a distant peak, where all the darker forest around it is unnecessary and distracting.
The technique requires practice. Photographers must know the field of view of their lenses and train themselves to see the landscape as the lenses would. The image of Mt. McKinley is interesting as an overall shot, but an optical extraction with a Canon 100-400mm zoom set to 320mm put the emphasis on the peak and clouds above it.
Each landscape offers many possibilities for interpretation, and the wide range of lenses available gives photographers all the tools we need. Which is the most desirable focal length? It’s the one that captures your own vision.
I’d like to take pictures inside a cave, where there’s light on one side but not on the other. There are rapids running through the rocks in the cave. What suggestions do you have for solving the lighting problem?
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Whether the available light is incandescent within the cave or sunlight is coming through an opening, you have the same problem: contrast. Exposing for the bright areas will leave the shadow areas completely devoid of detail. This is a perfect situation to employ all the possibilities of High Dynamic Range found in Photoshop CS2 and CS3 and Photomatix software.
Use a tripod, and make a series of exposures starting with an exposure for the brightest area, and in one-stop increments, lengthen your exposure (shutter speeds only) until you’re capturing information in the darker areas of the cave. Process this series of exposures in one of the software programs. The result will be an image that gives you far more detail in the bright and shadowed areas than has ever been possible before. The water running through the cave will appear to be blurred, suggesting its motion.
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What You Should Bring
My wife and I are going out West in July to shoot landscapes. I think I have pretty good camera equipment. For lenses, I have an 18-135mm zoom and a 200-500mm zoom. I have lens-protection filters, a polarizer, a skylight filter and an Epson P-5000. When I read through articles, I see photographers using neutral-density filters, special-effects filters for sunsets, split-color filters and colored polarizers. What special things would you want to have along for photographing Yellowstone, the Badlands and the Grand Tetons?
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You’re pretty well set with your equipment, except for the lack of coverage in the 135mm to 200mm range. This can be a critical range for landscape photography. There’s a reason why 80-200mm zooms are very popular!
An important accessory that you might be missing would be a cable release, which would be necessary if you wanted to do time exposures early or late in the day. Most digital and electronic film cameras take an electronic release. A two-axis bubble level that fits on your flash shoe can be very useful for taking composite panoramas. I’d never be caught without one, and so I tend to carry two.
Because of the 200-500mm zoom’s large front element, I’m concerned about your ability to use filters on it. Usually, we get one filter to fit the largest front element in the bag, then use step-down rings to make it fit the smaller lenses. But you may need to get an adapter that uses large, square filters to get full coverage on that big lens.
You may want to add a neutral-density filter (three-stop) because it can be helpful if you’re photographing water and want a long exposure. Get one to fit the largest lens and step-down rings to fit the rest. I carry a standard set of filters for landscape photography: a warm polarizer, a blue-gold polarizer and a Vari-ND (variable neutral-density filter) from Singh-Ray.
I’d advise that you bracket exposures to address high-contrast situations so commonly encountered in landscape photography, where you have dark foregrounds and bright skies. Using High Dynamic Range in Photoshop CS2 or CS3 (www.adobe.com) or Photomatix from HDRsoft (www.hdrsoft.com), you can solve this problem beautifully if you capture all the information when you take the shot (see the discussion of the HDR procedure in the previous question about photographing in caves). I suggest you check this out and practice before you leave on your trip so that when you encounter that fabulous red rock landscape, you‚’re ready to make the most of it.
Tilt/Shift Lenses For Landscapes
I understand that tilt/shift lenses can be helpful for landscapes, but they’re expensive! If you could own only one focal length, which one would it be and why?
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The advantage of a tilt/shift lens is that the front elements can be tilted to modify the plane of focus from the normal angle, which is perpendicular to the lens, to an angle that’s more or less than 90 degrees to the lens. Imagine two parallel planes, one perpendicular to the end of the lens and one at the front edge of the area of sharpness. When the plane at the end of the lens is tilted, the plane of sharpness tilts also, extending the range of the sharpness along the angled plane. Maximum depth of field is achieved when the top of the lens is tilted away from the photographer and a small lens aperture is used.
There are three basic focal lengths available. Canon offers 24mm, 45mm and 90mm tilt/shift lenses, and Nikon offers the 85mm PC Micro Nikkor. The two I’ve used the most for landscapes are the 24mm and 90mm. Each has a different purpose. The 24mm is especially useful when a moderately wide angle is needed, when the foreground is quite important and needs to be kept in focus along with more distant elements within the composition. It’s possible to have a foreground detail within inches of the lens sharply rendered, while also getting a sharp capture of the mountains in the background far away.
The 90mm lens is a moderate telephoto and is best for some depth compression in a composition, yet everything within the view needs to be sharp. This is often difficult with telephoto lenses because they typically offer minimal depth of field. The compression can be emphasized by adding either a 1.4x or 2x tele-extender to the 90mm tilt/shift lens.
Considering the 1.5x or 1.6x magnification of a smaller-sensor D-SLR, the compression is emphasized even more when using the longer focal-length lens. A perfect example for use of an 85mm or 90mm tilt/shift lens is a carpet of flowers photographed from a low angle, with all of the flowers tightly compressed and, due to the tilt, all of them in focus across their tops. This particular perspective is impossible to achieve with any other type of telephoto lens.
If I could have only one, I’d choose the 90mm, mainly because it can capture images that no other optic can. But if most of your landscapes are wide-angle, you might opt for the 24mm.
If your subject isn’t moving and you’re shooting with a tripod, you can have unlimited depth of field with new software called Helicon Focus (www.heliconfocus.com). Without reframing, adjust your focus through consecutive shots to cover the entire image. The software combines the images by keeping all sharp areas and masking the unsharp, and the result is complete depth of field, with objects both near and far in perfect focus. This technique can be used with any focal-length lens, and it takes up no space in your camera bag.
The shift factor in the tilt/shift lens is mostly used by architectural photographers for perspective control. There’s a way to use the shift features for three-shot panoramas when using a small-sensor D-SLR, but that’s another column.
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