Taking a Wide (Angle) View and a Revisit re Tools

San Diego — Over the past weekend, as you know if you read the previous post, I took my Landscape Class students on their first major field trip, a 3-day trek into the Owens Valley, home of some truly interesting scenery that was photographed by many of the icons of the field.  I took with me a compliment of interesting lenses, two of my own and one borrowed for the trip, all of them fitting into the category of lens known as “wide-angle.”

So let me talk a little about that genre of tool, the wide-angle lens.  Basically any lens with a focal length of 35mm or less (using full frame chips) or giving the same field of view on other formats is considered a “wide-angle” lens.  In the “old days” the typical wide-angle prime lens was a 28mm and sometimes, if you could afford it, a 24mm or even a 20mm but those were extreme.  Typically amateur photographers used wide-angle lenses primarily to capture a wider then normal view or when shooting in such cramped quarters that was the only reasonable way to capture the entire scene.

But photo artists and photo professionals, used them not just for the ability to see wider than normal, but for their ability to alter the apparent spacial relationships between various objects in the universe of their image.  Size relationships between foreground and background objects were altered at will by changing the focal length of the lens and at the same time, to focal distance, that is, the distance from the image plane to the plane of focus (or as is commonly used, camera to subject distance).  Linear perspective, the phenomenon that allows us to see size as a function of distance, is simply a matter of viewing distance.  But by altering that viewing distance and, at the same time isolating the photographs subjects based on focal length, we have complete control over the resulting apparent perspective.

On this past trip I shot with a number of lenses from 400mm down to 8mm but for this post I want to talk about the three wide-angle lenses I had with me.  I do not normally use a wide angle lens simply to try to get more of the scene captured, that is, simply to expand the view.

If an expansive view is my goal, or I wish to force the long wide composition onto the viewer, then I can accomplish it better by using a normal or light telephoto lens and creating a multi frame panorama.  Using that pano approach I end up with more  resolution and therefore better detail rendering and it looks more like the way my eye-brain combo renders a scene as I turn side to side to sweep the horizon.

Instead, I use wide angle lenses to let me — and the viewer — really “get into” the scene in an immersive way.  I use them to force the foreground elements into greater importance than the background and that means getting in really close and personal with those foreground elements in the shot.  The distortion, when it shows, becomes a stylistic characteristic to capture attention and to alter the sense of “reality” that removes any sense of it being purely a documentary shot.

I used the three wide angle lenses below on this trip and here is my thinking on them.  Note: all of them are Canon lenses and I used them on two bodies: a 1Ds Mk II (16.7 Megapixel full frame), and a 5D (12.8 Megapixel full frame).

17-40mm f4L.  The first example has been one of my favorite workhorse lenses, Canon’s 17-40mm f4L lens.  Used correctly it is tack sharp, has minimal color fringing that is easily corrected in post production, and even at its widest setting of 17mm shows its barrel distortion primarily at the sides and then noticeably only if you have straight lines in that part of the scene.  In many ways it has become probably my favorite all around lens for anything requiring a normal to wide view of the world.

My only issue is its pathetic petal styled lens hood that is far more useful to protect the housing of the lens from bumps than it is to shade the lens from stray light.  Once you get into the 28mm and wider world you have to become very, very aware of stray light sources and specular highlights off of shiny objects.

The lens focusses quite close and though not a macro lens, does let you get right into the scene and that, for me, is the primary aesthetic use of a wide angle lens, letting you immerse yourself in the scene.  But you do have to pay careful attention to the ENTIRE scene as displayed in the viewfinder.

24mm TSL 3.5L.  I also had a 24mm tilt-shift lens along for the ride and to finish testing out for our school collection.  I think this lens excels in the world of architecture and architectural interiors.  It’s movements are no threat to a real view camera but for 80% to maybe 90% of one’s needs it is quite satisfactory and far easier to pack around than a bellows camera of any style.

But I wanted to also test it as a landscape lens to use the tilt/swing capabilities to control depth of field.  I have read several times of landscape photographers loving this lens and Canon’s other tilt-shift lenses for their ability to alter the plane of focus.  Well it does have more than enough movement to do that adequately for general landscape photography.  But the reason you need those movements in a view camera is that the 4×5 lens giving roughly the same field of view is a 75mm and that has the narrow depth of field of any 75mm lens.

This Canon lens however is designed not to cover a 4×5 inch sheet of film but a 1 x 1.5 inch sensor.  As a 24mm lens it automatically has deep depth of field (especially compared to a 75mm lens) and even using a sweet spot of f8 to f11, paying attention to hyperfocal distances still gives you incredible depth of field.  In practice that means that focusing this lens at about 6-7 feet at f11 gives you a depth of field from about 3 feet in front of the camera to infinity without using the Scheimflug effect and tilting the lens (based on the cirle of confusion needs of my 1Ds Mk II’s 16.7 megapixel sensor).

