Long Shot

Gary Hart Photography: Aspen, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Sony 𝛂1
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 400
f/5.6
1/30 second

Imagine you have a guitar and want to make music your career. Since Eric Clapton is your favorite artist, and “Let It Rain” is your favorite song, you you work hard until you can play it perfectly. But wait—before you move on to “Layla,” let me suggest that your best path to musical fame and fortune is not to replicate the works others, no matter how great they are. (Also, there’s a reason Duane Allman isn’t answering your calls.)

Using Eric Clapton as a model for your music is fine—the more you listen to Clapton, the more your guitar playing will be influenced by his creativity and craftsmanship. But at some point you need to choose between carving your own musical path, or languishing as a cover artist.

Make the world your own

The same applies to photography. In my photo workshops I encounter many people who have travelled great distances to duplicate a photo they’ve seen online, in a book, or in a print somewhere. I certainly understand the desire to create your own version of something beautiful, and I can’t say that my portfolio doesn’t contain its share of photography clichés—but, and I can’t emphasize this too strongly, if you must photograph something exactly as it’s been photographed before, make that recreation is your starting point, not your ultimate goal.

Once you’ve captured your “icon” (that word is a cliché itself) shot, take a breath and spend a little more time with your scene. Identify what draws your eye and ways to emphasize it. Look for alternate foreground and background possibilities (move around), seek unique perspectives (move around some more), tweak your exposure variables to experiment with depth and motion. If your first inclination was to shoot horizontal, try vertical, and vice versa.

It also helps to remove your camera from the tripod and pan slowly, zooming in and out as you go until something stops you (don’t forget to return to the tripod before clicking). Even if nothing immediately jumps out, I promise that the simple act of slowing down and spending time with a scene will reveal overlooked secrets that might spur further creativity.

Going long

One of the easiest ways to stretch your style is taking lens choice off autopilot. The expansiveness of most landscape scenes almost begs for a wide angle lens that includes it all, but if your goal is to create something rather than covering what’s already been done, consider a telephoto lens for your landscapes.

I sometimes catch myself automatically reaching for a wide lens, only going to a telephoto when I see a specific composition that requires one. But I’ve learned that those times when I’m struggling to find a shot, the easiest way to reset my creative instincts in the field is often to simply view the scene through a telephoto lens, just to see what my wide-angle bias might be missing.

If telephoto vision doesn’t come naturally to you in the field, you can train your eye in the comfort of your own home by opening any wide angle image in Photoshop (or your photo editor of choice), setting the crop tool to 2/3 aspect ratio (to match what you see in your viewfinder), and see how many new compositions you can find. (I’m not suggesting that you shoot everything wide and crop later—this crop tool suggestion is simply a method to train your eye.) But whether you do it in the field, or later in Photoshop, once your eye gets used to seeing in telephoto, you’ll find virtually every scene you photograph has telephoto possibilities you never imagined were there.

Still not convinced? In addition to providing a fresh perspective, telephoto lenses offer undeniable, tangible advantages in landscape photography:

  • Bigger subject: Bigger isn’t always better, but there’s often no more effective way to emphasize your subject than to magnify it in your frame.
  • Isolate: By zooming closer, you can banish distractions and unwanted objects to the world outside the frame, distilling the scene to its most essential elements.
  • Highlight the less obvious: Sometimes a scene’s compelling, but more subtle, qualities are overwhelmed by the cacophony of dramatic qualities that drew you in the first place. By all means, shoot the grand drama that drew you, but take the time to discover the smaller stuff that’s there.
  • Selective focus: The longer your focal length, the shallower your depth of field. One of my favorite ways to emphasize a subject that might otherwise be overlooked is to render it as the only sharp object surrounded by a sea of soft color and shape.

About this image

I love aspen. Not only are they beautiful trees, they’re fascinating subjects. For example, did you know that a stand of aspen is actually a single organism connected by one common, extensive root system? In other words, each trunk that we identify as an individual tree is in fact part of (and genetically identical to) every tree surrounding it.

A single aspen stand (known, appropriately enough, as a “clone” of aspen), can be tens of thousands of years old. The oldest and largest aspen clone, in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, is the oldest, largest living organism on Earth (much older and larger than any of the far more heralded bristlecone or sequoia trees).

Gary Hart Photography: Aspen Carpet, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen Carpet, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra (2021)

On last year’s visit to Lundy Canyon, I went exploring the aspen clone on the trail to Lake Helen with my Sony 12-24 GM, seeking to capture the sturdy trunks emerging from a gold-carpeted forest floor (image on the right).

This year, looking for something different, I went at this same aspen clone with my Sony 100-400 GM lens (on my Sony α1), trying first to isolate a single leaf against the colorful background. After a few unsatisfying attempts, I turned my attention to the aspen trunks, looking for a way to emphasize their stark whiteness, papery texture, and protruding knots.

It took a while, but I finally found a tree that offered the combination of separation and background I was looking for. There was nothing especially distinctive about the tree I found, but it displayed a healthy white bark, a prominent knot to anchor my frame, and was separated enough from the surrounding trees that I could get it perfectly sharp, while significantly softening its neighbors.

I started with vertical compositions, but as soon as I switched to horizontal I knew that’s how I wanted to handle this scene. With that determined, I spent the rest of my time making micro-adjustments to my position and focal length, looking for the perspective and framing that gave me the absolute minimum merging of trunks. I also experimented with a variety of focal lengths and f-stops before deciding that I liked the absolute softest background best. I shot the image I share today at nearly 400mm and f/5.6 (wide open).

While I started this post writing about creating unique images, I know I’m not the first person to photograph aspen like this. (Nor do I mean to imply that I’m the Eric Clapton of landscape photography.) But I do feel it’s important for all photographers, myself included, to constantly seek fresh takes on old subjects by pursuing the qualities that move them, and experimenting with new ways to reveal them.

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Long Shots

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4 Comments on “Long Shot

  1. Excellent article and food for thought Gary. Except for the little Sony RX100VI (great camera) I have, I’ve switched to Canon R series mirrorless bodies and RF lenses. My odometer rolled over to 81 yesterday and I find the RF 24-240 to be my lens of choice these days because the lens does the zooming rather than my feet. You have the unique gift of making us think and see things from a different perspective and I’ll keep this article in mind in the future.

    • Thank you, Kent. Yeah, the RX-100 is a fantastic camera. But so are the Canon R cameras. I love Sony and can’t see myself ever switching, but I think if Canon had something as good as R series back in 2014, I never would have found out how much I love Sony.

  2. Gary, well written and good advice. We are emerging from a period of ground level UWA landscape imaging which took off with the development of modern lenses of this type but has now, to me, become cliche and a bit boring. Using a telephoto effectively is a different skill to develop. It’s hindered by the weight and bulk of many of these lenses. I am using the Tamron 2.8/70-180 which is hardly heavier than my 4/24-105 and also does 1:2 closeup at 70mm. I have owned and sold a Sony 4/70-200 (used on an a6500 so reaching equivalent of FF 300mm), Sony 100-400 GM, and a the Tamron 150-500. All are too big for me to tote. With the 61mp sensor a 180mm can easily be cropped to equivalent fov of a 300mm (and still shoot at f/2.8). Beyond this reach my choice is the Sony RX10iv shooting at f4, which for daytime photography suffices.

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