PSA Competition Discussion #6

For this picture, I’m going to deal with a hypothetical question. How would the image change if it had been shot with a longer focal length lens? In other words, what would have looked different if the photographer had used a zoom lens, say in the 200-300mm range, instead of the 34mm (35mm equivalent) that was, in fact, used for this picture?

These are the judges comments for John’s photograph “Paintbrush in the Park.”

Picture as submitted…

Edited for discussion….

My comments:

Well, first of all, with a longer zoom lens he wouldn’t have been able to capture as much of the fence right in front of him, or been able to focus on it very well. That’s one advantage of a wide-angle lens… it brings much more of the foreground and background into the frame, and with greater depth-of-field (range of focus front to back) too. But there are trade-offs with a wide angle lens. It makes the more distant elements look smaller. In this case, the fence appears right in your face, but the mountains seem to recede almost imperceptibly into the background. And that’s the aspect of this picture that troubles me. The picture is framed strongly by the fence in the foreground but the background sort of wanders off into nothingness. The sky takes up half the space of the picture, but the clouds too, like the mountains, feel like a faraway thing.

The solution for the mountains is to use a longer focal length lens. The effect of which is to compress the scene and bring the background and foreground closer together, where the viewer feels immersed in both. Unfortunately, as I stated in the first part of this critique, a longer zoom lens isn’t gonna be able to capture the fence as it appears in this picture. I’m merely suggesting that we consider our options and the impact that a choice of lenses has on our picture. Standing and looking at this scene, the possibilities for composition are numerous. As one alternative, we could stand back a little further away from the fence and use a longer focal length lens, in order to compress the background and foreground. Again, it’s a trade off… the fence would not appear like you were standing right on top of it, but the mountains would be a stronger element in the picture.

And there’s always the Photoshop solution, which enables the photographer to pick up where the capability of the camera leaves off. It’s a great way of merging a couple of pictures that take the best of both. The reworked image here shows how that can solve the near-far problem of the original.

Keep in mind, too, that clouds are a critical element of every landscape picture that includes a sky. If half the frame is taken up with sky, fill it with dramatic clouds… or, if they’re not there and you don’t believe in Photoshop cheating, then minimize the amount of space in the picture allocated to your sky. Make sure that your clouds contain detail in the large majority of them. In this case, there are too many vast expanses of what are called blown-out-highlights, or pure white areas of the clouds. This, too, is another subject where trade-offs may be required. If exposing properly for the darker shadow areas such as the fence post, the brighter highlights in the clouds are going to lose detail. If choosing a faster shutter speed, the clouds will look great, but the fence and other shadow areas are going to lose detail.

A few solutions: Buy yourself a graduated neutral density filter, which darkens the sky without impacting the foreground. Some photographers also buy a lens attachment for holding the filter. When I’m in a hurry, I just hold it with my hand in front of the lens. Another option is to hope for a passing cloud between the sun and your subject to diffuse some of the harsh light that causes unmanageable contrast and blown out highlights. It’s amazing how quickly clouds move through the mountains, and simply waiting a few minutes can change the lighting enough to create a perfect exposure. Sometimes just the structure of the clouds themselves solve the problem. The ones I placed into your picture are from a sunny day, but there are fewer washed out bright areas. The last option is to combine multiple exposures in Photoshop.

Lastly, I rotated the picture slightly, using the back row of flowers as my “horizon,” and planted a few flowers below the fence, both of which strengthen the right side of the picture. The center of the picture is typically the easiest to compose… it’s the perimeter of the frame, and especially the corners, that we often neglect in our composition.

Ed Kunzelman

6 responses on “PSA Competition Discussion #6

  1. Randy Smith

    I need to be careful what I say. I don’t want the masked man with a gun to come after me. He looked very dubious.

