Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Archive for ‘August, 2011’

Musings on: Google Earth visualisation (and the need to pay more attention!)

If you’ve been reading this web journal in the last couple of months, you may have seen my previous item on using a combination of Google Earth’s ground level view and The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) to visualise compositions prior to going to a location. This is another recommendation for playing around with the former, even when you know a location relatively well, or think you do.

The following is a shot planned purely with my recollection of having been to this spot before, without a camera. Returning to make it did, however, create the opportunity for the others in this post.

CautleySpout: detail 1

I’m planning a trip up to Glencoe and Rannoch Moor at the moment, a place I know relatively well, but only from the perspective of climbing there in winter a few times on routes like Curved Ridge, on Buachaille Etive Mor, and the Aonach Eagach ridge. So, having a scan around with Google Earth and using TPE to plot some times for possible capture sites seemed like a good idea. Whilst doing so, I noticed a few views that, whilst I must have been in a position to see them before, I’d not recognised as having photographic potential. In my defence, I’d not looked for possible images before….. even so, I was surprised at just how little I knew the area visually. Perhaps I spend a lot more time looking at my crampon and ice axe placements than I imagine I do (and, quite possibly, that’s not at all a bad thing!).

The Howgills again

This recognition led me to wonder whether I’d been equally lacking in observational acuity in other, supposedly familiar, areas. In short: yes, I had.

I’ve been intending to make the image at the top of this item for several months now, as part of my project to photograph the Howgill Fells; what I hadn’t been intending was to make the other images shown here. That was essentially since I didn’t know – more correctly, I had never noticed – that they might exist. Fortunately, I spent ten minutes with Google Earth before I set off and found that the unexciting valley up which I intended to walk, at the head of which lies the waterfall, does have some vantage points with ‘big picture’ potential.

Some crinkly land

Google Earth capture

This Google Earth screen capture is of a crinkled area on the south side of the valley. Yes, I could have seen this (just about!) by looking more attentively whilst walking up the path to the falls, but I hadn’t – not in several visits. This area is only five minutes from the parking spot, and I’ve been focussed, previously, on the head of the valley and the cascade itself. Also, and importantly, it doesn’t look like this from the path; it looks like this from a point a few hundred metres up the hillside to the north, over very wet ground on this occasion. I only went up there because I knew it had potential, from ‘technological visualisation’; otherwise, I’d have stayed on the considerably easier ground of the well-hardened path.

Crinkled land

Once again, I’m impressed with the degree of accuracy of the ground level view representation of the terrain. It’s not identical, but it’s remarkably close – note the tree and wall at the bottom right of the frame in the computer-generated image and the actual one! Yes, the runnels are not perfect, but the general cross shape is pretty clear in the Google graphic; more than enough to see that there was ‘something there’. I’m very pleased with this since it’s a microcosm of how the whole Howgill Fells range looks from the air; uncannily so, in fact.

Cautley Spout

The crinkled area was the first thing I noticed in my brief planning period at home. The second was more significant. No doubt there are many fine images of Cautley Spout from a distance; however, I’d not seen any and had assumed that the watercourse must be difficult to ‘use’ well in a composition. Rotating the Google Earth view around 90 degrees at the same, elevated point the previous visualisation was made from, I saw the following.

Cautley Spout

Not terribly exciting perhaps, but I like graphic patterns in landscapes, and I thought I could see potential for an image. The waterfall is the vertical part of the sweeping crease running from the top left. The dark area to the left is some black, craggy rock, and I knew that I would find the concave hillside on the right striped with assorted heather, bracken and rocks. Knowing this, I thought I could make a worthwhile composition from this point, or somewhere nearby. The result was the following two images.

Cautley Spout

Cautley Spout

Now, I’m not claiming that any of these shots are especially good, but I’m happy with them. I’m particularly pleased since I’d more or less written off the idea of including any images of ‘Cautley Spout from a distance’ in the project. At the very least, these provide some context to the more intimate landscape shots I’d initially gone to the valley to capture.

Incidentally, for some context, the very top photograph, and the one immediately below this text, were taken in the bowl just above the obvious, large, vertical drop in the centre of the image above; somewhat alarmingly close to the lip, in fact. I wasn’t entirely happy with the light in the valley that evening, so I may well go back and make similar compositions for the final images to be included in the project. If I don’t, however, these are effectively ‘bonus’ shots which I only discovered through technological experimentation. Clearly, I’d like to think that I’d have noticed them without technical assistance, but who knows!

