Tag Archives: lens compression

Stranded: a light and lens challenge

How many shots of a stranded boat can you make in 30 minutes?

This was the challenge for me today. I visited Scarborough with no real intention to shoot. I just strolled around trying to finish the roll of Kodak Gold 100 that I loaded in my Nikon FM3A two weeks ago. I also brought my Pentax K5 IIs just in case. It was still too early for a shoot when I arrived but the cloud formations looked like there was a potential for a burst of colours later when the sun sets. And so I went back to the spot where I shot a stranded boat before. That boat’s hull was leaking so there’s no way it’s going anywhere.

I arrived at the spot a bit early. The light was still ugly blue but nevertheless, I fired some test shots using my 10-20 lens. The clouds looked ok so I crouched low and took this frame:

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This is why you never shoot in bad light. It will suck no matter what you do. I was thinking that maybe later I can use the same angle when the sky turns red. I tried landscape orientation to compare:

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The low lying clouds have covered the sun so the light was flat. However, previous experience told me that this could result in sun rays if the clouds would break just a tiny bit. With my ultrawide angle lens, there was no way I’m going to capture both the boat and the sun in such a way that the sun would at least be large enough in the frame to be of significance. So I switched to my trusty, cheap Sigma 17-70mm.

How do you capture a big boat while at the same time make the sun appear larger in the frame? Lens compression. (If you do not understand how lens compression works, please read my article on “Understanding your lens”.) I stepped back about 30 meters away from the boat and zoomed in. By now, the sun was just above the mountains and well below the clouds:

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The shot above was taken at 70mm. At this zoom range, the boat could no longer fit in the frame. How I wish that the boat was turned about 45 degrees and not parallel to the horizon. Not only will the boat fit into the frame but the composition will look a lot better. Anyway, that’s beyond my control so I just shot whatever was available for me at that time. Here I thought that the sun was too bright for this backlit shot. I needed to make it smaller. So I walked towards to boat and shot wide at 17mm:

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So now I’ve got the sun much less intense, I’ve got light falling on the ripples in the sand and I’ve got reflections of the boat as well. But now I was desperate for a different angle. I walked towards the front of the boat for my 45-degree angle and noticed that there were houses and buildings in the background. That will ruin the concept of being stranded so I had to change my angle slightly. I saw the glasshouse mountains very far along the horizon and thought that they can be used as background and so I went for lens compression again but this time making sure that the whole boat fits in the frame. This was what I got after stepping back about 30 meters and zooming in to around 50mm:

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No sun this time but I have mountains for the background. Another advantage of this angle is that I don’t have blown highlights. The light is a bit flat though. Good thing that the clouds added a bit of drama otherwise the shot would have failed miserably. Compare this with the first photo. In the first photo you could barely see the mountains even if you squint. Lens compression does wonders.

Still determined to get the sun in my shot, I tried a weird composition. I positioned the boat to the left of the frame. Still zoomed in from a few meters got me this:

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Now I’ve got the sun plus light reflections on the mud puddle. Not bad, I thought so I tried shooting wider from the same position:

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I have deliberately placed the horizon on the upper thirds to avoid the bright sky that wasn’t covered by the clouds which would otherwise ruin the shot completely. This also allowed me to include more of the ground where rock silhouettes and water reflections add interestingness to the frame. I still find this composition a bit weird because the boat is facing away from the frame.

By now the sun has already dipped below the horizon. I wanted to shoot some more but something different. Who would have thought that mud would look this good?

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With that last shot I decided to call it a day.

A few very important lessons in this experience:

1. Not all landscape shots are wide. Medium telephoto and even telephoto lenses add variety to your shots. You need to understand lens compression to make full use of your (kit) lens.

2. Bad light is bad light.

3. Try backlit shots. They look good.

4. Zoom lenses do not make a lazy photographer. Those who say so are either ignorant or just masochist I-shoot-prime-only-because-they-are-megafast-and-ultra-bokeh pretenders.

There will be a next time…

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Welcome to My Playground


This is the title that I gave to the photograph which I posted in Flickr. I chose the word playground to portray fun and joy. For me, fun should always come first in photography.

But what does it take to capture such a simple photograph?

The main ingredient is light. Photography, afterall, means painting with light. Not just light intensity or brightness but the quality of light as well. In landscape photography, there are two choices: dawn or dusk. Anything in between is just a variation of the word CRAP. Dawn and dusk have different qualities of light. When you are in the east coast and facing east, dawn will give you a warm orange light while dusk gives a cooler magenta glow. If you are in the west, it’s the opposite. Depending on your location or the time of year, you can have both at the same time. The photo below was taken at dawn as well but notice the magenta tint:


Shooting at dawn has several advantages compared to dusk. People are generally too lazy to wake up early which means you have the entire spot all to yourself. No distractions. For those who have day jobs it means you can still shoot during weekdays especially during summer where a typical session ends around 5:30AM. You’ll be home before the rest of your household is awake.

