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Friday Foto Talk: Point of View, Part II   4 comments

In a forest I often find stumps or fallen logs to stand on, raising POV.  Like atop this fallen giant in California's redwoods.

In a forest I often find stumps or fallen logs to stand on, raising POV. Like atop this fallen giant in California’s redwoods.

This is the second of two parts on Point of View (POV) in photography.  Last week Part I looked at general position and angle related to subject and background.  This time I’ll focus on what most people think of when they think of POV: height.

Point of View:  Height

Let’s go back to when we first picked up a camera.  What did we do?  We shot from a standing position.  Then when we got hold of a tripod we extended the legs and again shot from eye level.  This isn’t surprising; it’s almost always the way we experience the world.

Unfortunately, it quickly becomes boring to see picture after picture from this same position.  You start to wonder what it’s like to see things the way the world’s shortest man or the tallest woman sees them.  Going further, what is it like to see the world from an eagle’s point of view, or an insect’s?  There’s only one way to find out.  Get up or get down and shoot!  It’s the other major way to change point of view: change the camera height.

Long's Peak, shot last night from the highest point I could find on Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.

Long’s Peak, shot last night from the highest point I could find on Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.

LOW POV

The easiest way to change height POV is to lower it.  You go down on one knee, assuming the classic shooter’s pose.  Or you squat, getting a bit lower.  Or you lay right down on your belly with elbows propped in a sort of tripod.  When you’re using an actual tripod and want to go lower, you either change the length of the legs or spread them more widely.

You can also remove the center column or otherwise rig up the tripod to go even lower.  For ultra low POVs you can just plop the camera right down on the ground.  Or you use a beanbag, your camera bag, or a piece of clothing for cushioning, giving you a POV very near ground level.

This small cholla cactus I wanted to highlight against the stormy sky of Death Valley, California.  So I used a very low POV, a foot or two above the ground.

This small cholla cactus I wanted to highlight against the stormy sky of Death Valley, California. So I used a very low POV, a foot or two above the ground.

When you lower your point of view a few interesting things happen:

  • Foregrounds draw nearer and get bigger.  For compositions with close foreground elements, lowering POV brings them even closer (see image above).  If you want everything in focus front to back you may have to stop down to a smaller aperture (higher f/number).  Or you can take more than one shot and focus stack the images.
  • Foregrounds change position.  Lowering your POV also changes how foreground subjects are set off against the background.  As you go down, close foreground elements rise in proportion.  This can set them against the sky instead of the landscape and even put them in silhouette.  You also need to be aware of foreground elements blocking important parts of the background.  Make small shifts in position to compensate and get the composition just right.
  • Backgrounds recede.  This depends on how wide your lens is, but when you lower the camera the background can lose prominence in favor of foreground elements.  Even tall mountains tend to shrink.  Not as much as when you change from a 50 mm. to a 17 mm. focal length, for example, but the effect is similar.  It’s another way that lowering POV helps to emphasize foreground elements in an image, by de-emphasizing the background.
For these two elk this morning, I got low to set them against the rising sun.

For these two elk this morning, I got low to set them against the rising sun.  Compare with image below.

Another recent elk from Rocky Mtn. National Park. But this time from a higher POV gained by walking uphill.

HIGH POV

Another way to vary height POV is to raise the camera, so you’re looking down on your subject.  It’s more challenging than lowering the camera, but it’s often more interesting to try.  And it’s more satisfying when it turns out well.  That’s because, as hard as it can seem to get very low (especially as we get older), going up usually requires the most effort and imagination.  You need to either climb with your gear up to some perch or do some outside-the-box thinking, or both.

Here are some ideas:

  • Climb a rock or mountain.  We tell ourselves it won’t matter so much, but that’s our lazy side talking back to us.  In actuality, scrambling up onto a rock or heading up a steep trail is often all you need to make that landscape photo pop.  It can also add interest to a group photo.  Depending on your subject, even a modest increase in POV height can help to add a sense of depth.  The image above only required a short (but breathless) walk uphill.  I also gave him plenty of space and shot with a longer focal length (600 mm.) so as not to disturb him from his morning “zen spot”.
  • Or a tree!  Last weekend while photographing these moose in Colorado I was becoming frustrated by the tall willows.  While the moose were more than okay with it, happily munching on one of their favorite foods, the willows were also limiting my view to head and antler shots.  So I did something I rarely do anymore: I climbed a tree.  I only had to go about 6 or 7 feet up to make a big difference in POV.  I ended up liking the shots with lower POV, those few without obscuring willows that is.  But how would I have known for sure without trying?
I had to get part-way up a tree to even get this much of a moose in the willows, Colorado.

