A Matter of Perspective

Nature photographer Tim Fitzharris exposes the secrets of using three-dimensional effects to enhance landscape photography.



Photographer Tim Fitzharris is best known for his luminous nature pictures, which have appeared in more than 100 one-man calendars, in magazines including Audubon and Life, and in dozens of photography books. Readers of Popular Photography & Imaging also know him for his monthly column on nature photography in the magazine. Fitzharris's latest book, National Audubon Society Guide to Landscape Photography (Firefly Books, $25), is a creative collaboration with his wife, Joy. Crammed with insightful tips on creating landscape pictures, written in a straightforward style with minimal jargon, the book also showcases more than 100 of Fitzharris's eye-catching landscape photographs, complete with informative captions about how the images were made. What follows is an excerpt of Fitzharris's new book: a chapter about the importance of perspective in landscape imagery. (For more on the photographer, visit www.timfitzharris.com; for more about the Audubon Society, go to www.audubon.org.) -- Jack Crager

Expressing Perspective: Techniques for Recording the Third Dimension

The portrayal of depth is often the primary attraction of a landscape photograph. To express the third dimension convincingly, you need to capture and arrange the features of a scene in a way that best projects their spatial qualities, keeping in mind that we see the world differently than does a camera. Not only do our two eyes work in stereoscopic view, but we move about, crane our necks and reappraise the scene from different angles to gain a better appreciation of depth and scale. By contrast, the still camera is afforded but a single, static view. To bridge this optical gap, we need to emphasize the cues in the landscape that express depth.

Size Cues: The relative size of landscape features is one of the most obvious cues in conveying the depth of a scene. Objects that are close appear larger than those that are far. Utilizing this cue is first a matter of incorporating familiar features in your composition that are similar in size, or at least are perceived to be so by the viewer, and then positioning the camera so that they are presented on film in differing proportions. Such components include trees, shrubs, wildflowers and animals of the same species. The ideal placement of the camera shows such size cues arranged at intervals on a diagonal plane or some variation of it (e.g., an S curve).

There are other less common but equally powerful size cues to which you should be sensitive. When cumulus clouds dapple the sky, they become smaller as they near the horizon. Sand ripples, caked mud flats and ocean waves can all be used to present a uniform pattern of decreasing size cues. From an appropriate camera angle, rivers, streams, sand dune ripples and fallen logs all exhibit the "railroad track" phenomenon -- the convergence of parallel lines toward a vanishing point (a variation on the size cue perspective effect).

Angles of View: Lens focal length generates a powerful perspective effect. By emphasizing the differences in size cues, wide-angle lenses increase the perceived distance between elements in the composition and promote a feeling of deep space. Telephoto lenses achieve the opposite effect by compressing the distance between elements in the scene. To accentuate these extreme effects you should position the camera as close as possible to the nearest size cue in the composition. You normally will need to shoot at f/16, or smaller, to achieve satisfactory depth of field. Much of the time, you will be working in concert with other design prerogatives at some compromise distance.

Angling for Depth: Because the eyes of a standing human are some 5 or 6 feet (2 meters) above the ground, landscape features that are close to us are positioned lower in our field of view than those more distant (clouds excepted). For a maximum three-dimensional effect, you should set up at about a 45-degree angle (above the horizontal) on the first size cue in the composition. Use a focal length wide enough to include at least the horizon and a bit of sky. If you place the camera too low, you will lose visual exposure of the spaces between size cues; if you set up too high you will lose the horizon and the familiar eye-level configuration of the size cue. Either position results in a flattening of the scene.

You also need to position the camera horizontally so that the number of size cues portrayed is maximized and cues are kept separated and distinct. This step may require you to move the camera forward or backward as well as sideways. In most situations you should set depth of field to include both the closest size cue and features on the horizon (usually infinity). Setting camera position is normally a trial-and-error procedure exercised until the most effective design is achieved based on interrelated factors of color, light and subject matter as well as the desired perspective effect.

Controlling Overlap: Another useful perspective tool that needs skillful handling is overlapping. Precise lateral and vertical placement of the camera is usually needed for this strategy to work effectively, especially when utilized with smaller landscape features such as trees or rocks. Such elements are often so similar that they blend together in a muddle not readily distinguished by the viewer. To avoid confusion, try to overlap only simple areas of contrasting color, line direction, brightness or shape (horizontal limbs crossing vertical trunks, for example). The most effective use of overlapping can be done with intersecting landscape planes. Such situations are encountered in hilly or mountainous terrain. Try to frame areas where there is a confluence of interesting contour outlines running in opposing diagonal directions. Topographies lit from the side or back, or photographed in early morning, when mist hangs in low-lying areas, will show the most definition between planes and the most overlapping.

Sidelight for Volume: Landscapes illuminated from the side exhibit shapes whose surfaces and contours are well distinguished by areas of highlight and shadow. This makes it easy for the viewer to compare and identify important size cues and other spatial relationships within the scene. The overlapping of objects or planes is emphasized and clarified because the shadow portion of one is set against the highlight portion of another. The earlier in the day you shoot, the greater the effect. To flatten perspective and achieve an impression that is somewhat surreal, shoot early or late in the day with the sun directly behind you for full frontal illumination.

Hazy Days (Atmospherics): Due to particles suspended in the atmosphere, close objects appear more detailed than those further away. Aerial perspective is commonly encountered as fog, mist, snow, dust and haze. When shooting in these moody conditions, you will encounter varied opportunities on the periphery of the atmospheric phenomenon (edge of storms, cloud banks) where you can modulate the effect by changing position or waiting for a change or movement of the weather pattern.

Dimensional Ironies: An interesting ways of dealing with perspective is to combine contradictory spatial cues for ironic effect. You can interpret an assembly of haze-rimmed, overlapping foothills by shooting with a space-compressing telephoto or, conversely, use a wide-angle lens to record a featureless stretch of still water punctuated by a single island.

Six Planes: When scouting for deep-perspective scenes, I look for landforms exhibiting five distinct planes. Ordered from near to far, they are as follows. The foreground plane features interesting landscape details that set the scale for the composition; the mid-plane contains well-defined size cues that lead the eye into the picture; the feature plane shows the center of interest -- usually a dramatic landform; the cloud plane is ideally a puffy collection of cumulus or nimbus, and the sky plane comprises the final backdrop in pure shades of blue, rose, peach or amber, depending on the time of day. Sometimes a sixth plane (the horizon plane) spreads itself behind the feature plane. I try to record each plane as clearly and forcefully as possible.

Excerpted from National Audubon Sciety Guide to Landscape Photography by Tim Fitzharris, published by Firefly Books. Text copyright 2007 Tim Fitzharris, courtesy the author.