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 Nature Photography :: Essays :: Rise and Fall of the View Camera

Last Stand

View cameras have many movements that can be used to change the plane of focus and to correct or increase perspective distortion.

The most common movement used in landscape photography is front and rear tilt. These movements are used to change the plane of focus, usually to make it pass through both near and far objects in an attempt to keep them both in focus. This effect was first described by an Austrian surveyor called Theodor Scheimpflug. Not surprisingly then, it is called the Scheimpflug Rule.

The principals of optics described by Herr Scheimpflug’s rule are the reason those large format calendar shots seem to have an impossible depth of field, with everything from the nearest flower to the farthest mountain being pin sharp. That’s interesting, but nothing to do with this photo.

One movement less commonly used is called with landscapes ‘rise’. As the name implies, this involves raising the lens, which is done by lifting the camera’s front standard which holds the lens. Why would you want to do this? I’m sure you are familiar with the problem of converging verticals, ie. when you point a camera up to include an entire building (or any tall object), the verticals of that object seem to converge. This is caused by the fact that, with most cameras, tilting the lens also means tilting the camera and therefore the film plane. It’s this tilting of the film plane that causes the converging verticals.

Vertical verticals can only be achieved if the film plane is parallel to the object being photographed. However, if you tilt the lens of an ordinary camera to include the entire building you lose this parallelism.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could adjust the lens independently of the film? If you could just raise the lens a little while leaving the film parallel to the subject. Well you can, provided of course that you are using a view camera (or a tilt & shift lens that will cost you as much as a view camera).

To use this feature you point the camera at your subject, ensure that the film plane is vertical, then begin raising the lens. As you do so you include more of the subject and, assuming that your camera is capable of moving enough and your lens has adequate covering power, you will eventually include the entire subject. Meanwhile the film is still vertical.

So what’s all this talk of buildings got to do with landscape photography? Well to be fair there aren’t many vertical lines in a landscape, but there are some. The photo Last Stand proves this. I used my camera’s rise feature to keep the trees vertical. Without this feature I would have had leaning trees and, to my mind, a failed photo.

I saw this photo while driving on the freeway north of Brisbane. Actually I saw it twice. The first time it caught my eye I didn’t react immediately. I thought about it, mulled it over in my mind, then finally decided it was a good shot. By the time I’d done all that I was so far down the highway I didn’t want to stop and execute what John Sexton calls “that most important of photographic techniques, the U turn”. I find the biggest problem with looking for images from the car is inertia. Once you are cruising in air-conditioned comfort it can be very difficult to break the inertia, ie. stop, get out and walk.

Anyhow on this occasion I convinced myself that it wasn’t worth turning around. Minutes later I saw almost exactly the same image. This time I had already done the necessary thinking.

Stopping immediately I leaped from the car, grabbed my equipment and ran towards the trees. The sun was sinking fast and would soon be below the foliage. Arriving at the scene in a state of advanced puffedness I set the camera up and made one exposure. As I was doing so the sun emerged from behind the foliage and shone directly into my lens. With tripod in one hand and camera case in the other I backed up 50 or so metres, enough to put the sun back behind the leaves and give me enough time to re-align the camera. Having done so I made a second exposure.

It’s interesting to note that the image I saw from the highway was not the same as presented here. The road was over a kilometre from these trees. From the car I saw the equivalent of a long telephoto shot with compressed perspective and mountains that were larger, relative to the trees, than appear in this photo. By the time I had moved a kilometre or so nearer, the perspective, although still pleasing, had changed considerably.

This entire area had been clear felled. For some reason however this single row of trees had been spared. Therefore I called the image Last Stand.

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