Contemplative Composition in Photography (Podcast 636)

Contemplative Composition in Photography (Podcast 636)

Today we’re going to dive into some of the thought processes I use when composing my photographs, with some real-world examples to help illustrate my ideas.

This post is a continuation of last week’s post in which I relayed many of the shooting methods that I use to ensure that I get great quality images without having to spend lots of time finessing my photos on the computer. It was already a long post, so I decided to talk about composition as a separate subject this week.

Having said that, although I’ll provide some explanations regarding compositional formulae, I am not going to provide an A-Z guide, preferring instead to give you advice on the questions I ask myself in the field and my methodology, so that you can implement this in your own unique photography.

Be Deliberate

The first and foremost advice that I can give on composition, is to be deliberate in your work. Although I’ve met some very talented exceptions, the majority of the time, if you shoot without giving much thought to what you are doing, your images will be weak and unrefined.

Of course, it’s easy to just tell you to think about what you are doing, but it takes time to develop what I call a Mental Checklist which you run through as you shoot, to help with the considerations that you need to think through in order to decide on a pleasing composition. The good news is that the more you shoot, the more automatic many of these decisions become, and that leaves us free to ask the questions that lead us to our most compelling compositions.

Settings Order

Some of the main questions I ask myself as I approach any scene start, for me, with my exposure settings, which I mostly decide in this order. Keep in mind that I work in Manual mode most of the time, so I’m changing my settings while looking through the viewfinder and checking where the caret on the meter falls based on the meter reading, and adjust from there with my own interpretation of what’s really happening with the light.

The majority of the time, I start by setting my Aperture, as this to me has the greatest effect on the visual appearance of my resulting photograph. You may have noticed that I use f/14 a lot for my landscapes, and that is because I like to get a lot of the scene in focus, and f/14 enables me to get deep depth of field, with most if not all of the scene in focus, from the foreground to infinity.

Photographer's Friend 3 for iOS

When using long telephoto lenses, the depth of field becomes shallower and shallower still as you focus closer to the camera, but you learn how much depth of field you get through experience, and also I spent a lot of time, especially in my early days, using Depth of Field calculators, such as the one I now have in our Photographer’s Friend app for iOS.

The reason I try to avoid using an aperture much smaller than f/14 is diffraction, that can start to creep in. Diffraction is caused by light spreading out as it passes through a very small hole, and I built in diffraction warnings to the Depth of Field calculator in Photographer’s Friend, to help show when this might start to affect your images as you stop down the aperture. 

In my tests last year I actually found that most of my lenses don’t really start to suffer from Diffraction until I stop down to f/22, so now continuing to use f/14 is more of a habit than a requirement, but it’s enough to get the depth of field that I want with wider lenses. I explained all about Diffraction and shared how you can test your own lenses in Episode 594 if you’d like to check that out.

Moroccan Man (Karim) in Well
Moroccan Man (Karim) in Well

I will, of course, use a wider aperture when I want a shallow depth of field, and also, sometimes it’s simply too dark to stop down the aperture for more depth of field. For example, when I photographed this gentleman (left) inside an irrigation channel in Morocco last year, there was so little light that I opened up my aperture to f/4, the widest the lens I was using would go before I even raised the camera to my eye.

The next setting I decide on usually is Shutter Speed. I’ve already decided what depth of field I want, and now I have to decide if I want to freeze the motion of anything that might be moving or allow it to move over time with a longer exposure.

In Morocco, I actually try really hard to use Aperture Priority, as the street photography style environment makes manual a little bit difficult to keep up with sometimes. For this photograph, I ended up with a shutter speed of 1/40 of a second, and that really is as slow as I’d risk shooting something like this at.

To get to 1/40 of a second, I actually had to dial in minus two stops of exposure compensation, because the dark environment was fooling the camera into thinking that it had to increase the exposure too much, which would have resulted in the man being over-exposed, and the dark background too bright.

Even then though, the risk of using a 1/40 of a second shutter speed is that the man might move during the exposure, and also at 105 mm focal length, even with Image Stabilization turned on, I’m risking introducing camera movement as well. The rule of thumb is that you use the focal length as your minimum hand-held shutter speed, so at 105 mm I really want at least 1/100 of a second, but in such low light conditions we have to take some calculated risks.

After setting my aperture and shutter speed based on what I need for the aesthetic values of the photograph, or based on restrictions placed on me by the environment, I generally adjust the exposure with the ISO. As I mentioned last week, it’s important to not be afraid to crank the ISO up a little when necessary, as shooting with too low an ISO will introduce noise because the image gets too dark. You are actually less likely to see grain by increasing the ISO.

Again, because I was using an automated exposure mode for this example photograph from Morocco, I had also turned on Auto-ISO and set a maximum ISO for the camera to use at 6400, and that is what I shot this image with. What this means though is that I was at f/4, my widest aperture, with a 1/40 of a second shutter speed, the slowest I wanted to risk shooting at, and the highest ISO. The resulting image was actually a little bit darker than I’d have liked, but with my hands tied, I rolled with it, and the grain was there, but acceptable.

I knew it would be because I have worked in these conditions often enough that I know what my camera will give me under these conditions. The important thing is that you think through each setting and understand why you select them, and what you can expect to gain from each setting.

