Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Musings on: being aware of the ‘right kit’

The camera doesn’t matter: really?

After nearly two years of making images, I’m convinced that it’s the photographer who creates a good photograph, not the camera. Composing the image by choosing complementary subject, light and point of view, and then processing the capture to best effect; these are the things which make a fine photograph, and consequently many types of image may be captured well with the whole gamut of camera types, albeit with differences in what the capture can be used for (size of print, primarily). Of course, there are a few clear, general exceptions to this: large format cameras are not exactly ideal for fast-moving sports; mobile ‘phone cameras are not the best tool for photographing underground (I’ve tried this; it was not a great success…. particularly not for the ‘phone in question).

Somewhere between ‘the type of camera makes no difference‘ and ‘the camera cannot be of type X‘, however, there are certain pieces of equipment which can enable an otherwise impossible shot. I’m prompted to write about this due to a recent experience where I realised that I could now make an image which I first attempted nearly two years ago, purely due to the acquisition of a particular item a few months back.

I’m talking about tilt/shift lenses here; not in the context of making toy-like images of full-sized objects, but in their ability to move the plane of focus to somewhere other than parallel to the film/sensor plane. For anyone not familiar with the opportunities afforded by camera movements, one important effect is that achieved by tilting the lens, relative to the back of the camera. Doing this produces a focal plane which can be placed conveniently where it’s needed, rather than parallel to the film or sensor. In the case of landscapes, the most obvious usage is to produce sharp focus from somewhere beneath the camera, right out to the far horizon. In fact, this plane also has depth of field around it, as with a normal lens, except that this depth is wedge-shaped, diminishing to virtually nothing close to the camera and increasing to ‘a lot more’ at infinity.

Exactly where the plane of focus is, and how it behaves, is explained in several good articles on-line about how this all works, so I’m not about to write another one. For details I’d recommend either Tim Parkins’s description in issue 12 of the excellent ‘Great British Landscapes’ on-line magazine, or the Cambridge in Colour article on using tilt/shift lenses. For the purpose of this article, the key point is that my 24mm tilt/shift lens enabled me to place a plane of focus from a point about 300mm below the camera to a point about eight miles away, something I could not do before I bought it and which was essential to the composition I wanted.

And my particular problem was?

To backtrack a bit: I live in the Three Peaks area of North Yorkshire; this is karst landscape, formed by the erosion of limestone by the climate. i.e. it rains a lot here, there is a massive layer of limestone exposed on, or just beneath, the surface of the dales, and limestone dissolves in water. One of the major, visible features of karst landscapes is limestone pavements: great areas of limestone with deep cracks called grikes and blocks of ‘pavement’ called clints. When I first took up landscape photography I saw the obvious potential of these dramatic features as subjects and spent some considerable time walking the pavements looking for interesting formations. One that I found, the one in this image, is up near Ribblehead viaduct on the edge of a small outcrop of pavement imaginatively named ‘Middle scar’, it being in the centre of a line of three such scars. Having found it, I spent, without exaggeration, several hours, on more than one occasion, attempting to make a decent composition from it. I failed miserably (and the misery was real; I was very, very frustrated!).


The composition I was trying to achieve was the one above, but I couldn’t get it to work at the time. Whilst I had a wide range of focal lengths available to me, I simply couldn’t find a combination of tripod position and focal length which kept this striking rock feature as the dominant, main subject whilst also having a depth of field great enough to include both the rock, 300mm away, and distant Pen-y-ghent, one of the Yorkshire Three Peaks, eight miles away. The best I could do was to use a very wide angle lens: this gave me the depth of field I wanted, but left the talon-like feature as a diminutive series of runnels in an expanse of horizontal limestone.

At the time, I didn’t understand how this could be done. In fact, with the kit I had then, I’m now sure it was impossible. What was needed was a camera with movements; either a large format camera or its poor relation, a tilt/shift lens on my SLR. At the time, I did make a few images with the ‘right’ foreground, and I convinced myself that the blurred hill was ‘just fine’; except that I didn’t really convince myself; I never liked any of those images! At the time, I wasn’t diligently recording possible future shots and forgot all about this frustrating and unsuccessful early foray into photographing limestone pavements, and about that interesting feature. And then I bought Joe Cornish’s new film ‘With landscape in mind‘.

This was an excellent purchase and I thoroughly recommend it. It’s a fascinating and beautifully filmed documentary account, narrated entirely by Joe Cornish, of a week in his life of making images. For me, it’s particularly good as several of the sites used are relatively local. Most pertinently, one of the images in the film uses the ‘talon’ feature, which had slipped from my memory. Joe captures an image using that same piece of rock, though differently from how I had sought to use it and in considerably less time than I spent when not capturing what I wanted, I’m sure! Needless to say, I was out on that scar the very next evening after watching the film and was finally able to produce the shot I’d envisaged many months ago. Understandably, I was very grateful for the prompt to return and also rather relieved, comparing my shot later, that they use the same two major features but are otherwise distinctly different images.