    I agree with Ed, if John had used a telephoto lens he would not have been able to get the fence, wildflowers and mountains in focus with one shot. There just wouldn’t have been enough depth of field. The fence has good clarity and he would have given this up if he had used a telephoto lens and got the flowers and mountains in focus. However, this scene might have been a good candidate for a long focal length lens and focus stacking, the taking of multi-photos with different focus points and merging the photos together into one.

    Using a longer focal length lens would have compressed the scene by a lot. In the edited version you didn’t loose any flowers in the width, which is good. It shows how vast the paintbrush were. The added flowers under the fence also looks nice. However, I don’t know that you would have been able to keep the width (showing all the paintbrush) using a telephoto lens, while bringing the mountains up close? Bring the mountains up close would require giving up some width.

    In the edited picture, I like the mountains being closer and raised higher in the scene. The lifted mountains also adds to the scene, as well as the blue sky and larger clouds. Of course, John may have needed to wait there for several months to get the clouds Ed put in the scene. The inserted billowing clouds are impressive though, with their color and diagonal line. Removing the top third of the original pic helped, and changed the location of the horizon.

    Well, I have rambled on so much that I almost forgot the original question, would a telephoto lens have helped the photo by bring the mountains closer? Yes, especially if you focus stack.

    I drove all over creation last year looking looking for some good paintbrush and didn’t find diddly squat. This is a neat scene, good job.

    John, if you liked what I said, my name is Randy Smith, If not, my name is Bob Peterson!

  2. John Truzinski

    The discussion Ed provided was very detailed, thoughtful and articulate. I agree with with his assessment of the picture and fortunate he was able to expertly use Photoshop and his knowledge to show the desired results. I am no such expert, and would not have been able to make these adjustments. Unfortunately that was the only lens with me on that trip, one my wife and I have been making through South Park every year for the last 30+ years. Never before or since have there ever been any Indian Paintbrush in such quantity, if at all. We both loved the fence in the picture because of the detail and the rustic appeal it has, glad you chose to leave it in. This area of South Park is relatively unchanged, can you picture herds of thousands of Buffalo where there are now Paintbrush. Adding a few flowers under the crossbeam was totally unexpected, and added some movement to the picture. Bringing the background closer works well , as does shrinking the sky and adding new clouds. Although if I sell the picture now do you get part of the royalties? My wife said that now I needed to start a “cloud” file. Again loved your remarks and I feel I am gaining ground as a photographer. To Randy/Bob, thanks for the advice, we all know that clouds can certainly add to the interest of a photograph, John Truzinski

  3. Edward Kunzelman Post author

    John: You expressed appreciation for my not removing the fence in my edit of your picture. I feel like I need to elaborate on my guiding “principles” for cropping another person’s picture. I only do it where the deleted area adds nothing to the picture, or in cases where there are elements (typically around the perimeter and corners) that the photographer may not have seen, or do not appear to complement the subject in any way. I would never crop or make a judgement about the value of an element in the picture which appears to be the reason for the picture. The third judge said as much by declaring the fence to be not very interesting, labeling it a distraction, and implying that cropping it out of the picture would be a grand idea. That edit then becomes the view of the critic, rather than the view of the photographer… and that is a terrible critique. I made the decision that you deliberately included the fence (not exactly rocket science given its prominence in the picture, although Lu would surely claim that I could be standing that close to something and not notice it), and therefore all edits should only be made to enhance what I think is your intent. If someone thinks it’s boring, that’s their problem… not one for which you should turn your picture inside out. – Ed

  4. Bob Peterson

    Awesome comments Ed and Randy. I will need to read and re-read the comments and edits in order to have more take aways. It is a great photo John. I do think the old tire tracks provides nice leading line to the background mountains or maybe to just disapear in the field of flowers. Ed, thank you again. Randy, thank you for your humor.

  5. Dawn

    I love this field of flowers, fence post or not, I think I can see the landscape, flowers and mountains are the subject, contrary to our judge Comments. This looks like a great shot for a huge 1000 piece puzzle. Nice shot!

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