Dusk sessions have advantages as well. You can shoot longer even up until blue hour kicks in and get nice long exposures. Cityscapes look fantastic when artificial lights turn on.

Anyway, let’s concentrate on the first photo. I woke up at around 3:30AM to prepare myself. My friend’s house is still a 20-minute drive to my place where we agreed to meet. While waiting for him, I started putting on my ski gear because it was just 6 degrees outside. I checked the weather report again to make sure that our target location is free of any weather disturbances. If we suspect heavy clouds then we may need to divert to Cedar Creek instead to capture the waterfalls. The day before, I already knew the tide pattern so Point Halloran was the perfect spot. The tide will be high enough to give us some reflections but low enough such that the small boats won’t move. Timing should be perfect. If the tide comes in too quick before sunrise then our plans are ruined.

My friend arrived around 4:20AM. That’s the advantage of shooting in winter. The sun rises at 6:30AM so we didn’t have to wake up that early. During summer we usually start driving at 3:00 AM for a 5:00AM sunrise. Anyway, we left for Point Halloran and arrived at around 5:45AM. Being on location 45 minutes before sunrise is just right. One hour would be ideal so that you can scout the area. Because we were “late”, we had to rush and start shooting whatever subject we could find.

Let’s talk about equipment. A tripod is essential. Don’t leave home without it. A torch is very handy so you can find your way in the dark. I also brought my gummy boots because I know that the location is quite muddy. My trusty Pentax K5 is fully charged with the initial ISO set to 200 and configured to capture RAW plus JPG. I only have one lens: a cheap Sigma 17-70 which you could buy brand new for a little over $300. I had a cheap 0.9 GND filter attached to a knock-off filter holder. Don’t bother using a UV filter; it’s the most useless accessory you could buy for your lens. Use a proper lens cover instead and a lens hood if you are concerned about scratching your lens. Now that I have enumerated my gear, the point is that ANY camera and kit lens will do. There is absolutely no need for expensive gear in landscape photography.

So what did actually happen when I captured this moment? I was taking photos of a boat that was docked along the muddy shore. I was shooting wide at 17mm, aperture set to f16 and manually focused to 7 feet with exposure compensation set to +1. I was about to change position when I saw my friend about 20 meters away taking photos along the edge of the water. I immediately recognized the photo opportunity. I quickly opened my aperture to f11 and zoomed in to 70mm which was the longest my lens could go. It was just long enough to get a nice compression. I also had to raise my tripod to avoid his silhouette from merging with the horizon. I immediately thought about my composition. I had him positioned on the left third of the frame with the silhouette of the shoreline going from the bottom of the frame towards the horizon. The horizon was placed high enough but also making sure that my friend’s reflection is positioned nicely along the lower third of the frame. I then set my camera to autofocus and shifted the focus sensor to point at my friend. This was the quickest way to focus at infinity. Unlike older lenses that lock into infinity, modern (crippled) lenses don’t do this. Instead they focus past infinity and completely ruin your shot. Knowing that it’s going to be a silhouette shot, I dialed exposure compensation down to -0.5 to make the colors pop and darken the darkest blacks. I did one last peek to check my shutter speed and noticed that it wasn’t fast enough. So I shouted at him “Wag kang gumalaw!”, which is Filipino for “Don’t move!”. I pressed the shutter and my timer automatically started the 2-second countdown. Just before the timer expired, the camera flipped the mirror into a lock up position before finally opening the shutter curtain to capture the image. All of these happened in about 15-20 seconds. I chimped to confirm that the camera did what it was supposed to do and told my friend that he can continue whatever he was doing…after thanking him of course for being a cooperative model 🙂

I would like to emphasize the importance of an inexpensive kit lens here. Had I used an ultrawide lens, I would not have been able to capture this shot. Those distant mountains would have disappeared in an ultrawide lens and the horizon would have merged with my subject unless I shot from a very high position. If I brought a prime lens, I may had to swap lenses thus totally missing the opportunity or walked very slowly in the mud towards or away from the subject just to frame him correctly. Your kit lens is good enough for just about anything.

We started packing up at around 7AM with several keepers safely stored in our cameras.