Use a Tripod When Possible

For the previous example, it wasn’t possible to use a tripod, as I was in a narrow passageway with my workshop group, and also even if I had used a tripod, using an even longer exposure would have just introduced more risk of subject movement, but when it’s an option, using a tripod will generally help with your composition. Some people dislike using a tripod because they slow you down, but guess what? That’s one of the main advantages of using a tripod.

I use a tripod for 99% of my landscape work, because it gives me the time and stability to really refine my composition. I am very careful about how I frame my images, and hand-holding your camera, regardless of how steady you hold it, will always result in the camera moving around as you compose your photos. It’s impossible to really look at where each of the four edges of the frame fall, and align them all perfectly at the same time. The only way to do that, is to have the camera on a tripod, and fix it in place.

Use LiveView When Possible

Another thing that I recommend is to flip your camera into Live View at least as a part of your process to check your composition. When we look through the viewfinder, although the scene is framed, it’s still a three-dimensional scene, and our brains find it much easier to ignore distractions if it can move back and forth between the layers of the scene. Live View, on the other hand, shows us the image in two dimensions, flattening it, so that all of the elements in your frame are on the same plane, and this really helps us to identify problems and fix them before we make the exposure.

Of course, Live View doesn’t work well if you are hand-holding with a DSLR, but the electronic viewfinder on mirrorless cameras probably does bring some of these benefits to hand-held shooting, because you are looking at a flat image, as opposed to the actual scene through your lens.

Give Your Subjects Space

Shortly I’ll talk about using a tight crop to add drama, but as you saw in the previous example, I did two other things that I’d like to mention, the first of which is that you might notice that I left a lot of negative space to the right of the subject and above him. The space to his right is to add some balance. I’m not afraid to place a subject in the middle of the frame when it suits, although that’s generally considered to be a no-no. We’ll get to that too shortly as well though.

I’ve actually used the rule of thirds here, by placing the subject along the left third of the image. Although you’ll probably hear people telling you to avoid the rule of thirds because it’s overused, I really also want you to keep it in mind, because we as an art-loving biological being find it pleasing to look at. Artists have been placing their subjects on the third intersections of works of art for centuries.

Of course, just plonking your subject on a third line won’t help it if it’s badly lit and not well thought out, but in some circumstances, it’s definitely a compositional technique to consider as an option, and definitely, don’t try to avoid it just because someone told you its cliche. Make up your own mind!

The reason that I added some space above this gentleman, is to give him some space to look into. The light in the scene is coming from directly above, and I had asked him to look up into the light like this. If I’d cropped the image off directly above his head, it would look unnecessarily cramped. The other thing that I did consciously that I wanted to mention, is that I decided to crop of this gentleman’s feet, simply because he was wearing white sneakers that really didn’t match the rest of his traditional clothing.

The Not-So Dreaded Bullseye Composition

At One With Oneself
At One With Oneself

Just as I don’t want you to rule out the rule of thirds, I also want to dispel the common advice to not put your subject in the middle of the frame. Even though we call it the rule of thirds, it’s not a rule at all. It’s a guideline. Just one option from a plethora of compositional techniques to draw from as we see fit.

As you can see in this photograph of a snow monkey, I chose to put the monkeys face smack in the middle of the frame, and I think it works this way. I was careful to get equal amounts of space all around the face, but notice too that the face isn’t even sharp.

I broke another so-called rule here, by focusing on the monkey’s wet fur, rather than the face. To me this adds a little bit of mystique, forcing the viewer to fill in the gaps for themselves. I’ve even partly obscured the monkey’s eyes with its fur, again, something that you might try to avoid, but I think this all helps to add a certain amount of emotion to this image.

At least for me, I feel as though this monkey is deep in thought, because of the position of the face and the downward looking pose, but most of that is simply created by the composition. The reality is that the monkey was simply snoozing at the side of the hot-spring bath, probably not thinking about anything more than its next meal, but we can read so much more into this because of the composition.

The Tight Crop

Another reason the snow monkey photo works is because of the drama caused by the tight crop. This is the same for the image we’ll look at later of the sand dune, where the tight crop works best, in my opinion. 

Quite often, getting in closer and focusing on the most interesting visual elements will result in a stronger image. The problem is that when we are actually in the field, somewhat overwhelmed by the beauty of our location, our brains tend to ignore the boring parts of a scene, and trick us into thinking it’s more beautiful than it is by focussing only on the elements interests us.

It’s important to evaluate what it is exactly that is attracting you, and think through your options to maximize the impact of those elements of interest. For example, here is a photograph of the mountains and glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón in Iceland. I’ve never shared this photograph because it’s absolutely boring! It’s boring because going wide like this has left all of the individual elements of the scene so small that they lose their impact and drama.

Jökulsárlón Icebergs and Glacier
Jökulsárlón Icebergs and Glacier

This is a somewhat extreme example, but to me, grabbing a long lens and finding details like the water flowing around the base of an iceberg can often be a much more compelling image than a wider scene trying to include too many elements.

