Is summer photography a waste of time?

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I have often heard people complain that photography in summer is a waste of time. At first glance, you can see what they mean: the sun is too high most of the time, the daytime light can be quite blue, the sky is often rather hazy, and the vegetation is unbearably and vibrantly green. And even if you do decide to head out to do some photography, the roads are jammed with holiday traffic, and your chosen location is likely to be overwhelmed with people. It’s not really a good start, is it?

My counter to those complaints is that you just have to work differently to how you might at other times of the year. Critically, you have to head out super early and/or stay out super late. What’s more, you should concentrate on those subjects that can only be shot in summer. Read on to find out more, and/or watch the video of the online talk I gave on this very subject on 19th June 2024. Just click on the You Tube link below.

To ensure that your summer photography is not a waste of time, adapt your subject matter and mode of operation – oh, and your perspective too! Let’s start with those crowded locations. For many photo subjects, a crowded is scene really isn’t what you want. But suppose you’re a travel photographer tasked with capturing summer beaches. Crowded is exactly what you want (even if you personally may not like it!). You’re going to turn up at the region’s most popular beach at about 2 or 3pm, just when the beach is at its busiest. You’ll get some superb photo opportunities.

Furthermore, there are all those summer events that take place only in summer. Anyone wanting to photograph these will just have to soak up the crowd if they’re going to get those event shots. On top of that, for most events they’ll just have to put up with the sun being oh-so high in the sky, just as that crowded beach photographer will. It’s a price that the photographer will have to pay to capture the right moments at a daytime event.

Of course, if you’re photographing at a music festival then you’ll probably be in luck, because in general they don’t even get going until into the evening, initally allowing you to make use of the golden evening sunlight, and then the soft, even lighting of dusk. Things then of course plunge into darkness and you may be dependent on the stage lights for shootability.

Is summer photography a waste of time?
You may have to put up with crowds initially in order to get the events photography you need.

Then there is the nature photography that can be done only in summer. Firstly, that means insects, particularly butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies. Of course, some of these can also be seen in spring and autumn, but for the vast majority its strictly summer, and often only in the middle of a sunny summer’s day at that. So have your macro gear to hand, and be ready to get stuck in at a moment’s notice!

On top of that, there is the migratory wildlife that visits the UK for just the few summer months in order to breed. In the UK that means almost entirely birds. Inland these include such birds as the cuckoo, the nightjar and a host of smaller birds, including warblers, swifts and swallows. Some of these can be quite a challenge, but set to work and see what you can come up with.

On the coast, there is a number of breeding colonies of marine birds, which can make for some fantastic photography. These birds include the gannet, guillemot, razorbill and of course the charismatic puffin. They nest in vast colonies consisting of thousands of birds, sometimes on mainland coastal cliffs, often on offshore islands. They make for some fantastic photography, with main challenge consisting of how to get to the sites. The conservation bodies quite rightly keep a tight rein on access to these breeding sites, with most off-limits entirely, and just a handful open for a few hours a day to a limited number of visitors. That means having to put up with the travel photographer’s problem of having little choice but to photograph when the sun is far too high in the sky. However, it is worth it: the stunning images you’ll end up with will make it so.

Is summer photography a waste of time?
A charismatic puffin: the ultimate summer-only wildlife photography

I think it’s photographers’ attempts to shoot landscapes in summer that are mostly responsible for the lament ‘Is summer photography a waste of time?’ Certainly, for those that insist on photographing landscapes during the middle of the day, it is quite true: they are wasting their time. The sun is too high, the light is rather blue, the sky is hazy, and it all just looks horribly washed out. And then there are those jammed roads.

