Lenses Affect How We See the World

Lenses again 5Not long ago, I wrote a bit about the importance of both moving your camera position and changing focal length in order to get different perspectives on your subject and its relationship to the surroundings. I got to thinking a bit about this and realized that there was something more important going on here than I had considered. Lenses and how we use them are not simply "photographic technique" or craft. They also literally and psychologically affect how we see the world.

Photographs have the potential for doing much more than recording a pretty scene or subject or even showing us a subject we have not seen before. Photographs allow us to deal with and visually structure the chaos of life all around us to emphasize something that we care about and share it with others.

Actually, just standing in one place and zooming starts to do that. A wide-angle focal length gives us a wide-angle view of the world, helping us see relationships of many elements of a scene.

Lenses again 7A telephoto focal length gives us a more focused and isolated view of the world, encouraging us to see details in new ways.

Lenses again 8

Both views are important and I think we can use these ideas from photography to better help us see and connect with the world around us on many levels. If you visit a friend's house, for example, the wide-angle view helps you see the connect of your friend to his or her environment. It truly is the "big picture" point of view. When you go into nature, this big picture point-of-view, regardless if you actually use your camera, helps you see connections and how things are interrelated if your mind has a wide-angle perspective.

On the other hand, the telephoto view with your friend helps you focus in just on them and what is important to them. You see details that are overlooked in the wide view. In nature, this is also important to help you discover more to a location than simply being in a big place. The telephoto point-of-view allows you to isolate details so that you can see them clearly in your mind even if you don't put a telephoto lens on your camera.

Now let's go back to the idea of moving your position as well as your wide or telephoto point-of-view. If you get in close to a subject with a wide-angle focal length, the subject gets very large compared to a shrinking background and environment. The surroundings are definitely there, but compared to a standard wide view where you stand back from the scene, they are reduced in size and change in their emphasis within the photo.

Lenses again 1 Lenses again 4Getting close to anything important to you and still staying aware of the bigger surroundings gives you a unique perspective on that "object", whether that is a person or a flower. This keeps the subject prime in your mind while allowing you to still see how the "big picture" influences that subject. The subject is absolutely the star of your attention (which is not always true if you simply watch or shoot from a distance with a wide-angle view), yet the environment is still there helping give perspective.

If you back up and shoot with a telephoto, perspective changes so that the background/surroundings become more natural in their size relationship to the subject. You can also better see how that subject relates to specific details nearby.

Lenses again 2 Lenses again 3While this is more "distant" emotionally, it can be a very important way of seeing a subject whether through a camera or in your mind. Sometimes the wide view is just too distracting and keeps you from really seeing true relationships of your subject, your center of attention with specific parts of their world.

In my wife's family, her mom loves to have a big party with all of the siblings, spouses and kids (which makes for a large, rather chaotic group). It can be great to get in close to someone and still keep an eye on the rest of the group. That tells you a lot about connections in the family. But sometimes you have to step back and focus on one part of the group, backing up enough to see how that one part is connecting with the rest. For example, a child who is feeling a little left out.

In nature, we have the same things. We can get right in the forest with a wide-angle point-of-view and gain some stunning perspectives of how a flower or tree fits into the larger setting. But sometimes we need to step back and refocus our attention on seeing a very specific relationship of one element of that place to something that affects it strongly. That can come from that backed off, telephoto perspective. The shot below is the backed off, telephoto perspective of the yucca relative, nolina, shown at the top of this blog. This is exactly the same plant, but look what a difference a focal length and distance change can make for how we see the plant.

Lenses again 6As I thought about these things, I realized why it has been so important to me to shoot with more than just one focal length up close. While I use and love working with a macro lens, that focal length can only offer me one point-of-view. I want to see nature as a bigger place than simply a series of locations to be used with my macro to "harvest" images of varied subjects. By using different wide-to-telephoto points-of-view, whether that is from my camera or just how I am using my mind, I see a different and more beautiful world.