I had to get part-way up a tree to even get this much of a moose in the willows, Colorado.

A fairly low POV, helped by finding an avenue through the willows, emphasized the size of this rather rude fellow.

A fairly low POV, helped by finding an avenue through the willows, emphasized the size of this rather rude fellow.

  • Tote a ladder around.  This is something I’ve only done a couple times, but it’s certainly a good solution in some circumstances.  For photos of people, just those few extra feet can really add variety and shift perspective dramatically.  For landscapes when you’re in a flat area, especially when shooting from the road where vegetation blocks the view, it can make the difference between getting the shot and getting skunked.
  • Go flying.  I’m always on a budget, but on occasion it has worked out to charter a flight in a small plane.  In the Okavango Delta, for example, I went in with a couple other people and took a spectacular flight over the enormous wetlands in northern Botswana, looking down on elephant and antelope herds.  If money is no problem, a helicopter flight is the best option of all.  You can hover for one thing, allowing extra time to shoot.  In addition, being able to land anywhere (if regulations permit) makes choppers my all-time favorite mode of air travel.

 

  • Get a drone.  I don’t really like drones.  For some reason they annoy me, and besides I like to be physically behind the camera.  But I have to admit that drones allow you to dramatically raise point of view in a hurry.  They also allow you to put the camera into places that are impossible to get to.

A low POV and wide angle helps to lend a sense of depth to this shot of a glacial tarn high in the Rockies.

I sometimes catch myself getting lazy when I’m out shooting.  Not often, but it happens.  I’ve learned that attitude has so much to do with photography, and occasionally the enthusiasm and motivation is just not there.  In those cases I think it’s best to just enjoy the place you’re in without photographing anything.  Of course us photogs. have a hard time doing this.

But if you are standing in one place and not varying your point of view, ask yourself if you really want to be out shooting that day.  A good way to check if you are truly motivated  is to simply observe yourself.  Are you moving your feet?  Are you changing position and height?

The bottom line is that if you want better photographs you simply must vary your point of view as much as possible.  All this shifting around to get the shot can lead to problems both legal and safety-wise.  So nextFriday I will add a post-script to the topic of POV.  Thanks so much for reading, and have a wonderful weekend!

For this sunset shot at Red Rock Lake, Colorado, I wanted to get low enough to emphasize the grasses yet not so low that Indian Peaks would appear too small.

For this sunset shot at Red Rock Lake, Colorado, I wanted to get low enough to emphasize the grasses yet not so low that Indian Peaks would appear too small.

 

Friday Foto Talk: The Wide-angle Lens, Part II   9 comments

A wide angle allows you to get close and low to interesting foregrounds, like these dunes near Sossusvlei, Namibia.  24 mm., 1/4 sec. @ f/22.

A wide angle allows you to get close and low to interesting foregrounds, like these dunes near Sossusvlei, Namibia. 24 mm., 1/4 sec. @ f/22.

This is the second of two parts on using the wide-angle lens in landscape photography.  The first part dealt with basic concepts like what makes a wide-angle lens, full-frame vs. crop-frame, etc.  Now let’s dive into actually using these lenses to create good images.

Here are a few things the wide-angle lens allows you to do:

      • Create a sense of space.  This might seem obvious, but these lenses’ wide fields of view can really help to create the mood of freedom that wide-open spaces can give.  Some viewers will be turned off or even frightened by wide-open spaces, but most will have a positive response. Images like the above tend to give the viewer a sense of the wild, lonely spaces of desert, mountain, ocean and more.
      • Help to add a sense of depth to your image.  Pictures are two-dimensional.  Particularly with landscapes, if you give the viewer some sense of three-dimensionality, or depth, you can put them into the scene.  Note that simply using a wide-angle lens will not add depth; it takes more than that.  A while back, I did a post, Depth, where I described some of the other things you can do to add depth.
A new image from SW Colorado.

A brand new image from SW Colorado.

