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Monthly Archives: March 2010

The season is turning to spring in the more northern climes, and evidence abounds.  I do not know if I was more pleased on a recent walk to see the return of ducks, or simply the free water in which they swam.  Gone for another year is the ice that locked away so much of this land.

As a landscape photographer, I spend a considerable amount of time contemplating the notion of “landscape”.  This is not to say that I think exclusively about broad views of natural foreground elements framed by scenic backgrounds of mountains and sky.  I certainly think a lot about such images, but my vision of the landscape ranges from the the very narrow to the very broad.  Specifically, I conceptualize landscapes along a continuum of perspective which can be parsed into the following categories:

1.  Macro: This category is probably the farthest stretch of my definition of “landscape”.  Nonetheless, anyone who has ever looked through a lens+tube setup knows that entire landscapes can appear at the macroscopic level.

2.  Closeup: I envision the closeup shot as the tightest of all landscapes.  Essentially, making such a photograph is a recognition that one wishes to isolate a very specific element of that landscape.  I think the challenge is to do so in such a way that represents or hints at the broader landscape with two levels of depth (i.e., foreground or background included around the focal point object), or to intentionally avoid such a result with a single level of depth.

3.  Intimate Landscape: Some of the more evocative landscapes I have shot are intimate landscapes.  These are photographs of very near natural elements (e.g., a rock and few trees selected from a broader arboreal scene).  This category of landscapes typically includes two levels of depth (i.e., foreground and background).

4.  Landscape: This is the traditional conceptualization landscape shot.  I consider landscape photographs to encompass wide views and to ideally incorporate a full three levels of depth (i.e., foreground, middle ground, and background).  I think there is something of potentially significant power captured by the successful landscape shot in which the photographer, and later the viewer, becomes immersed in the perspective of the photograph.  The question of focal point is dependent upon the goals behind making the specific shot.

5.  Starry Landscape: I essentially visualize a starry landscape as a variant of the more traditional landscape in which the background is extended into a starry night sky and the perspective is angled up toward the stars.  This approach incorporates three levels of depth (i.e., foreground, middle ground, and background), but with the eye naturally drawn the the heavens.  Without doubt, I personally find this vision of the landscape to be the most invigorating to contemplate and the most challenging to effectively execute.

Note that these specific perspectives are not dependent upon lens focal length.  One might use a wide-angle or telephoto lens to make a landscape shot in the hills of the SF Bay Area.  Either lens will provide the same perspective, but the results will obviously look and feel differently.

In the end, I constantly remind myself that all lenses are potentially landscape lenses.

As the photo  illustrates, the precession of seasons does not quite move smoothly from the pristine white of snow to an explosion of vernal colors.  Meaningful change requires time.  Whether it be in a pool of water atop thawing ice, or within the thoughts and emotions of an individual, renewal is a process that often begins slowly before bursting forth with the potentiality of a future.

The end of winter is an interesting time of the year.  Not yet spring with its attendant return to life, there are nonetheless subtle signs of the pending vernal equinox.  One indicator is the presence of snow that has melted and refrozen.  Such snow can take on a special appearance as it again begins to sublimate in the morning light.

Pentax has just announced the 645D, a 40MP medium-format digital SLR slated for release in May 2010.  The anticipated price tag of $9,400 will pale in comparison to the approximately $30,000 required to obtain a Hasselblad H4D with 40P, 50MP, or 60MP back.  I agree with Brooks Jensen that there will eventually be a limit to meaningfully noticeable improvements in image quality from digital sensor technology.  However, cameras such as the 645D demonstrate that such a ceiling remains some way off.

Traditional medium-format photography relied on shooting 6×4.5cm frames (or some variant, e.g., 6x6cm, 6x7cm) on 120 film.  This resulted in a 4:3 frame ratio (cf. the 3:2 frame ratio of 35mm).  In contrast, or in complement, the Pentax 645D features a 44x33mm CCD sensor.  All three Hasselblad H4D models also offer the same 4:3 frame ratio, albeit with larger sensors.  More importantly, these digital medium-format cameras feature sensors with 6.0μm pixels.  These are larger pixels than available in 35mm digital cameras.  Couple with the size of the medium-format sensor, such large pixel pitch should result in far larger printed images free from the negative effects of diffraction than available with the best 35mm digital SLRs.  Of course, the same could be said of prints from medium-format film versus 35mm film.

