Going Wide, Going Narrow, Creating Layers of Beauty

In Landscape Photography today, it seems like the most popular focal length involves the use of an ultra-wide angle lens at its widest focal length.  In full frame photography this means a focal length of either 14mm or 16mm.  With a cropped sensor camera this means about 11mm and with Micro 4/3 this means about  7mm.  It is easy to understand why this is so.  An ultra-wide lens allows one to easily bring in layers of beauty with a prominent foreground such as flowers and or rocks, a pleasing mid ground such as a lake and island, and an attractive background such as distant peaks and dramatic skies.  An ultra-wide angle worked great for the feature image of this blog post titled “The Eye of the Crater” (also shown below) taken at sunset at Oregon’s Crater Lake with a full frame focal length of 16mm.

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Eye of the Crater 16mm f-16

But is an ultra-wide angle perspective always the best choice when creating layers of beauty in nature and landscape images?  This blog post will examine some of the factors I consider when choosing the best focal length to fulfill my vision for the image including the creation of layers of beauty.

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Elowah Mystery of Autumn 16mm f-11 (focus stacked)

Although ultra-wide angles are great for capturing near far relationships in the landscape, I find that they are not always the best choice.  I always try to achieve a balanced and realistic perspective when rendering near far relationships.  We have all seen the images so popular in social media with the flower on steroids looming large in the image foreground with a gigantic mountain in the background, a perspective achieved through the use of different focal lengths including extreme wide angles, composite imagery and warping.  Although this is sometimes done with believable subtlety, in most cases it is not and at least in my opinion results in an image that only exists in fantasy.  Often the photographer will rationalize this approach by saying it is more consistent with how one sees a image in real life, but I do not buy this.  It is primarily done to create shock value in social media.  But one can also bring attention to ones images in social media by creating photographs that are refreshingly believable.  There is a strong appetite for believable imagery in this age of digital trickery!

mazama-ridge-rock-comp Mazama Moment 28mm f-8 (focus stacked)

In the above image, Mazama Moment, I found that a 28mm moderate wide angle full frame lens was the best choice for balancing foreground, mid-ground and background elements. Had I used instead 16mm lens, Mt. Rainier would have been rendered minuscule, completely out of proportion with the rest of the scene and inconsistent with how one would typically see the scene if at the site.  The foreground still looms reasonably large in this image featuring important details of the red Huckleberries and the granite boulder, but they are not in your face.  The mid-ground featuring the play of light and shadow of the early evening light provides a wonderful transition to the peak and surrounding ridges.

It is best not to set up one’s tripod right away when trying to determine the best focal length because using different focal lengths usually also involves either moving further back or getting closer to achieve the optimal balance.  Typically I do not even use a camera at all when initially determining the best focal length.  I allow my eyes to wander and pay close attention to how they are going wide or going narrow in best taking in the beauty of the scene.   Zooms can make one lazy if one is merely checking out different focal lengths on a tripod at the same location.  One needs to move around!  Sometimes even inches can make the difference.

With the advent of focus stacking one can create tack sharp near far relationships even at the longest end of the wide-angle spectrum.   This next image of Picture Lake was captured at a 35mm  focal length.

picture-sunset-day-2compr1crop  Picture Lake Mountain Ash Purple Mountain Majesty 35mm f-11 (focus stacked)

In this image I wanted to feature the autumn colors of the Mountain Ash and its orange berries but still render Mt. Shuksan reasonably large.  The choice of a 35mm focal length helped me reach by goal of balancing the many layers in the image including the Mountain Ash, grassy areas leading up to the lake, Picture Lake, the distant forest, Mt. Shuksan and the sky.

One of the most common uses of a telephoto lens (I am defining the telephoto perspective as 55mm or above) is to isolate a subject with pleasing bokeh (out of focus areas around the subject).    Such a perspective can be seen in the next couple of images.  This perspective is typically achieved by combining a telephoto focal length with an aperture of f-2.8 to f-5.6 and shooting sufficiently close to the subject to blur the area before and behind the in-focus subject.kubota-easter778

Tulip Tree 170mm f-4.5

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Big Horn Sheep 200mm  f-5.6

The just beyond normal to extreme telephoto focal length range and longer telephoto lengths extending up to the extreme, however, can also be used to balance near and far relationships and create layers of beauty.  Maintaining sharp focus throughout the image will require using an aperture typically in the  f-10 to f-16 range or using a focus stacking technique and a more wide open aperture consistent with the peak performance of the lens.  Using apertures in the f-18 and above range is nor recommend because it results in diffraction that can actually cause the loss of sharpness.  This next image titled “Kendall Winter Wonderland” from a recent snowshoeing trip was taken with a 55mm fixed focal length lens.

