Posted by: kerryl29 | March 31, 2011

Get Closer, Get Lower

It’s baseball’s opening day as I write this, so it’s apropos to draw an analogy from the National Pastime. There are few more effective pitches than a slider that breaks down and in to an opposite side hitter (i.e. to a right-handed batter from a left-handed pitcher; to a lefty swinger from a righty hurler). Properly thrown, if a batter is able to make contact with the pitch at all, he’s liable to foul it off his foot.

And what, you ask, has this to do with landscape photography?

Meadow Run, Ohiopyle State Park, Pennsylvania

The connection is admittedly tortured, but satisfies my desire to somehow work baseball into this piece, which is to be a discussion on altering perspective in the field by getting closer to a subject and by moving to a lower vantage point.  Closer and lower; down and in.  Get it?

I attended a John Shaw photography seminar many years ago and one thing I specifically recall him saying was how nonsensical it seemed to him when, leading workshops, the vast majority of attendees would arrive at a scene and immediately extend the legs on their tripods in order to set up at full height.  At the time I was still in the stages of “becoming serious” about photography and very rarely shot with others, but I recall being surprised at his description.  Did most people really do that?  I wondered because I did not.  But ever since then I’ve paid attention to this matter and, it will stun no one to learn that, in my experience, Mr. Shaw was absolutely right.  While there certainly have been some exceptions, without question most of the people I’ve shot with over the years immediately set up their tripods at eye level.  This is true of newcomers and–to my astonishment–highly experienced photographers alike.

French Canyon black & white, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Let me clear up some potential misconceptions immediately, before they solidify.  I am not suggesting that it’s never appropriate to set up your tripod at eye level.  I’m not even suggesting that it’s never a good idea to immediately set up at eye level; there are times when doing so makes good sense.  But these latter cases are fairly straight forward and dependent on specific settings and images (wide open overlooks, for instance).  What I am suggesting is that, most of the time, when preparing to photograph landscapes, a normal eye-level perspective is merely the most convenient shooting position, not the most aesthetically pleasing vantage point.

My workflow in the field as I approach a scene is essentially as follows.  I store my camera body with my 24-70mm lens on it, because it’s the focal length range that I use most often.  Unless I’m certain by eyeballing the scene without assistance that I’m going to want a wider or narrower focal length range, I’ll pull out the camera with the 24-70 attached and look at the scene through the viewfinder, zooming the lens to the approximate focal length I’m looking for.  At that point, I stop zooming.

Phacelia Mountainside, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Why do I do this?  There’s a tendency to fall into the trap of using the convenience of a zoom lens as a substitute for changing one’s shooting position.  And it’s not a substitute. If a photographer stands in place and zooms his lens in and out what he is doing is changing the field of view of the prospective image.  More or less is being included in the frame, and that’s important, but what this process is not doing is changing the perspective.  Changing the perspective of the shot requires physically moving one’s position–forward/backward, left/right, up/down (or some combination thereof).  The forward/backward and left/right positional movements are typically well-recognized by most photographers and–this is key–aren’t significantly inhibited by setting up the tripod in a specific spot.  With a camera clamped down on the tripod, picking the entire rig up and moving it a few paces in one direction or another isn’t usually a big deal.  Altering vertical position is another story entirely.  Raising and lowering a shooting position by any significant amount can be a major pain.  Adjusting leg angles for a slight change is a modest annoyance, but anything more than that can be difficult.

Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

So, returning to my workflow, I’ve avoided the big problem of adjusting the tripod height after setting up by simply not doing anything with the tripod until I’ve found my shot.  All of the time I spend looking at the scene–through the viewfinder or unaided–takes place before I set the tripod up in the first place.  In other words, I find the shot, then I set up the tripod.  Believe me, it’s much, much easier to find the shot with the camera in hand, unencumbered by the tripod, because this process always involves movement.  Forward/back, left/right and–almost invariably–up/down.  Once I’ve found the shot and set up with the tripod, then I can fine tune the image by adjusting the field of view (i.e. modestly zooming the lens).

