Leave it to the imagination

I have to admit I was always a fan of wide angle lenses. While many new photographers are fascinated with supertele zoom lenses (and the bigger the better) one of my first lens purchases for the DSLR was a super wide Sigma 10-20mm lens (APS-C). At some point I started asking myself what was so special about wide angles that seemed to be working so good for me. Then I realized that I had this urge to show as much of the world in front of me as possible in my photos. Whenever I would be standing at the top of the canyon or in the middle of a busy street I felt that I would like the viewers of my pictures to immerse themselves in the same setting and feel the way I did. Wide and ultra wide angle seem to serve this purpose very well although they distort the picture as well reminding the viewer every time that it’s still just a photo.

While there is nothing wrong with above mentioned concept, It’s good to remember that there are situations when using longer focal lengths is beneficial and I don’t mean sports and wildlife photography. What I’m trying to say is that sometimes showing less to the viewer will allow him to see more. Let me explain this idea with a story of one of my own photo shot.

At the end of October 2012 Hurricane Sandy hit several States along US East Coast and New York, my current home state, was one of them. Flood damage was extensive due to unprecedented tide level at the time when hurricane struck NY shore.

While it may not seem sensitive to admit it, any tragic event such as this one is an exceptional opportunity for photographers to freeze in time those intensely emotional moments and share with all of us. Hurricane Sandy was no exception here and resulted in many iconic photos still circulating Internet. Among those, one of the better recognized scenes is a 185 feet tanker ship John B. Caddell washed ashore in Staten Island. As it happened literally few blocks away from my home it was a great photo opportunity for myself.

I picked up my gear bag (with way too much stuff in it) and I went to the shore. As I was approaching from far away I could see the tanker with some people and cars surrounding it and I had a nice view on Verrazano – Narrows Bridge in the back:

 The photo was taken with 80-200mm zoom somewhere at the long end. I find this composition quite interesting but there is simply just too much going on in this scene. Front elements, lampposts and guard post are making the scene appear more genuine but block the view at the same time. Also the number of people around the scene is definitely distracting. Finally while the placement of the ship is unusual the viewer is not getting clear idea what has happened to it.

I came up closer and realized the size of the ship is considerable. It was definitely not a colossus but the size was intimidating enough. I took out my 10-20mm zoom and decided I will try to make this ship look as big as possible:

At 10mm (15mm for Full Frame) I managed to fit entire tanker within a frame and show it’s awkward placement on the shore. One of the problems with this photo is that it does not provide a clear point of reference. Some people may be seen on the right but they are visibly placed in the back and because of the distortion this particular focal length produces it’s really hard to judge how impressive this vessel is.

Another issue is the amount of negative space. Negative space can be a very powerful element in a photo provided it is used correctly and it is an integral and intentional part of the composition. In this case negative space on the top (sky) and on the bottom (ground) are rather an unintentional outcome remaining after an attempt to fit entire ships length within the frame.

As I was still not satisfied I started playing a bit with my vantage point. I circled the ship to my right at which point I could use a tighter framing with 17mm focal length (25mm for FF) and I kneeled:

This picture was somehow more satisfactory.  The ship is clearly shown in its entity and the person standing next to it makes a much better size reference. At the same time however stern part of the ship is quite far which makes the bridge look naturally smaller. In this sense we are getting a better understanding of what happened but photo is losing on some impact. Negative space is managed slightly better as the bottom part now clearly shows it’s a road therefore viewer has no doubts about the awkwardness of the scene.

 In my continuous effort to get the best shot possible I decided to abandon the idea of framing entire ship on the picture. I moved a bit to the left, changed focal length to 20mm (30mm for FF) and came up with yt something different.

This is actually a shot I am very happy with. While it’s not perfect right out of the camera it has a potential after some editing. We have pretty much all here that is needed.  The ship looks big and is visibly washed ashore just next to a road. There are some people standing next to it as a size reference. Verrazano- Narrows Bridge in the background tells the rest of the story allowing viewer to better identify the location.

The white car on the right is somehow distracting but the right part of the photo can be cropped out along with some road on the bottom keeping even the width-height ratio of the photo intact. Such picture would definitely work nice and I would be very happy with it if it wasn’t for the last, lucky shot I took before leaving.

I made few steps away from the scene and turned around and I asked myself a question “how could I frame it with a tele lens?” So I took out a 60mm macro lens which on APS-C sensor works as a short tele (90mm for FF) and took a picture:

Now I knew this one was a keeper. Everything is really in the place. While only the bow of the ship is shown the people standing next to it provide a very good reference as to how big this vessel is. Furthermore the name of the ship as well as Verrazano – Narrows Bridge are both visible putting the scene within a context even for those viewers who are not familiar with the event. Finally three people standing next to it make impression of being overpowered by the circumstances.

In the end I decided to go with B&W for the more journalistic feel of the photo and since I’m a big sucker for B&W I do honestly believe it is better:

So why am I talking about all this? Why am I describing the whole process?

The reason is because I was thinking a lot why the last picture appeals to me so much. Just so I don’t sound overly self-absorbed I will admit that several who have seen this photo find it at least interesting if not more than that. So what is its strength?  Where is the impact coming from?

After some pondering I realized that it is not what the picture shows but it’s what it doesn’t show. My initial attempts at framing entire vessel in my viewfinder were simply trivial and so were the pictures they yielded. Everyone knows how does a ship look like more or less. The point of the story is not how the ship looked but the fact that it was big and it was washed ashore where it should have not been. The last photo achieves that showing just the bow of the ship and three people standing next to it. The rest is left to the viewer’s imagination.  

To recap the whole thing let’s just remember that sometimes it is important not what is shown but what is left out of the frame. This way viewers become stimulated; they start analyzing the picture and immersing themselves in it. Those photos will have a sense of mystery and uniqueness to them and will certainly grab viewers’ attention.