There is no alternative but to shoot when the light is right, namely for about two hours after dawn and for about two-three hours before dusk. In mid-summer, of course, that means heading out awfully early – perhaps as early as 3am if you include the time to get to your photo location – or staying out quite late. Clearly, staying out late is the more comfortable option, but early morning and late evening don’t always give you the same conditions. Even in summer, a landscape that contains plenty of water (eg lakes, ponds, marshes, drainage channels, lots of dew, or the after-effects of rain) can generate some very atmospheric ground mist at dawn. It doesn’t last long, so you really have to be on-site well before the sun comes over the horizon, but the photographic results can be stunning. Once the sun starts warming the air that mist will evaporate very quickly. You very rarely see this in the evening.

Is summer photography a waste of time?
For successful summer landscape photography there is no alternative but to head out really early.

So I hope you can see from the above that summer photography is anything but a waste of time. You just have to tailor what you shoot and how you shoot it to the time of year. It can be pretty painful for a landscape photographer to have to head out at 3am or even earlier, but if you genuinely want to pull off the best photographic images possible that’s the price. Either that, or you concentrate on events and busy travel scenes, or of course those wonderful insects that oblingingly come out in the middle of the day.

Whichever you choose, make the most of your summer photography!

My next online talk will be about long exposure photography, and will take place live on Zoom on 25th September 2024. As always, it’s free to attend. Just click on the appropriate link below to sign up to receive the link. I’ll look forward to seeing you.

Is summer photography a waste of time?
Summer insect photography is just a wonderful way to spend some photographic time.

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The photography of moving water

My online talk about the photography of moving water went ahead live on 20th March 2024, and below is a recording of that talk. I hope you’ll enjoy watching it. What follows on this page is a blog that summarises much of the talk’s content, showing how to make the most of the photography of moving water.

The principal challenge in the photography of moving water is how to capture and convey the dynamism, energy, power and movement of water in a still image. All too often we take a shot of some thunderous surf or a powerful mountain river only to find the resulting image to be flat and lifeless, totally failing to put over the beauty and majesty of the scene.

How to fix this is the subject of both the above talk and this blog.

There are essentially two methods to the successful photography of moving water:

1) to freeze the movement

2) to blur the movement

So, we have two quite opposite techniques, which can produce very different results, and each one applicable to rather different situations.

I should emphasise at this point that these techniques don’t really apply to still water, such as a placid water. What I’m talking about here is solely about the photography of moving water: shoreline surf, a fast-flowing river, a tumbling waterfall, and so on.

Let’s look at the two techniques in turn and then make a comparison. We’ll start with the technique to freeze moving water.

The photography of moving water. Giant curling wave

This is actually what most people do by default when they take a quick snap of moving water. They simply point the camera at a watery landscape, compose a rather wide, general view, and fire the shutter at whatever speed the camera happens to automatically choose: usually about 1/60 or 1/125 second.

The resulting image is rarely very satisfying, lacking drama, the subject (ie the moving water) usually rather small in the frame and lacking impact. Furthermore, the moving water is rarely quite a sharp as you might think it ought to be. Shutter speeds of 1/60 or 1/125 second are rarely fast enough to truly freeze moving water in mid flow or flight, leaving some annoying blur in the image.

What the freezing technique is really good for is to capture the drama of tumbling water, droplets of spray caught mid-air, a folding wave caught just as it’s about to tumble over. But to achieve good results with this follow these techniques:

  • Come in very close to the centre of the water’s drama, using a good telephoto lens to concentrate on just one wave, one splashing area of a waterfall etc;
  • Don’t attempt to photograph any kind of wide view: this is all about coming in close on a detail;
  • Use a fast shutter speed: the water is always moving much faster than you think it is, and consequently will require a much faster shutter speed than you expect: 1/500 second is rather a minimum: for water cascading down a waterfall think more like 1/2000 second.
  • To achieve such fast shutter speeds you’ll need either a lot of light or a high ISO, the latter to increase the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor: both strong light and high ISO come with some disadvantages, as we’ll see below.

Follow these points and you’ll be a long way towards pulling off the technique to freeze the moving water. Images caught in this way really capture the sense of drama and power in the crashing, tumbling water, whether it be shoreline surf or babbling stream.