Bridal Veil Falls, Bedford Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Particularly in the oft-cluttered landscapes of the American Midwest, moving closer to a foreground subject and getting lower to the ground frequently–not always, but frequently–adds a sense of dynamism to an image.  For one thing, the foreground is taking on a larger presence in the frame.  For another, the scene is being presented in a way that is unorthodox.  By comparison, photographing at natural eye level frequently results in a static image.  This impression is frequently conveyed because the perspective is so common to the viewer as to appear stale.  Closer and lower will often portray elements in a manner that is quite different from what the viewer is accustomed to seeing, which typically results in a fresh appearance.  Well-handled it can even introduce a dynamic sense to an image–quite a trick, if you think about it, for still photography.

Pewits Nest State Natural Area, Wisconsin

And while I’ve specifically referenced the Midwest in my write-up, this approach is perfectly adaptable to other locales, as some of the visual examples accompanying this piece demonstrate.

Bandon Beach, Oregon

Give it a try.  The next time you’re out shooting landscapes, take the opportunity to move.  Find the shot first, then set up your tripod accordingly.  Give yourself the freedom to view the scene from a variety of perspectives rather than simply settling for the tired eye-level view.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for this thought inducing post. I love the pictures and although as a Brit I have no understanding of baseball, I think I followed the analogy.
    Would you mind if I mentioned your post in my journey blog?
    Amanda

    • Thanks for the comment, Amanda. By all means, feel free to mention this post in your blog.

      –Kerry

  2. Yes. Good post. Good advice. And above all, good photography.

  3. […] (I blogged on the subject of altering perspective some months ago; you can check it out here.) Roaring Fork Autumn, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, […]

  4. I’ve never seen a log as beset with fungi as the one you show here. The arc of them that comes almost full circle at the open end of the log is fabulous. I can imagine how excited you must have been to come across this find and have the chance to record it. This is a great new take on the old emblem of the cornucopia.

    Steve Schwartzman
    http://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com

    • Thanks. Yes, the log with all the mushrooms was quite something. I stumbled across it on my walk down the road to Halfmoon Lake in the Hiawatha National Forest, taking note of it with the plan to photograph it on the way back (which I did). It wasn’t necessarily what I was looking for or expecting, but that’s part of the secret to great photo opportunities: not looking a gift horse in the mouth.

  5. […] discussed this at some length on my own blog about a year ago, but I think it bears repeating:  there’s a tendency for […]

  6. This is another excellent post Kerry!!! Great minds think alike!!!

    • Thanks very much, David.

  7. Great post . I am going to highly recommend this web site! I will keep learning more about photography. Do you use Analogic cameras like Hasselblad 500cm and other types of cameras for making landscape photos? I like to use sometimes my fisheye lenses on my NikonD200.

    Thanks again for the post.

    • Thanks very much for the comment and the recommendation; I appreciate it.

      Re your question about cameras, I shoot exclusively with a digital SLR at this point. I just started shooting with a Nikon D800E this summer. I previously shot with a D700 (it’s still my backup body), which I obtained in 2008. Prior to that, I used a D200, which I purchased in 2006 and before that, a D100, which was my first digital camera (2003). Before that, I shot with a Nikon, Minolta and Olympus film SLRs.

      In 2002, I was seriously looking to move to a medium format film system, likely either the Pentax 67 or one of the Mamiya 67 cameras. I’ll spare you the details, but it was at that point that I concluded that digital SLRs would be–in fact, at that time already were–pushing the potential print quality of what could reasonably be done with a medium format film system, given scanning limitations. I determined that medium format was about to fall off the edge of the cliff, and I ended up guessing correctly. I’ve never seriously considered moving out of the digital SLR realm ever since. Medium format digital–be it native or via a digital back–is far too rich for my blood and has its own set of limitations (mostly in the format of depth of field considerations, lens availability/flexibility and cost). I’ve been increasingly happy with the options in the digital field for my style of shooting and now, with the D800 series from Nikon, I’m just about 100% satisfied with my gear.


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