|Simplify the Landscape
by Gary W. Stanley
I find myself once again staring up in awe at the high canyon walls of Zion National Park in southern Utah. I'm leading another tour group of first-timers to the park. The look on their face is very familiar, they're all smiling.
I ask them if they think they might be able to find something to photograph here, they laugh.
We had just arrived in Zion, so we did a quick drive down to the end of the canyon road so that the group could get a feel for what was here, and then headed west through Springdale to shoot sunset. First thing in the morning, we'll photograph around the park entrance and up near the canyon road.
I related to the group the story of my first experience here. Several Years ago, Jim McGee and I stood staring at these same canyon walls trying to figure out how in the world any photographer could possibly capture this beauty. We spent the better part of our first morning trying to figure out how to photograph that all-encompassing landscape.
Finally, I think we both came to the realization that we had better simplify our composition if we were going to come away with any kind of images. Having already experienced that first feeling of awe, wonder and confusion, I was smiling, knowing those people were now experiencing the same thing I did several years ago. Of course, I was hearing things like: it's all beautiful, where do we start? Oh man, they don't make a lens wide enough for this place!
Monday morning, we headed out for our sunrise shoot. I let everyone get set up, and as the sun began to light up the peaks of the canyon, the shutters started to click. The initial excitement had passed, now it was time to work that composition. I begin looking through their viewfinders to see what kind of shot they have composed. I invited them to look through my viewfinder as well. Soon they realized that I didn't try to photograph the whole canyon, but instead I had looked for a way to Simplify the Landscape.
Get Creative: You'll need to use your imagination and experiment a little. Most of us have at least several lenses in our arsenal. Folks on the tours I lead have lenses at least in the 28-200 range and wider. 17-35mm lenses at the wide range and up to 400mm lenses are common in the telephoto range. Lens selection will play an important part as you try to Simplify the Landscape.
Common Misconceptions About Lens Selection: Often, when we are confronted by incredible landscapes, we tend to think that we should use a very wide angle lens to capture the whole landscape. The problem with that line of thinking is that a wide angle lens expands the apparent distance between objects, so even though you are able to include a large amount of sweeping landscape, subjects in that landscape may appear very small in the final picture. To overcome that problem, you may want to look for a good, strong foreground subject in order to add depth and scale to your subject, or move closer either optically or physically. As a simple guideline, I'll ask myself "will the scene that I've composed hold the interest of the viewer making him or her feel as though they were there experiencing what I was feeling at that moment?"
Is the subject so far away that the viewer will miss the point of the shot? When photographing a wildlife subject that is very small in the final image, we jokingly call it a "record shot" instead of a wildlife image. So too with a landscape, we have to make sure our shot is more than just a "record shot." We want to capture that "Wow! factor" in our images. While we realize how important lighting, film, filters and a tripod are when composing a landscape, we also need to decide how much we'll choose to include or exclude in that landscape in order to keep it simple, clear and concise.
What about using telephoto lenses? We often forget how important a telephoto lens can be to help us Simplify the Landscape. Unlike a wide-angle lens, a telephoto lens compresses the apparent distance between objects. A telephoto can often help you define your subject and tell an even stronger story about your chosen subject. Often when I find myself overwhelmed by the grandeur of a given location, I'll put my wide-angle lens away and replace it with my 80-400mm. I'll then begin to systematically scope the landscape for interesting subject matter; something I think will help the viewer feel the power of the place. I really enjoy looking for strong graphic lines with either variances in color, contrast, shadows or light.
Work Your Subject: Keep in mind that just because you've chosen a wide-angle lens over a telephoto or vise versa, doesn't mean that you can't shoot with both. Don't be afraid to work your subject by shooting both the grand landscape and the strong graphic or more intimate landscapes. I'm sure you will be pleasantly surprised at how well you can Simplify the Landscape when you are willing to try this.
No matter which lens you choose, the physical placement of your camera and lens can help you bring out the strength of your composition, adding drama. Just be careful here, I prefer to keep the landscape looking natural and believable. In all fairness, since switching to digital, I have been more willing to experiment with my compositions, knowing that if I don't like them, I can delete them.
I try different filters to see if that improves the overall look of the image. I don't mean go crazy here, but rather taking the time to use those grad filters, warming filters, or polarizer knowing that they will help you capture that special moment.
Simplify the Landscape: Make more effective use of the equipment available to you. You've spent time and money getting to your shooting destination, so why not expand your creative thinking process, have fun, and continue to grow photographically.
I tell folks that I believe my best work is still out there waiting for me to capture it. I continue to learn new things about photography, about myself, and why I do what I do for a living.
For our group, it certainly didn't hurt to have great weather. Our recent fall trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon provided us with not only great light, but some spectacular clouds. The cooler than average weather kept the air clear and crisp giving us no excuse for coming home with great images.