Half-week homework: Wide-open spaces

“Watch your head.”
Jolting awake at the sound of laughter—3:00 AM.
A stubbed toe.
Gotta squeeze through sideways.
“Watch it!”
A scooter zooms inches away.
“Watch that stack of old newspapers—”
Too late to stop the crash.
Lost in the wrong housing development.
I-270 is backed up, again.

The sense of everything happening all at once, right where you are, can be overwhelming. Along the bustling Front Range and in the cultural centers of Northern California, it’s hard to imagine the west as it was when it was truly wild. Fortunately, when it seems like one too many of society’s infinite arms has slithered around your soul, there is a salve readily sourced. In fact, with modern ease of transportation, it’s more accessible than ever… and you can bottle it yourself!

This week’s mission is to find the kind of wide open space people write country songs about and come home with a breathtaking landscape photo. Of course, the second part is the most important one. You can go track one down, far away from people, or you can take any place that gives your heart that expansive feeling and use your photographic toolbox to show your viewers how it feels to you. Whether it’s your backyard or the headwaters of the Rio Grande (as above), the important part is that it’s somewhere you breathe easier, walk taller, and feel the weight on your shoulders grow a little lighter. In an ideal case, you’ll even be able to hang a print on your wall that will give you a little lift any time you need it.

Read on for tips and an inspirational gallery, and be sure to share your favorite pics & places with the Mike’s Camera family. Post to our Facebook page or Instagram tagged with #mymikescamera #halfweekhomework so we can share the love!

Photo by Macey Sigaty

General tips for landscape photos

  • Remember that you’re covering a wide open space. You aren’t required to use a wide-angle lens (more on that in a moment) but that’s what would be, more often than not, the right choice for the job.
  • Keep your aperture on the medium/small side, most likely f/8 or higher. You’ll want to consider where your lens is sharpest (see last week’s project for more on that) as well as maintain a large depth of field, since you’ll be covering a wide area with lots of small details.
  • Keep your ISO as low as possible. At a distance, details will be small enough that they can easily be obliterated by noise and, just as easily, well-intentioned noise-reduction.
  • Shoot in RAW, if you’re comfortable processing it. If there are deep shadows and bright highlights in the same picture, you’ll be able to keep detail in both areas much more effectively. (That’s what I did with the header image, above.)
  • Consider HDR processing. Your camera may have an automatic HDR (high dynamic range) mode, which is a great alternative to shooting RAW if you don’t want to deal with the post-processing. Alternatively, you may want to manually combine multiple JPGs for more control over the effect, or you may even want to composite multiple RAW photos for an extremely wide dynamic range. Just remember that there’s a risk of getting an otherworldly look, so don’t push it too far unless that’s the effect you’re going for.
  • Landscapes can have subjects too. A friend for scale or a run-down barn can add just the right dash of life. What you don’t want is something disrupting the unit of vastness. Click images to enlarge.
Pure vastness.
Fenced in! See how the feel is totally ruined?
Just plain fun (and still wide open)!
  • Timelapse videos with shadows of clouds moving over a wide area or the sun moving along at the end of the day are always a hit.
  • Bring a tripod. With a narrow aperture and low ISO both required for quality, sharp shots, shutter speeds tend to stretch out when you’re shooting landscapes. Added bonus: maintain the exact scene for bracketed shots/HDR/timelapse shooting with ease, or maintain a perfectly straight axis for panoramic shots.
Otherwise you’ll end up with a jumble, like I had to work with for this one. Click to enlarge. You’ll see imperfections, and there was significant cropping required, but not bad for driving by!

Panoramic shots are great for expanding the perceived wideness of a shot, whether you’re using a “wide-angle” lens or not. I often use the automatic panorama feature to simulate swapping to a wider lens (on the cameras I use that have that mode, of course). While they require a little more care (and post-processing if you don’t have an automatic pano mode), it’s as good as swapping your eyes for a goat’s. Talk about a wide view! (And yes, Mike’s Camera can do custom prints and custom frames to match whatever odd ratio you end up with.)

On lens choice

Speaking of aspect ratio, your final crop will be affected significantly by compression and framing, factors which must be considered when choosing a lens. Remember that the longer the focal length of your lens, the greater the compression will be—and making your background elements appear closer to those in the foreground might be detrimental to the goal of capturing a wide open space. A wide-angle lens (wider than, say, 24mm or so) will allow you to capture a very broad scene, and the expansion* will make it seem even more vast than it is. A nice, sharp wide-angle lens is an unimpeachable choice for a landscaping expedition.

* The opposite of compression, which is visible when using a lens wider than “normal,” approximately 50mm on a full-frame camera.

That being said, depending on the scene, you can still use a telephoto lens. Many of the images I have here as illustrations were captured using the Olympus M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 ED MSC (which has an equivalent field of view to a 150mm lens on a full-frame camera) and they’re still plenty expansive.

As long as you leave lots of room, you can change the feel later by cropping, too. Not to be tautological, but the wider/narrower the image, the wider the scene feels to the viewer. The inverse is also true, which is ripe territory for those of you who, like me, are eager to explore a challenge by subverting it. Kelly Reichardt, in her 2010 film, Meek’s Cutoff, exemplified how imagery of wide open fields, full of potential, can still be shot in such a way as to convey claustrophobia by using the now-anachronistic 4:3 aspect ratio and framing her subjects carefully—literally boxing them in.

Check out the three crops of the same photo below to see how a different aspect ratio can totally change the tone of an image.

4:3. Click to enlarge.
3:2. Click to enlarge.
Pano. Click to enlarge.

In a way, this topic was inspired by the holiday tomorrow. Not only are wide-open spaces emblematic of the vast, vast USA, they’re about as evocative of independence as any natural space can get. Enjoy the barbecues, enjoy the fireworks, enjoy the parades, but—when you can—enjoy the parts of this country much older and grander than we, in the midst of which we are fortunate enough to enjoy our freedom.

The empty blue sky of space says “All this comes back to me, then goes again, and comes back again, then goes again, and I don’t care, it still belongs to me.”

Jack Kerouac, Big Sur

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