I am trying something new for my how-to videos. A new video website, EduPow.com, is now offering courses for the very low price of $5 each, with the plan of getting lots of people to try them out. I have three courses there: Photo Success with Lightroom (about using Develop effectively and efficiently), Photo Organization with Lightroom (a little about how to organize photos as well as using Library effectively and efficiently), and Mastering Black-and-White.

And with all of these flower photos, I have to mention my class on photographing flowers, Flower Photography from Snapshot to Great Shot, at BetterPhoto.com. One thing that is great about BetterPhoto.com is that you get lessons from pros plus assignments plus critiques of those assignments by the pros.

Posted in Craft of photography, lenses, Nature photography | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Respect in Photography (and Life)

Freeport, MaineI am going to do something a bit different this week because of an experience I had recently, related to people who suffer from Parkinson's disease. The photo above is of my dad. He passed away nearly three years ago. He had Parkinson's disease. While technically, Parkinson's did not "kill" him, it devastated his body so much that his body just could not deal with new challenges.

This blog will first relate to photography and how we look at subjects. Then, I want to speak out a bit about Parkinson's disease. This photo was taken a few years before my dad died, though the Parkinson's disease was really causing problems for him. Yet, when I saw him looking thoughtfully at his great grandchild at a family gathering, I saw a man who was still a strong man in spite of the disease. The light combined with a telephoto lens isolated him and provided me with a strong image that respected him. I really liked it in black-and-white because it strengthened the light and the moment.

The photo goes against all the "technical" rules. I shot it handheld with a 70-300mm lens at 1/25 sec. I did try to brace myself and do the best I could, plus I was using a lens with image stabilization. It has a lot of noise from a relatively high ISO for the time. It is not perfect technically. Yet I feel it is perfect in respect. I sometimes get the feeling that photographers get too tied to the technology and forget that the ultimate goal of photography is to create images that connect with others and/or express something important to the photographer.

I strongly believe that photography can and should respect the subject. I think that sometimes people trivialize subjects, from people to nature, by being more interested in the effects, the technology, than in the subject and showing it with honor and dignity. (That said, I do have to qualify this slightly. One of my inspirations as a photographer has been Arnold Newman. He was one who had great respect for his subjects, except for a well-known shot of Alfried Krupp. Krupp was an "important" industrialist during World War II whose family owned a key munitions plant for the Nazis and who deliberately used Jewish slave labor in the factory. Krupp served a minimal time in jail after the war for that. Newman was assigned by a news magazine to photograph Krupp in 1963. Newman was Jewish. Newman created an amazing portrait of Krupp that definitely made a statement. In this case, Newman still had a photograph of respect – this time respecting the Jews who had suffered because of this man.)

I think this image of my dad shows him as a person, not as a person being crippled by Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's is a difficult disease. It fights the muscles of the body. My sister also has Parkinson's and though hers is "controlled" by medication, that control is a relative term. Though you would never know it from watching her go through her day, my sister fights her body all of the time. She says that it can be like walking through a field with cement blocks on your feet.

That is why it both saddens and angers me when I hear of people who treat anyone with a debilitating disease with a lack of respect. I am certainly strongly aware of Parkinson's disease and its effects within my family. That probably makes me more sensitive. I will admit that.

Still, it is very hard for me when I learn of people who want someone who has Parkinson's disease to respond to the world the way that they do. They don't seem to have any idea what is like to be constantly fighting a battle with your body, especially someone who is elderly like my dad was. As if it weren't enough to be dealing with the usual challenges of aging to then have to fight the physically draining battle with Parkinson's. Sadly, I heard of a family from a mutual acquaintance that has an elderly person who is struggling with Parkinson's and seems to be getting little respect from others in the family. They say this sufferer is lazy and seem to be convinced this person is just doing this to annoy them. Where is the respect for a fellow human being, one who suffers a fate none of us would want?