Water and Ice
Water and Ice

The Human Element

Talking of elements, I also sometimes find that adding a human element to a scene can help the viewer to put themselves in the environment. As beautiful as the valley can be, one of the most popular photos from my first visit to Iceland turned out to be this one, where I used jumped into the frame myself and looked out across the land. 

Martin in Landmannalaugar
Martin in Landmannalaugar

Despite us patiently waiting for the crowds to disappear to get a clean shot of the Skogafoss waterfall also in Iceland, this shot became an instant hit thanks to the guy that walked barefoot out in front of the falls with an umbrella! Even for what is essentially a landscape photograph, the human element can add so much, even without being very large in the frame.

Umbrella Man at Skógafoss
Umbrella Man at Skógafoss

Also, note that as deliberate as I like to be, this photo was very spontaneous. I was walking away from the falls with my group when the man started to walk out like this, so I had literally just a few seconds to drop my camera back down again and frame this up for just one shot. 

Zoom However You Like!

There is one popular mantra blindly regurgitated by photographers around the world that rubs me up the wrong way, and that is “Zoom with your Feet”. This is one of those phrases that is used in my opinion for one of three reasons, all of which I take exception too, which are…

  1. To make you feel guilty for not walking

    If you blindly walk closer to a subject, you completely change your perspective. You might remember my episode 568 post “The Effect of Subject Distance and Focal Length on Perspective“, in which I show examples of how the perspective of our photos changes as move closer to our subjects.

    Assuming you change your focal length as you move, this changes the relationship between the foreground and background elements in your frame, so there is always going to be an optimal distance for your composition. If you need to walk towards your subject to get to that distance, you’d essentially be zooming with your feet, but we should never do that blindly without considering perspective.

  2. To protect the ego of the 50mm lens shooter

    Some people latch on to mantras like zoom with your feet to help them to live with their decision not to buy a longer lens. There is a certain snobbery I sometimes come across with regards to using short focal length lenses and I sometimes meet people that have decided to only use prime lenses, and again, that’s your decision, but that doesn’t mean that you have to attack others for their decision to use a longer focal length to get their shots.

    It’s just another decision, like whether to use a Mac or a Windows computer, or whether to by a Canon or Nikon camera, or any of the other amazing cameras on the market. We make our own decisions, and it is completely unnecessary to tell other people why they are wrong about their own choices.

  3. Inability to think objectively

    The third reason I believe some people spout the zoom with your feet mantra is more understandable, as a general flaw in our human nature, but some people really just lack the ability to think objectively about the possible reasoning of others to do what they do.

    For example, a street photographer may well be able to shoot 90% of their images with a 35mm lens, and get stunning results, but if I were to take a 35mm lens to Namibia and try to photograph this lion doing what is actually just a fierce looking yawn, I would obviously have to get a little bit too close to avoid being eaten.

The Scowl
The Scowl

The same goes for walking off the edge of a cliff or into a body of water. There are a plethora of reasons why zooming with your feet may not be the best option, but I’ve talked enough about this for now, so I’ll jump off my soap-box and move on.

Effects of Subject Distance and Focal Length on Perspective

In fact, before we move on, let’s look at an example of the effects of subject distance and focal length on the perspective that we achieve in our photographs, using some images from last year’s Complete Namibia Tour. First of all, here is a photo from a distance as we approached a sand dune. In this first image I included the entire dune and some of the sky.

Dune #35
Dune #35

This shows the dune in its entirety, with the trees at its base, but it’s not a very impactful image. The trees seem a little insignificant, and the dune itself doesn’t look all that impressive. My focal length for this image was 200mm.

As we move closer, here is another photo, shot with a focal length of 148mm, which shows the trees much better, because I’m closer to them now, but including the top of the sand dune makes it look much smaller than the previous shot. This is because of the relationship between the larger trees, and because I’m now forming a more acute angle on the first peak of the dune, almost obscuring the more distant peak, making it look much smaller.

Dune #35 Closer
Dune #35 Closer

I think this is a nicer photo than the first, but it doesn’t do the sand dune any justice. This third image though, shot with a focal length of 312mm, enables me to completely fill the frame with the sand dune, which in my opinion does both the trees and the dune justice, by balancing their visual weight in a much more appealing way.

Dune #35 Closer Still
Dune #35 Closer Still

You could also argue that the dune appears larger in this final image than the first two, simply because we cannot actually see it’s edges. We have no clue as to how large the sand dune is, but we do know that it’s at least four times or so larger than the trees. The other point that I wanted to make about this composition is that it also becomes harder to understand what you are looking at, with the darker shadow side and the texture in the sand apparently confusing some people, and I like that. I find that images can be more visually rewarding if you have to work a little to understand them.

And to circle back to the zoom with your feet topic, I did indeed walk a fair distance to get close enough to this dune to make these photos, but I also zoomed with my zoom lens to 312mm to make what I consider to be the optimal image that this dune has to offer. It’s more about using your brain and your own sense of the aesthetic than rotely following a mantra that is used for the wrong reasons far too often.

Tell A Story When Possible

Another mantra that I am kind of sick of hearing, is that every photo should tell a story. I don’t believe that every photograph can tell a story, opting myself to at least try to evoke some kind of an emotion in the viewer, as I described in my post about What Makes a Photograph Fine Art back in Episode 589.