The photography of moving water. A woodland stream, water frozen in motion

But watch out for some disadvantages: as mentioned above, to get really fast shutter speeds you need either very bright light or a high ISO. The former usually means bright sunlight, but that invariably causes areas of white water in the scene to burn out, destroying detail in the affected part of the image. And in scenes containing fast moving water, there’s nearly always white foam somewhere.

In duller, flatter light the usual option is to put the ISO up, perhaps to 1000 or 2000. This solves the shutter speed issue, but can introduce graininess into the image. Although modern cameras are much better in this regard than they used to be, it is still an issue.

Finally, one problem associated with any photography using fast shutter speeds is that you inevitably end up with a wide-open lens aperture, which in turn causes a limited depth of field: that is the amount of the image sharply in focus can be quite small. This can be partially overcome by increasing the ISO, as above, but again you may then face the problem of graininess.

As so often is the case in photography, using the freezing motion technique is filled with swings and roundabouts, often necessitating compromises.

The photography of moving water. The seashore at dusk

A very versatile method in the photography of moving water is simply to blur it. Put the camera on a tripod, use a very slow shutter speed (too slow to be able to hand hold the camera), and just let all that movement blur out.

The resulting image shows the flowing water as a silken sheet (if the sea) or a silken ribbon (if a river/stream) that really conveys mood and puts over the sense of movement. The exact effect does depend on just how long the exposure is and how fast the water is moving. With exposures of, say, 20 seconds or more the water will be blurred out into a featureless and rather ethereal blur, often appearing to have a layer of mist hovering above it, the result of waves being almost completely blurred out. This can be particularly effective when photographing the sea at dawn or dusk, the resulting images being hugely moody and stunning pieces of art.

Faster shutter speeds, such as 1/4 or 1/2 second, while greatly blurred, will in general still show the water’s movement, including splashes of spray leaping upwards in a manner that I usually call ‘shards of glass’.

One point to note is that, although I’ve given some shutter speeds above, these should not be taken too literally as much depends on the speed of the water’s movement. The faster the water is moving, the faster the shutter speed can be and still end up with a given type of blur.

The beauty of this technique is that you are not tied to homing in on details: it works with both those details and wider views. Furthermore, because a long exposure/slow shutter speed is being used you’ll inevitably use narrow lens apertures, resulting in a big depth of field: the entire image will be sharply in focus.

The photography of moving water. Dawn over the coast

Inevitably, there is a limit to how slow a shutter speed can be used in any given type of lighting situation. Once you’ve reached the point where the lens is closed all the way down to its narrowest aperture any further slowing of the shutter speed will simply result in over-exposed images.

This problem is rarely encountered when shooting during really low light levels, such as at dawn or dusk, or even during the daytime when the sky is heavily overcast. However, it does become a major problem in the middle of a sunny day. In such conditions your lens aperture will be shut right down long before you get to a shutter speed that is anywhere near slow enough.

The solution? Use a neutral density filter, usually called simply an ND filter. This is a filter that greatly reduces the amount passing through the filter and on to the sensor across the whole of the image view, and – hopefully – without changing the colour balance.

They come as both circular filters that screw onto the front of your lens, and rectangular filters that slide into a filter holder, which in turn is held in place on the front of the lens by a screwed ring. Among the circular filters some can be adjusted for the amount of darkness, which can be quite handy. Rectangular filters come into their own when you want to use them jointly with neutral density graduated filters (ND-grads), which selectively darken just a brighter part of the scene, usually the sky.

Some filters can be really quite dark, and when using these it is often necessary to line up the image composition before then carefully sliding or screwing the filter into place. In such circumstances, the in-camera light meter will still work, though I do find that it will often cause the final image to be under-exposed. It may be necessary to over-expose by up to two stops (2 EV) to get the right exposure.

As a final note here, I should point out that you’d never use these filters for the freeze motion technique. There you’re always trying to get the fastest shutter speed possible, and hence the maximum light possible. Adding an ND filter would only make matters worse!

