Experimenting with constructed landscapes Stephen Robinson uses Leica cameras for his panoramic views of Africa

The landscape photographers’ job is to capture a sense of ‘being there’ in their pictures – they use their craft to try to get something of the reality of a 3-dimensional scene, into a 2-dimensional picture. It’s a big challenge.

The view angle and perspective of a 35mm lens approximates (roughly) to the angle and perspective of the human eye’s view. So the 35mm is often referred to as being the most ‘natural’ landscape lens in terms of view angle, width, depth and perspective – it gives a result that looks about the same as that seen by the human eye.

For a greater sense of being there, the photographer will often want to bring something of the peripheral areas into the frame – those areas that the eye senses but which are outside the acceptably sharp area of our eye’s view. This demands a wider angle of view and therefore a wider lens, for example an 18mm. But the depth or ‘apparent perspective’ pictured by the 18mm lens will make the background of the shot look very much further away from the viewer, taking the viewer ‘out’ of the landscape. The 18mm lens will give the width required but it will no longer picture the depth that was experienced by the human eye.

This is a limitation usually experienced by even novice photographers when they first try to make a wide landscape of that spectacular scene and its ‘moment’. The result is just not as they ‘saw’ the scene. It’s a disappointment. They captured the width of the picture but the middle and far distance elements are rendered apparently much smaller and ‘further away’ than the real-life scene.

I’ve been experimenting on how to use the exceptional qualities of the LEICA M lenses to try to render more of the 3-dimensional ‘reality’ of being there.

The story so far:

For the last 12 years or so, I’ve worked on a personal landscape project called ‘Spirit of the Land’ which uses panoramic photography to document Africa’s remote and stunning, but fast-disappearing, natural environment ( www.spirit-of-the-land.com ). This work seeks to show the immense scale of the African landscape and how small and insignificant it can make us feel.

Of course, when our eyes take in a scene, we quite naturally look left and right, beyond the confines of the usual photographic frame, to explore and take in the panoramic nature of the scene, including the peripheral areas of our vision. I think this is very much part of our experience of being present in the landscape.

For many, the term ‘panoramic photograph’ has come to mean two or more standard format (35mm or DSLR) frames ‘stitched’ together. But this results in the 3-dimensional, ‘wrap around’ landscape being unrolled and flattened-out into very much a 2-dimensional picture, with consequent loss of depth and loss of the true experience of being present in the landscape.

So I chose to use a panoramic, medium format film camera for the project. The idea was that this wide-framed format, used with wide angle and ultra-wide angle lenses, would bring the human eye’s peripheral vision into the photographed view – to portray more of the scale of the landscape, and more of the feeling of ‘being there’.

But would it work?

With this approach, the panoramic wide format enhanced the compositional use of the essential landscape photo techniques, such as camera position, focal length, perspective, and foreground elements. It seemed to work quite well, by enhancing the ‘being there’ effect, at least to some extent.

But for those ‘big’ Africa landscapes, I wanted more of the ‘being there’ feeling. I wanted to portray the often vast scale of the scenes. It was clear that the old adage “if the photograph doesn’t work, you’re not close enough”, was often still the case. The viewer was still being distanced from the real-life landscape experience.

So the next questions were: how can we retain the panoramic, wide view, without distancing the viewer from the middle-distance and far-distance elements? How can we get the wide view from within, and up-close to, the landscape – and hence show the real-life, “big picture” scale and drama of the scene?

So I began to experiment with making multiple, overlapping exposures of the landscapes, each one a shot of a just a small part of the pre-mapped scene. Then I combined these into one frame in a ‘reconstruction’ of the landscape – not as the wide lens would record it, but as the human eye saw and experienced it. Each scene would consist of several frames (sometimes many frames), which would then be put through a lengthy process to rebuild the scene as the eye saw it. I found that, when doing the camera work, it was necessary to think in three dimensions, rather than in two dimensions, always looking to use any foreground elements in the peripheral areas, to bring depth and scale into all parts of the finished frame.

Such techniques are of course not new to photography, and they were used well before the advent of our digital age (which I prefer to call ‘the age of instant gratification’). Digital just makes for a more controlled process, and a continuously available preview of the likely result.

The nature and urban landscapes here are examples from my experiments with this technique, using two of the LEICA M ‘ASPH’ (aspherical) lenses. Some are more successful than others – it takes quite a lot of practice & time (and some of that craft) to capture & construct them correctly.

The second part of this feature (to follow) will show some examples of my attempts to use the technique in commercial work for industrial & mining clients. I knew they wanted the size and scale of their often huge projects and investments captured with maximum impact – in one big, wide photograph, rather than in a series of 35mm frames. But would it work?

About Stephen:

Stephen Robinson is a professional photographer operating from his Zambia base. He makes his living doing assignment photography for commercial, mining, agricultural, environmental project and donor aid project clients. For more information see:

‘Spirit of the Land’ project website a project using panoramic photography of the remote landscape of Africa

http://www.spirit-of-the-land.com

WILDFOTOAfrica website – stock, portfolio, art photography work plus commercial work.

PhotoMails – an occasional online photo-journal which publishes short photo-features on a wide variety of subjects.

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3 comments

  • Fantastic photos. Closing my eyes I seem to live inside the photos. I can see the trees, the animals, the river water, walk on the wharf or in the town. These photos speak with the language of reality, of the heart.

  • Great shots really giving you a feeling of being there.
    Just off with my Leica M and 35mm to experiment myself!

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