Post processing is easy when you have done the difficult part of capturing the moment. A simple curves adjustment to enhance the contrast was enough. I did not crop at all. This is how it showed up in the LCD. I softened the image a bit to avoid halos along the edges of high contrast portions of the image. This halo effect is an artifact of digital capture. All my digital cameras do this. If you want to avoid this artifact, shoot film.

What do I like about this shot? I like the silhouette figures. The silhouette of the shoreline added depth to an otherwise flattened image that was brought about by the mid telephoto zoom. The main subject of course is shown here in a position typical of landscape photographers; bent over holding a leash to make sure that their cameras don’t run away. The mix of warm colors and cool blue foreground was a welcome surprise. I liked it a lot so I put my stamp of approval on the lower right portion of the frame 🙂

Allow me to summarize this post:

1. Light is everything.
2. Shoot at dawn/sunrise or dusk/sunset. Anything in between is crap unless you have something very special in the frame.
3. Preparation will consume most of your time.
4. You have to think fast and react just as fast. Which means …
5. Know your camera. Pick one that does not get in the way. You should be able to operate it even in complete darkness.
6. You do not need expensive equipment for landscape photography.
7. Laziness will get you nowhere.

For lessons on lens compression and zoom factor please refer to my previous tutorials:

Understanding your lens

Zoom factor

Understanding Your Lens (Part 1)

As promised, I will start this series of tutorials on understanding how lenses work.

This first tutorial is a direct follow up to my previous post on why zoom lenses are better than prime lenses in real life photography. Here I will discuss how to creatively use a zoom lens to change perspective. I decided to tackle this technique first because most beginners do not understand this. I bet even those who claim to shoot with only prime lenses are ignorant about the concept and that is why they quickly dismiss the importance of cheap zoom lenses while boasting the superiority of their f1.2 prime.

In this lesson I will be using my Pentax K5 and my only lens, a Sigma 17-70, which you can get brand new for about $300. For the price, it’s totally worth it. My subject is Thomas the Tank Engine because the rain here in Brisbane is not allowing me to capture proper landscape shots. At any rate, the examples should give you an idea of how we might apply the concepts in real world shooting.

Without further ado, allow me to demonstrate the effects of varying focal lengths and how they affect composition.

Let’s have a look at how a nifty-fifty (50mm) lens might render a scene. Since I am using a camera with APS-C (crop) sensor, I will have to use a focal length of 35mm. This focal length is how your eyes would normally perceive the scenery. It’s what tells you that a particular spot and angle have the potential of creating a nice photograph. This is the perspective that your eyes send to your brain. Here’s the shot:


Apologies for the crappy shot but that is not the point. We could translate this to a real landscape scenario though. A typical theme goes something like this: Assume that Thomas is a huge rock that you have chosen as your foreground and the toy house is a mountain. With a 50mm lens, all you can do now is step foreward, back, left and right to properly position the foreground against the background. The problem here is that given the distance between the rock and the mountain there is not much you can do to change their relative sizes. In the example above, Thomas and the house look like they are of the same size. This makes the shot confusing because the viewer can’t concentrate on one subject. The relative significance of the background house is equivalent to the foreground Thomas. Boring and downright bad. If you only brought your nifty-fifty in this location, you are better off going home than waste your time and disk space.

Cheap zoom lens to the rescue. Supposing that the mountain isn’t really that good. It’s summer so it looks pale and generally uninteresting. However, the foreground rock has got some vibrant green mosses growing and some flowers. Naturally, you would want the foreground to dominate the frame while making sure that the background isn’t distracting. What does a photographer with a zoom lens got to do? Shoot WIDE. Here’s the same scene shot at 17mm:


Not quite a huge rock with flowers but you get the point. Let’s analyze this for a bit. For starters, I did NOT move the subjects at all but just changed the focal length and distance to foreground. Notice that in this shot, the size of Thomas relative to the FRAME, is almost the same as the first shot. But look at what happened to the background. The toy house now seems a lot farther and smaller. The exaggerated perspective created by the wide angle lens makes the foreground appear so much larger than it really is thus shifting the compositional balance to the front. This is the technique used by majority of landscape photographers where they prefer to use ultrawide lenses (12mm or wider) to create this wild perspective that hits you right in the face.

Before I continue, I would like to point out that the use of ultrawide lenses is easily abused by beginners. N00bs think that ultrawides allow them to include everything in the frame. BAD! Had I done that in my example, the frame would now have included pillows, TV, PS3 and cabinets…stuff that distract from the main subject. The main purpose of ultrawides is to allow you to approach your subject.