As you can see, there are two very distinct techniques for capturing the power and flow of water in stills photography, producing very different but nevertheless highly effective results.

Reserve the freeze motion technique for when you want to home in on details in surf or a rushing river/stream, to capture droplets of spray flying through the air, for example. And reserve it most especially for when light levels are good.

The blurred motion technique can be rather more widely used, lending itself to a range of view types, both details and wide scenes, and effective in both low and high lighting levels. With the latter you may well need to use neutral density filters to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor. As with the freeze motion technique, the blur technique will struggle with bright sunlight, when areas of white water a likely to burn out and lose detail.

In all photo techniques, compromises sometimes need to be made, but armed with these two skills you should now be able to get out there and get to grips with some fantastic photography of moving water.

My next online talk will be on Wednesday 19th June at 8pm BST, and will be entitled ‘Is Summer Photography a Waste of Time?’. Click on the link below for more details and to sign up to receive the link.

An Icelandic waterfall.

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Light in the Landscape

My winter online talk, Light in the Landscape, went out live on Zoom in early December, and you can watch the recording here. Below is also an article that encapsulates the talk’s content. I hope you’ll enjoy both!

During the talk, Nigel broke light in the landscape down into a number of components to help overcome the potentially overwhelming myriad of different components.

Firstly, there’s the angle of the sun relative to the subject and the photographer, something that is relevant at all times. Secondly, there’s the angle of the sun relative to the horizon, something that varies with time of day and year. Finally, there’s flat light, caused either on a cloudy day, or because the sun is below the horizon.

We’ll start with light relative to the subject.

There are essentially three main angles to consider:

  • Frontal lighting
  • Side lighting
  • Back lighting

In frontal lighting, the sun shines directly onto the front of the subject facing the photographer, the lighting coming onto it from roughly behind the photographer. It is the simplest form of lighting to shoot in, almost guaranteeing worthwhile images. However, such images often lack much by way of atmosphere and creativity. The subject will also often look flat and two-dimensional, as the frontal lighting won’t create any shadows that give an indication of three-dimensional shape.

Side-lighting is when the sun shines onto the side of the subject, coming in from the right or left of the photographer. This lighting angle will often pick up highlights and shadows on the subject, giving a strong sense of surface texture and three-dimensional shape. This lighting angle gives a greatly increased possibility for atmospheric images that really highlight the nature of the subject.

Back lighting is where the photographer is shooting directly into the light. It is the hardest lighting angle to manage well, but when done correctly will result in the greatest creativity and the most atmospheric, impactful images. The silhouette is the most well-known product of this photographic technique.

Light in the Landscape
Back lighting is the most creative photographic angle – but also the hardest to manage well.

The angle of the sun relative to the horizon of course varies with the time of day and the time of year, as well as latitude.

Generally speaking, for landscape photography a high sun – in the middle of the, in mid-summer and/or in the tropics – is the worst form of light. Its high angle creates short shadows that don’t pick out 3D shape well, the light is often quite blue, and colours can be rather desaturated.

At the other end of the scale is a low sun at the beginning or end of the day, in winter and/or at a high latitude. Such lighting is often rich in ‘warming’ orange or reddish colours, resulting in very moody images, and when combined with side-lighting is very effective in creating shadows and highlights that emphasise 3D shape and surface texture.

Light in the Landscape
Side lighting when the sun is low.

Of course, there are many occasions when light in the landscape doesn’t have any particular angle. The light is quite flat, resulting in few shadows or highlights. This is what we have on a cloudy day or when the sun is blow the horizon (before sunrise or after sunset).

Many photographers are tempted to put their camera away in these conditions, but flat lighting can be highly useful. It is simply a matter of choosing the appropriate subject matter for the conditions.

