Part Three of Nine
Aesthetics and Photography
Article and Photographs by: Alain Briot
Alain Briot is one of the most successful landscape photographers working
in the U.S. today. He was educated at the Ecole des Beaux Art in Paris,
has a Masters degree in Fine Art, and is currently working on his Phd.
This article is the third in a series of nine essays focused on the aesthetic aspects of photography. The overall goal of this series is to help you create a photograph which is aesthetically pleasing: a beautiful photograph.
This series of essays is related to my (2003-2004) Workshop Series. These new workshops will focus upon implementing in the field and through exercises, the concepts, techniques and approaches discussed in my essays. Together they provide a strong foundation on which to build and refine your photographic skills.
How to Choose the Best Lens For a Specific Composition
1 — Why it is Important to Talk About Lenses
Choosing the right lens for a specific photograph is an important decision. This decision follows your previous decisions about how to compose the scene, and composition follows what you saw in this scene, what you want to photograph in the first place. In short, each of the steps involved in taking a photograph, from seeing to composing are related.
With lens choice we now start talking about how we can photograph the scene in front of us. We move from visualization to creation in a sense, and, for the first time, we are going to actually going to use a camera. We are almost to the point were we will actually take a photograph!
2 — Lenses are as Important (and perhaps more important) Than the Camera Itself
What can be simpler than choosing the right lens for the job? You want to photograph a large landscape, you use a wide angle. You want to photograph a faraway detail, you use a telephoto lens. You want to photograph something in between the two, you use a normal lens. What more is there to the subject? Case done, book closed, let’s move on.
So what is there to know about lens choice that you don’t already know? Well, for one, and this is a big “one”, which lens you use should be based on how you want to depict the scene in front of you. In other words, and to go back to my first article in this series “Seeing Photographically” the lens you use should be chosen so that it first follows your vision and, second, suits the composition you want to create.
In this article, Part 3 of my Aesthetics and photography series, we are going to look very carefully at why learning how to choose the best lens for a specific composition is one of the most challenging decisions you will make on your way to creating top-quality images.
3 — Human Eyes and Camera Eyes
Our eyes have a fixed focal length, the equivalent of a normal lens (a 50 mm on a 35mm camera and a 150mm lens on a 4×5). Cameras don’t have fixed lenses (except some point and shoot cameras). Instead, they have interchangeable, or zoom lenses. Human beings always see the same angular distance, the same field of view. While we can focus our attention to a narrow section of our field of view, this field of view remains fixed. When looking at the world through a camera we can vary the field of view by changing the lens. How much a camera sees depends on the focal length of the lens that is attached to it.
When we look through a camera equipped with a telephoto lens we, in a sense, turn our eyes into telephoto lenses (we do the same when we look through a pair of binoculars). When we look through a camera equipped with a wide angle lens, we widen our field of view beyond what we can normally see. The Linhof Multifocus Viewfinder, which I described in my Composition article, allows me to do all of this in the most compact package I know of.
Hence a camera, and a set of wide angle, normal and telephoto lenses (or zoom lenses), allows us to expand what our eyes can see beyond our human limits. Through the use of lenses we can see wider than we normally can or we can see further than we normally can. Our field of view becomes adjustable. Our ability to see is both enhanced and expanded. A new field of endeavor opens itself to us: showing the world in ways human eyes alone cannot see it.
In terms of aesthetics this means that photography opens up unique possibilities of representing the world. Certainly, once this new aesthetic has been discovered, it is possible to create it with other medium. For example, it is possible to paint a scene as seen with a wide angle lens. But I would argue that someone first had to see this scene through a lens (or in a ball-shaped mirror which closely duplicates a wide angle effect) before such a painting was made.
4 — One Landscape, Three Main Lens Choices
So what are those ways in which we can see the world differently with photography? Well, to simplify the matter, I divided the possibilities into three main types of views using the three basic lens categories: wide, normal and telephoto.