But, when we can tell a story with a photograph, it can be a powerful thing. For this next image (below) I had arranged for a couple of camel handlers to walk through the dunes in Morroco, so that my group and I could photograph them, and we were lucky to have a beautiful sunset while we were out there as well.

Camel Silhouettes at Sunset
Camel Silhouettes at Sunset

Again the human element helps here, but we can build our own story based on the visual clues in this photograph, perhaps thinking of a romantic distant land, with the camel handler hear making his way to meet his future wife with his camel dowry, or something like that. I don’t even know if they have a dowry system in Morocco, but you get the picture.

Decluttering and Minimalism

I love minimalist photography. A tree on a snow-covered hill to me is one of the most satisfying types of photography I do. I mentioned giving the subject some space earlier but wanted to follow up here and say that in this kind of minimalist work, I really feel that in many ways, space is the subject. The tree and its shadow, and the grasses poking through the snow in this photograph (below) are nothing without the snow itself that is taking up most of the space in this image.

Tree with Grasses
Tree with Grasses

Because of the need for this space, I find that when composing this kind of image, the opposite approach to the tight crop is called for. I tend to go wider and include more space around what you might consider to be the main subject because the subject, in this case, is nothing without its space to live in. 

The reason this space works though, is because its uncluttered. Some of my images like this don’t even have the additional grasses, so there is nothing but snow, a tree, and a white or grey sky. Just as the snow absorbs sound, making it a surreal and relaxing environment to work in, it cleans everything up visually too, and this is incredibly appealing to me, and probably why my Hokkaido Landscape Tours are so popular.

The other takeaway from this though is the importance of decluttering your images, even when there is no snow to help with this. We are responsible for everything in the frame, and it’s our job to select a camera position and focal length that enables us to best isolate our subjects in an environment that contains the least distractions, and this comes back to my point about being deliberate. Look and really see what is in the frame, and ensuring that the edges of your frame are clean, and cut off in a pleasing way is of paramount importance.

Cropping in Post

One subject that came up in the comments for last week’s post, that I want to mention for thoroughness, is that although I prefer to get my images as close as possible in the field, there are times when I’m happy to crop my images, so let’s explore when I might do this.

The main reason that I consider cropping my work, is when it feels to me as though it will simply work better in a format other than the 3:2 aspect ratio that my camera records images in. For example, in the below image, I wanted to include a lot of zebras in the main group to show the one of the left as standing outside of the main group. I also wanted to cut off the group to the right in open space, rather than splice through a zebra, so this naturally led to an image with a lot of detailless sky.

Odd Zebra Out
Odd Zebra Out

Cropping this down to a 16:9 ratio helped me to reduce the amount of sky in the shot, and I also like the 16:9 crop, because it looks great on a widescreen computer or TV. I’m finding myself viewing images on the TV more and more now that we have such large 4K screens to really do our work justice.

I will also try to decide on the crop when I’m shooting, but unlike my policy to not clone anything out that I didn’t see in the field, that I mentioned last week, for cropping, I’m fine with cropping it and just seeing what it feels like after the event. My camera does have a feature where I can crop the images in the camera, and I can also tell it to not actually crop the image, just add the cropping information, so that I can edit it later, but I personally don’t do this. I can imagine what the various crops will look like easily enough without emulating it in the camera.

I Rarely Crop Arbitrarily

I also wanted to mention that I rarely simply use the crop tool without locking it to a specific crop ratio, simply because I like to ensure that I can print images with at least a certain amount of conformity. Of course, the 16:9 crop that I just mentioned is more for screen viewing, but for prints, I like to use either the native 3:2 aspect ratio, and I also like 2:1, where the image is twice as wide as it is high. 

I don’t only create canvas gallery wraps, but using specific ratios also make it easier to get the right sized stretcher bars for my prints. For example, for the regular 3:2 aspect ratio we have 20 and 30 inch stretcher bars, and for a 2:1 aspect ratio I could use 20-inch bars and 10-inch bars, or 40-inch and 20-inch bars. Now that I have a 44 inch wide large format printer, I could even use 60-inch and 30-inch bars, although I haven’t stocked this size yet.

For fine art prints, it’s not really a problem to have arbitrary crop sizes, because I always print with a border, and the image would just fit inside the borders, but having my images all cropped to specific aspect ratios does still enable me to select images of the same crop ratio just for conformity. When possible I like to present work that adheres to a specific set of attributes.

Again though, like many of the decisions I make, these are all just personal preference, and if you are happy to crop your images freely, rather than sticking to specific ratios, that’s completely fine. I’m just relaying what I do in case it can inform your own decisions in any way.

Northern Red Fox's Yawn
Northern Red Fox’s Yawn

The 4:5 Crop

Another crop ratio that I like to use is 4:5, based purely on the aesthetic quality I associate with the popular medium format ratio.

This ratio really suits portraits and was a popular film size with portrait photographers. In my own work, the image that sprang to mind as I tried to locate an example image was this one of a Northern Red Fox yawning, as we photographed him from the bus during one of my Japan Winter Wildlife Tours a few years ago.

Again, here I was using the crop to reduce the blue above the foxes head, but I do think it enhances the image by making it feel more like a portrait, as I think we’ve been conditioned to associate the 4:5 with portrait work.