The subjects that work well here are those that can’t handle the bright highlights and deep shadows created by bright sunlight. These include woodlands, fast-flowing streams and waterfalls, as well as close-details of landscape elements, such as cliff faces. The white water generated by a fast-flowing stream or a waterfall is notoriously difficult to shoot well in sunlight, the large amount of white water usually burning out and losing all detail. Similarly, woodland scenes shot in sunlight typically break down into a confusing mass of bright highlights and deep shadows. Photograph under a cloudy sky and all becomes clear, with no burned-out highlights or impossibly deep shadows.

The problem is simply contrast range. In sunlight it is huge, and although our eyes can accommodate such a contrast range easily, the digital sensor (and film too) is not so clever. It is able to handle only a much more limited contrast range. Shoot under a cloudy sky, or at dawn or dusk, and you will get that reduced contrast range.

Light in the Landscape
When the light is flat due to cloud cover, woodland is a great place to shoot.

Of course, out in the real world, when we’re busy using light in the landscape to capture our landscape images, we don’t have the various components neatly broken down for us. They all work together in a myriad of ways to create a multitude of different lighting angles and opportunities. So let’s put all the above components together and see what we can create.

Frontal lighting: As I’ve already said, this is the easiest to shoot with but is likely to result in the least atmospheric images. This is certainly true in the middle of the day in summer, when the sun is high and quite rich in blue light. But even this is in itself a kind of mood, telling us about summer, its warmth and its light.

But can frontal lighting be atmospheric in other ways? It certainly can. At sunrise or sunset, for example, when the light is rich in red and orange, your subject can be illuminated in a way that is enormously atmospheric, more than compensating for the lack of three dimensionality resulting from the frontal angle.

Then there is the ever-popular rainbow. A rainbow will only ever become visible to a photographer when it is shining more or less from directly behind them: no side or back lighting here. Use either a wide-angle lens to capture the entire rainbow, or a telephoto to home in on just a part of it and to great magnify its apparent size.

Light in the Landscape
Rainbows are only visible when the light is shining from behind you.

Side lighting: With the ability of side lighting to create shadows and so pick out 3D shapes and surface texture, it can be quite effective even when the sun is quite high in the sky. However, it becomes truly effective when the sun is low, the 3D shadows and surface textures becoming really very strong, resulting in hugely moody images. This is so whether the subject is an entire mountain, or a solitary tree.

Back lighting: This is where the lighting angle becomes absolutely critical in creativity and the generation of stunningly effective images. It does, however, only work well when the sun is at least relatively low in the sky. The style can be split into two: where the sun is not inside the image frame, but is somewhere just above it; and secondly where the sun is actually in the image frame, usually at least partially visible. In both forms one of the biggest challenges is the risk of flares getting into the image as a result of sunlight pouring into the lens. A small amount of flare can enhance the mood of some images. Too much, however, and the image is ruined.

To reduce the risk use either a lens hood or shield the top of the lens with your hand. This can usually be quite effective when the sun is outside the image frame. Of course, this doesn’t usually help greatly when the sun is in the image. In this situation, flare can be reduced by partially reducing the sun’s strength. This can be achieved by arranging the composition so that the sun is partially hidden behind, say, part of a tree or a rock, a technique that can result in the sun being visible as a very beautiful starburst effect. Alternatively, you can wait for a cloud to partially diffuse it, though this of course depends on there being just the right amount of cloud.

Most well known among the back lighting skills is the silhouette. A silhouette is all about the subject’s outline, so it must have an extremely good one – no big solid blocks here, please. It must also be black with no detail visible in it. Otherwise, it just isn’t a silhouette. More often than not the silhouette is created with the sun directly behind the subject, maximising the contrast between the subject and the background sky. It is often very effective to have a small amount of the sun visible around the edge of the silhouette, resulting in a stunning starburst.

Flat lighting: As already mentioned, a cloudy day can be fantastic for photography of woodlands, as well as situations where there is a lot of fast-moving white water. The flat lighting seen at dusk or dawn should not be used for woodland photography as it is rich in blue light, something that will ruin the greens of the vegetation. Such dusk light can, however, be very effective in photography of water, both in terms of waterfalls and coastal scenes.