Don’t get me wrong, this is a great lens for the right uses.  Though heavy. it is sharp, clean, beautiful lens… but… at $1,500 or thereabouts. it is a lot of money when, by comparison, my 17mm-40mm covers the same focal length and roughly the same depth of field and has a lot less weight.  My personal opinion is that this is not all that critical a lens for landscape work.  I would love to have it in my kit but for landscape use it would probably not be a favorite lens based on my own shooting style.  Others may love it beyond all comprehension.  And if you are going to pay full freight for it, you really need to love it!

It does require very deliberative work on the photographer’s part.  Having only a few degrees of movements and but one dimension of swing (or tilt) and one of shift (or raise) at a time, and no image plane movements except to physically tilt or swing the camera body, it is not a view camera substitute by any means.  And unless you are used to using a vew camera, you need to learn precisely how to use the available movements to gain what you wish from the scene.  Those very limited movements were quite enough for any thing I was shooting in the field but I am not convinced they gained me $1,500 more functionality — or useful depth of field — over the 17mm-40mm lens.

As I noted before, however, for lightweight architectural or industrial shooting this could be a godsend.  And if it were the ONLY wide ange available it certainly does do the job well in the field.  We have a Yosemite trip coming up and i may take it along to see if that locale forces me to change my mind.  So I’ll get back to you on it.

8mm-15mm f4L.   I also had the new Canon “fisheye” zoom with me.   Retailing at a price that will shoot the heck out of a $1,500 bill it is no cheapy.  But optically it now enters the realm of the exotic.  It DOES distort things, especially at 8mm where it gives a circular fisheye (180 degree) view on the full frame cameras.  When zoomed to 15mm it gives 180 degrees of view corner to corner, in essence a cropped fisheye view.  That is where it seemed to work best for my vision of the intended photographs at that particular location.  Again, we’ll have to see if Yosemite changes my mind.

The lens has a bit more color fringing than the 17mm-40mm lens but, again, it was easily handled in post production.  Except for something right at the horizontal and vertical equators of the lens, there is a lot of distortion but that creates an interesting optical framework.  However, if you pick your point of view carefully (as in the shot of the new growth coming from the dead tree in the last post) that distortion is well masked by the subject matter.  You can either force the issue into other-worldliness or mask it all with careful composition and angle.

The lens is light and easy to use though you have to remember to remove the nearly useless lens hood if you are going fully to 8mm because it WILL be in the photo including your feet, tripod legs, hands, loose camera straps.  You really have to pay attention to what ALL is suddenly in the frame.

There are various programs to deal with the distortion and try to produce a normal rectilinear type image from the heavily distorted capture.  Most of them are pathetic and toss away large portions of the image due to cropping.  The best I have seen so far is “Fisheye Hemi.”  it does an amazing job and is a plug-in for Photoshop.  But from this trip at least, I’ve not wanted to change the way the captures looked straight from the lens.

This lens will not become a replacement workhorse for me but when the composition is just right, or the intended pre-visualization demands it, there is nothing else in my arsenal of tools that even comes close.  And that realization does bring back the discussion started a few posts ago about whether or not your tools matter in the creation of art.

In the post previous to that last one on Alabama Hills, I took a swing at one of the great bits of traditional wisdom in our field by asserting that to the deliberative, purposeful artist, the tools DO matter. Indeed I would go further and say that the great artist, like the great craftsman, knows which tools are the proper ones to select to best render a particular pre-visualization of a scene.  It is no different conceptually to say that once a scene is pre-visualized in the mind of the artist, selecting the proper exposure and development time a la the Zone System to properly record tones is what allows an artist like Ansel Adams to produce his work than it is to say that knowing and selecting the lens that will render spacial relationships as the artist pre-visualizes them is what allows another photographer (or Adams as well) to best render their image.

Because, in photography, the technological underpinning is so strong, mastering that foundation is a fundamental stepping stone to gaining artistic mastery over the results.  It was so when the need was to capture the proper densities on film, it is no less so when the need is to capture the proper signal strength on a chip.

We have far more choices of lenses than existed back then, but in terms of range, not all that much has changed, really.  They had circular and full frame fish-eye lenses, wide and ultra wide, normal, light, medium, and extreme telephotos.  And so do we.  We have so-called “zoom” lenses that have improved by quantum leaps over those back when I was starting but along with that improvement there has been an equal improvement in prime (single focal length) lenses as well.

But then as now, the photographer’s ability to render a scene as it was pre-visualized was utterly dependent on the use of available tools.  In the previous post about the trip, the opening shot of the corral on Tuttle Creek is a prime example.  I have pre-visualized that shot nearly from the first trip there but until I was able to mount the 8mm-15mm fisheye lens I could not capture it.  I came close with other lenses and even produced some good images, at least so thought the kind folks who bought them.  So the part of the old cliché still holds: an artist can make art with whatever tool they have.  But, that is not the question at the moment.  The question is can they make the art AS THEY ENVISION IT if they do not have the right tool?

A skilled artist can certainly make art with a bit of charcoal, but they can not make a fresco or oil painting with it and they cannot make a sculpture with it.  They can realize those visions and pre-visualizations only via the proper tool(s).

I’ve photographed that corral with a lot of lenses but it was never quite what I was seeing in my mind.  That required a very specific tool.  This last trip I had it and it made all the difference.  For me, the answer is that the tool most certainly matters.

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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