As you move from wide angle to normal lenses to telephoto lenses you actually include less and less of the landscape in your photographs. You, in effect, go from taking as much of the landscape as you can (with a wide angle lens) to taking what we normally see with our eyes (with a normal lens) to taking only a fraction of what we see (with a telephoto lens). In effect, you are focusing the attention of the viewer to an increasingly smaller field of view.
The names I use for these three categories are Large Landscapes, when you photograph everything there is in front of you, Medium Landscapes, when you photograph part of what is in front of you, and finally Small Landscapes, when you photograph only a fraction of what is in front of you.
In this process you call the shots. It is your decision to photograph all the landscape, a “normal” part of the landscape, or a fraction of the landscape. Of course, certain subjects may naturally lend themselves to one of these three main categories. However, it is important to remember that any subject can be photographed in all 3 ways.
Let’s look at these three main ways of interpreting the landscape in greater detail:
5 — The Large Landscape
Wide angle lenses create the most dynamic compositions. As we move from wide angle to normal to telephoto the composition becomes more and more static as we will see. Wide angles introduce “movement” in the image by allowing us to show what is close and what is far at the same time, and/or by allowing us to show a huge amount of the scene in front of us, much more, as I said, than we can see at once with our eyes. To see as much with our eyes as a wide angle lens sees we have to turn our head up and down and right to left. There is no way we can see the whole of a wide angle lens scene at once without looking through the camera (or through the Linhof Multifocus Viewfinder).
The dynamism introduced by wide angle lenses comes from the fact we are looking at a scene which we cannot possibly see without a camera. Wide angle scenes exceed what we can humanly see with our eyes only. They exceed our physical capabilities, blow open our boundaries, and reveal to us a world both attractive and foreign, a world we long to explore for ourselves.
Of course the part that we all love is the near-far effect achieved with a 4×5 and a super wide angle lens such as a 75mm. The combination of wide coverage and sharpness throughout the image, from a few inches away to infinity (thanks to the combination of small f-stops and camera movements) makes this type of image both a visual delight and a photographic tour de force.
In such an image all the elements must work together in order for the complete image to be successful. Since you have at least 3 essential planes in the image — the foreground, the middle ground and the background — all three planes must be interesting in order for the whole image to fascinate your audience. You must have a stunning foreground, showing a subject that is not only visually attractive but uncommon. You must have a nice middle ground, because it is this middle ground which effectively makes the transition from foreground to background. And of course you must have a great background, because the viewer’s eye is going to travel from foreground to background over and over again. Too many foreground-background images fail because what is primarily interesting is the foreground. To avoid this pitfall think in terms of foreground, middle ground and background and make sure each is equally interesting.
When I plan to photograph the Grand Canyon at sunset, for example, I look for a great foreground during the day (such as an uncommon tree or rock) and plan my composition. When I return to this chosen location for sunset I hope to be blessed with beautiful clouds over the Canyon. The tree is my foreground, the Grand Canyon my middle and background, and the clouds my second background. It is hard not to create a wonderful when you know exactly what to do to successfully combine all these elements!
A near-far composition is most easily achieved with wide angle lenses. Notice that it is also possible to achieve this composition with the 2 other series of lenses, normal and telephoto. Near-far compositions are not lens-specific, although they are most often created with wide angle lenses. With a normal or telephoto lens though a near-far composition will not be as dynamic. To achieve a near-far effect with a normal or telephoto lens, and maintain sharpness throughout the image, we will have to use a distant foreground subject. Instead of one just at out feet we will have to choose an element 5 to 30 feet away depending on the focal length of our normal or telephoto lens. This will result in an apparent compression of the image elements, which in turn will make the image more static, less dynamic. Notice that this compression effect is not caused by longer lenses. Rather, this compression effect is caused by narrowing our field of view to a small fraction of what we normally see. One of the exercises I suggest you do, at the end of this article, is aimed at helping you verify this for yourself.
Wide angles can also be used to photograph an inordinate amount of sky. In this case the near far relationship may not be achievable since only a small part of the landscape may be shown. Wide angles can also be used to photograph wide vistas which otherwise could not be captured in a single photograph. Wide angles are excellent for depicting circular shapes, such as a kiva or the curve of a canyon for example, since their natural curvature of field, which comes from their wide coverage, lends itself to depicting curved shapes.