Light in the landscape
A spectacular silhouette is all about the subject’s outline shape. Especially effective when there is a starburst created by the sun behind the subject.

I’ve already mentioned the problem that the digital sensor sensor has in being unable to handle the huge contrast range that the human eye can manage. In landscape photography this will frequently create problems for the accurate rendition of such high-contrast scenes as a landscape view that contains a bright sky but a dark landscape. This is particularly so on cloudy days when the sensor is quite unable to accurately capture detail in both the landscape and the sky.

This is where the neutral density graduated filter (or ND grad) comes in. A rectangular filter that fits on the front of your lens via a holder, half of the filter is clear while the other half is darkened. Line the filter up so that the darker part of the filter is over the brighter part of the scene and you will greatly reduce the contrast range down to something much closer to what the sensor can handle. In the above landscape example, the result will be a darker sky and a brighter landscape, more closely resembling what the eye is able to see.

Such filters are hugely important in photographically handling the light in the landscape, greatly enhancing any landscape photography. They’re available in a variety of strengths, and also as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’, referring to the sharpness of the dividing line between the dark and clear areas of the filter.

Light in the Landscape
The power of the ND grad filter to create great landscapes on cloudy days.

My regular online photography talks are held every three months and are free to attend. The next talk will be on 20th March 2024, subect still to be confirmed. To find out more and to sign up, click on the links below.

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Less is More: the Art of Minimalism

The art and skill in creating moody images with a strong subject and zero clutter and distractions

My latest talk, Less Is More: the Art of Minimalism, went ahead live online on 20th September 2023, and you can now watch the recording any time on You Tube and right here. Just click on the link below.

Keeping the images clean and super simple

When we talk about Less is More what do we actually mean? Well, in photography at least it means the art of cutting away all the confusing clutter from the image frame. The result is an image with a single strong subject that stands almost alone in the frame, unchallenged by all the usual mess that surrounds us in real life. Having less in the frame – other than the subject of course – gives us a whole lot more image.

Of course, saying this is one thing, achieving it is quite another. More often than not success comes down to choosing the right kind of subject matter in the right kind of environment. The vast majority of subjects we might shoot from day to day will never fit into the minimalism genre, so you just have to be selective.

So what kinds of subjects will lend themselves to minimalist photography? They are spread across most genres of photography, including architecture, landscape, travel, wildlife, still life and fine art, to name just the most obvious.

Less is More

Less is more and some genre examples

Lets have a look at a few areas where minimalist photography might work well.

Not surprisingly, minimalism in architectural photography can be achieved mostly with modern architecture. Their clean, simple and embellishment-free lines lend themselves to this art rather more effectively than is usually possible with historic buildings.

Landscape photography is one of the classic areas where minimalist photography is possible. In general, it can best be achieved in certain environments, such as in a desert, on open moors or when surrounded by water. With the first two, the meer simplicity of the landscape can lend itself to a sense of emptiness. With water – whether a stream, river, lake or sea – a common technique is to use a slow shutter speed (from, say, 1/8 second to 30 or 40 seconds) to completely blur out the movement in the water and so remove any detail. For this to be possible in the middle of the day, it might be necessary to use a neutral density filter over the lens to cut down the amount of light reaching the sensor.

In both wildlife and many forms of close-up photography it is common to focus in on the subject with a telephoto lens and then leave the background to completely blur out, removing all detail from what might otherwise be quite a complex environment. The subject will then completely stand out from the background, being the only element in the image that is in focus.

Particularly in landscape photography, but also in other genres too, the presence of fog can have a hugely beneficial effect, removing much background clutter altogether, and reducing other elements to ghostly and atmospheric detail-free outlines. Never put the camera away just because the fog has descended!