      • Allow you to maximize depth of field, where more of the image is in focus.  This will help you to tell a story with your image.  In the picture at top, I wanted to highlight the side-lit sand ripples in the beautiful reddish dunes of the Namib desert.  They form strong leading lines that help give the image impact and move the viewer into the image.  Since the wider the angle the more depth of field, a wide angle (plus small aperture) will help you bring all the main elements into focus, from front to back.
      • Include surrounding elements that support your main subject.  Though this one comes in handy not as much with landscapes as with environmental portraits, where the frame includes not only the person or animal but surroundings that tell important things about it.  But if you’re shooting landscapes with strong subjects, there is nothing preventing you from moving in close to that subject and shooting it as you would an environmental portrait.
      • Give a sense of scale.  Though you can certainly use other focal lengths to give a powerful sense of the different sizes of elements in your frame, the wide-angle lens makes it all the easier.
A new image from SE Utah.

A new image from SE Utah, 16 mm. focal length

A pause while hiking at Coldwater Lake, Mount St. Helens, WA.  Shooting this at 24 mm. helps give a sense of scale between my uncle and the enormous tree blown down by the eruption of 1980.

Hiking at Coldwater Lake, Mount St. Helens, WA. Shooting this at 24 mm. & adding my uncle helps provide a sense of the scale of this enormous tree blown down by the eruption of 1980.

There are also a couple potential pitfalls to using a wide-angle lens:

  • Distortion, while present in all lenses, is greatest in wide-angle lenses.  I won’t go into the different types of distortion here.  Suffice to say you’ll notice it when using a wide-angle.  Of course, you may be going for a distorted look, at least to a moderate extent, but for most images it needs to be minimized.  Distortion is fixable to a large extent on the computer afterwards, but it makes sense to be aware of it while shooting.  Here are a couple tips to avoid problems related to distortion:
    • Leave some space around the edges of your composition, especially when you’re going very wide (14-20 mm.) and when tilting the camera significantly.  This will help during post-processing, when some cropping will take place during correction of distortion.  You don’t want to cut off anything important.
    • Avoid putting people or other important subjects along the edges, and especially in the corners, of a wide-angle frame.  This is where distortion is greatest, and you don’t want people to see a picture of themselves stretched in strange ways, believe me.
  • Wide-angles tend to make things appear small.  This is probably the number one complaint that photographers have about wide angle lenses.  While it is certainly true that the shorter focal lengths of wide-angle lenses come with smaller magnifications, once you learn to tap into their strengths, you’ll find this is not really a shortcoming at all. It’s all in the way you use the lens.  Here are a couple examples to give you an idea how I use my wide-angle lenses to help me get past this “limitation” and unleash their potential to add impact to my images.
    • Getting Close to Big Subjects:  If you want to capture a wide part of your subject, whether that’s a swath of terrain, a tree or something else, you need to either pick a very large subject or get close to it, or both.  These two factors are always going to matter when using the wide-angle lens.  You don’t have much control over the size of your subject (other than picking a different one!), but you do have control over how close you get.

The cardon cactus (Baja’s largest) in the image below is quite large.  When I shot it from 10 or 15 feet away, I wasn’t too happy.  By switching to a wider angle and getting very close I prevented the wide-angle from making it look smaller than it is (1st image below).  Then by getting so close I was basically inside it (ouch!) and shooting up at an even steeper angle, I finally got an image that tells the story of this species’ towering, “reaching for the sky” nature (2nd image below).  Both of these were shot at 24 mm.

Cardon cactus on Mexico's Baja Peninsula grow very large.

Cardon cactus on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula grow very large.

A big cardon cactus soars into the desert skies of the Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

A big cardon cactus soars into the desert skies of the Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

This portrait of an ancient pinyon pine in Black Canyon of the Gunnison N.P., Colorado was shot at 24 mm. to let me get close into the shade of the tree and yet show most of its form.

This ancient pinyon pine has been growing with others of its kind on the rim of Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison for some 750 years.

The pinyon pine in the above environmental portrait is a fascinating but not especially huge tree (at least to an Oregon boy!).  Moving close to it with a wide-angle lens allowed me to fill the frame, emphasizing its form along with the color & texture of its bark.  I wanted just enough background to show its surroundings while not making the tree look too small.  A bonus of moving close was being able to get into the tree’s shade.  During mid-morning’s intense sunshine, this kept exposure from becoming too much of a problem.