I also use the 1:1 square crop too occasionally, but by that point I generally start to feel as though I’m throwing away too many pixels, so I’m more likely to shoot two or three frames and stitch them together for a square image rather than cropping down from a single frame.

Having said that, now that I’m shooting with 50-megapixel cameras, I’m more likely that I was before to crop in a little more heavily, as I can still leave myself more pixels than I used to get with an uncropped image just a few years ago. 

Conclusion

I could go on, and keep looking for examples and my thinking behind each photograph, but again, this has turned into a bit of a mega-post, so we’ll wrap it up there for now. As I mentioned at the start, a lot of what I’ve covered today aren’t solid guidelines, but I hope that what we have touched on will help you to make the optimal decisions regarding compositions as you create your own photographs.

I’m a firm believer in not necessarily learning rules but learning how to think for ourselves, and then thinking our way through situations to reach our own often new and refreshing conclusions. I’m being contradictory here in that I hope you read or listen to what I have to say on this stuff, but at the same time, don’t want you to think too much about what people say, especially when there are a lot of “shoulds” in the post.

I prefer myself to avoid using the word “should” because I don’t think we can really tell people what to do or how to do it. As we gain more and more experience in our wonderful pursuit of photography, we gradually fill a mental toolbox with tools which we can draw from as we work. The more tools you have in your toolbox the more likely you will be to pick the best tool based on your own interpretation of any given situation, rather than have someone hand you a tool and tell you exactly how you should use it.


Show Notes

Check out my Mental Checklist post here: https://mbp.ac/498

I explain about Diffraction and how to test your lenses for it here: https://mbp.ac/594

Here is my post on what makes a photograph fine art: https://mbp.ac/589

You can check out my tours and workshops here: https://mbp.ac/workshops

Music by Martin Bailey


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The Effect of Subject Distance and Focal Length on Perspective (Podcast 568)

The Effect of Subject Distance and Focal Length on Perspective (Podcast 568)

Today I explain the effect that changing your subject distance and focal length has on the perspective of the visual elements in your photographs. This is often confused with a change in perspective due to your lenses focal length alone, but that really isn’t the case. Let me explain why.

I’m actually writing this post on request from my friends over at Craft & Vision. They asked me to do this last year, and I’m just getting to it now that the dust is settling after my winter tour season. I also shot the example photos that we’ll reference on the park near my brother’s house in the UK on Christmas Eve 2016. They aren’t great photos, but I wanted a scene with two distinct elements in it, one close by and one far away, so that we could see the effect I’m going to explain.

Focal Length Alone Does Not Change Perspective

People sometimes get confused when talking about this subject, and end up talking about how changing the focal length changes the perspective, and it actually does not. The only time the perspective changes is if you change the distance from your camera to the subject.

If you also change your focal length to maintain the same subject size, you will see a dramatic change in the relationship between the foreground subjects and the elements in the background. If you simply put a camera on a tripod, and without changing the distance to your subject, then shoot a series of images as you zoom in or out, you can crop away the excess image that is captured in the images at wider focal lengths, and you’ll see that the relationship between the main subject and the background will be exactly the same. The perspective itself does not change by changing the focal length alone.

The reason the perspective will change in my example photos, is because I moved closer to my main subject and zoomed out, changing my focal length, to make the the main subject appear the same size in each photograph. When you do this, the relationship between the subject and the background elements changes dramatically, as we’ll see.

The Effect of Subject Distance on Perspective

Let’s take a look at my example shots to explain. For these examples, I needed a nearby and a distant subject, so that I could easily explain this theory. I grew up playing in this park on holidays and weekends, and knew that I’d be able to find a tree to place in front of the power station in the distance, so let’s work with this.

My first image was shot at 105mm, from a distance of approximately 100 meters (330 ft). After making this first exposure, I made a mental note of where the tree was in the frame, so that I can recreate that as I moved closer.

Tree and Power Station (105mm from 100m)
Tree and Power Station (105mm from 100m)

I changed my 24-105mm lens from 105mm to 70mm, looking at the focal length markings on the barrel of the lens. Then I walked closer to the tree, checking the size of the tree in the frame, until I got it approximately the same size as in my first photograph.  This second image was shot at 70mm from a distance of approximately 70 meters (230 ft). Notice how the tree is the same size, but the power station behind it has shrunk a little.

Tree and Power Station (70mm from 70m)
Tree and Power Station (70mm from 70m)

I repeated the process, changing the focal length of my lens from 70mm to 50mm, and moved closer still to the tree, until it was the same size in the frame again and shot my third image approximately 55 meters (180 ft). Once again, see how much smaller the power station has become.

Tree and Power Station (50mm from 55m)
Tree and Power Station (50mm from 55m)

For my final image I zoomed all the way out to 24mm and moved close enough for the tree to look the same size in the frame, and shot this from approximately 25 meters (82 ft).

Tree and Power Station (24mm from 25m)
Tree and Power Station (24mm from 25m)

To compare these four images, you can click on them to open the images in a viewer, and then click the right or left side of the images to move back and forth.