Wide angles can be used in different ways in landscape photography. But in whichever way they are used their dynamic quality often results in giving a feeling of exaggeration to the photograph. This is because wide angles show us more than we can see with our own eyes and hence surprise us . As we will see later on telephoto lenses also surprise us, this time because of the exaggerated view of distant objects they create.
I nearly always show the sky in my wide angle photographs, even if it is just a think strip at the top of the photograph. If I want to crop out the sky in an image I usually turn to a normal or a telephoto lens.
Sunset over Squaw Creek Ruin, Perry Mesa Ntl. Monument, Arizona.
Linhof 4×5, 75mm lens
In this example “Squaw Creek Ruin vertical” a serene, and somewhat nondescript, scene is energized by the use of a 75mm wide angle lens on my Linhof 4×5. This is a quiet scene, without any dominating elements. In fact, when I was visualizing this image, I couldn’t help but think of the jumbled nature of this subject. My choice of a wide angle lens allowed me to bring dynamism to a scene which, through a normal lens, would have been far too static. The wide angle allowed me to exaggerate the size of foreground elements, enabled me to use an inverted Y shape (the low rock wall) to lead the viewer’s eyes into the image, left me plenty of space to center the mountain on the other side of the canyon, and, finally, allowed me to top it all off with a soft purple sky partly filled with purple evening clouds. The extremely wide field of view means that the size of nearby objects is emphasized while the size of distant objects is reduced. This effect exaggerates the sense of perspective in the photograph and helps organize an apparently “jumbled” scene into near (foreground), medium (middle ground) and distant (background) planes. Elements that, in the actual scene, seem to be “stacked up” on top of each other tend to appear more separated, more “spread out,” in a wide angle photograph.
6 — The Medium Landscape
A normal lens is a lens whose focal length is equal to the field of view of human beings. In other words, when looking through a normal lens you will see as much of the scene in front of you as with your naked eyes. The normal focal length for any film size is equal to the diagonal distance between two opposite corners of the film, or image sensor, in millimeters. You can easily find the normal focal length for any film format, or image sensor, by taking a metric ruler and measuring the diagonal distance between two opposite corners of the film or image sensor. For 35mm a 50mm lens is a normal lens. For a 2 1/4 system it is an 80mm lens. For 4×5 it is a 150mm lens.
For many photographers, a normal lens is often considered “boring.” After all, why show the world the way we see it? Let’s use a wide angle or a super telephoto lens. Now that’s exiting!
I agree, to some extent, and I must say that my normal lens is not the one I use the most widely. But, I am not saying I am never using it either! After all, what’s wrong with showing the world as we see it with our eyes? And, if we only see boring things with our eyes how can we pretend not to take boring photographs? It would be a mistake to think we can create exciting photographs only through the use of wide angle and telephoto lenses. If this is the case then it is the lenses that are bringing this excitement in our photographs. It is the lenses that are making our photographs look interesting. If this is so then we know that this novelty will soon wear out, provided there ever was novelty there.
A proficient photographer is able to create good photographs — interesting images — with a variety of lenses. Similarly, a proficient photographer is able to create good photographs with a normal lens. Seeing, composition, light, personal style (as we will see in the next articles), are independent of the exact focal length we have in our hands. While we may not control completely the equipment at our disposal, we need to be able to control the vision we want to express in our images.
But more important to this discussion is the fact that a normal lens allows us to create what I call Medium Landscapes. These are images which are half way between wide angle and telephoto images.
Wide angles allow us to best photograph the Grand Landscape. They allow us to “take it all in” so to speak. We don’t have to think about what we will take out because the lens coverage is so huge as to allow us to take in almost as much as we want. Wide angles are best for the large landscape, for views which stretch from just in front of our feet to the distant mountains at the horizon and to the sky above them.
