35mm lenses are not the widest among wide angle lenses that are capable of capturing stunning panoramas. But they have something else on offer 14mm lenses do not. It is not the physical weight or size differential I wish to discuss here, but something more fundamental to the visual art photographers use them to create: the potential to add aesthetic value.
Landscape Photography: a cliché?
I pay my respect to top landscape photographers. To take a good landscape photo requires thorough research and planning to learn the best vantage points, discipline and physical condition to be at the right place and the right time. This means going back to the same spot again and again, sometimes for years to capture the subtle change of light, cloud and scenery for the best photo.
Meanwhile, there are a lot of ‘mediocre’ landscape photographers out there. If you do a Google search on ‘landscape photos’, it will be very hard to miss the fact that 80% of the photos are somewhat similar: they are panorama views taken with a super wide angle lens (10mm to 20mm) with a horizon that follows the ‘one-third rule’. The background can be sea or mountains, the foreground may be a boat, a pile of stones, a driftwood, a lake (or a pond, which the viewers won’t perceived as such) with reflections of the scene, or maybe a dock or road that leads the viewer into the horizon. If the photographer cares to wait for the ‘golden hour’, the photo will include some contrasty sky with rich saturation. If he has a good tripod for long exposure, the water will be silky and dreamy. You know what I am talking about: a landscape photo that fits the above description is becoming ‘a cliché’. (Don’t judge – I was one of them, I own a Samyang 14mm f2.8 lens specifically for this purpose.)
In visual art theory, the aesthetic value of these photos are ‘Imitationalism”, that is the purpose of the photographer was primarily to copy reality with accurate value, shape and colour. HDR, if done correctly, may add style to the photo and give it a certain emotion. However, most HDR I have seen adds no more than ‘decorative value’, if any. My envy of these photographers is that they have travelled to such beautiful places and that they are disciplined to wait for a perfect moment to take the shot. They can be compared to classic painters before ‘abstract artists’ came about. What a super wide angle lens does not offer, is the ability to study the detailed shapes of things and to put only a limited number of objects into a frame. It’s time for 35mm lenses to shine.
What’s on offer with a 35mm lens
35mm breaks up the ‘holistic’ view offered by super wide angles into smaller, more malleable pieces. Because the longer 35mm focal length forces the photographer to focus on a certain view within the panorama, qualities of objects such as components, colour, shapes and lines are more observable. The photographer is able to choose and focus on reflecting one defining quality of the landscape and reduce or even remove less important elements. Suddenly using photography as a tool to create abstract art becomes possible. Photographers are no longer ‘copying’ nature with decorative touch-ups but are able to develop his own style and create his own world. Looking for inspiration? Check out the work of abstract artists like Wassily Kendinsky Jackson Pollock or Stuart Davis.
For some, the style choice is to take away the colour and create a black and white landscape image that purely focuses on shapes and lines. 35mm lens gives a detailed enough view that captures the textures of the subject.
Others may artistically use HDR to create a world that is not to please eyes, but bluntly primitive, mathematical and fanciful.
The below low contrast photo is taken by Martin Parr. The outline of objects is the element that has been amplified, while the detail of the house, road, fields have all been covered and lost in the thick fog. This reminds of the customs house by Claude Monet. I wonder if Parr did not choose to use black and white, what colour would this scene be in? Would it have this ‘blue hour’ effect like Monet’s painting?
Finally, emotions are being introduced. I am talking about the likes of Picasso and Van Gogh. With a 35mm lens, if you wish, reality may be purposefully fractured and mixed with imagination. The shape of objects overlaps the shape of shadows and creates a new dimension. Stories which does not exist in reality may be implied or imposed. Many techniques used here are similar to expressionism artists.
(What’s the physical shape of the building in this photo? Where is the person standing? Can you still appreciate the photo even if you didn’t know the answers?)
Framing and Composition
With a super wide angle lens, while it is still possible to frame a shot, the overall quality of the photo is largely determined by the panorama itself. But a 35mm lens lets the photographer gain more control over the ability to frame. This is a huge advantage as he can include only those landscape elements that he sees fit and throw ‘clutters’ out of the frame. It is time to showcase the artistic eye to separate the extraordinary from the ordinary. I know some of you may have a question now: I just cannot find the perfect frame out of the nitty-gritty daily life. A few shots are ‘close enough’ but not quite there, can I use photoshop to remove or add certain elements? I may start a debate by saying this, but to me, this is perfectly fine and I do it myself all the times within the constraint of my limited Photoshop skills. I see the use of post-processing software as a component of the artistic creation process. If you know exactly what elements to crop out or add in, what area to enhance or dull down, I say you have the vision for a perfect frame. Meanwhile, when you are out in a photography session, do remember that the photography community has a split view about heavily post-processed photos. If you are able to wait for another hour or so or even return another day so that the vision you have becomes reality for you to capture, I can’t see why you should rely on post-processing.
With framing, composition becomes another artistic choice. Composition is probably the biggest thing that a ‘cliche’ panorama landscape photo lacks. There are way more interesting angles to see the world than ‘rule of thirds’, in fact, there are no rules.
I invite you to tell me why you use 35mm lenses for landscape work. Alternatively please send your 35mm lens photo to be showcased with full credit on this post. Please leave a comment below.
35mm lens landscape photographers are one step away from Environmental Portraits. See how Eve Arnold used a 35mm lens to capture images of Marilyn Monroe.