Photography has the potential for showing the world with respect, a potential I believe in. I don't think every photograph has to be serious and deep, but I do think that photographs will reflect the photographer. If a photographer does not respect this or her subject, if he or she comes to that subject with thoughtless preconceptions, then the photograph will show that, regardless of what that subject may be.

It is worth looking at our own attitudes as we photograph. That can affect the quality of an image every bit as much as any new camera, lens or software. What is in our hearts does matter as we photograph.

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Looking Beyond the Obvious

GBNP CU 1Earlier this summer, I was up in the Great Basin National Park in Nevada. This is a wonderful park that is one of the quieter national parks because of its location.

While I did photograph some of the beautiful mountains of the park, I also spent time getting down and dirty with the small critters, the insects and spiders, that live there, as well as the great flowers that were in bloom, too. These small things can be as unique to a location as the obvious mountains. Including such macro and close-up photography in your a trip to a great natural location can give you a richer set of photos as well as a deeper experience with the place.

GBNP CU 2This can require a conscious effort because our tendency is often to focus in on the obvious beauty. By looking beyond the obvious, I will guarantee you will be reqered with unique and special photos that other photographers truly will miss.

GBNP CU 5A cool thing about close-up and macro work is that you can do it in all sorts of weather and light. The light might just be awful for the distant mountain because of the wrong time of day or the clouds don’t cooperate. Maybe even there is possibility of rain so that you get ugly gray skies.

GBNP CU 4Up close, none of this matters! You can always find wonderful opportunities for great shots up close. Light in the wrong direction? Move to the right or left and it changes instantly. Terrible skies? No need to show them. Gray conditions? That can give an enveloping light for close-ups that allows you to show off details and colors that might be obscured by brighter, harsher light. Because you are working with such a small area in front of your lens, you don’t have many of the problems of landscape photography or any type of photography that requires you to shoot at a distance.

One thing to always remember, though – when you are up close, camera movement is magnified so that a fast shutter speed becomes a necessity if you want sharp photos handheld. If you are shooting with a 60mm focal length with a Micro Four Thirds system (like the Panasonic GH3 I shoot), for example, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/250 sec. If you are shooting with a 100mm focal length with an APS-C system, for another example, you should also be shooting with a minimum shutter speed of 1/300 sec. If you put that same 100mm focal length on a 35mm-full-frame camera, then you should be shooting with a minimum shutter speed of 1/250 sec.

If you go for more of a telephoto (and telephotos work great with extension tubes for close-up and macro work), your shutter speeds need to get faster. You may need a minimum of 1/1000 sec. Many photographers are not getting the optimum sharpness from their lenses because they are shooting at too slow a shutter speed. I will use a tripod whenever possible because of this, but that is not always possible when you are shooting little critters that move around. Don’t be afraid of using a higher ISO setting to give you the shutter speed you need.


Posted in Craft of photography, Landscape photography, Locations, Nature photography | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Beyond Simply Zooming: A True Pro Secret

Perspective3 Perspective1A challenge I am seeing for today's digital photographers is that so many of them have learned photography only with zoom lenses. Let me say that zoom lenses are outstanding and well worth having and using. That is not the issue. The problem comes from how they are used. The two photos above of California poppies near Lancaster, California, from this past spring could not be done with standard usage of a zoom lens. After getting a nice note from Aram (in comments), I realized that I needed to clarify this. These two shots were indeed done with zoom lenses. This blog is about the use of focal lengths and how zooms are used, not whether one uses a zoom or not. Zooms are great!

Go anywhere where there are a group of photographers, from a popular overlook to a photo club field trip. Watch and you will see most if not all of the photographers stand or set up a tripod at one spot then simply zoom in and out to get the shot. In the days before zooms, people had to change lenses and change their position – there was no other option. There is nothing wrong in zooming to get the shot that unless that is all you are doing. Zooming in and out is simply cropping the scene. You can get the same shot, literally, if you cropped your image file (you might lose sharpness or get more noise, but the photos will look the same).

