Friday, August 19, 2016

Long Lens for Landscapes

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, the just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while” – Steve Jobs

I drive the Tamiami Trail, one of Florida's scenic highway dozens of times a year. It is one of the easiest ways to view some of Florida's most beautiful landscapes. But, these are not eye-popping landscapes; and to say they are subtle is an understatement. Without mountains or colorful flowers to jump right out at you, photographing a Florida landscape can be challenging. But, I am always motivated to try!

First things first; think about what it is that attracts you to a scene in the first place. For me, lighting is 90% of it with these landscapes. With a warm morning or evening light, the textures and tones of the grasses are so beautiful and are complemented by the blue sky. Clouds are always a big draw and can really add to the composition. Additionally, water grabs my attention; particularly when clouds reflect. So those are the basic elements, subtle tones in warm light, big sky with clouds, water and reflections. And if I can throw in something else, like a nice tree, or bird, or colorful clouds, that's even better.

When I first ventured to photograph from the trail, it didn't take long to figure out that the best way to do it was with a long lens. Indeed, all my images were created with at least 70mm focal length and as high as 130mm (with the exception of the bird image above which was shot at 400mm). A long focal length works best with these scenes for several reasons. One is that there is no strong foreground elements or leading lines to work with. You have a very low lying landscape that melts into the very large sky. If you go wide (i.e.,16mm)  you take any object in the frame and make it smaller. Basically, whatever tree or cloud that has character will become insignificant. Unless you are going for minimalism, I find that zooming into the scene gives the grasses and water more character as they fill a greater portion of the frame. The layers of textures and tones become stronger and more obvious. Similarly, the clouds appear more dramatic and three-dimensional, as will their reflections.

I also find that vertical compositions work best. This allows me to isolate something more easily; a tiny grass island, a hardwood hammock or water reflections that can lead the eye into the scene and right up to the sky.

The long lens offers another advantage over a wider angle lens in that you get more depth of field. One day, I stopped along the road to photograph as the lighting and storm clouds were dramatic. I did not have my tripod (actually, it was the ballhead that I had forgotten!), so I handheld the camera with the 70-400mm lens and took this image. I set the aperture at f8 and focused on a spot about where the water ended. At home, I examined the image and found it to be relatively sharp throughout, including the tall palm trees. Not bad for handholding!

But what I prefer is tack sharpness throughout. While the image above is acceptable on one level, it is not my first choice. To get that sharpness throughout, I use an image stacking technique and multiple images. With camera on tripod (attached to the lens collar) and cable release, I set the aperture at f8, ISO at 100 or 200, and then set the shutter speed for correct exposure. I manually focus on the farthest vegetation (usually a tall tree that sticks out). I use magnification on the LCD to adjust the focus precisely. Then I take a shot. Next, I rotate the lens slightly to move the focus in closer and take another shot. I continue this until I have the closest foreground element in focus. For the scene below, I took six shots.

At home, I examine each one and pick only those that are sharpest near the focus point. With f8 aperture, I can get total sharpness with fewer images, like three or four. But I always start with more images, just for good measure. Then I load them as layers into Photoshop, auto-align and blend them. The results are great in that sharpness is revealed from the foreground to the background.

To compose an image, I move around and looks at the clouds and how they interact with the other elements in the frame. I should also say that I had a polarizing filter on the lens when I was shooting these palm hammock trees. This helps to add contrast and remove glare from the water. The sun was behind me and to my left, which is also an important consideration. If it had been directly behind me, the trees and clouds would look flat.

In a way, these scenes are a study in patterns and tones. For the last image below, I liked the horizontal path of the clouds, adding more layers to the scene. I placed the lens where the shadowed grasses would appear in the foreground, adding some depth to the scene. 

To summarize:
  • Gear: tripod, long zoom lens (70-200mm would work great) and cable release
  • Polarizer filter is very useful when shooting a couple hours or more after sunrise
  • Early mornings or late evenings for better light
  • Attach your long lens to the ballhead using the collar. This allows you to rotate the lens for horizontal and vertical shots.
  • If you are shooting along side a road, be mindful of traffic, especially big trucks that will blow by quickly. This will cause your tripod to move, so weight it down or wait until there is no traffic to take your shot.
  • Move around, look for the composition. Consider possible foreground elements.
  • A simple rule to follow if you don't intend to focus stack, is to use an aperture with a wide depth of field (f8 to f16) and focus on something about one third from the bottom frame.
The next time you are driving on a scenic highway, get out and shoot!

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