When you compare all four of these images, you’ll see that the tree is pretty much the same size in each, but if you look at the apparent size of the power station in the background, you’ll see that it changes dramatically as we get closer to the tree and zoom out to maintain the size of the tree. Let move on to explain why this happens.

Field of View

As we change the focal length of our lenses, we change their field of view. This is how much of the world we are able to capture in our image, and it’s directly linked to the focal length. On a full frame or 35mm sensor camera, at 105mm we can photograph horizontally 20° of the world around us. At 70mm we get 30°, at 50mm we get 40° and at 24mm, 75° of the scene before us enters our lens.

You can usually find the field of view for your lenses on the manufacturer’s web site, but I checked the field of view for each of my example photographs with a program called Raw Digger, that allows me to dig into my EXIF data. Canon actually write the field of view for the focal length used in the EXIF data of each image, and that’s really handy.

I also went into Canon’s Map Utility that comes with my GP-E2 device that I use to geotag my images, and using the scale on the map and a rule against my computer display, I calculated the shooting distances that I mentioned earlier. With these two pieces of information, we can easily chart out the relationship between the four example images, including our shooting distance and the angle of view, as you can see in this diagram (below).

The Effect of Subject Distance and Focal Length on Perspective
The Effect of Subject Distance and Focal Length on Perspective

After you click to view it larger, to stop the image from automatically advancing, just place your mouse cursor over the image.

Calculate Subject Size Based on Distance and Degree

To really explain this we’re going to have to get a bit geeky. Believe me, I’m no mathematician. It was my worst subject at school and I hate numbers, except when it comes to something that I’m interested in, like business, computers and photography, then I do like to dig down a little. First of all, for my own sake, I want to make sure that I’m doing this right, and to do that, I first figured out how to calculate the size of the tree in the photograph.

We know that Π (pi) = 3.14159, so if we divide 180 degrees, the widest field of view we’re ever likely to be using in photography, by 3.14159, we get 57. That means we can calculate the size of an object by multiplying the distance by the field of view in degrees and dividing that by 57.

Armed with this formula, we can calculate that at 105mm, when I first photographed the tree from a distance of approximately 100m, the field of view captured in the photograph was about 35 meters at the distance of the tree.

100 × 20 ÷ 57 = 35 meters

In Adobe Illustrator I resized the example images to 1,000 pixels wide, and used the measure tool to find that tree was 440 pixels wide, so it’s taking up 44% of the field of view. So we can multiply 35 by 0.44 to learn that the tree is approximately 15.4 meters across at its widest point. That sounds about right!

Width of Subject = Subject Distance × Field of View ÷ 57 × Subject Width (i.e. 44% = 0.44)

If we take the widest focal length of 24mm and do the calculation, we get roughly the same answer. At 24mm the field of view is 75° and I photographed the tree from 25 meters. So, 25 x 75 / 57 x 0.44 equals 14.4 meters. There’s a small variance, but I’m getting my actual shooting distance from my GPS information, and measuring it with a very small rule on a computer screen. There may also be something going on as we focus the lens, so I’m not too concerned about this variance. It’s close enough to prove to me at least, that my math isn’t too cranky.

Near and Far Objects

We can also mathematically understand why the power station gets smaller in relation to the tree, starting by doing the same calculations. Measuring out the distance from where I was when I took these photos, we are about 3,500 meters from the power station and it takes up approximately 37% of the field of view in the 105mm focal length photograph, so, 3500 x 20 / 57 = 1228 x 0.37, the power station is about 454 meters wide from this angle.

In the 24mm photograph, the power station takes up about 10% of the field of view, and we’ve moved 75m closer to the subject so 3425 x 75 / 57 x 0.1, which comes to 450 meters. Again, there is a very slight variance, but based on this we can see that we are able to approximately calculate the size of the objects in the frame based on the distance to the objects and the field of view of our lens at any given focal length.

Field of View in the Distance

To understand why distant objects are smaller in wider focal length images, let’s do one last pair of calculations, and find the width of our slice of world captured at the distance of the power station, kind of as a checksum. We actually got these numbers as part of our previous calculation, but to recap, we know that the power station is approximately 3500 meters away in our 105mm photo which has a field of view of 20°. At 100 meters, where the tree is, this captures 35 meter of the scene, but if we extend this out to where the power station is, we are capturing 1,228 meters of the world.

At 25 meters with a focal length of 24mm we are capturing 33 meters of the world, but at 3,425 meters, where the power station is, that captures a 4,500 meter wide scene. So an object which is approximately 450mm wide is going to take up 10% of a 24mm image, as opposed to 37% of a 105mm photograph. We know that we maintained the tree size at 44%, so this is our proof for why things get smaller as they get further away.

Not being very good at maths, after spending most of the day working on these formula, you can probably imagine how happy I was when I entered my calculations into an Excel spreadsheet, and calculated the size of the tree and power station based on field of view and distance alone, and then calculated that the percentage of the width that the power station would take in my images, was exactly the same as that which I’d calculated by measuring the pixels in Adobe Illustrator.

One Sentence Take-Away

In practical use, we simply need to remember the following sentence.

As we widen our focal length and move closer to our main subject the background elements in our scene will appear smaller.

