Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Seeing Wide

Place de Palais Bourbon, 2006

When I was a senior in high school a well-known portrait photographer was hired to do our senior photos. Looking back, I realize that although this man is known far and wide for his exquisite photographic portraits, he must have taken our job to pay the rent. We seniors trooped over to his studio in a nearby mall for portraits shot in a style that probably hadn’t changed much since 1955.

Up to then, I knew relatively little about camera lenses. I’d bought a single lens reflex camera a couple of years before. But as far as I knew there were long lenses and short lenses. But anything else was just too much of a novelty.

One day the photographer came to school to take a picture of the entire upper school. It wasn’t intended to be a formal portrait, but rather something unexpected.

I should mention that in those days, lunches were served family-style in a long room referred to, in classic Mr. Chips-style, as the refectory. We ate at long tables, each seating a dozen or so boys and each presided over by a pair of seniors who sat at either end. It was the job of the younger boys to run back and forth to the kitchen to bring the dishes of food out and to return all the dirty dishes when the meal was over.

There are any number of ways the photographer could have shot the scene in that dining room. Most would have been very predictable and boring. He chose instead to make it more interesting by shooting the entire room with an extremely wide fish-eye lens. He attached the camera to one of the ceiling supports, set his timer and jumped down and under a table so that he wouldn’t be seen in the photograph.

I’ve never owned a lens as extreme as the one the photographer used that day. But the photograph he took instilled a preference in me for “seeing wide” that persists to today.

For a number of years my default lens was a 17-35mm wide-angle lens. It doesn’t see as much as my eyes. But it sees a lot without creating too much lens distortion. Five or six years ago I finally bought a 10.5mm fisheye lens. There’s no missing the novelty of a picture taken with this lens. And like a lot of photographic novelties—e.g. Lens Babies, Instagrams, HDR, etc.—a little fisheye goes a long way.

Still, there are times when conditions don’t leave you any choice but to use a righteous wide lens. Place de Palais Bourbon, above, was taken with the 17-35mm lens. I purposely shot from a low angle in order to get the distortion you see, and made no effort to correct it.

Place de la Concorde and Chenonceau Peonies were taken with the fisheye. There was simply no other way to get the Chenonceau photo without using a very wide lens. For one, the place was full of people. Getting a shot without people in it took a lot of waiting and a fair amount of looking like a madman to scare people from the room long enough to get this shot. The real challenge, though, was capturing both the richly colored peonies in the foreground and the full portrait above. Again, distortion of reality was the price paid for this shot. But the distortion of reality is also what gives this photo much of its interest.

Chenonceau Peonies, 2006

Place de la Concorde was another time when I was determined to include more in the frame than a longer lens would have caught. By holding the camera as close to level as I could I was able to take in the full sweep of the scene—using the fountain as a foreground point of interest rather than as the primary subject—and minimize conspicuous novelty distortion.

Both of these fisheye photos, by the way, would have benefited from me using a tripod, especially Place de la Concorde. But that’s a lesson that still hasn’t been ingrained in me enough to learn from.

Place de la Concorde, 2006

1 comment:

  1. I've always thought those lenses make very cool images. These are wonderful, Chris.