In the previous article, we looked at some of the fundamental principles of landscape photography. Today, we’re going to question more of those assumptions and see how those principles apply equally to a very diverse range of subjects.
Let’s start with what is, on the face of things, a fairly obvious question: At what point does a landscape turn into a cityscape turn into architecture turn into urban reportage/ flaneur photography? If you have an expansive natural scene with one remote house on it, is it still a landscape? I think nobody would argue with you on that one. Two houses? A small town? Maybe it’s a question of scale, or visual dominance? What about a physically small scene with predominantly natural elements – that’s a landscape, surely. But what if the scene is man-made with merely the inclusion of natural elements? I’m sure a carefully-planned Japanese garden is definitely landscape material. Regardless of the answer, I think we can all agree that the lines become increasingly blurred.
What I fundamentally believe is that the principles of landscape photography can, and should be applied to anything static. What I’m going to do in this article is discuss a few examples in detail, showing just how cross-disciplinary things can be. I can definitely attest to the value of recognizing fundamental structure in an image – even if it’s something as simple as foreground-midground-background – and ensuring that all of the subject elements receive the correct visual prominence and are properly lit etc. What you won’t see in any of these images are dominating temporal elements: by this I mean any moving subjects that have to be frozen in time, lest the whole composition be irrecoverably changed. Even though a long exposure of a waterfall will give a different impression to a fast one, it doesn’t change the structure of the composition: the water still flows in the same course. It’s not the same as street photography, in which if you get the timing wrong, it can make the difference between having a person/ subject in the scene and a completely empty, boring image.
We’ll start on the less controversial end of things. I think there’s no question about the image above: it’s a landscape in an urban context. Things look a little too regular to be natural, but at the same time, too natural to be entirely man-made. (It is in fact a semi-man-made lake in Yangon; some of you may recognize this image from my Myanmar set.) The perspective is clearly telephoto and enhanced; the time of day and light a conscious choice on my part to convey the feel of a warm evening.
The next image is about the interaction between the natural, the cultivated and the man-made: we’re looking at the tiny vineyard adjoining the Strakhov Cloister in Prague, and the city of Prague itself in the background. Structurally, the image is fairly classical: we have our dominant foreground, our contextual midground, and recession into a more general background. Except in this case, the mid and background is entirely man-made and contextual.
It’s clear from both the brightness, color and contrast in this image that the rather spectacular sky is the subject here; everything else is merely context – you get the impression that the buildings are no more than to put things into context size-wise. The structure of this image is inverted – yet we still have the fore-mid-background relationship; the context, and the juxtaposition of natural and man-made elements.
Now we move to an image that’s entirely composed of manmade elements: there’s nothing natural here at all. Yet at the time of shooting, I composed it according to the same principles I’d use for a landscape: the scene was static, so I had time to pick my perspective to reflect the visual prominence of the subjects I wanted; wait a little for the sun to hit the facade and bridge in the background, and carefully position the camera to balance out every portion of the frame.
We are getting slowly more and more removed from the traditional landscape. Once again, we have static subjects, a conscious choice of perspective and precise framing, but we’ve lost the sky. You might recall from the previous article, that depending on the prominence of the upper half of the frame, the ‘sky’ can either be background or foreground; here, as the inclusion of a lot of heavy, dark sky gives the impression of impending rain, choosing to make the bridge the dominant element creates a sense of overbearing expectation/choice/commitment (take your pick).
Uh oh. We’ve now gone on a huge tangent. Or have we? Take a moment to consider the structure of this image: the reflective elements could well be water; the background subjects being reflected could be trees. A sense of scale is completely absent. The camera could have been sitting in the middle of a stream somewhere, instead of on a bannister at SFMOMA.
You might have seen these two images before, from my work in Tokyo last year. I shot these while setting my workshop students their final open assignment; I wanted to both push myself creatively and try something different. Rather than just go out and shoot cinematics, or people, or architecture, I came up with the idea of treating the people like water, and the buildings like the rest of the landscape: very much an urban landscape, if you will. The reason I’d never tried this before is because you obviously need a lot of people walking in clearly defined thoroughfares to make it work! Technically, it was actually quite challenging because I’d have to use longish exposures, find stable platforms and the right vantage points – in the middle of a crowded city, with no tripod handy. I made do with various street furniture and the OM-D’s excellent stabilizer. I think you’ll agree that it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the pedestrians flowing through the streets like water in a river.
Here’s where things get very conceptual. I’ve always treated photographing a plate of food like photographing a garden – there are deliberate, arranged elements to it, but at the same time, there’s an element of measured uncontrollable chaos in the way the salad leaves fall, or the rice bunches. In short, though the overall form of the arrangement is controlled – again, like a garden – the individual elements are not (like exactly where the flowers grow on the bushes, or the shape of the trees, for instance).
Foreground-background relationships matter. Which ingredient or component is the focus of the dish? The quality of light matters, because that’s the only way we have to control the perceived texture of the food, and thus the impression the viewer gets: is it fresh? Crispy? Tender and juicy? Or possibly oily and unpleasant?
Can we do the same with watches? Absolutely, though the physical size of the objects being photographed brings about challenges of its own – the perspectives are somewhat limited simply because the working distance of a wide-angle macro lens is almost nothing if you want to get sufficient magnification (severely limiting your lighting options, and introducing all sorts of problems when it comes to uncontrolled reflections); couple that with the huge geometric distortion and it’s difficult to use these lenses effectively. I’ve found that these techniques tend to be more effective when part of a larger arrangement; it’s mainly because it’s just easier to execute.
Of course, a greater fundamental challenge is that the subject itself must be conducive to such photography to begin with; there are few that actually are. This image was shot with an adapted Zeiss ZM 2.8/28 Biogon on a D700; the combination did not focus to infinity due to the difference flange distance between M and F mounts, but it did happen to yield the right perspective and magnification for certain applications, as you can see here. Unfortunately, the lens was really not optimized for corrections at this distance, and so the combination proved unworkable from an image quality standpoint on the D800E – too much difference between images shot with that and my usual lenses.
The bottom line I’d like everybody who reads this article to take away is that as with everything else in photography, there are no hard and fast rules. The ability to learn, imagine and experiment through application of techniques that do not obviously apply are perhaps the greatest skills any photographer can have. MT
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