How far is far? Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 2006
I made this image with a 28mm wideangle lens about one hour after I made a 230mm telephoto image from the same spot (To see it, click on the thumbnail at the bottom.). They are two entirely interpretations of the same subject. In this image I am speaking of tremendous distances and wide-open spaces. It exaggerates an already sweeping scene, a long straight road, and a vast sky just after dawn illuminates its clouds. It is all about convergence. The double yellow line, the two white lines, and the rough edging of the highway itself all lead to the same vanishing point and the disappear altogether. Note Druid Mountain in the distance. Compare it to how Druid Mountain looks in my telephoto shot. This comparison between wideangle and telephoto optics speak volumes about the camera’s ability to distort reality in order to express an idea. Perhaps the most sobering fact about this comparison is that 230mm is not really a very long telephoto, nor is 28mm really a true wideangle lens. We can go a lot longer and much, much wider, which would make the disparity between this pair of views even greater.
Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 2006
By far the most spectacularly colored water in Yellowstone is this hot spring. There must be a particularly large algae colony of Rhodophyta (Red algae) in this water, because the color was so vivid. Since the presence of algae depends upon the degree of heat in the water, coloration is a byproduct of this heat as well. As you can see from the steam rising in the background, this spring is very hot. I used the 35mm end of my zoom on this shot. This focal length is probably the most commonly used focal length of them all, because so many zoom lenses begin at 35mm. It is wide, but certainly not a true wideangle. I would call it a semi-wideangle or semi-normal lens. It certainly does its job in this image. It allows me to get close enough to the algae to make detail work, yet I am also able to get a significant amount of it into the frame. It also lets me include important background context. Grand Prismatic Spring is still recovering from the 1988 wildfires that scorched this area. Note all the fallen trees on the hills beyond. We have the ugly and the beautiful, side-by-side. The 35mm wideangle lens makes it all happen here.
First Light, Mono Lake, California, 2006
When I use the wideangle lens for landscapes, I will often try to create an emphatic foreground subject by moving in on it, while squeezing the background into the image at the top and leaving out as much sky as I can. (The only time I will include the sky as a major element in my images is when it contains dramatic cloud formations or expressive coloration.) In this image, made with a 28mm wideangle lens, I stress the day’s first light as it grazes the flowers of the massed sage in the foreground. This light is then repeated in the background along the edges of the ancient limestone towers that line Mono Lake. It is a surreal, primitive scene, giving the viewer a unique sense of place.
Sage at Mount Whitney, near Lone Pine, California, 2006
Mount Whitney, at the upper center of this image, is over 14,000 feet tall. It is the highest mountain in the US, except for Alaska’s Mount McKinley. By using the 28mm wideangle lens, I make it incongruously small, far smaller than the colorful mass of sage at my feet. My concept is a simple one: the sage and the mountain are both the work of nature, and in the natural world, the highest mountain is really no more important than a single bush of sage. By using the wideangle lens in a vertical format, I can create this incongruous difference in scale.
La Posada’s front porch, Winslow, Arizona, 2006
Trains have rumbled past the front entrance of La Posada, a historic railroad hotel, for almost 80 years. Once they hauled passengers. Today they move freight cars that stretch as far as the eye can see. Using a 28mm wideangle focal length, I extend the length of both tracks and train, diminish the size of the distant train watchers for scale incongruity, and turn day into night by placing the sun behind a light tower and shooting directly into it.
Choices, Lijiang, China, 2006
Another critical advantage of wideangle photography is tremendous depth of field. This simply means that with a wideangle focal length, you can get everything in focus from near to far. This came in handy, for example, when I made this shot of my hosts in Lijiang, pbase photographers Alister and Allie Benn http://www.pbase.com/alibenn
studying the menu at a local restaurant. I was able to get reasonably legible focus on everything from Alister’s budding beard to the patient waitresses expression and beyond. Usually, the closer we get to the subject with our lens, the smaller the area of sharp focus becomes. But with a wideangle (even a moderate wideangle such as this 35mm focal length) lens, we can get very close and still get plenty of focus depth in our images
War Memorial, Ishigaki, Okinawa, Japan, 2006
A soaring eagle in a city park memorializes Ishigaki's casualties in World War II. To make that eagle seem to soar, I had to move in very close to the pedestal and shoot straight up at the statue. Yet that pedestal was relatively low – the eagle was only about eight to ten feet off the ground. The closer I got to the pedestal, the less eagle I could fit into my frame. I zoomed the lens as wide as it would go (35mm) and the eagle still did not fit. I solved that problem by going to another camera with a wider lens (28mm) and it worked perfectly.
