Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Finding Perspectives in the Landscape - Christopher O'Donnell

Finding Perspectives in the Landscape

The untamed beauty of the landscape and its unpredictability is what attracts me most to this field. The idea of photographing a moment in time that was not the result of orchestrated efforts, but rather the erratic temperament of nature, is a source of great inspiration for me. This lack of control means that as a photographer, I must adapt my workflow to compliment the environment, using in-the-field techniques to create the image I want to express.

Perspective plays a key role in manipulating an environment I have no control of – the conscious choice of vantage point and placement of the horizon line can greatly improve the balance, flow, and overall success of my composition. However, altering the perspective is more than simply choosing where to place and position my camera. By making deliberate technical choices in my gear, I can develop my ability to improve a composition without sacrificing my vantage point.

Longer focal lengths will decrease your depth of field, but also bring forth the background/ foreground elements – you're basically compacting the distances, making objects around your main focal point appear to be much closer to it than they really are. Alternatively, wide focal lengths will exaggerate those distances, making objects appear to be much further away from your focal point.

Adjusting the focal length is a method I use often in the field when I want to redistribute the weight of my main subject(s) for a more balanced composition. Below are two images that show how differently your composition can appear by simply changing your focal length. Both these images were taken on the same evening, within minutes of each other.

Doubling Point Lighthouse in Arrowsic, Maine with the setting sun in the background.

The scene above was captured with an 85mm lens, set at f/11, with the focus locked on the foreground wheat. Since I was focusing so closely, I was able to obtain a shallow depth of field with a relatively small aperture, throwing the lighthouse and sunset sky into some degree of obscurity. The reach of 85mm was able to pull all the elements together and compact the distances between the background sky and tree line, middle ground lighthouse and pier, and foreground wheat.

Alternatively, the image below had a much different workflow. The approaching thunderstorm made for quite the sunset display, so a wider focal length of 24mm was needed to capture the entire scene. Using a deep depth of field at f/16, foreground to background was rendered in sharp focus. The distances between the foreground, lighthouse, and background had been exaggerated, making the environment seem much deeper than it was in reality.

Shorter focal lengths will exaggerate the distances between focal points, pulling them apart and making your scene appear to be deeper.

I was standing in the same position for each image, but the 24mm lens made the lighthouse seem much further away, while the 85mm compacted the distances and brought the focal points closer together.

Focal lengths also affect your depth of field, despite using the same f/stop. The longer your focal length, the more shallow your depth of field will be for a given aperture – which explains why the 85mm image had a very shallow depth of field, despite using an aperture set at f/11. So not only can you use your focal length to control your depth of field, but you can also use it to manipulate your environment – pushing elements further back, or bringing them forward.

Even with the same lens, you can drastically alter the composition and content of your environment simply by controlling your depth of field. Aperture certainly has a prominent role to play here, but other elements affect your depth of field in a profound way, such as distances, placement of focal point, and your focal length (as mentioned above). I go into further detail on how to control your depth of field in my eBook The Art of Bokeh, but for now I want to demonstrate how differently your perspective can change by exploring different depths.

Rock along the edge of a tidal pool in Maine

The image above was taken under sunset light filtered by a thin layer of clouds, side-lit as it descended towards the horizon. I used my 24mm f/1.4 lens, with the aperture set wide open, to capture this unique shoreline rock with a very thin slice of focus.

The photo below was taken the same evening just moments prior, and with the same lens. Instead of focusing on the rock and making
that my main focal point by isolation, I turned towards the setting sun and set my aperture to f/16. By simply changing my vantage point and depth of field – moving away from the rock and widening my frame to include more of my environment – I was able to create two entirely independent images from the same location and conditions without ever changing my lens or gear.

Altering your vantage point and depth of field can drastically change your composition.

Any element of your landscape can be a potential focal point – from grand vistas to small pieces of foliage. While the volatile forces of nature may constrict your ability to manipulate the environment, it does not mean that you have to limit your compositions. I find this lack of control to be quite liberating – allowing yourself to be influenced by the environment, which can be conducive to your development as a photographer. By using your skills to direct a composition, you can transform mundane subjects into textured focal points of light and shadow, creating a successful representation of your vision.

Landscape photography can call on many different photographic techniques in order to find a successful perspective – long exposures, macro, panoramics – and can require various combinations of apertures, focal lengths, shutter speeds, and vantage points. The opportunities are endless, and are only limited by the creative boundaries that you define for yourself. Look around your environment and fully embrace the light and texture you see; try new techniques and explore different subjects, and don't let the assumed quality of your atmosphere discourage your endeavors. If you find your surroundings uninteresting, pursue other parts of your environment by changing your perspective – you may be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

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