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Kendall Winter Wonderland 55mm f-14

Even at 55mm one can see the definite effect of the slight compression of the various layers of beauty in the image.  At first I attempted to frame the image with my wide angle zoom but it became apparent quickly that this was not the best choice, providing too much emphasis to an uninteresting foreground and rendering the mid-ground and distant peaks insignificant.  55mm was perfect for the effect I was trying to achieve.

In this next image Polychrome River Delta Y going wide would have been absolutely the wrong choice because it would have rendered the distant Alaska range small and uninteresting.  A wide angle like emphasis on the foreground was actually best achieved with an 82mm focal length with two images stitched as a panorama.

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Polychrome River Delta Y 82mm f-10 (2 image panorama)

In the next image “Mt Baker Rising” I wanted to include some important foreground detail to provide a better sense of time and place.  This image was taken in Autumn from Table Moutain.

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Mt. Baker Rising 94mm f-16

The 94mm focal length at F14 allowed me to capture the layers of meadow, red huckleberries and trees in the foreground offering a transition to the mid-ground ridges and lower fog/clouds, ant the distant mountain and sea of clouds.  In this image I did end up slightly warping the top  of the image to make the mountain somewhat bigger, but this was done with restraint and subtlety always keeping my goal in mind to capture the scene in a manner consistent with how I experienced it.  In this next image I needed to go all the way up to 300mm to capture a similar effect.

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Denali Rising 300mm F10

In this next image titled “Tiger Mountain White Forest” I wanted to bring good emphasis to the first layer of deciduous trees covered in snow and ice.

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Tiger Mountain White Forest 200mm f-14

For this image I found that 200mm was perfect for bringing this lower layer to a prominent position in the foreground and balancing the scene with two other distinctive layers, the snow covered evergreen forest in the mid-ground and the distant dramatic and luminous clouds.

As we go up the focal length scale often we can capture an isolated area of a lot larger more chaotic scene and render the entire scene acceptably sharp by choosing an f-stop between f11 and f14.   Such an image may contain multiple layers of beauty all carrying equal weight thereby establishing a pattern in the layers of beauty.  This can be seen in the next image titled “Secrets of the Forest” taken at 370mm full frame equivalent focal length.

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Secrets of the Forest 370mm f-10

In this coming year I am going to challenge myself to use Telephoto focal lengths more often to balance near and far relationships and create layers of beauty in the landscape.  I challenge you to also consider alternative focal lengths when creating your own layers of landscape beauty!

 

Storytelling

Its now 2017 and I have made my resolution for photography, to tell more stories to go along with my images.  Last year my resolution was to take more macro and small area images.  I was very successful in carrying out this resolution and I have no doubt I will be successful this year in sharing more stories about my images.  There is something about publicly making a positive affirmation through making a resolution that helps provide the energy to make things happen!

One thing I have noticed during this past year through social media is that when I combine a story with an image, the image is usually always more successful.  Viewers love a good story even if it is brief.  Most of my stories for landscape images have to do with the challenges that often come with getting the shot.  But there are also stories that have to do with the history of a landscape/land mark.  Sometimes the story relates to how a landscape awakens an experience at a personal level that is often shared by others as well, such a journey to one’s ideal home.  These stories are more archetypal in nature and point to common experiences.  Other times the story itself is in the image, for example images of trailscapes or approaching weather.  With all types of stories, the story helps lead the viewer not only into the image, but what the photographer was thinking and feeling at the time of capture.

In this blog post I will share some of my images and the original stories that went along with them from last year.  The first image is Snow Lake at Sunset and is titled “Its a Bugs World after all!”

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Snow Lake Sunset: Its a Bugs World after all!

“Yesterday I decided to take an impromptu trip to Snow Lake to watch the Sunset. I had scouted this composition out earlier in the week and wanted to return in more optimal light. Shooting the sunset at this location is challenging, not because of the steepness of the terrain, but because of the tempestuous and annoying buys that are everywhere. Every time the light got better, the bugs came out in ever increasing force creating zigzags in front of my camera lens and landing on the glass for in depth exploration as if it was a flower! And did I mention the biting! I attempted to swat them to clear them out of the area but this just caused them to come back with more vengeance as their high pitch humming sound got louder and louder. At one point I broadcast bug spray over the entire area but the spay fell back on my lens element interrupting my workflow some more! I resorted to speaking only in tongues and expletives. Finally i found my cool and I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to get eaten alive taking this sunset image and that I best take multiple images of the same scene in hopes that one would escape the wrath of the bugs, and that one shot is this one here! In spite of all the trouble, I am pleased how this turned out-it is such a beautiful spot! The pink heather dotting the landscape, the afterglow of the sun that just set, the warm color of the water and sky, were all just amazing that night!”

 

The next image is titled  “Nawiliwili Lighthouse” and is from a Father and Daughter vacation in February.