But such a wide field of view is not always appropriate. Sometimes, a more subdued, less dynamic and less exaggerated perspective is more appropriate. For example, while wide angles are great at showing “everything” they often play down details of the scene. By “zooming into the scene a little bit, and reducing our field of view, we can now emphasize relationships between elements. Rather than focusing on the whole we now focus on parts of the whole.
Normal lenses excel at creating a sense of balance in a scene. They help create images that we accept for “real” at face value. We do not question images created with a normal lens, because we are intimately familiar with the angle of view covered by a normal lens. After all, it is our field of view, the one we live with and experience the world through everyday.
For this reason, whenever you want to depict a scene without creating a sense of exaggeration, without focusing the viewer’s attention towards how the image was created, or without drawing attention to the particular lens which was used, a normal lens is appropriate. Such a lens will give a natural appearance to your image because the field of view covered by the image is the one we experience with our own eyes. Such a field of view will appear normal to your audience, and as a result this audience will focus on the contents of the image rather than on how the image was created. The lack of difference between how much we see and how much the camera sees means we more readily accept the reality created by the lens.
Canyon de Chelly at Sunrise, Arizona. Linhof 4×5, 75mm lens
Canyon de Chelly at Sunrise, Arizona. Linhof 4×5, 150mm lens
These two photographs, taken seconds apart as the sun was rising over Canyon de Chelly, clearly show the difference between a wide angle and a normal lens. The wide angle photograph shows the dramatic setting of Canyon de Chelly and emphasizes the turn the canyon makes along the gigantic sandstone walls. The normal lens photograph shows a more intimate and quiet landscape and focuses our attention to part of the scene only. Although the sky is visible in the image the space it occupies in the image has been dramatically reduced.
Capitol Gorge, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. Linhof 4×5, 150mm lens
The medium landscape may or may not show the sky. In the example above “Antelope House sunrise” I used a minimum amount of sky. In this next example “Capitol Gorge Boulders and Desert Varnish” I used no sky at all. This is an intimate landscape. created with a normal lens, and the sky just isn’t needed. It wouldn’t add anything to the image and, in fact, the brightness of the sky would exceed the range of the film and bring in an unnecessary, and disturbing, white or nearly-white area.
This is a perfect example of a medium landscape. Not too large and not too tight either. The normal lens gave me the freedom to stay a certain distance away from the boulders and still show them at a nice size. A wide angle lens would have required me to step a lot closer to the boulders and thus have them tower over me . This would have resulted in showing less of the top of the boulders (since I would have been partially below them) and thus show less of the overall scene. The quieter framing of the normal lens added balance to the scene. The dynamism of a wide angle lens would have been counterproductive to the quiet scene I wanted to depict.
7— The Small Landscape
The third category is the one I call Small Landscapes. These are, by definition, isolated elements of the landscape, elements that we may miss (and often do miss) while looking at the general scene, because we tend to see the whole rather than the parts.
Wide angle views surprise us because they show so much more than we can see with our own eyes. Telephoto views surprise us because they show us so many more details than we can see with our naked eyes. Details of faraway objects that we cannot see with our own eyes are revealed in absolute clarity by the lens. Telephoto photographs allows us to admire what we so far could only guess existed. We look into the small landscape as one looks inside a treasure box, wondering what else is inside, what else we missed, what else may be hidden inside.
The small landscape rarely shows the sky. More often than not, the sky is not part of the photograph. The small landscape is an introspective view, rather than an overall view (for the large landscape) or a focused view (for the medium landscape). Not including the sky in a photograph means removing one of the most powerful elements the viewer has to define how big, how tall, how deep a natural feature is. Take the sky out of a Grand Canyon photograph and the viewer has no means of knowing exactly how deep the Grand Canyon is, because where the rim of the canyon is can no longer be accurately known. Also, removing the sky also means removing the one element we depend on to define not only where the horizon is but also whether a photograph is level or not. Without a skyline we will need some other element which will act as a visual balancer in the image, an element which will metaphorically replace the horizon line. In the example below, “Paria Riffle, Colorado River, Lees Ferry, Arizona” the far edge of the river, and the line separating the river from the cliff, act as a visual “horizon”. This line acts as a metaphorical level line and helps give a sense of balance to the image.