New image, Utah Canyonlands.  Shot at 23 mm.

New image, Utah Canyonlands. Shot at 23 mm.

    • Include Foreground, and Get Close!  This is probably the most popular way to use wide-angle lenses in landscape photography.  Getting close is usually a key strategy.  Many times photographers will pick very interesting foregrounds, such as beautiful flower-fields, but then not get close enough.  Foregrounds tend to get lost in many images.

Try this:  Play around with your position.  Find a great background, a mountain- or city-scape for example.  Then look for some interesting foreground element, let’s say it’s flowers in bloom.  Shoot at a single, wide focal length throughout, say 21 mm., and a small aperture (f/22).  You’ll probably need a tripod as well.  Start from 10-20 feet away at eye-level.  Then try a lower position, say belt-level.  Then get closer to it, say 5 feet.  Shoot from eye level, chest-level, belt & knee level.  Get as low as you can without blocking the main subject in the background.  The angle that you tilt your camera downward will necessarily change as your camera position changes.

You’ll find that changing the camera’s position plus its tilt changes the relative impact of foreground and background.  If you are a few inches from ground-level with your camera pointed upward, the background subject(s) will be smaller and sky might dominate the image.  If you’re position is higher and camera pointed down or level, the background subject(s) will look bigger.  Though I asked you to stick with one focal length for the exercise, in reality you may find yourself going to a wider focal length as you get very close to your foreground.  Just realize that going wider also makes the background subject appear smaller.

You need to decide which position yields a picture that matches what you want to show about the scene.  Do you want the foreground to be emphasized or the mountains?  Do you want balance between the two?  You’ll see that the nature and size of your background and foreground, plus your camera position, strongly influence the relative size of those things in your pictures.

Mount Rainier soars above Eunice Lake in Washington.  Shot at 27 mm. and positioned to give the foreground flowers just enough oomph to support but not overwhelm the mountain.

Mount Rainier soars above Eunice Lake in Washington. Shot at 27 mm. and positioned to give the foreground flowers just enough oomph to support but not overwhelm the mountain.

In the image of Mt. Rainier above, I moved closer and lower to the flowers until they had some impact but didn’t quite out-compete Mt. Rainier for attention. Though it might not look like I was that close to the flowers, I was really only five feet or so from them.  This is the great thing about grand background subjects. Their size means that in order to balance them with foreground, you need to move real close to that foreground.  This is good because it adds depth and impact to your image, without taking away from the main subject.

Realize that you and you alone are in control of the overall feel and story in your image.  You can pick your background, foreground, and (crucially) a suitable camera position that will emphasize different parts of the frame. These choices will in turn help to give an overall feel or mood to your image.  They will help you tell the story you want to tell.

Dusk comes to a dry valley in eastern Oregon's "outback".

Dusk comes to a dry valley in eastern Oregon’s “outback”.  A recent image shot at 16 mm.

In the image above, I got very close to the foreground textures of the salty pan.  I shot very wide at 16 mm. to emphasize the big landscape and skies, but stayed up at about belt level with the camera pointed slightly down.  This was so that the Trout Creek Mtns. would not appear too short and so the foreground would take up roughly 2/3 of the image.  I tried a lower position with more sky but ultimately decided that the sky would take care of itself without taking up most of the image (and making the mountains too small).

Hope you got something out of this.  If you’re one of those who has become frustrated using a wide-angle lens, just keep at it.  Play with angles and GET CLOSER!  You’ll soon discover the true potential of the wide-angle.

If you’re interested in purchase options for any of these images, just click on them to be taken to the main part of my website.  They are protected by U.S. copyright and not available for free download, sorry.  Please contact me if you have any questions or want to order a print (framed or unframed) directly from me.  I can also do signed limited edition prints.  Take a look at the selection of limited edition prints on my site.

Thanks for your interest.  Have a great weekend!

Sunset over the Columbia River from Munra Point, Oregon.

Sunset over the Columbia River from Munra Point, Oregon.  Wide-angles don’t always mean low camera positions!

Botswana's Okavango Delta, a waterworld!

Botswana’s Okavango Delta, a watery wonderland!

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