That’s it! I know that this is somewhat obvious, and many of you will look at this alone, and think, I knew that! And that’s great, but I hope now that you’ll have a better understanding of why this happens. I know I understand it better than I did this morning, when I sat down to think about the math.

A Practical Examples

Let’s look at a few more photos from the field, not shot to illustrate this point per se, but they will help to get a better understanding of how different our images can be just by thinking about the distance to subject and focal length.

Here is a photo of a tree in front of a sand dune in Namibia (below), which I shot from 85 meters (280 ft) from the tree. Again, I know this because I geotag my images and checked on Google maps. My focal length for this was 80mm, but I cropped in a little along the top, so it’s probably the equivalent of 90mm.

Namibian Dune (from 280 ft)
Namibian Dune (from 280 ft)
Namibia Tree and Dune (from 100ft)
Namibia Tree and Dune (from 100ft)

The next image (right) was part of a series of images that I shot vertically to stitch together as a panorama, but it didn’t work, because the dune looked tiny in relation to the tree. In all honesty I don’t really know why I proceed to shoot the series, but it helps to illustrate this point, so all is good.

I actually shot this from around 30 meters (100 ft) away from the tree. Because I’ve gone to portrait/vertical orientation with the camera for this photo, we automatically get more foreground and sky, so it’s not a straight comparison, but you will surely be able to appreciate how going a little bit wider and moving closer to the subject has shrunk the apparent size of the background.

Knowing that the final image is what I wanted, I actually exposed the next photograph (below) before the others, from around 75 meters (250 ft) away from the tree, with a focal length of 165mm.

I think you’ll appreciate that the background looks very different in the long focal length shot, from a distance, compared to the shorter focal length shot closer to the tree, even though the dune starts pretty close behind the tree. But, because the sand dune is so large, it quickly recedes into the distance, and so starts to shrink in relationship with this tree very quickly.

Dune #12 & Tree (from 250 ft)
Dune #12 & Tree (from 250 ft)
Dune with Tree (from 1.3km)
Dune with Tree (from 1.3km)

Finally, here’s one last image (right) that I made as we walked away from this sand dune. I shot this at a distance of 1.3km (4,400 ft) with a focal length of 200mm.

Obviously now the tree is much smaller in the frame from this distance, but I want you to think about the difference between how the tree looks in this shot compared to the first two photographs of this tree and dune above. In all three images we can see the tree with the sand dune from top to bottom.

The apparent size of the tree compared to the sand dune is portrayed totally differently simply by changing my focal length and distance to the tree from the camera.

Don’t Zoom With Your Feet Just Because

One other thing that I’d like to mention, is that you’ll often hear people talking about zooming with your feet. Just as I did to get closer to this sand dune. Zoom with your feet is one of those mantras that people latch on to and use for a number of reasons.

I’m not going to go into details on my theories here, but I imagine that part of the reason for the popularity of this phrase is because people need to protect their egos, by backing up a decision to buy, or sometimes to not buy, a certain piece of gear. Worse still, sometimes people are just regurgitating a phrase that someone who should know better said in a confident tone.

Personally, when I’m photographing wild animals or photographing a valley from a cliff edge, I prefer not to walk forwards. In a situation when you can move forwards, you need to be making your decision to do so based on how the focal length, or more specifically the field of view, and the distance to your subject and scene will effect the look of your photograph. You definitely don’t want to be zooming with your feet just because someone etched the phrase zoom with your feet into your brain.

I hope that what we’ve covered today will help you to make an educated decision for yourself, as to whether it’s better to move closer to your subject, or shoot it from further away, while zooming with your lens, not your feet.


Show Notes

You can find Raw Digger here: https://www.rawdigger.com

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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Seeing and Anticipating Shots (Podcast 3)

Seeing and Anticipating Shots (Podcast 3)

Here’s another episode from the archives, originally released on Sept 19, 2005.

Before we raise our camera to our eye or set it on a tripod, compose the shot and choose the aperture and shutter speed and release the shutter, it seems pretty obvious that we must first ‘see’ the shot, but this simple action is not always as easy as it seems. It’s surprising how many shots we walk straight passed each day, just because we don’t ‘see’ them.

Although I consider myself to have a pretty good eye for finding interesting subjects I was reminded of this yesterday while shooting in the Hamarikyuu Park here in Tokyo. I was walking along when I noticed a dragonfly fly past me. This was nothing strange. At this time of year there are thousands of dragonflies flying around. The thing with this dragonfly though that I felt happy I’d noticed was that it appeared to be carrying something. I couldn’t see what it was, but followed the dragonfly until it came to rest on a tree. I carefully walked over and crouched next to the tree and as I peered through my 100mm macro lens I saw that the dragonfly was starting to munch away on a small orange and black butterfly.

The first photograph today which is number 701 is what I saw. Remember you can see the photo in iTunes or your iPod, and also on my Web site, martinbaileyphotography.com. If you go to my site and find the Podcasts section near the top of the page you can enter the number into the black box and click the orange button to view the image in my online gallery. Today though I will talk about multiple photos, so it might be better to click on the orange Podcast icon and look for Episode 3 in the list. There you’ll find a bunch of thumbnails that are linked to the full sized shots in my gallery.