Also see “O’Neil Butte Telephoto” below for a second example of a small landscape.
Paria Riffle, Lees Ferry, Arizona.
Linhof 4×5, 400mm lens
Because telephoto lenses show details we cannot see with our naked eyes, what we see in small landscape photographs often feels greatly decontextualized. We now are looking at the parts rather than the whole. This lack of context helps us get detached from everyday reality. In our daily reality the sky is always present. And, in daily reality, we cannot see minute details of far away objects. The fact there is no sky, the fact we can see infinitely small details in relatively distant objects clearly, all this creates in us a feeling of “otherness,” a feeling that the photograph we are looking at is greatly out of the ordinary.
8 — Which Lens Should I Take?
One of the most often asked questions I receive from workshop participants is “which lenses should I take?” This is a crucial question when you take into account both how heavy and how bulky lenses are. Besides hiking with them you also have to carry them on the plane if you are flying and in your car when you are driving from location to location.
How I do it:
No matter how we approach it, Landscape photography involves a certain amount of exercise. We know we will have to walk around with our equipment at some point. Carrying more lenses than we need will make walking both more tiring and less enjoyable. I currently have 6 lenses for my 4×5: 47mm, 75mm, 90mm, 150mm, 210mm and 300mm. With these lenses I can cover pretty much all my needs. With 35mm this lens selection would be roughly equal to 18mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 75mm and 135mm. Long telephotos are neither widely available nor practical for 4×5. The longest 4×5 telephotos are around 500 or 600mm and at those focal lengths both stability and weight become serious challenges. If I worked with 35mm, I would either add one or two longer lenses or a 200 to 400 zoom. With 4×5 I could add a 500mm lens if I wanted to increase my maximum telephoto range.
Sometimes I need to pare down the equipment I carry. This may be because I am going on a long hike or because I am flying (or both). In this case I only take 3 lenses: 75, 150 and 210. Because the 150 fits in the Linhof when it is closed it always comes with me. If I can only take one lens the 210 will stay home. I have to have a wide angle!
Keep in mind that the quality of the photographs you bring back with you is not directly related to the number of lenses you carry. Certainly, you cannot take a wide angle view with a telephoto. But, if you are a proficient photographer (and if you are not this series of articles is aimed at helping you achieve proficiency) you know how to create a quality photograph with the tools at your disposal. If you need to sharpen your skills, the exercises below are there to help you.
9 — Practice Exercises
A tourist visiting New York asks a New Yorker “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer he receives is one of the most important lessons in an artist’s life: “Practice, practice, practice.”
Here are three practice exercises which will allow you to get where you want to go. These exercises are designed to help you to develop your knowledge of lenses and familiarize yourself with what each lens can do:
Photograph the same scene, without moving your tripod, with all the lenses in your “photographic arsenal.” I know, some of those photographs may not be very good, or interesting, because the subject may only lend itself to a particular type of lens. Nevertheless, do it. Film is cheap and if you shoot digitally it won’t cost you anything. Then compare the photographs, looking for new possibilities for compositions. For example, you may find that if you had not done this exercise you would have not have thought of using such a lens in this location.
Go out on a serious photography shoot, in a location you like very much, and carry only one lens. Not two, not three, just one. You can pick whichever lens you like, just pick only one. You can choose your favorite lens, because you know you enjoy photographing with it, or you can choose a lens which you have not worked with much, so that you can investigate the possibilities offered by this lens. Don’t take a zoom lens, since this will go against the purpose of this exercise. If you only own zoom lenses, or if the focal length you want to use is only available on one of your zoom lenses, do what it takes to make the zoom a fixed lens. Tape the zoom control ring so you cannot change the focal length for example.
John Sexton used only one lens -a 210mm on his 4×5 — for several years when he started photography. There is no doubt that when he purchased a second lens he was intimately familiar with what a 210mm could do. The same approach can be used with every focal length.
