Posted by: kerryl29 | February 1, 2016

Thematic Interruption: The Imposing Mountain Conundrum

There’s a natural, entirely understandable, tendency to pull out the wide angle lens when photographing in the mountains; there’s an awful lot of beauty to behold.  I certainly partook in plenty of wide angle mountain photography while in the Canadian Rockies each of the past two autumns, particularly when composing from the edge of lakes and streams.

Two Jack Lake Sunrise, Banff National Park, Alberta

Two Jack Lake Sunrise, Banff National Park, Alberta

While going wide has the obvious advantage of bringing in potentially attractive elements like colorful skies and reflections, but there’s a potential downside as well.  One of the incontrovertible influences of nearby mountains is the unmistakable imposing feel.  Mountains loom over the scene in a manner that’s difficult to describe with words.  It’s difficult to demonstrate with images as well.

Sunrise, Waterfowl Lakes, Banff National Park, Alberta

Sunrise, Waterfowl Lakes, Banff National Park, Alberta

The thing about wide angle lenses is that background objects–like looming mountain peaks–are reduced in presented size and, by extension, visual impact.  Of course, you can pull out a long telephoto lens and produce a “peak portrait,” something I do fairly frequently myself.

Elliot Peak at Sunrise, David Thompson Country, Alberta

Elliot Peak at Sunrise, David Thompson Country, Alberta

While peak portraits can be very attractive, they frequently fail to impart the majestic emotion of the mountains, principally because they omit elements that clearly produce a sense of scale as well as a three dimensional feel.

Mt. Abraham Details, David Thompson Country, Alberta

Mt. Abraham Details, David Thompson Country, Alberta

My sense is that a kind of happy medium is needed.  The inclusion of a foreground object–or objects, plural–without resorting to the distortion of a wide angle perspective is the best route.  A short to medium telephoto lens is the optic of choice; a 70-200 mm zoom is just about a perfect option.  Not every scene will allow for something like this, but when the elements come together, it can work wonderfully.

Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta

Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta

Larch Valley, Banff National Park, Alberta

Larch Valley, Banff National Park, Alberta

The method typically works best when there’s a shooting perspective with some elevation–an overlook, or something similar, giving you enough room to make what is a mid-ground element to the naked eye appear as a foreground element through the lens.

Valley Fog, Yoho Valley Road, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Valley Fog, Yoho Valley Road, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Elliot Peak from Highway 11, David Thompson Country, Alberta

Elliot Peak from Highway 11, David Thompson Country, Alberta

In principle, there’s no reason the same approach can’t be used for another object serving in the role of the mountain–a tall building, a rock pinnacle, a single tall tree.

Regardless, consider keeping this option in mind when you want to try and convey the formidable nature of a towering background edifice.

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Responses

  1. Kerry: More great work…beautiful color and depth of field.

    • Thanks very much!

  2. Interesting concept to ponder. If it wasn’t snowing like crazy today, I would find a place to experiment with the wide angle, telephoto, and mid-range focal lengths. I love the light on Mt Abraham in the peak portrait.

    • Thanks, Ellen. Given what I know about your native locale, you’d have ample opportunities to give the technique a whirl and see if it did anything for you.

  3. Fascinating ideas, Kerry. Being a dyed-in-the-wool Midwestener, I doubt I’ll ever encounter the dilemma. But, you never know.

    • Hi Tom. I don’t think I’ve ever used this approach in our neck of the woods, at least not for the purpose described here. I’ve used a short or medium telephoto lens for purposes of compression in the Midwest certainly, but that an entirely different aesthetic concept, even if the technique is superficially similar. Around here, the “looming presence” would likely have to come in the form of a water tower or grain elevator.

  4. Landscapes are an area of photography in which I have little experience, so I naturally assumed that wide-angle lenses were required. You’ve made a great case with wonderful examples for considering other lens options. I tend to stick with the same lens most of the time and now need to consider if there might be creative possibilities that I might be missing. Thanks for shaking up some conventional wisdom.

    • Thanks, Mike. Yeah, conventional wisdom is that landscape photography = wide angle, and that’s certainly true much of the time, but I’ve long made the case that the normal/telephoto end of the focal length spectrum provide numerous compelling opportunities and I find myself going that route a significant minority of the time. To the extent that this piece gave you an alternative to consider…well, that’s highly gratifying to me.

      • I tend to shoot mostly with telephoto and macro lenses, so the challenge for me is to think of ways that wide-angle lenses can be used to capture wildlife shots. I’ve seen it done to amazing effect by some other photographers.

        • Me too. I distinctly remember a shot of elephants at a watering hole that was taken with an ultra-wide angle lens. Talk about impact…

  5. Thank you very much for the sage advice, and more wonderful photos! Since I spend most of my time looking through very long telephoto lenses at birds and other critters, when I do get a chance to shoot a landscape, I always default to a wide-angle lens, when I probably shouldn’t.

    • Thanks. I think it’s always a good idea to at least consider turning conventional photographic logic on its head and see if something compelling can result. It doesn’t always work, of course (in fact, it usually doesn’t–conventional logic is conventional for a reason, after all), but when it does, it can produce something special.


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