Distraction Subtraction

Gary Hart Photography: Iceberg in Fog, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

Iceberg in Fog, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland
Sony a7R V
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 200
1/6 second

Gary Hart Photography: Wonderland, Golden Circle, Iceland

Wonderland, Golden Circle, Iceland

Last week’s blog image was an ultra-wide scene chockfull of beauty, ranging from nearby frosted trees and shrubs, to a sky filled with sunset pink clouds, topped with a small dot of moon. It took a bit of work, but I was eventually able to find the position and framing that allowed me to assemble these diverse elements into something coherent.

But because nature doesn’t really care about what we want, photographers frequently must deal with objects we really don’t want or need in our images, or simply can’t make work together. So making a good photo can be as much about what you leave out as it is about what you put in.

Fortunately, we have an array of techniques for subtracting these unwanted elements. One method is careful control of the exposure variables (shutter speed, ISO, and aperture) to disguise or eliminate distracting detail. For example, we can use a long shutter speed to smooth choppy water, a large aperture to soften a busy background, or a silhouette to cloak distractions in black shadow.

But I think the simplest form of distraction subtraction is compositional cropping—shrinking the frame until only the most necessary elements remain. And because nothing shrinks the world better than a long focal length, I rarely leave home without a telephoto zoom—telephoto for shrinking the world, zoom for realtime selective framing.

My midrange zoom lens used to be a 24-70, but I replaced it many years ago with a 24-105. Though 70mm is technically telephoto, I don’t really feel like I’m approaching anything remotely telephoto until I get up to around 100mm. But once i do, I’m actually surprised by how much I appreciate that extra 35mm for the ability to refine my frame it provides. Today I  shudder to think about how many images I left unclicked in my 24-70 days, simply because I didn’t take the time to switch to a longer lens when I reached 70mm. (I like to rationalize that I wasn’t really being lazy, I just had failed to discover compositions that would have been obvious had I zoomed a little tighter—it’s likely a little of both.)

For years my fulltime (in my bag at all times) long zoom lens was a 70-200. But after switching to the more compact Sony Alpha mirrorless system, I suddenly had enough room in my bag for something longer. As soon as it was released, Sony’s 100-400 GM lens, while far from tiny, immediately replaced my 70-200. Despite the extra bulk, I find its size manageable enough given the extra focal range control it offers.

I got a firsthand taste of that appreciation in Iceland last month. When Don Smith and I took our workshop groups to Glacier Lagoon, we were surprised to discover far more lagoon than glacier. Normally, large pieces of ice calve from Jökulsárlón Glacier frequently enough to keep the lagoon liberally stocked with floating chunks of ice in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. But prolonged extreme cold in Iceland this year preempted this calving process. There was so little ice, in fact, that the first group didn’t even bother photographing here.

The second group arrived to find the lagoon engulfed in dense fog. There was still not much ice, but through the fog we could see enough floating icebergs on the lagoon’s far side, plus a handful more of small ones a little closer, to photograph. My eye was instantly drawn to the largest, and most distant, iceberg, attracted by its size, shape, and color, plus the way its dazzling blue shimmered atop the relatively calm water.

Without hesitation I reached for my Sony a7R V and Sony 100-400 f/5.6 GM lens. Not only did this long telephoto enable me to nearly fill my frame with the iceberg and its reflection, by zooming out close to 400mm and framing carefully, I was also able to banish a number of small, black birds (that would have mimicked sensor dust in my image), several photobombing indistinct blobs of ice bobbing closer to my camera, and a couple of larger neighboring icebergs I didn’t want sharing the stage with my subject. Tight framing also eliminated most of the bland gray sky and water, keeping only enough to provide contrast for my subject.

One final tip for telephoto landscapes

Because the field of view can be radically different from what my eyes see, when using a telephoto lens, I find it especially helpful to slowly pan the scene with my eye to the view finder until something stops me.

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Telephoto Landscapes

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