Landscape photography and a wide-angle lens go together like gin and tonic. It allows the photographer to create immersive depth using relatively small areas of the landscape as a foreground. It converges the lines of land and sky to create a feeling of being pulled into the image by an unexplained force. Very often, this is the only way of capturing all the elements of the landscape, from the wave breaking over the rocks to the turquoise waters of the lake, and from the snow-capped peaks to the heavens above. This is evident in the image of Torres del Paine, shown below.
When I first started photography, I got a 400D with the kit 18-55mm lens. I immediately had a liking for landscapes and it only took me a few weeks to come to the conclusion that I needed a wider lens. I was 19 at the time and money was scarce. I joined shutterstock, saved every cent I had and sold everything from a playstation to an old fish tank to save up the $600 that a Sigma 10-20mm cost back then. I placed my order and sat by the door like an over-eager guard dog for three days. When it arrived I might as well have thrown the 18-55mm away, because the wide lens stayed on my camera until both met their end about a year later.
Landscape photographers seem to have the same problem with a wide-angle lens as some old ladies have with gin and tonic – they abuse it a bit! If you go onto 500px or wherever you get your fix of landscape photos, you will notice that there are many photos consisting of an amazing middle and/or background, composed with a boring or detracting foreground. In the past few months I’ve seen far too many shots of mountain ridges in amazing cloud and light as a backdrop to a rock. This was not a rock with amazing lines that takes the viewer through the scene, but just another boring rock that holds no contextual relevance to the rest of the scene.
So why would any photographer in their right mind choose to place Rufus the homeless rock below a background of inspirational light and land? The answer is simple: that photographer is addicted to a wide-angle lens. Their mind is locked in ultra-wide mode and when the light performs they start scanning for immediate foregrounds. The photo of the year may lie within their composed shot, but it isn’t in a wide-angle-addict’s frame of mind to get out the 24-70mm and subtract the unnecessary foreground.
Please don’t see this as hate speech against rocks as a foreground; I’m simply using a rock as my example of choice. All types of subjects can make crap foregrounds.
I’m making my derogatory metaphor as if I’ve never been guilty of creating such photos, but all lessons are learned with experience. I am of course 100% guilty of having composed horrible foregrounds to brilliant middle- and backgrounds. I have wasted precious light and opportunity with foregrounds that were simply never meant to be photographed. When this realization started to manifest in my creative mind, my financial mind decided it was time for a longer lens and so I started saving and selling again.
At the end of 2008 I got my first full frame and Canon’s 24-105mm and so the learning curve started. I was going through that phase where image quality was more important than clean drinking water or oxygen, so the 24-105mm was quickly replaced with a 24-70mm for better IQ at my beloved new focal length. After about two years of exploring all corners of the 24-70mm universe, I found that in many situations I would zoom to 70mm and feel that I’m still shooting far too wide. In October of 2012, I tested a D800e and the next generation dynamic range combined with a 36mp sensor, made the choice to switch to Nikon obvious. Many years of hard work lie behind me and for the first time I didn’t have to save and sell to purchase equipment. In my shopping bag was a D800, 14-24mm, 16-35mm, 24-70mm, lots of accessories AND a 70-200mm. So the next phase in my photography started.
I wasn’t very fond of the 70-200mm in 2013, but it really came to life over the 7 weeks I spent in Namibia in 2014. All of a sudden I could explore a lot of potential that I had seen previously, but was unable to reach with a 24-70mm. The best part of this new potential was the scale of Namibia’s desert landscapes. A long lens just does a ten times better job of revealing how big things are. Unfortunately it is not as easy as just taking what you are familiar with and switching the wide-angle for a long lens. There were many new lessons to be learned and I found that many opportunities came and went in the blink of an eye as the light moved across the landscape.