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Nawiliwili Lighthouse

“This image is of the Nawiliwili Lighthouse in the early morning light. The Nawiliwili Lighthouse is located close to Lihue and the Marriot Beach Resort on the island of Kauai. It is about a mile and a half walk from the Marriot Hotel where I was staying across a maze of roads and golf paths. On my first couple of adventures to this location I had not figured out the right way to get here and with headlamp trekked across the manicured golf greens close to the cliffs above the ocean in route to my obvious destination. Eventually I was approached by the attendant who told me this was strictly private property. After my next adventure, this time through head high abandoned sugar cane fields I finally set out to find the correct path through the maze which led me to this fine location and vantage point for Nawiliwili Lighthouse. Photographing at this spot is quite a memorable experience. If you arrive before dawn, you will enjoy the sound of not only the waves crashing on the shore but also of numerous bird calls including in infamous Kauai Roosters crowing one right after the other! The clouds move in an around the lighthouse quickly creating a constantly changing venue making possible always unique compositions.”

 

This next image is called “Going Home” and is from Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground at Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington State.

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Going Home

“This image is looking through a natural bouquet of flowers out to Indian Henry’s Ranger Cabin and Mt. Rainier in the distance. I do not know about you, but I would work for free to stay at this cabin at Mt. Rainier’s Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground for the summer months! Heck, I might evern pay! This cabin has to be everyone’s dream and fantasy of a home in an ideal setting, a universal archetype for a mountain cabin in a setting of a lush meadow with flowers and Mt. Rainier looming above. Needless to say, we met the ranger on this trip and he seemed quite content with his position, and very laid back also! Where is your special dream cabin located?

This image is from the recent series of wildflower hikes I led for the Seattle Mountaineers. Indian Henry’s is about a 12 mile round trip hike with about 3,500 feet elevation gain, making it somewhat challenging for a sunset hike with return by handlamp (this is what we did).”

 

The next image is titled Mirror Lake and is also from Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground at Mt. Rainier National Park.

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Mirror Lake

“This image is of Mirror Lake in the evening light at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, Mount Rainier National Park. Indian Henry, known as Soo-Too-Lick, early on (1883) guided several familiar names to Mt. Rainier including the Hunting Grounds, these familiar names include James Longmire Philemon Beecher Van Trump and John Muir. Indian Henry was a Cowlitz Indian, beloved by many people. Thanks to Celine Cloquet for helping uncover some background on Indian Henry.”

 

The next image is from a day hike to Goat Lake that I took in late Spring and is called “Refuge”.

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Refuge

“From my hike yesterday, this is Goat Lake in evening light with Cadet Peak in the distance. Goat Lake is located in the north central cascades with the trail accessible at the end of a short forest service road that departs from the Mountain Loop Highway. The hike is about five miles one way, but it is an additional mile, sometimes beating the bush, to where this image was taken at the far end of the lake. Goat Lake is only about 3.100 feet high and is one of the first lakes to become easily accessible and snow free in May. The bush is very thick and dense around the lake, making it difficult to find suitable places to properly frame an image. After scouting out the area for some time, I found an elevated boulder where I could place my tripod, the only issue is that I had to bunch the three legs close together making the balance somewhat precarious. Plus the tripod was situated higher than i could see clearly the LCD or EVF so I had to balance on my tiptoes on top of the narrow boulder also! Not a bad place, however, to perform acrobatics and a balancing act with no spectators.”

 

This next image is from my families vacation at the end of the road at Denali National Park and is called : “Dreams of the Great One”.

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Dreams of the Great One

“Denali basks in the calm atmosphere of the warm early morning light and also reveals itself in the waters of iconic Reflection Pond. Although this is an iconic site, very few people get to see it due weather and restrictions on access. The typical state of affairs in July are clouds and or rain with only occasional and brief moments of clearing. On my first trip to this location, I feel so blessed that there was an opening early on this morning. Cars are not allowed this far into the park, but the Backcountry Lodge, where I was staying, agreed to shuttle me out there in the early morning as long as I would walk back. As we rounded the bend of a steep and winding road the mountain suddenly became visible, and the beauty of the peak was spell binding, to the point I almost forgot I came here to take images. The beauty first and foremost must be experienced for what it is in the moment. Images come second. Denali at 20,310 feet is the largest in North America and when measured from the base to the top is 18,000 feet making it the highest mountain in the world. The flowers in the foreground along with the clouds and atmosphere helped me frame this image in a somewhat unique way.”

 

This next image is titled “Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water”

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Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water

“” Like a bridge over troubled waters, I will ease your mind.” With all stress and anxiety that many have been feeling over the past couple of weeks or so I thought I would feature an image that takes us to to calmer place. This image is from my recent trip to the Columbia Gorge and is of Mist Falls along the Wahclella Falls trail. These falls normally do not have much of a flow, but in late October there were heavy rains in the Gorge making these falls really stand out.”

This final image is titled “On the Trail to Elowah” and tells its own story.

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On the Trail to Elowah

Here is to telling more stories to go along with my images in CY 2017.  What stories will you tell in the coming year?  I look forward to hearing them and will be sharing many of my own in the days ahead!