Back on topic. Now supposing that the situation is the opposite. The mountain is very beautiful. It’s showing wonderful autumn colors. The rock on the foreground however, is just ordinary but significant enough to be used to anchor the composition. The problem is that the mountain is far and a lake is in between your chosen foreground. There’s no way you can approach the mountain without walking several miles. You need to take the shot before the mist fades away. What can you do?

Lens compression to the rescue! Here’s the same setup shot at 70mm:


Again without rearranging the subjects I have managed to bring the background house “closer” and relatively bigger than my foreground. The size of Thomas relative to the FRAME has remained approximately the same and yet the house has now occupied the entire background. The roof has even disappeared from the frame. This is the effect of lens compression. It brings the background closer to the front and larger in the frame. The composition now has made the background significant.

This is the reason why I’m stuck with a general purpose lens. Since I shoot mostly landscape, I don’t really give a damn about wide apertures. Bokeh addiction is for n00bs who just got rid of their point-and-shoot. Take a look at that last shot because that was taken at f11. I could have used f5.6 to make the background disappear in a creamy blur. Ultrawides, on the other hand, have no lens compression at all. And 50mm prime? Limited and boring unless you have an endless supply of subjects to shoot with.

So let’s summarize what was covered:

1. Use a wide angle to emphasize the foreground and increase foreground to background distance.

2. Use longer focal lengths for lens compression to bring the background closer while maintaining the size of your foreground relative to the frame.

As I have said time and again, your cheap zoom lens is good enough for just about anything. I hope you find this post helpful.

Until next time.

Zoom Lens vs Prime Lens

Let me start by apologizing for I will be beating a dead horse that by the time I’m finished with this post it will be FUBAR…until someone else beat it to a pulp.

The reason I’m blogging about this is because another beginner has been victimized again by “experts” persuading n00bs to get a 50mm prime because it is a MUST HAVE lens. This beginner posted in a forum complaining about how tight his 50mm is on an APS-C sensor. Two mistakes have been committed: 1) forcing to buy a 50mm lens, and, 2) using it in a crop sensor camera.

I will say it again: Beginners will learn so much more by using a kit zoom lens than by using a fast prime lens. You can continue reading or find out how awesome your kit lens is right here.

I don’t want to start an argument about the technical advantages of prime lenses over zoom lenses but let me tell you that most of those advantages can be easily accomplished with a kit lens attached to a modern camera. That means any camera you can buy brand new now. What I would like to discuss instead is about taking real photos and not just test charts.

One of the biggest hurdles in photography is that most of the time we do not have control of subjects. You can’t tell a mountain or a tree to move for the perfect composition. All we can do is change position and/or perspective. With a prime lens, forget about changing your perspective. You just can’t. Why then would you limit your learning with a handicapped lens?

Let me expound on perspective and why a 50mm or equivalent lens is a big hindrance. The 50mm has almost the same field of view as human eyes. In other words, boring. No, I’m not saying Henri Cartier-Bresson’s shots are boring. I meant, unless you are as good as HCB, your shots will be boring. For a beginner, that means years and years of learning.

Photographers aim to let others see things that “normal” individuals would usually ignore. That’s why we shoot rusty metal for texture, silhouettes for forms and shapes, light and star trails, and so on. Stuff that ordinary humans do not normally perceive. Changing perspective is a very good technique to achieve this goal. Exaggerated views from ultrawide lenses and the effect of telephoto lens compression will immensely add to your artistic creativity. This is simply impossible with a 50mm prime.

The challenge is for the beginner to recognize the effect of varying focal lengths. It is very easy to just zoom in and out instead of stepping forward and back, a behaviour that pro prime lens users label as being lazy. I prefer to call it lens ignorance which is exacerbated if one restricts himself to a 50mm prime. In my next blog post, I promise to show you how you can maximize the use of your cheap kit lens.

I would like to end this post by addressing a nonsense argument against zoom lenses. Many prime users are quick to point out why those who prefer walkabout zoom lenses are not maximizing their SLR cameras. The argument is that SLRs were made so you could change lenses otherwise buy a point-and-shoot instead. ROFL!!!! We change lenses because the laws of physics won’t allow a sharp, distortion-free 10-500mm f1.4 full frame lens that fits in your pocket. There will always be limitations. A lens can be fast, long or light as long as you choose only two.

Use the most appropriate lens for the job. For beginners, stick to your kit zoom lenses. Stay away from prime lenses until you have decided which focal length suits you the most (hint: check the EXIF data of your shots). A zoom lens, with enough self discipline on your part, will get you there faster and let you take more interesting shots along the way.