The Dunes of Sossusvlei
The first and most obvious are the dune spines of the Tsauchab Dune valley, where even the 200mm often fell short. I’ve mentioned in other articles that there’s something in the human psyche that bluntly refuses to believe that a heap of sand can be that high. Well, photograph it with a wide-angle lens and the results will add to the misleading scale. Photograph it with a longer lens in the right light and it becomes clear just how gigantic some of those sand-mountains are. In the shot below they seem to almost climb to the clouds.
There are so many great shots at Sossusvlei, but if you’re thinking wide then you’ll never even see half of them. When the sun is relatively low, it creates a deep black shadow on the Eastern side of the dunes and a vibrant orange on the other side. If you choose the right trees and isolate them with a long lens, the result can be spectacular. I tried to photograph these dune spines with my 24-70mm in 2012 and the results were deleted from my archives without much hesitation.
The Trees of Deadvlei
Big Daddy is the dune at the Southern end of Deadvlei and it climbs to a mind-boggling 1200ft. Attempting to give scale to it is a task that very few have succeeded at. It isn’t really possible to do it in a shot with any of the iconic trees, as one can’t get far enough from the trees to dwarf them to an accurate scale. Thus the trees will always look too large in relation to the dune, but this doesn’t mean that one should opt for the wide lens in Deadvlei. As the sun rises behind Deadvlei’s Eastern ‘wall’, the sunlight slowly creeps across the trees from the West. As the light moves, the trees are illuminated one by one and offer dynamic combinations of trees in light and shade. With a long lens, this spectacle can be isolated against the dark background that Big Daddy’s 1200ft wall offers.
For a number of weeks during the year, when the air is just the right balance of hazy and clear, something special happens; the dark backdrop that is Big Daddy emphasizes the sunlight that shines into Deadvlei. My best guess is that the direction of the light plays a big role and thus this phenomenon is only very prominent in March and a few weeks either side of it. This beam of light offers a brilliant backdrop for a variety of different trees, as shown above and below.
The fittest and bravest of tourists visiting Sossusvlei climb to the peak of Big Daddy at sunrise. After enjoying the view, they run down and then walk back across the deceptively large Deadvlei pan. This finally presented me with an opportunity to show just how large Big Daddy is. It may not be the most interesting photo, especially not viewed so small, but it is however the only photo I’ve ever seen that does the scale of Big Daddy justice.
If you’re shooting these things with a wide-angle lens, you will end up with a load of useless shots. If you visit Sossusvlei with a wide-angle state of mind, then you will miss all these opportunities.
Quiver Tree Valley, Richtersveld NP
This deep, narrow valley is a treasure chest of photographic opportunity. I only realized it on my 2nd visit, as I was a wide-angle-addict the first time around. The valley is dotted with Quiver Trees that just beg to be photographed against the boulder-strewn slopes of the valley. Driving in last year, I couldn’t wait to go explore with the 70-200mm. The shot below was a momentary spot of luck. As I was walking around I saw that there was a slight shadow behind the Quiver Tree that would make it stand out against it’s backdrop. As I set up the shot I noticed that the shadow was gaining height rapidly and that the tree wouldn’t be in light much longer. The perfect moment appeared and disappeared within seconds. I would never even have noticed this opportunity if I were in a wide-angle state of mind.
Making use of every little cloud
In Namibia there are very seldom amazing skies overhead, but almost always a brilliant cloud formation on the horizon. If photographed with a wide lens, such far-away clouds are usually just a distracting element and the image is better off without it. If you can find a functional composition with a longer lens, then the clouds can fill the frame and all of a sudden the previously distracting element makes the shot. This was the case on a recent afternoon at Quiver Tree Forest, as shown in the image below.
I am by no means trying to convince you that you should burn your wide-angle lens. I am simply saying that it is very easy to get addicted to a wide lens and that when the time is right, you should give it some rest. My long lens is still the one I use the least, but if I didn’t take the time to familiarize myself with it then I would continue missing the amazing opportunities that if offers. If you’re ever headed to Namibia, make sure you have a 70-200mm in your bag. In fact, anything up to a 400mm is worth taking along.
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