One other noteworthy point is that in many minimalist images things are further simplified by having a very limited colour palette. Bright and contrasting colours rarely lend themselves to the moodiness of a minimalist image, so instead they are typically characterised by consisting simply of different shades of the one colour, such as blue, grey or (especially for sunset/dusk images) pink or mauve. Not surprisingly, then, black and white photography can lend itself well to minimalist photography, though this is not universally so.

Less is More

Keeping to the rules of composition

Finally, a brief word on general rules of compostion as applied to Less is More techniques. Even though an image’s ‘negative space’ – that is, everything that is not the main subject – is almost completely empty in a minimalist photo, with just a single, strong subject dominating the frame, doesn’t mean that you can forget about all the rules of composition.

The subject must still be well-positioned within the frame, obeying such things as the law of unequal thirds, height and size relative to the image frame, and so on.

If any foreground is visible (it can happen, even in minimalist photography) it must be a damned good foreground, supporting the subject and helping to lead the viewer’s eye to it, with no distracting elements.

Diagonal lines, such as those created by converging parallels in the form of roads or rivers cutting into the photographic scene, remain a hugely important element, helping to direct attention towards the subject, give the illusion of three dimensions, and delivering a sense of energy and dynamism.

Less is More

Bringing it all together

Always bear in mind that Less is More should be very much a guiding principle in photography, and when out shooting one should always be on the lookout for opportunities where it will be possible. Although many everyday subjects will never lend themselves to great minimalist photography, a large proportion of the world’s greatest photographs are minimalist in approach. All photographers would do well to use it whenever they can.

Less is More

Future talks

My online photography talks take place every three months, with the next one scheduled for 6th December 2023, entitled Light in the Landscape. As the title implies, it’ll be all about using the light to create great landscape photography.

Click on the links below to sign up for the December talk, and to sign up for our regular newsletter to help you stay informed of future talks and workshops.

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The Power of the Wide-angle Lens

Using wide-angle lenses to convert ordinary scenes into dramatic, high energy images

My summer online photography talk, The Power of the Wide-angle Lens, took place live on 21st June. In this talk I covered the principles of when and why to you should use a wide-angle lens, particularly in the context of aiming to create dramatic, powerful images that have an impact.

A recording of the talk is now on You Tube, and you can watch the recording below. I hope you’ll enjoy it!

So what is a wide-angle lens?

Before we can assess the power of the wide-angle lens, we must first establish what a wide-angle lens is! Put simply, it is any lens with a focal length (as measured on a camera with a full-frame sensor) less than about 50mm. The latter is defined as a ‘standard’ lens, which gives a field of view and perception similar to the the central field of vision of the human eye. It has a horizontal field of view of about 40o.

A wide-angle lens will then have a wider field of view, anything up to about 100o, resulting in distortion of the scene, generating for example strong diagonals. They will also have a very big depth of field (ie the amount of the image in focus), often stretching from just in front of the camera all the way to the horizon.

the power of the wide-angle lens

Why use a wide-angle lens?

There is a huge number of often overlapping reasons why you’d use a wide-angle lens. Here are just a few of them:

  • Maximising the image’s depth of field
  • Fitting more in the frame
  • Including a foreground that supports and leads the eye to the main subject
  • Creating a foreground that leads the eye into the image scene
  • Exaggeration of diagonals to increase a sense of energy/movement
  • Exaggerating diagonals to give an illusion of three dimensions
  • Exaggeration of diagonals that lead the eye to the main subject

The list could go on, but this will do as an introduction. More often than not, there will be several reasons to use a wide-angle lens in any situation. You may, for example, want to maximise depth of field, create a foreground, and exaggerate diagonals to create a sense of energy, all in the same image.