Long walk, Baisha, China, 2006
I saw this lone figure walking the early morning streets of this small farming village outside of Lijiang and wanted to create a sense of scale incongruity between him and his environment. I needed to stretch my picture and make the house in the foreground as large as possible, the road as long as possible, and the man as small as possible. I shot this scene at three different wideangle focal lengths (35mm, 28mm, and 24mm) to see which worked best. This time, my choice was 24mm. It was an ideal tool to solve this challenge.
Heaven and Earth, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, 2006
This park received its name from the appearance of its red sandstone formations.
I used the Leica D-Lux 2’s 28mm wideangle lens and its 16:9 aspect ratio to produce an image relating the explosive burst of clouds at upper left to a similar outburst from a bush at lower right. The wideangle reach was essential in relating both top and bottom elements, yet keeping the sandstone formations caught between them at a reasonable size. A wider lens would make the red rocks and distant mountains too small to notice. A longer focal length would have cropped out either the cloud or the bush or both.
On the Avenida Jaurez, Guanajuato, Mexico, 2005
This image is about space and depth. The wideangle lens excels at implying depth, but in order to do so, it needs a strong foreground anchor. In this case, I anchor the image with the woman and child. They were only a few feet in front of me, but a 24mm focal length can embrace not only their full length, but the shadows they cast as well. The people in the background are really not as far away they seem, but the wideangle lens tends to make distant people or objects very small. The Basilica of Guanajuato, which rises in the background, seems to be a great distance from the camera, but it’s only about a block away. By making everything smaller than it looks to the eye, the wideangle lens spreads the image not only in width, but also in implied depth. I converted this image to black and white because I wanted to create a double abstraction. I am shooting straight into the sun, which is just over the Basilica and out of the frame. A streak of flare suggests its presence. This strong backlighting, along with my deliberate underexposure, has turned everything into a silhouette, and stresses the roughened texture of the cobblestone street. Black and white is a medium of abstraction, and by choosing to make this image monochromatic, as well as underexposed, roughly textured and deeply shadowed, I’ve tried to make time stand still. The wideangle perspective puts us all into this image – we might as well jump in, and start walking.
Pyramid, Scottsdale, Arizona, 2005
By angling my wideangle lens upwards and tilting it to one side, I was able to turn the corner of a simple stucco building into a pyramid-like structure. The wideangle distorts perspective at close range, and I’ve used it here to do just that. Wideangle lenses also make it easier to shoot images built as a series of layers. The bush in the foreground is my foreground layer, anchoring the image. The building is the middle layer. I noticed birds flying overhead, and kept shooting from this position until I able to freeze one of them to create my third layer. Its outstretched wings echo the thrust of the leaves on the plantings in my foreground layer. The pyramidically shaped building now resembles a monument, symbolizing man’s dreams of eternal power. The plants surrounding it reach towards the sun, a reminder of nature’s vitality. The bird soaring overhead repeats shape of the leaves with its wings, adding the promise of freedom to this image.
Mekong River Welcome, Banlathan, Laos, 2005
This is a simple scenic subject, yet the use of wideangle perspective has added a sense of layered depth that pulls the viewer into the scene. It also gives a sense of scale to the vastness of the Mekong valley itself. I used my 24mm conversion lens to stress the rocky, rugged quality of the land itself, filling the foreground layer with sand and rock. This leads the eye to the middle ground layer, where we see a thatched roof boat shelter, a river boat, and up on the hill a group of boys who served as our welcoming committee. By deliberately placing the boys in the middle ground layer, I made them small enough to be symbolic, rather than describe them physically, as well as giving the scene a sense of grand scale. A thin trail of boats and rocks along the shoreline draws our eye into the background layer of this image, where large hills give us a sense of the Mekong Valley’s topography.