Being able to zoom can be important. If you are limited as to where you can shoot from, then the only way to change your shot is to zoom. Zooming to wide-angle lets you see more of a scene, zooming to telephoto allows you to zero in on a detail such as a distant animal.

Yet focal lengths have much more power than just being part of a zoom. I can take my Olympus 50-200mm zoom for my Panasonic GH3 (MFT – 35mm-full-frame equivalent is 100-400mm), use it at 50mm up close and at 200mm backed up on the same subject so that the subject stays the same size, and get two radically different photos that have the same basic composition of the subject. Now that may seem a little confusing because both changing focal length and moving camera position are involved.

WA and Tele with flowersThose  concepts are very important – first, a combination of changing focal length AND changing distance, plus, the same basic composition. When you zoom from one spot, you are not changing distance so the composition and framing of the subject change dramatically. One shot will show off a lot of surrounding for the subject, the other will simply show a close detail.

That said, I know from classes that even when I say you must change position and change focal length for these effects, students still just zoom in and out to get the composition rather than moving much. They are just in such a habit of doing that with a zoom. And frankly, that is very easy to do.

I am talking about moving a lot. You can see this in a video I did on Skillfeed.com and also in the book and DVD, Landscape Photography: from Snapshot to Great Shot as well as Choosing the Right Lens for Nature and Landscape Photography in every ebook type from pdf to Kindle from Peachpit. The latter is only $5.00 – they want to make it easy for anyone to access their Fuel Books. Buy at Peachpit.com to find it in any ebook format you can imagine.

Now I know from experience that this is one of the hardest things for today's photographers to understand about the craft of photography and that is all due to a habit of standing in one place and zooming in and out. Why is changing focal length AND moving important? Let's look at the first two photos again, but now with some notations on them:

Perspective4 Perspective2

The first shot is the wide-angle focal length, the second, the telephoto focal length. Look at the number 1 arrows in both photos. Notice the flowers in the foreground and the mountains in the background. Both photos were shot from essentially the same place (the telephoto was shot from up on a hill to the left) – that means the distance from flowers to mountains is identical! But they don't look identical at all. That is because of a big perspective change that affects the impression of depth and distance. The wide-angle stretches distance when you are close to a subject and the telephoto compresses distance when you back up. The wide-angle also shrinks the background while the telephoto magnifies it relative to the subject.

Look at the number 2 arrows. Here we have two flower groups that look different in how spread apart they appear. Actually, the flowers in the telephoto are farther apart than in the wide-angle. Again, the wide-angle has spread apart distance and the telephoto has compressed it, but only because the camera position relative to the subject has changed. Also, notice that depth of field is significantly less for the telephoto shot compared to the wide-angle shot.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Wide-angle focal lengths (or wider-angle focal lengths compared to more telephoto on a telephoto zoom) increase depth of field, stretch perspective by shrinking the background relative to the subject, make the background smaller, and give a greatly increased feeling and impression of depth.
  • Telephoto focal lengths (or more telephoto compared to wider focal lengths on a wide-angle zoom) decrease depth of field, compress perspective by making the background larger relative to the subject, bring the background visually closer to the subject, and flatten out the scene for less depth.
  • Focal lengths plus distance can change your background. For example, say there is a dark area behind your subject that would be perfect but it is too small to fill the background behind your subject from your position. So you back up and use the telephoto to enlarge the background while making the subject stay the same size.
  • By getting in close with a wide-angle lens, you make your subject large and the background small. This allows your subject to be the star of the photo even though there may be a lot of background. This allows you to create a dramatic difference in size between subject and background.
  • Stretch space with a wide-angle up close. This is frequently used by pros who want a spacious feeling to their image. This can be visually quite dramatic with very wide-angle lenses and will give impact.
  • Flatten or compress space with a telephoto backed up. This is used by Hollywood all the time to make it look like a danger is closer to the hero than it really is. This can create some dramatic effects that cannot be achieved in any other way, such as making a row of houses look closer together, or a group of people look closer together, effects that can have impact.
  • You can change visual relationships between your subject and background, subject and foreground, foreground and background that cannot be done by simply standing in one place and zooming in or out.