The very last shot had no technical help though; I made it largely to demonstrate just how wet it’s been around here recently, as can be seen from the standing water amongst the bracken. It also illustrates that my camera does do colour other than earth tones :-)

Cautley Spout

A wee bit damp

In conclusion: once again, I do unreservedly recommend examining what can be done with Google Earth and, in particular, ground level view, but my main, personal learning point from this is that I need to:

  • be aware of possibilities all the time;
  • look around and envision scenes as photographs;
  • and yomp up hillsides to change the perspective, and to see if an otherwise insignificant feature presents something more enticing from a higher vantage point.

Seems to be moderately hard work, this landscape photography game…. !

If you’ve used Google Earth to plan shots, I’d be very interested to hear comments on your experience, and any tips!

Note: Google Earth screenshots are copyright Google, unsurprisingly.

Just a quick note re adverts

It was pointed out to me recently that my blog pages sometimes include advertisements. Not any more though :-)

Having never seen adverts on my own pages – a direct result both of being logged in to my account and of using a browser which removes all ads from pages – I’d not realised how many advertising panels WordPress.com presents to users who aren’t avoiding them by either of these means. I have, I hope, ‘fixed’ this now.

I’m not a big fan of ads, though clearly sites such as WordPress.com do need to make money, and targeted advertising through Google AdSense is how WordPress.com chooses to do that. Fair enough. Still, they offer an option to pay for ‘No ads’, and since I’d like to be sure of what’s appearing on my pages, I’ve opted for that option – I’d far rather pay a small amount for the excellent WordPress.com service than have it funded through targeted advertising, the nature of which I have no control over, appearing on my pages.

So, if you saw ads on these pages before, you shouldn’t be seeing them now; and if you still are, please do let me know so that I can have another go at fixing it! Thanks.

Musings on: aspect ratio as a creative choice

I have a list which I add to whenever I think of something I might like to write an article about. Items on that list come and go, either since I get around to writing the piece, or because the subject no longer seems interesting, or perhaps because I’ve come across so many articles on the same topic that it seems redundant to add to the wealth of material ‘out there on the web’. ‘Aspect ratios’ has been on the list for longer than anything else at this point; it was one of the items on my very first list in fact, and it’s neither been written, nor deleted from the ‘to do’ section.

I was wondering why that was.

  • It’s not uninteresting: the shape of an image is a significant factor in the finished photograph.
  • It’s not as if there aren’t many articles on the subject: indeed, there are short books covering nothing but aspect ratios.
  • It’s not that the existing articles and books aren’t informative, useful and well-written, or some permutation of one or two of those three factors.

Rather, it’s because, whilst I’ve read a fair few articles on the subject, none of them so far has closely matched what has come to be my view on aspect ratios and how they can be used in making images. (The usual caveats apply….. I’m developing as a photographer, and I entirely accept that I may become fixated on some specific aspect ratio as my work develops….but, right now, the following is what I think!)

Why is the debate on choice of aspect ratio often so contentious?

Many, though not all, writings about aspect ratio choice verge on the evangelical: ‘x:y is the best’ or ‘x:y is best for subject matter A, whereas m:n is best for subject matter B …’, etc. I’ve been intrigued for some time as to why there is such heated debate – I still am! To me, the arguments seems relatively uncontentious. More precisely, it seems that it should be uncontentious; obviously, there is much contention, however!

A possible explanation for the ferocity of some views on this subject is that they derive from a personal attachment, on the part of the photographer expressing the view, to a particular camera system or format. For example, it’s only natural that a photographer who solely uses a square format camera, such as a Hasselblad, will tend to ‘see’ potential subject matter in that format, and grow to prefer such images. My question is:

should our vision be driven by the hardware we use to make photographs?

I think not: that’s the wrong way around. The final image should be whatever shape is best for that image, not determined primarily by the shape the camera decrees. Of course, this is why some people carry multiple camera formats. Good plan, though not essential, as I’ll discuss further down this item.

There is also the argument that consistency of shape can make for elegant layouts in books. Absolutely! There’s something very pleasing about a photographic book which contains images in only one aspect ratio, whether that be simply square, or whether it be a combination of x:y and y:x. I’m not seeking to argue, here, that collections of images don’t benefit from some degree of regularity in their aspect ratios, either simple repetition of identical ratios, restriction to a very few ratios, or use of consistent ratios for particular elements of the layout. This applies whether it be a book, a web layout, or hung in a gallery. The header images on this site, for example, are all 7:2 (near enough): awkward, since I don’t have any images in that format, but the consistency is more important than the individual image shapes; the images, in this case, are very much subordinate to the overall presentation of the page. They’re thus all crops – more on cropping images further down, too.

Is there a ‘best’ aspect ratio, in general?

Neither of the above points – the first being a prosaic, hardware-based explanation, which I refute, and the second being an aesthetic rationale for sets of images, which I completely endorse – addresses the idea of the ‘best aspect ratio’ for individual photographs in general, however. It’s that question which tends to get a lot of attention and assertive debate, and it’s that which I’m most interested in musing on here.

