It’s a Wide, Wonderful World

Gary Hart Photography: Cascade, Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon

Cascade, Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon
Sony 𝛂1
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/4 second
F/16
ISO 100

I used to consider my 16-35 lens ultra-wide (by many definitions, it is), and as such, all the focal width I needed—the difference between 12mm and 16mm didn’t seem enough to justify another lens. I photographed in blissful ignorance until 2015, when, on a spring morning in Yosemite, I borrowed a friend’s Canon 11-24 lens. With the help of my Metabones adapter, I mounted the lens to my Sony a7RII and peered into the viewfinder toward a familiar scene that I’d only known through my 16-35 lens. The scene that greeted me had instantly transformed into something I’d never imagined possible. Suddenly I could capture everything rather than having to decide what to exclude.

The epiphany that there is indeed a significant difference between 16mm and 12mm caused me to briefly entertain the idea of buying (and adapting) my own Canon 11-24 lens. But that lens’s extreme bulk, that was matched only by its extreme price tag, quickly cured me of that urge. My reward for passing on the Canon lens came two years later, when Sony announced the 12-24 f/4 G lens that was less than half the weight, almost half the price, and just as sharp. A couple of years later Sony added a 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens, even sharper than its predecessor, while still faster, smaller, and (a little) cheaper than its Canon counterpart.

So of course I now own both (because I couldn’t bring myself to part with the G when I got the GM). Now my primary Sony 12-24 is the GM lens, but I don’t hesitate to use the G version when ounces matter, such as on my Grand Canyon raft trip, or when I’ll be doing significant hiking. (I also bring it to my Yosemite workshops to loan to Sony shooters at some of the spots that beg for 12mm.)

While I don’t use my 12-24 lenses as much as I use my 24-105 or 16-35 lenses, that focal range has become such an important part of my creative workflow in the field that I can’t imagine not having one with me at all times. Not only does a 12-24 provide greater compositional flexibility, I feel like it’s upped my creative game too.

But, to paraphrase Spider-Man (okay, so actually it was his Uncle Ben), with great power comes a steep learning curve. Despite the fact that wide angle is the reflex response to most landscapes by virtually every tourist who picks up a camera, I quickly discovered that good ultra-wide photography is not easy. From shrunken backgrounds to skewed verticals, wide angle lenses pose problems that magnify as the focal length widens. Fortunately, these problems can be turned to opportunities when they’re fully understood. With that in mind, here are a few insights that might help:

  • Put something in your close foreground. I can’t emphasize this too much. Some of my wide angle images put the primary subject front and center, but when the background scene is my main subject, I try to find something of visual interest for my foreground. Browse the gallery at the bottom of this post and note how many images have an empty foreground (Hint: Not very many). Sometimes I’m able to include something as striking as a mirror reflection or colorful leaves, but often my wide angle foregrounds are as simple as a rock or shrub. If there’s nothing at my feet and I need to find something a little farther away, at the very least I want the foreground of my wide image to be filled with features worthy of the space they occupy.

  • In a rectilinear lens (which most wide lenses are), parallel lines will be rendered straight only if the camera is level. To confirm, try this: Mount an ultra-wide lens (whatever your widest lens is) on your camera, point it at a row of nearby trees, and slowly tilt the camera up and down while looking through your viewfinder. Note how the trees straighten as the camera approaches level, and increasingly skew the more the camera tilts. For example, the two images below were captured the same day using 12mm with the same 12-24 f/4 G lens—see how straight the trees are in the El Capitan image compared to the Yosemite Falls image? In other words, when you see extreme tilt in an ultra-wide lens, blame (or credit) the photographer, not the lens.

  • Take advantage of the extreme depth of field wide angle provides. For example, at 12mm and f/11, the hyperfocal distance is 18 inches (focus 18 inches away and everything from 9 inches to infinity will be acceptably sharp). Stop down to f/16 and the hyperfocal distance is 12 inches (acceptably sharp from 6 inches to infinity). While hyperfocal focusing in today’s age of extreme resolution is a little more nuanced than that, the point is, you can get really close to your subjects and be sharp from front to back. Read more about hyperfocal focusing.

About this image

My annual Grand Canyon raft trip has so many mind-blowing sights that I really can’t give you a favorite—the best I can do is offer an unranked list of favorites. I’ve already shared images from last month’s trip of two on that list (Little Colorado River and Elves Chasm), so today I’m sharing a third: Deer Creek Fall.

Deer Creek Fall is visible from the Colorado River and far from a secret, but my guides and I have become pretty good at getting it to ourselves, and this year we succeeded wonderfully. While about half the group embarked on the short (1/2 mile) but steep (!) hike to the slot canyon above the fall and the beautiful “patio” area beyond, I stayed behind to photograph a rainbow at the bottom of the fall, and to wait for the light to improve. Since you can walk right up to this 150 fall (and under it if you’re adventurous), I immediately reached for my Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens and attached it to my Sony α1.

Starting at the fringe of the pool beneath the fall, I played with a variety of compositions before eventually clambering down into this little cascade about 30 feet downstream. And when I say into, I really do mean in-to—to get close enough and align the cascade with the fall, I had to stand in about 18 inches of rushing water with my tripod splayed in three directions—two legs nearly horizontal and planted on opposite sides of the creek, and one leg pressed against a submerged rock. To use my viewfinder, I had to drop down and sit on a rock with my legs in the creek above my knees. While I wasn’t any any personal danger, I was very aware of the precarious position I’d put my (brand new) camera in and the potential for it to get swept downstream.

Once I had the general setup stabilized, I did my standard click-evaluate-refine cycle, gradually inching closer until the cascade was less than 2 feet away. With each adjustment I found myself dropping lowerSettling on a composition I liked, I focused on the rocks and played with a variety shutter speeds. You might get an idea of how close I was, and how fast the water was moving, when you realize that this was captured at 1/4 second.

Join me for next year’s Grand Canyon raft trip

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Going Wide

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

 

2 Comments on “It’s a Wide, Wonderful World

  1. Gary

    This is a beautiful image that really shows the power of the 12-24mm lens! It was worth your getting wet to capture it. Take care, Mark

    Mark D. Leibowitz (858) 204-5929 (cell) Mark.D.Leibowitz@gmail.com

    >

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