Once you understand this, there are so very many ways you can use this tool. If you start  simply standing in one place and zooming, pause and think about what other possibilities you have. Ask yourself what would this look like up close with a wide-angle or backed up with a telephoto. You will find that pros use this all the time. This is a good reason why a macro lens should NOT be the only lens you use up close if you are serious about close-up work (i.e., the macro lens is only one focal length).

And as you play with this, you will discover more. This was a key tool of most photographers in the days of single focal length or prime lenses before zooms, and it has become a lost art. Just the fact that it is a lost art means the technique has great potential for impact.

Posted in Craft of photography, Landscape photography, Nature photography | 14 Comments

One Old Plant!

Pando 2Recently I returned from a trip through the "outback" of Nevada and Utah with Chuck Summers. We visited the Great Basin National Park, learned that the actual Great Basin is really lots of small basins between small mountain ranges (though the Basin gets its name because all streams in the area flow into it and not out) and we found one of the oldest still living plants in the world, the Pando aspen in Utah.

I love aspen, from their beautiful bark to their wonderful, fluttery leaves, and the way they grow in large groves or stands. The trees, the leaves, the seasons, and even whole stands can make for great photo opportunities. But there are aspen groves throughout the West, so why go to Pando near Fish Lake, Utah? (It is in the Fishlake National Forest, but why Fish Lake is Fish Lake and Fishlake National Forest is Fishlake, I have no idea.)

Pando 6To answer that, I need to explain a little about how aspen grow. Not everyone knows that aspen groves are usually one tree with many stems. The trees are clones. Just like many garden plants, aspen send up shoots from their roots that allow it to spread through an area. Some scientists even believe that aspen in the West rarely grow from seed and all aspen groves in the west are large and very old clones.

Pando 1The Pando aspen clone covers over 100 acres, includes 40,000-47,000 stems or trunks and is estimated to weigh 13 million pounds. To get this size, this plant has had to grow a very long time. While no individual stem is unusually old, scientists believe this aspen grove could be 80,000 years old. I was in awe when I first visited the ancient bristlecone pine in California where they can be 4,000 years and older. But 80,000! Wow! That is why I had to visit this place myself.

Pando 7The day turned out to be great for photography. As we entered the basin where Fish Lake sits, we found a high spot that showed us the whole area. The weather was changing and clouds were coming through at a rapid pace. This meant that spots of light would race across the landscape, offering terrific photo opps, but you had to be fast! There was no time to change a lens or fix an exposure. The light would hit a stand of aspen then move on within 30 seconds or less. This was action landscape photography!

Pando 4The Pando clone is not marked, which Chuck and I found disappointing. Such an amazing living organism deserves a bit of recognition. But with some help from information we had downloaded from the Internet and some local folks, we found the clone. It is just over a mile south of the lake. A primitive campground goes through part of it. There is also a fenced area with a lot of young stems – the Forest Service is trying to keep the clone healthy. If the roots cannot get young stems growing to replace old ones, the plant will die. Overgrazing by cattle and elk have meant that few young trees were able to grow before being chewed off. The fenced area is not very pretty, but it is important.

The rest of the area offers a lot of possibilities for photos from wide shots to close ups. We were there when the leaves were still relatively new which gives them a great green. This should be a spectacular area for fall color. While there are lots of places to go in order to photograph aspen, there is something pretty amazing, even spiritual in a way, to be in the presence of something so old.

Pando 5

Pando 3Check out these links for more information: The Trembling Giant and the Forest Service Pando page.

Also, my new video class on close-up and macro photography is available at Skillfeed.com.

