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Expansive views of scenic places often come to mind when we think about the photos that characterize landscape photography. Such photos are often taken with a wide-angle lens, a common but sometimes challenging to master tool. Because such lenses can take in so much of a scene, it can be a challenge for photographers to distill such a scene into its most interesting and compelling elements and then pull them together in a cohesive composition. Below, I walk through four practical tips for stronger compositions when using a wide-angle lens (like a 16-35mm lens on a full frame camera or a 10-18mm lens on a crop sensor camera), sharing photos from a recent trip to Death Valley National Park to help illustrate each point.
Experiment with Tripod Height
Although this seems like a really simple piece of advice, tripod height can have a dramatic impact on the resulting photograph when using a wide-angle lens. When getting low to the ground, a wide angle lens helps exaggerate the elements in the foreground, making them seem more prominent than they would to a person viewing the same scene at eye level. When getting closer to a foreground element, however, the mid-ground can lose prominence and sometimes become almost entirely obscured. Photo #2, above, was taken with my tripod fully extended. I chose this tripod height because I did not want to lose the repeating patterns in the middle of the photograph. Photo #6 at the end of this post, on the other hand, was taken very low to the ground. For that photo, I wanted to exaggerate the main mud tile to help communicate its size. Raising my tripod would have made the primary tile much less prominent and it would have lost some of its power as a dominant compositional element.
Inclusion & Exclusion
The key feature of a wide-angle lens, its ability to capture an expansive view, also brings about the key challenge in using this photographic tool. With such a wide angle of view, it is essential for a photographer to be deliberate about what to include and exclude from a composition. When I am working on photographing an expansive scene, I always go through a deliberate process to identify my main subject and think about how I can feature it in the best way possible, often deciding to exclude certain elements because they are distracting, messy, or unappealing.
Take the example above of Darwin Falls in Death Valley National Park (Photo #3). This small waterfall is located at the end of a scenic canyon with a lush riparian area growing along a stream. Although beautiful to the eye, I had never been interested in photographing this spot because it often comes across in photos as a chaotic, messy scene. We recently decided to visit the waterfall and I was surprised that I liked the area with some green spring foliage so I photographed the spot to help add diversity to my Death Valley portfolio. In deciding on a composition, I wanted to feature the waterfall, the pool below, patches of greenery, and the interesting rocks that form the canyon. Getting a clean composition required a lot of refinement and honing to eliminate all kinds of distracting elements. Going through this iterative process of refinement was essential in crafting a photo that fits my aesthetic preferences for clean and simple compositions.
Use Compositional Elements to Create Visual Paths
In one of my previous Visual Wilderness articles, I discuss identifying abstract qualities in natural subjects and how to use these abstract qualities as compositional elements. These concepts can be very helpful in creating a visual paths through a wide-angle composition. In the case of the first photo in this post, the ridge of sand and its neighboring shadow provide lines to lead the viewer’s eye throughout the frame. In Photo #4 above, the ridges and folds in the canyon wall all converge, helping create a visual path to the center of the photograph. Learning to identify these abstract qualities, like leading lines, radiating patterns, and repetition, can help a photographer use such elements to create visual paths when crafting a composition.
Think about Elements on the Edge of Your Frame
One of my basic field practices is always checking the edges of my frame to make sure that distracting elements are not creeping in, ready to pull away attention from the more important aspects of a composition. This can be especially important when photographing low to the ground. Because foreground elements are exaggerated when using a wide angle lens close to a subject, distracting elements on the edge of the frame can also be exaggerated and pull attention away from the more important elements of a scene.
Elements near the edges of a frame can also be used to complement or mirror other parts of a composition, enhancing the overall impact of the photo. Take the photo of the mud cracks above (Photo #5). The patterns in the cracks are mirrored on the edges of the frame, a sort of repetition that can help create a cohesive composition. The photo below (Photo #6) offers another example, comparing two compositions of Desert Gold flowers. The composition on the right leaves a lot more room around the flowers whereas the composition on the left is tighter, with one flower intersecting the edge of the frame. If I could take the photo on the left again, I would have been much more careful to leave more breathing room and would have tried to change the composition to either fully include or exclude the distracting flower on the edge of the frame.
Next Time You’re in the Field
Next time you are out in the field with your wide angle lens, spend some time experimenting with these tips to help you refine your compositions. Vary your tripod height and think about the impact the changes have on your composition. Actively work to include the most compelling elements of a scene and seek to exclude distractions and less-interesting features. Work on using the abstract elements of your scene to create visual paths. And take the time to think about how the elements on the edge of your frame strengthen or distract from your scene.
Sarah Marino is a landscape and nature photographer from Colorado who is currently traveling full-time in an Airstream trailer with her fellow photographer husband, Ron Coscorrosa, and their two cats. Sarah strives to capture photographs that convey the elegance, beauty, and the awe-inspiring qualities of the landscapes she explores during her travels. In addition to grand landscapes, Sarah’s portfolio also includes a diverse range of smaller subjects including plants, trees, and abstract natural subjects.
Sarah has published a variety of educational materials for landscape and nature photographers. These ebooks and video tutorials include: Forever Light: The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Iceland, Desert Paradise: The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Death Valley National Park, Black & White Photography: A Complete Guide for Nature Photographers, and Beyond the Grand Landscape: A Guide to Photographing Nature’s Smaller Scenes.
You can view more of Sarah's photos, educational resources for nature photographers, and travel stories on her website.