  • Yes, wide, or very wide, panoramic format is well-suited to mountain ranges.
  • Yes, tall, thin images are relatively restricted in what they can be applied to (though they can be excellent for some landscape subjects, to emphasise depth and the idea of a metaphorical ‘slice of the World’).
  • Yes, most certainly, 5:4 and 4:5 tend to be great all-purpose ratios. They provide balance, avoid too much space between compositional elements, don’t emphasise one dimension over the other too much, and are often ‘easy on the eye’, in that it’s easier to scan around the frame’s content in all directions.
  • And yes, square is excellent for not imposing any imbalance and for giving a literally neutral frame within which to compose.

Each of those, however, is an example, in my opinion, of a rule to be broken (as with so many supposed ‘rules’ in photography). To take a common and extreme example: square images, where the lower small fraction contains a mountain range, or similar long, thin subject, and which might be seen as a natural panorama, can be very compositionally strong if realised as squares, perhaps with the bulk of the frame filled with dramatic clouds – such compositions can radically change the balance of the finished image, compared to the obvious choice of a panorama, not necessarily making them better, but making them different.

To put it simply: I emphatically don’t think that there’s a ‘best’ aspect ratio, in the general sense.

Aspect ratio as a compositional element

And that brings me to the thesis of this article. Ignoring considerations of the eventual layout of a set of images and the constraints, or aesthetic desires, which that may impose, I see the aspect ratio of the finished image as a compositional element in its own right, just as the subject matter, colours and tonality within the frame are.

I’m suggesting that it’s more useful to put the shape of the eventual image on a par with everything else in that image, and to ignore the aspect ratio the camera naturally supports. If that means stitching multiple images for a panorama, or cropping a third of the image to make a square from a 3:2 camera, that should take precedence over retaining more information for the sake of it. Photographers often talk about the reductionism inherent in creating images – the exclusion of some parts of an image through choice of lens and camera position – I have no issue with additionally changing the shape of the image, if it will aid the achievement of that exclusion and create a better-balanced end result.

Are there aspect ratios which should be avoided?

Beyond that, I also don’t see the need for sticking rigorously to a standard set of aspect ratios. Yes, there is perhaps some degree of natural balance in 3:2, 4:3 and 5:4, etc., and there is merit in starting out with one of these supposedly ‘natural’ ratios; but, both when composing and when editing an image, I’m happy to crop and end up with something which is other than the above (11:8 or some other, more complex, fraction, for example). Provided the end result has overall balance within the frame, what is so magical about the natural ratios?

The one exception to that principle, or willingness, is due to the fact that human brains are rather good at seeing squares. Put the other way around: we’re very good at seeing ‘not quite square’. The few images I’ve composed, or cropped, such that they’re ‘nearly, but not quite, square’ have always had something of an edgy feeling about them, to me at least, and I try to avoid that as it’s a distraction when viewing the images. I prefer either ‘exactly square’ or ‘no doubt about it – that’s a rectangle’.

So, the point here is?

In summary, what I’m advocating here is:

  1. Don’t let your camera dictate aspect ratio.
  2. Treat the ultimate aspect ratio of the image as part of the suite of compositional tools you have available, along with light, objects in the frame, colour and tonality.
  3. Compose with the final, intended aspect ratio in mind, and either use whatever camera you have which comes closest to what the composition requires, or crop; not only in post-processing, but also in your visualisation at the time of capture.
  4. Don’t introduce the question of ‘is that actually square?’ to the viewer – ensure that images are either square or not-square.
  5. Don’t be afraid to ‘throw away’ up to a third of the image. Once again, the ultimate balance of the composition is the critical factor, and there’s plenty of image information left after one third is cropped. That’s true of most digital cameras of 12MP or more, and certainly for film.
  6. Overall, it’s probably true that that some aspect ratios, in most situations, tend to work better than others. Most of my images seem to be gravitating around 5:4, 4:5, and square, at the moment; but I’m consciously trying to consider what the best choice is for each…. And that’s the key point:

    rather than thinking “I’ll use 5:4 as that works well”, think “what would be the best aspect ratio to use here?”

In the interests of keeping this relatively short, I’ve deliberately avoided discussing all the pros and cons of various aspect ratios more then peripherally. There is a wealth of on-line debate available which does just that, and much of it is useful input to composition, but I think it needs to be seen in the context of aspect ratio choice being just another aspect of compositional technique, not the absolute right / wrong, or best / worst dichotomy that so often seems to be hiding beneath the surface of the discussions.

I’d welcome comments on this viewpoint, vociferous and evangelical, or otherwise, particularly if they point out crucial features of any particular aspect ratio which I haven’t mentioned (that being most such features, obviously).