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.