A broader point

Returning to the beginning of this item, I can now see that having a broad knowledge of the type of facilities various cameras and lenses can offer is important to avoid restricting creativity. Perhaps it’s not restricting creativity precisely – I wasn’t prevented from thinking of the image when I didn’t have the necessary piece of kit, I just couldn’t make it – perhaps it’s more a case that it’s necessary to know what’s available, in terms of equipment, in case it should ever be needed. In my case, I didn’t know that cameras with movements existed at all, let alone their purpose; and then later I didn’t know that tilt/shift lenses existed for SLRs. By the time I knew both those things, and had such a lens, I’d forgotten about the composition.

So, my lesson learned is to continue to read widely on equipment, largely so that I’ll know what might fit the bill when I next find that I need ‘something different’. I’m just hoping that whatever that item is won’t one day turn out to be a large format camera and film, as I discussed in an earlier piece on the lure of large format.

8 Responses to “Musings on: being aware of the ‘right kit’”

  1. Tim Smalley

    Hi Mike,

    I hate to say that it’s a slippery slope from tilt-shift lenses and, once you begin to understand the benefits of being able to change the plane of focus using one movement, you’ll start thinking about how you could really move that plane of focus around (with multiple movements on both the lens and film plane) to further improve your work.

    Tilt-shifts were a huge eye-opener for me – it was no longer just about pointing the camera in the right direction, but also understanding where I could point the plane of focus to make images that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. I also found that rise/fall were indispensable because I could now position the camera at the height required for the depth I wanted to convey and then use rise/fall to bring the elements that I wanted to include back into the frame.

    There are many images that I simply wouldn’t have been able to make without a tilt-shift lens or, more recently, a large format camera – if you get to grips with that process (which already seems to be happening as evidenced by this image) and really begin to use tilt-shifts to their full potential then I foresee a move to a bigger format in the future. I don’t want to corrupt your way of thinking, but the large format camera has, thus far, not got in the way of my creativity – it’s been more limited by my technical ability (I’ve got in a right mess with the plane of focus on a few occasions) or simply the laws of physics.


    • Mike Green

      Hi Tim,

      I’m recognising much of that already ;-) Scary… I now definitely think in terms of ‘where do I want the plane of focus to be?’ on the majority of images, and there have been a couple where I would have liked the full movement ability of a view camera – I worked around it in both cases, but I could definitely see that combining multiple movements, rather than just the two I have on the tilt/shift lens, would have been beneficial. That said, I can well see that getting seriously confused with what’s going on, on occasion, is an inevitability!

      I think ‘eye-opener’ is the word: I’d never even considered the possibilities of all these things ’til I was aware of cameras with movements (no reason why I should have been, I suppose, but it does indicate my point in the article that finding out what /can/ be done is very well worth it, even if you don’t necessarily choose to acquire the kit which enables it.

      As to creativity – I’m pleased to hear that. It seems to me that the more flexibility the equipment provides, the more creative potential there is – definitely a good thing!

      I intend to carry on with what I have for a while until I’m completely comfortable with it and start to feel ‘restricted’ often in what I can do. I am most certainly ‘on the slope’, however!


      • Tim Smalley

        I’ve found the move to large format very easy, but I was already manually metering scenes and using tilt-shift lenses (with lots of movement) for the majority of my images. What I find difficult at the moment is focusing relatively quickly on a subject that requires a complex focal plane, but I think that will come over time.

        Like you say, being completely comfortable with your kit is hugely important – it means that, in pressure situations when light is changing fast, you’re able to make an exposure before the moment passes. That, in a way, was why I was keen to make the move sooner rather than later – I want to be in a position where I feel comfortable with my kit by the autumn/winter, as that’s when I enjoy making images the most.

        I don’t anticipate being completely at one by that point, but I’ll be a lot further along than I am now. I’ve got a few months of scatter-gunning (if there is such a thing with a large format camera?), testing film types and such to build up an understanding of what film is likely to work when. The learning curve is quite steep in that respect, but it’s very self-fulfilling to see the transparencies on a lightbox.


        • Mike Green

          For this Autumn/Winter (and I agree that it’s the best time of year for photography), I’m sticking with what I have and getting used to placing the focal plane with the relatively limited movements I have available. What I’d really like to do is move to a medium format view camera and a digital back, but short of selling the house and living in a tent, that’s not going to happen, and I don’t see digital backs coming down in price sufficiently in the near future either! Ah well.


  2. julie weber

    A very impressive image. I’ve noticed a murmur within asking for less restriction in regards to DoF. The examples of using a tilt-shift lens didn’t spark my curiosity until I read your description of your Talon image. Thanks for the information. It has planted a seed. My gear is limited as are my finances to acquire more. Have some things is sight to expand the possibilities for realizing my imagination. On the other side, I’m exploring different aspects of digital imagery that satisfy my creative explorations. Tilt shift is now on my ‘things to explore’ list. Again my thanks for the inspiration your offer in your artistry.

    • Mike Green

      Thanks very much for the comments, Julie,

      Tilt/shift is certainly worth exploring. I’m by no means in favour of everything always being in focus everywhere – that’s too simplistic a goal – but there are occasions when it’s very useful and ‘Talon’ for me is one of them. Of course, it can be achieved with focus-stacking, but that’s (to me) rather more complex and less appealing than having a lens do the work for me!



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