Take a photograph of the same scene, without moving your camera and tripod, with both a wide angle and a telephoto lens. When you return to your studio crop and enlarge the photograph taken with the wide angle lens so that you get the same composition as the image taken with the telephoto lens.
Compare the two telephoto images: the one created with a telephoto lens and the one created by cropping the wide angle view. You will not see any differences as far as composition and “compression” of the scene are concerned.
Telephoto lenses do not compress distant scenery any more than wide-angle lenses distort scenery (except for fish-eye lenses). The perspective created by a telephoto lens is the same as that of a wide angle lens, except that only a fraction of the wide angle photograph is visible in a telephoto view. Distant objects are naturally “compressed” because as objects recede in the distance (get further away from us) they appear to be closer and closer together. This effect is caused by perspective, not by lenses.
Going from a wide angle to a telephoto lens or cropping a photo has the same effect. Theoretically, provided we were able to take photographs with limitless resolution, we could always use a wide angle lens and crop our photographs as we see fit once we back in our studio. From this single image we could get all the croppings and compositions we want and each of these croppings would look as if they had been created by using different lenses. In practice, due the finite resolution of film and image sensors, this is not feasible.
This is what I have done in the three photographs below which all show the Grand Canyon at Sunset from Yavapai Point on the South rim. “Sunset from Yavapai Point” was created with a 75mm lens. “O’Neil Butte Cropped” is a cropping of “Sunset from Yavapai Point “showing only O’Neil Butte. “O’Neil Butte Telephoto” was created with a 300mm lens on my Linhof 4×5, the equivalent of a 135mm lens on a 35mm camera. As you can see, “O’Neil Butte Cropped” and “O’Neil Butte Telephoto” are identical as far as composition, and compression, are concerned. The grain and the resolution are better on “O’Neil Butte Telephoto because I didn’t have to enlarge it. The rocks are redder on the telephoto photograph because it was taken later than the wide angle photograph. As we will see later on in the essay on Light, at sunset and sunrise dramatic changes happen within a few minutes.
“O’Neil Butte Cropped.” Linhof 4×5, 75mm lens (crop of the original image)
“O’Neil Butte Telephoto.” Linhof 4×5, 400mm lens
“Sunset from Yavapai Point”. Linhof 4×5, 75mm lens
10 — Conclusion
Photographing natural landscapes is exciting: here we are, in a beautiful natural location, trying to express our feelings towards the scene in front of us . We go to beautiful natural places, we discover and explore these places with an artist’s eye, and we work towards creating images which convey what we saw and felt while we were there. What an exciting endeavor. And how wonderful the prospect of sharing with others the fruit of our creative endeavors!
Primeval landscapes, such as the southwest’s canyon country, evoke powerful, almost instinctive, reactions. More pastoral scenes, such as France and Italy, evoke more subdued reactions and are best rendered in a more poetic fashion. But how do you do all of this, when all you have is camera and film, none of which have the flexibility of the written word or the infinite variations of tone, shape and texture afforded by painting or drawing? One of the most powerful ways of expressing what you see and feel is by a judicious lens choice.
Wide angle lenses allow you to create dynamic, all encompassing images which are both surprising and enticing. Normal lenses allow you to create balanced images which will feel natural because the field of view they depicted closely approximates the field of view of our own eyes. Finally telephoto lenses allow you to create images that reveal more details than we can see with the naked eyes, images which will surprise and delight your audience.
For maximum diversity in your work, and to vary the type of images you will eventually select for your personal portfolio, I recommend you strive to create top-quality images with all three lens families. This, combined with the different compositions I discussed in my previous article, will do wonders towards creating a stunning and diversified collection of landscape photographs.
If you want to practice the contents of this series of articles, in the field and under my supervision, consider attending one of my workshops. Click here to find out the different workshops I offer and which ones still have open seats. Registration is both easy and simple, just a click away literally!
Alain is conducting a series of weekend workshops in the Phoenix AZ
area that are linked to his Esthetics Essays. You can find out more about these by clicking here.
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