The use of a wide-angle lens simply to fit more into the image frame needs to be looked at carefully, as this can be double-edged. A lot of people do this, but without thinking of the consequences. Inevitably, using a wide-angle lens will allow more ‘stuff’ into the frame, which may actually mean more distracting clutter, which will weaken and draw attention away from the main subject. The latter will also become smaller, making it harder for it to dominate the frame, especially against all that additional clutter. In general, in such a situation, the photography must move forward, coming a lot closer to the subject: this will retain the subject’s relative size, reduce the clutter creeping into the frame, and help to exaggerate diagonals.

The one time when using a wide-angle lens simply to get more in is when your subject is really very big – too big to fit into the frame without either backing off a long way (which may not be possible) or using a wide-angle lens. This is the kind of thing you may find when photographing buildings or indeed large mountain scenes.

the power of the wide-angle lens

How wide is wide enough?

Not surprisingly, the less wide your wide-angle lens is (ie the longer its focal length), then the smaller are that lens’s drama-enhancing, depth of field-boosting effects. For many photographers, the widest lens they have is about 28mm (as measured on a camera with a full-frame sensor), but this is not really enough to generate the effects described here. For that you need to go to a 16 or 17mm lens (full frame), or if shooting with a cropped-sensor camera then a lens with a 10 or 12mm focal length. With that, you’re then fully kitted out for some seriously effective wide-angle photography.

The power of the wide-angle lens

In what genres of photography does wide-angle photography work well?

The power of the wide-angle lens can be felt in just about every genre of photography, whether it be landscapes, architecture, people or even nature.

Landscape photography: Wide-angle lenses are perhaps most widely used in landscape photography, where a large depth of field especially is hugely important much of the time. Couple this with the exaggeration of diagonals to put in the sense of dynamism in an otherwise static image, as well as a sense of three-dimensional depth, and you have a powerful tool for fantastic landscape imagery.

Architectural photography: Particularly when shooting large buildings you often need to use a wide-angle lens simply to be able to get the whole structure in the frame. Apart from this, there are two ways to use a wide-angle lens in this form of photography: a) to capture the building ‘correctly’, meaning that the building’s vertical lines are actually vertical and parallel to each other in the image, and b) for creative photography, in which those verticals are no longer parallel but converge sharply towards the highest, or at least most distant, part of the building.

In the ‘correct’ form of photography the building will end up in just the upper half of the image, with a huge amount of foreground in the lower half. So if shooting in this way, you’d better make damn sure that it is photographically a very interesting foreground that supports the building: for example, a calm and highly reflective piece of water, or a nicely patterned piazza.

In the creative version, anything goes – that’s why it’s creative. You embrace those converging parallels, and use them to create some funky angles and artistically distorted buildings. The architect might not be pleased, but everyone else will be!

People photography: I shoot people with a wide-angle lens when I don’t simply want to capture their portrait, but also want to show their environment and what they’re doing, perhaps some kind of work. I necessarily need to come in quite close (to cut out background clutter), so I will almost always need the subject’s cooperation. Of course there is a balance between coming in really close and being unable to fit both face and their environment/work into the frame, and there may also be a depth of field struggle (even with a wide-angle lens) to ensure that both the face and their environment/work are sharply in focus. There is also the risk that coming in close will result in an unflattering portrait: hands that are closer to the lens than the face will appear relatively much larger, and jaw and nose angles will be exaggerated, for example.

Nature photography: This may come as a bit of a surprise, as of course with nature photography we normally have to shoot with either telephoto or macro lenses, certainly not wide-angle. But even in this field the power of the wide-angle lens can be quite significant, in general in the photography of flowers/plants. Provided you have a wide-angle lens with a reasonably short minimum focussing distance, it can be possible to come in close – most especially to a cluster of flowers – and produce a nice portrait that also captures the background, and hence the plants’ environment. It’s kind of similar to the wide-angle portrait photography described above, only smaller and closer.

The Power of the wide-angle lens

The final word

Hopefully, this brief summary, coupled with the video at the top of this article, will give you everything you need to know to get stuck into some great wide-angle photography. The key, in summary, is to create drama, a single strong subject, not clutter, and some intense diagonals. Get cracking and enjoy!

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