Dragonfly Dinner Time

Dragonfly Dinner Time

I actually wanted to create an enhanced Podcast with chapters, so that I could change the photos at specific times, but this apparently requires a tool that only works on Mac computers, and I use Windows, so I’ll have to wait until the tool is available for Windows too. Anyway, for now, you will only be able to see the first photo if viewing on an iPod, but if you are using iTunes you can click through the photos instead of going to my site.

Also, something else I’ve been meaning to say is, if you are looking at my photos in iTunes, note that iTunes will by default try to display the photo larger than it actually is. This will make it appear grainy as the photos are only 800 pixels wide. Click on the center maximize button to return to the actual size of the shot and it will appear as intended and look much better.

So to continue with the point I wanted to make about the photo of the dragonfly. It is important to look for clues. In this case is was that the dragonfly was carrying something, that enabled me to get a shot that has much more action that just a dragonfly sitting on a leaf.

It is sometimes not the subject that you spot first either, but something it left behind. If you are on a safari you might track a wild animal from its foot prints or dropping, but even in less exotic surrounding you can use this technique. I was in a nature research park near my apartment in Tokyo and was thinking about wrapping up for the day and started walking for the gate, when I noticed lots of black pellets about two millimeters across on the ground under a bush. I’d seen them before so I new what to look for, and low and behold, the bush was filled with caterpillars. I had not seen this particular species before, and was happy to find some huge black and orange caterpillars.

Next let’s take a look at shot number 636 of a field of poppies. When faced with a wonderful vista or a sweeping field of flowers, it is natural for us to want to photograph the entire scene. However, although we see the world as though we are looking through a very wide angle lens, the human eye is actually very selective. We switch in an instant from a wide angle to a telephoto, and zoom in on areas of the shot that catch our eye, but this is usually a pretty subconscious action. By all means take that shot of the sweeping field of flowers. I would. But also drop a telephoto lens onto your camera and try to pick out a few areas to zoom in on, as I did here. I ensured that the shot had some foreground with a number of flowers in relatively sharp focus and a taller flower on the left with a stem and bud on the right of similar height to frame the shot. I also chose a cut that had some distance between the main subject and the background so that the background was far enough out of focus to simply provide a backdrop with some splashes of colour in it. I chose an aperture of F8 to ensure the foreground was relatively sharply focused but the background was not.

Poppies 2005 #07

Poppies 2005 #07

So, I called this episode “Seeing and Anticipating Shots” and to this point I’ve really been talking about “Seeing”. Now let’s talk about Anticipating Shots.

In nature photography, animals often do the same thing over and over again. If you see an animal doing something that you find interesting, and yet failed to capture the first time you saw it, continue to track it in your lens for a while. You will often find it does it again and if your reflexes are good enough you have a good chance of capturing it the next time around. Animals also tend feed or rest in the same place. Insects usually hatch from their eggs at the same time and the same place year after year, so going to a certain place at a certain time of day or time of year can help you to get your shot.

These are ways of anticipating what will be at a certain place, but in a very broad sense this is only a little more difficult than anticipating what time to be in a certain place to get a good sunrise or sunset shot. After all, it happens everyday. We just need the weather on our side. Sometimes though, by the time we see the moment it’s over, and we may never be faced with the same scene again. Therefore, watching and anticipating future events is a skill that if developed could help you to get shots that are a cut above the rest.

In the next shot, number 704, at the bottom of the screen you can see three people in silhouette having climbed some steps between a number of high-rise buildings in Tokyo. I saw these people walking up the stairs as I walked toward the train station having spent the afternoon shooting in the Hamarikyuu Park where I made the shot of the dragonfly having his dinner. Without these people in silhouette the shot would lack interest and scale. I would not have even raised the camera to my eye had these people not been climbing the steps.

Shiodome Silhouettes

Shiodome Silhouettes

Another shot I am very proud of is one I made four years ago in Ueno park. It is number 36, and I called it “The Tall Men”, for obvious reasons. These huge guys were waiting craned over the public toilet door, and someone was obviously going to come out sooner or later. I stood ready and waiting for the unsuspecting party to exit the toilet. As he did he found these four giants peering down on him and simply ran while putting his hands over his head for protection, but seeing the funny side he also burst out laughing. The only thing I regret about this shot is that it was taken with a 2 mega-pixel digital point and shoot, during my transition from film a SLR to my first digital SLR.

Tall Men

Tall Men

Finally here are a few more other pieces of advice based on my own experience. When walking along looking for photo opportunities, turn around every now and again. If you only look the way you are going, you won’t see what the things you’ve just passed look like from the other side. Also, things can change in the time it takes for you to walk passed them, especially if you’re spending a lot of time photographing things along the way.

Also, crouch or lay down low, or climb up onto a raised area and look at things from a different perspective, you may find the world looks much different from 50 centimeters from the ground. To finish, take a look at photo number 625. I call this shot “Benevolent Smiles” and it was made possible by kneeling on the gravel of a Buddhist temple and using an angle finder, as these guys are only about 20 centimeters tall.

Hasedera Mizuko

Hasedera Mizuko


Show Notes

The Music in the first 28 Podcasts is copyright of William Cushman © 2005, used with kind permission.


Audio

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Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).