Tricky Fifty

The nifty fifty. The classic 50mm lens of photography. The stuff of magic. The lens that can do it all. The fastest lens in your arsenal…and possibly the cheapest as well.

This lens has been proven in street photography and photojournalism. Classic photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and even the more modern Steve McCurry have been known to use this lens during much of their career.

But how does this lens fair in landscape photography? What does it take to capture landscape photos with the 50mm?

I mentioned briefly in one of my posts this particular landscape photographer who shot with film and most of his fantastic shots were made by the 50mm lens. Study his shots very closely before you continue.

Here’s one of the biggest, if not THE biggest problem faced by a landscape photographer: how to create the illusion of depth. A photograph is basically two-dimensional so how do you make it look 3D?

The issue is that the 50mm is a normal lens. It is a close approximation to how the human eye sees things. We perceive depth because we have two eyes but our cameras can only use one lens to record a photograph. Try closing one of your eyes and notice how everything looks flat. That’s how a camera sees a landscape: flat and boring. This flatness worsens as you increase your focal length. A 200mm lens for example will bring your foreground closer to your background, an effect we call lens compression. I have covered this effect in detail in my one of my old posts. And that’s why a landscape photographer would usually prefer a wide-angle lens. A 35mm lens is sometimes good enough but others want to go much wider with 24mm. Shooting with 17mm or even 14mm is quite common as all-manual third-party prime lenses are getting relatively cheap. All this, for the sake of depth; to create that separation between the foreground and the background. That 50mm just isn’t good enough.

So how do you separate the foreground from the background? You may not have much choice really. You’re lucky if your intended foreground is far enough from your background. You can try moving closer assuming that your foreground will still fit in the frame. This is actually very difficult in practice because the 50mm is quite tight. You normally will have to stand back which makes a flat scene even flatter. Bottom line is, you really can’t use this technique except in very special cases.

Next problem: depth of field. N00bs like to use the fast 50mm because it gives them that nice bokeh that they have always been longing for. It is precisely because of this very shallow DoF that landscape photography with a 50mm becomes a nightmare. At f8, the hyperfocal distance is about 35 feet which means anything from 17 feet to infinity should look sharp. Now 17 feet is quite far for a foreground. Remember our first problem with background separation? If you move closer, your foreground will be out of focus. If you step back, the scene becomes flat. Lose-lose situation. So you stop down to f11. At this aperture the hyperfocal distance is 25 feet. Still not close enough. So you stop down further to f16 just to get that foreground and background in sharp focus. But then at this aperture everything will start looking blurry because, you guessed it, diffraction starts to kick in. You will have to sacrifice sharpness with depth of field. Can you feel the frustration now?

So how do you create depth if you can’t separate the foreground from the background without getting one of them out of focus? Well there are other tools that you can use.

Use lead-in lines: http://www.slusarczyk.net/winter/0008.php. The dead tree leads you deep into the scene.

Use frames: http://www.slusarczyk.net/autumn/0150.php. See how the branches frame the main subject which is the flowing creek.

Use contrast and shadows: http://www.slusarczyk.net/autumn/0009.php. Here, the almost-black trees provide a reference point for the brighter leaves in the background. It also uses a different kind of lead-in line by using the base of the tree trunks to form a curve. Here’s another example of shadows and contrast: http://www.slusarczyk.net/winterII/0099.php. See how the silhouette of the trees become a reference point. It creates the illusion that the brighter mountains are farther. The farther the mountain, the brighter they become. Very clever.

Ok enough of the limitations. Let’s discuss where in landscape photography a 50mm might be useful.

It is easier to isolate your subject with a tighter lens. The 50mm is very good at this that is why it is a common lens for portraiture. It simplifies your composition. Simple is good.

You can use a circular polarising filter (CPL) without the fear of having your sky look uneven. Ultrawide lenses are really bad with CPLs. With UWA lenses, you will notice that half of your sky will have perfect blue but the other half is just dull and lifeless.

Your 50mm lens is perfect for panoramic stitching. Shoot in portrait orientation and take 4 to 5 shots sweeping across the scene and stitch for a nice 1×3 panoramic shot. If you shoot with a wide angle lens, you will capture a huge part of the foreground which will not blend easily when stitching. It will also make your final photo look distorted. A 50mm though will be perfect.

This post was not meant to discourage anyone from using the 50mm in landscape photography. As a matter of fact, the examples I provided here showed us that with the right subject and solid technique, the results can be amazing. You will have to think twice though before you decide to bring that lens on your next trip. It can be a good challenge to see what you can do with it.

Good luck!

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