Posted in Environment, Landscape photography, Locations, Native plants | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Peter Essick and the Ansel Adams Wilderness

Ansel Adams Wilderness, CaliforniaI quite admire Peter Essick's work. He has a way of telling stories about nature and the environment through his photography that few other photographers match, even among his fellow photographers at National Geographic. More people should know his work. He has a new book out that features superb black-and-white photography from the Ansel Adams Wilderness area in California. I will let him tell you more about it from the introduction to the book:

Recently, I discovered Ansel Adam’s book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, which showcases the stunning wilderness of California’s Sierra Nevada. This breathtaking landscape is home to the famous Minarets, whose sharp, jagged peaks have attracted daring climbers for more than a century. Adams’s photos immediately struck me as simple yet elegant compositions; his straightforward black-and-white approach perfectly complements the purity of the mountains. These images left an indelible impression on me.

Like Adams, I am a native Californian familiar with the High Sierra, and some of my first successful photos were of this wilderness area (located between Yosemite National Park and Mammoth Lakes, and renamed for Adams following his death in 1984). For 25 years I have traveled throughout the world as a photographer for National Geographic magazine, but the High Sierra always has had a special place in my heart. So in 2010, after studying the book further, I submitted a magazine story proposal about the Ansel Adams Wilderness. I couldn’t imagine a more fascinating project than taking black-and-white photographs of Adams’s sacred territory—sacred in part because of his art that immortalized it.

Ansel Adams Wilderness, CaliforniaI knew such a project would be stepping into a potentially controversial arena. Many critics and fans would say a landscape photographer would have to be either egotistical or foolish to shoot a story in the Ansel Adams territory and tradition. After all, not only is Adams our most cherished American photographer, but he’s also recognized as the master of the form, with the High Sierra representing the hallowed ground of his art. Any attempt to follow in his footsteps with creative work of my own could easily be viewed as derivative.

Summit Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, CaliforniaNevertheless, pulled by an irresistible desire, I carried out my initial research, which included talking to people who knew Adams, from admirers to hero worshippers to detractors who felt he was a symbol of bygone times. These encounters only intensified my inspiration to do the story and my passion for Adams’s art. For my National Geographic story, I wanted to pay homage to the master but not duplicate his work. It didn’t make sense to go out and photograph the same places in the same style as Adams, 75 years later.

Ansel Adams Wilderness, CaliforniaNevertheless, I realized I had been influenced by Adams’s work and I wanted to celebrate that. In my mind, I came up with the idea of referencing. How referencing eventually translated into photographs went something like this: When I took my photograph of the moonset at Donahue Pass, I was aware of Adams’s masterpiece, High Country Crags and Moon, Sunrise, Kings Canyon National Park, California. Our photographs share similarities—both were taken of a granite landscape in the Sierra Nevada above tree line, and both feature triangular shapes. My intent was for the photograph to be my interpretation of the landscape at a certain moment in time, while also acknowledging the work that came before.

Ansel Adams Wilderness, CaliforniaMost of Adams’s best work was done during the period of modernism. Along with Edward Weston (1886–1958) and Imogen Cunningham (1883–1976), Adams was one of the strongest proponents of “straight” photography. This was not only photography’s answer to pictorialism— which was viewed as a bad imitation of painting—but also was an embrace of the larger world of modernism. Many of Adams’s photographs of nature during this time are beautiful compositions that elevate form by reducing a scene to its elemental components. Adams called this method extracts, a way to turn landscape photography into an avenue for personal expression.

Clark Lakes, Ansel Adams Wilderness, CaliforniaThroughout my career, my photographs have embodied meaning related to the time and effort that went into their making. This new landscape series holds even deeper significance for me, as the images connect intrinsically to my memories of being alone with my camera in a place as rare and spectacular as the Ansel Adams Wilderness. They also are reminders of what an inspiring presence Ansel Adams has been for me and so many other photographers. The universe can speak clearly in its pure and natural state, conveying both the spirit of the past and the wonderment of the new. I ask myself: What could be better than that? What could be better than to take black-and-white photographs in the Ansel Adams Wilderness?

Ansel Adams Wilderness, CaliforniaYou can find Peter's book, The Ansel Adams Wilderness, at Amazon.com.

Posted in Books, Landscape photography, Locations | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments