My screwy theory of photographing the grandeur of the skies

Discussion in 'The Watering Hole' started by Jock Elliott, Dec 31, 2014.

  1. Jock Elliott

    Jock Elliott All-Pro

    Jan 3, 2012
    Troy, NY
    Here I am floating a tentative theory about photographing the sky.

    For over a decade, I have been trying to photograph the grandeur of the skies. It started out as simply trying to capture spectacular sunrises and sunsets, but since coming to Serious Compacts/Photographers’ Lounge a couple of years ago, it has morphed into an attempt to become a bit more serious about the whole thing, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work.

    Sometimes it has gotten confusing: for a while, I thought that bigger sensors and more megapixels would lend themselves to grasping the epic dimensions of the sky. Then I thought perhaps it was the lens; a wide angle lens would suck up more of the scene that was tantalizing my eye and moving my heart. And, to be sure, the lens does play a part, but a wide angle lens, while capturing more of the sky, also tended to make the sky look “puny.”

    Then two things happened more or less concurrently.

    One. Ray Sachs pretty much crystallized the problem. He was responding to a post on post processing and said in part: “The sky and the clouds are HUGE and all of the peripheral darkness or whatever makes them seem that much more dramatic and there's so much that goes into making a gorgeous sunset seem so dramatic in real life. And then you take a photo that either pushes it away with a wide angle lens or draws it in with a telephoto (but only a really small PART of it) and shoves it all into a tiny little two dimensional frame.”

    Two. I began experimenting with 16:9 aspect ratio and it seemed to work much better, as in the photo below.


    But why? I began thinking about “either pushes it away with a wide angle lens or draws it in with a telephoto.” That is, of course, true. Depending upon who you read, a normal field of view for the human eyeball is somewhere between 35mm (e) and 50 mm (e). That would be the field of view than neither pushes the sky away nor draws it in, yet shooting with those lenses doesn’t seem nearly wide enough.

    Then I read this: “In contrast to the camera, our eye/brain system scans a scene in many jumps called saccades and processes the incoming stream of information to capture what is important for our well-being.” That was in this article published on Luminous Landscape:

    So, in essence, our eye/brain system is doing one of those stitch-together panoramas that some cameras can do, but we do it for ourselves all the time, automatically. Plus we have binocular vision with two eyes (mounted horizonally) providing peripheral vision and a wider field of view than you would get some a single eye.

    So, for me, the 16:9 aspect ratio, in which the width is 1.77 times the height, with a wide angle lens, does a better job of replicating what I see in my mind’s eye when viewing the sky than an aspect ratio of 3:2 or 4:3.

    Does that make sense to anyone else, or should I go back to The Home and start taking my meds again?

    Cheers, Jock
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  2. pdh

    pdh Legend

    Jan 2, 2011
    I think you should just take pictures, while remembering the experience of a picture is not the same thing as the experience of the scene of the picture, and never can be.
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  3. mattia

    mattia Regular

    Dec 20, 2013
    Nope, you're pretty much right on. Our field of vision is wider than a 35 or 50 because we move our eyes around and because they're mounted horizontally. When faced with a vista like this we also tend not to simply look in one place.

    This is one reason I prefer stitched panoramas for capturing vast, sprawling landscapes, preferably shot with a normal or moderate telephoto lens (less distortion). What aspect ratio to pick depends very much on the scene, although I favour really wide (3:1 or 4:1 ratios) lately, since they look cool on my walls. And when printed up at around 6-7 feet wide, it gives me a 'like I'm there again' feeling, with almost the 'right' absolute size. This one, for example, is on my dining room wall. A recent comment I got was 'wow, very cool painting' because it is slightly otherwordly - Antarctica's special that way:

    6658528045_dce2729821_b.jpg Seascape1 by mattia_v, on Flickr

    Printed up at 210 cm wide, on dibond, with a matte coating.
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  4. Richard

    Richard Top Veteran

    Feb 1, 2013
    Marlow, UK
    Hi Jock,

    I found that an interesting post, and it set me thinking about whether the aspect ratio and angle of view of the photo are important in themselves, or just a means to achieve some context and a pleasing composition. Your picture above shows the clouds and also the landscape below to give a sense of scale and to add to the composition.

    I haven't attempted to photograph big skies and clouds in some years, the nearest I've got is the picture below which is really a landscape which includes some clouds. But I think it demonstrates that the aspect ratio isn't critical, as this one is portrait 3:2.


    [​IMG]River Church and Clouds by clearbluesky44, on Flickr
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  5. Jock Elliott

    Jock Elliott All-Pro

    Jan 3, 2012
    Troy, NY
    Whoa! That is truly epic!

    How many shots were stitched together to make that scene?

    Cheers, Jock
  6. Ray Sachs

    Ray Sachs Legend

    Sep 21, 2010
    Not too far from Philly
    you should be able to figure it out...
    I think you should just be open to the photograph as it presents itself - there's no one-size fits all. Sometimes 16:9 works, sometimes a full panorama. But often a basic 3:2 or 4:3 with a longer focal length is just the ticket too. Shooting the sky, particularly around the ocean is one of the few places I really like shooting with a zoom lens, because it just depends. Sometimes the most interesting part of the sky is pretty narrow so a longer lens pulls it in. Sometimes the more context of the whole scene, the better, so wider works better. I just don't think there's one right way. The vast majority of my sunset shots from my times at the beach have all been taken in the 24-28mm focal range, but then the vast majority of EVERYTHING I shoot is in that same range, so it's less about the specific sky than my specific comfort level with a given field of view...

    If you try to make it too simple, you close off a lot of possibilities...

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  7. bartjeej

    bartjeej Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Nov 12, 2010
    Human vision is about 180 by 100 degrees (in a binocular shape, not a rectangle obviously), which makes an aspect ratio of 1:1.8; very close to the 1:1.77 provided by a 16:9 frame.

    In terms of wide angle / tele / normal: don't listen to that, or at least don't take it too seriously. As I said above, our total vision is 180 degrees wide; that's fisheye territory (or about 2mm equivalent in a non-existend rectalinear lens). Most of that is peripheral. The binocular part (covered by both eyes) is about 114 degrees, equivalent to an 11mm lens. The truly focused part of it is about 6 degrees, or 300mm equivalent. There's not a sharp delineation of what humans consciously perceive; motion is perceived throughout our vision, while shape and colour are perceived only / more strongly in the central part. A single eye can be expected to have a total vision of about 135 degrees, with a focused zone of at least 6 degrees.

    There is, in short, not a single focal length that simulates human vision.

    However, there is one (valid) way to arrive at a "natural" perspective; it's to adjust your distance to the image so that the triangle between your eyes and the edges of the frame has the same angle as your lens. The result will be that looking at the photo is similar to looking through a window. If your viewing distance is equal to the diagonal of the image, the "natural" perspective will be offered by a lens with the same focal length as the sensor diagonal; in full-frame terms, 43mm. However, if you move closer (or you display the image larger), the angle between your eyes and the image's edges becomes larger, so you'd need a wider angle lens to give a natural perspective. Conversely, moving further away from the image (or displaying a smaller image) makes the angle narrower, making a tele lens look more natural. This is the same as with looking through a window: the closer to the window you are (or the larger the window is), the more of the outside world you'll see.

    I'm moving away from my "expertise" here, but I read that in the printing business, a viewing distance of 1.5 - 2x the image diagonal is considered normal; I assume this is based on human preference. At this viewing distance, a 65-90mm lens would give a natural perspective; so if any lens is to be considered "normal", that range would be my candidate.

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  8. Jock Elliott

    Jock Elliott All-Pro

    Jan 3, 2012
    Troy, NY

    It is rare for me to take a vertically oriented sky shot that I am pleased with, but yours sure works for me.

    Cheers, Jock
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  9. mattia

    mattia Regular

    Dec 20, 2013

    And just three, I believe. Canon 5D mark II with the 24-105L, zoomed in a little.
    • Like Like x 1
  10. EasyEd

    EasyEd Regular

    Dec 22, 2010
    Hey All,

    I think Mattea has it right.

    I was raised in Big Sky Country (you can figure out where that is). A big sky at a small scale is a small sky - no matter what you do. You want big sky - display big - stiching or lots of mega pixels. Look at your small image on a typical computer monitor and then look at it on a 4k 48 inch tv - any difference? Going big is far more important than I think many realize.

    Aspect ratio and how much sky is in your image helps but at the end it is often about big - big with detail.

    How many great images - not just of sky - get "tossed" because people are looking at them at the "wrong" scale?

    Lots I bet.


    • Like Like x 1
  11. Luckypenguin

    Luckypenguin Hall of Famer

    Dec 24, 2010
    Brisbane, Australia
    I don't think that there is one aspect that is most correct, but for each image there is an aspect ratio that is most correct. Don't be constrained by the native aspect ratio of your camera.
    • Like Like x 3
  12. For me, its the clouds which determine which aspect I'll use. The following shot would have lost much if I had shot landscape rather than portrait.

    Morning Sky by kyte50, on Flickr
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  13. Jock Elliott

    Jock Elliott All-Pro

    Jan 3, 2012
    Troy, NY
    Wow, that is just amazing!

    Cheers, Jock
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  14. bartjeej

    bartjeej Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Nov 12, 2010
    Sue, that's an amazing sky, love the way it radiates! Great shot also, do you have it printed?
    • Like Like x 1
  15. dalethorn

    dalethorn Guest

    One of the reasons I've always used laptops (MBP retina now) is the ability to rotate these 90 degrees and turn the computer on end, to see the image full-screen.
  16. Nope, never print anymore. Thanks for your kind remarks
  17. donlaw

    donlaw All-Pro Subscribing Member

    Sep 14, 2012
    Super sky photo!
    I try not to concern myself with aspect ratios. I just use instinct for composition and cropping. Hard to beat a vertical when the clouds are spectacular like in Sue's image. And sometime the vista is so amazing only a panorama will cover it.
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