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.
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.
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 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 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.
Tulip Tree 170mm f-4.5
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!