What most impresses me about cameras such as the 645D, however, is neither their sensor size nor their pixel size.  Instead, I am intrigued by the blurring of the lines within what were historically considered discrete photographic formats.  The 35mm format was once the purview of the 36x24mm frame.  The 35mm format now includes not only the relatively rare cameras with 36x24mm “full-frame” digital sensors, but also those cameras with various APS-C and APS-H crop-format sensors which preserve the original 3:2 frame ratio.  There is also the increasingly popular Four Thirds digital sensor format which offers a 4:3 frame ratio in a more compact SLR body.  The medium format was similarly restricted to the realm of the 6×4.5cm or related frame.  Yet, the medium format now includes those digital SLRs with 44.2×33.1mm, 44x33mm, 49.1×36.7mm, 53.7×40.2mm, and similar sensors.

With the rapid development of digital sensor technologies (i.e., CMOS, CCD, Foveon), it appears as if the photographic formats are each becoming varied within their ranks.  Looking back at today 10 years hence, perhaps it will be determined that the greatest benefit to photography of digital sensor technology was its ability to deconstruct the traditional boundaries of format and photographer which reigned for so many years.

I am not a fan of zoom lenses.  So, why are all of my current lenses zooms?

There is little doubt that major progress has been made in the past decade regarding zoom lens design.  Perhaps the most common example of such progress is the availability of an increasing array of all-in-one zooms that incorporate wide-angle, normal, and telephoto focal lengths into a single lens barrel.  Some of these lenses are parfocal, and many feature low-dispersion, high-dispersion, or aspherical elements that noticeably improve image quality.  If one is willing to spend the requisite money, the sky is nearly the limit when it comes to high-end, exceptionally fast zooms.

Another reason zooms ostensibly have become so popular is the preponderance of digital SLRs with crop sensors.  For example, my preference is to shoot most of my work at a 35mm-equivalent of 24mm.  On my SLR with a 1.6x APS-C sensor, I need to shoot at 15mm to achieve the desired angle of view.  Whereas a 15mm rectilinear lens is typically a very expensive piece of equipment, current technology allows for the production of ultra-wide-angle zoom lenses at fairly reasonable cost to the photographer.  Hence, although I would prefer to shoot entirely with primes, I shoot with zooms.

I understand the common argument that limiting oneself to primes is akin to a painter limiting himself to a single paint brush.  The analogy is a poor one, but the point is clear.  Why prohibit oneself from a broader range of options?  My personal response is that shooting with primes feels right for me.  As much as I admire the technology behind zoom lenses, I find myself spending more time working on a potential image when I do not have to fiddle with a zoom ring.  There is nothing logical about this stance.  It is simply a matter of personal preference.  Indeed, I am debating taping the zoom barrel of my 11-18mm lens at 15mm.

I shot the image below at 43mm.  This focal length provided what I thought at the time to be the ideal angle of view given the limitations of available perspectives.  Obviously, zooms have their advantages.  Who would purchase a 43mm lens?

I recently had the good fortune while at the neighborhood library to stumble upon America the Beautiful, a photographic portrayal of American wilderness by Clyde Butcher.  The book contains a range of elegant black-and-white landscapes, to include an especially impressive portrayal of a giant sequoia.  Indeed, that Mariposan photo demonstrates the much broader range of focal plane options available to the large format photographer than to those of the 35mm persuasion.  One of the things that has always impressed me about large format photography is the use of a ground glass.  This strikes me as a such a “pure”, unfettered approach toward seeing through the lens.  At the very least, it provides a sufficiently capacious viewing area that one can more clearly discern fine discriminations in focus before tripping the shutter.  Perhaps we are finally witnessing a greater recognition of the importance of a large “ground glass” among 35mm camera manufacturers with the increasing availability of 100%-coverage viewfinders among digital SLR models.

I am therefore given pause by the notion of a mirrorless SLR.  I am attracted to the mechanical simplicity and absence of low-frequency  vibrations from mirror slap such a design would provide.  Yet, a mirrorless camera must necessarily place the camera’s sensor between the lens and the eye.  It interrupts the interaction between light and photographer with some (potentially significant) degree of preprocessing.  Such a system seems sensible for the traditional point-and-shoot camera when the user either is not a photographer or simply wishes to make quick snapshots.  Yet, the situation with SLR work is theoretically different.

I will admit to personally finding the live-view feature of my camera useful when shooting wide-angle landscapes in low light.  Yet, even doing so does not give the same feel as looking through the viewfinder and seeing the light of the landscape interrupted by no more than glass.  So, I shall remain interested to see what mirrorless cameras the manufacturers release in the coming years, but perhaps not with bated breath.