Atop: Photographing from above


Weekly Photo Challenge: Atop

Atop the sky

Atop the sky. I wanted to capture the foreground of fluffy cloud, the contrast of sun on sea and the line of the coasatline as I held my iPhone close to the window. Getting the wing in the image is sometimes inescapable but here I think it contexts the image and creates a sense of depth.

I look out the widow. Blue sea meets blue sky on a misty horizon that makes it impossible to tell where one becomes the other. It’s blue up here.

I look down to where the soft greenness of a headland breaks the pattern of blue. The white fringe I see is surf breaking at its base. What about a photograph? The thought crosses my mind and I reach for my iPhone, positioning it so that it avoids the curve of the window frame, and press the button. Later, I look at the image and see that it has captured that overwhelming blueness I saw from the window, but the green of the headland seems a lot softer than I remember.

On thing I didn’t do was press the camera, the iPhone camera in this case, against the perspex of the window. While we might think doing that will steady the camera and avoid camera shake, it is more likely to transmit the vibrations traveling through the airframe to our camera and, maybe, blur our photo. Sometimes people do that to reduce the reflections from the lights inside the aircraft. Better to cup your hand around the camera to do that.

In level flight all you will capture will be distant views, and that might be just what you want especially if there are interesting cloud shapes or if the moon is in the sky. But it is when your aircraft is closer to the ground and making its approach to land (or when climbing out). It is then likely to make the turns that give you a good view of the landscape immediately below. Look in your direction of travel if possible to seek out some feature on the ground like buildings, the pattern of roads across the land, the patchwork of farm fields and the like and try to make these the focal point of your image.

But that blueness. At high altitude the sky is darker because there is less atmosphere we are looking through to refract the light. What’s below will be the other dominant colour in your photo. Blue if it is sea, faded green if forested terrain and reddish-ochre if desert. Refraction dilutes colour, however if you make use of photo editing software, a combination of the ambience filter, sharpness and saturation, the latter used moderately, will probably restore some colour intensity and differentiate the shapes on the ground.

Aircraft windows consist of two perspex panels and these will not only soften your image’s colouration, they are sometimes scratched. At altitude we might notice streaks of condensation running down them. That might be a problem or a boon to your photo, depending what it is we are trying to do.

Photos from aircraft seats are common, but a little consideration combined with a little photo processing can lift them above the commonplace.

Atop the building

I was at Bondi Beach and looking along the crescent of yellow sand that is the beach I wondered where the best vantage point was from which to capture that on camera. Instead, I decided to photograph only a narrow section of the beach. Searching for a vantage point I entered Bondi Pavilion and noticed that the posts along the front of the building offered a convenient framing device to add a sense of depth to the image. The posts at either side of the frame and the teal bollards in front of them form the foreground. People and a light post protruding above the horizon make up the middle distance while the yellow of the sand and the greens and blues of the sea form the background. The teal colour of the bollards is repeated in the sea. In this example. A small portion of the larger scene conveys the feel of Bondi Beach as well as would a sweeping landscape of the entire beach.

I had taken the lift to the top of the tower. As one of the highest structures in the city the view was superb. A full 360 degree sweep of the city from the mountains in the west to the sea in the east. Predictably, those around me started making photographs of the view before them.

Photographs taken from the top of high buildings can be disappointing. In an attempt to include as much of the city below, people use a wide angle lens. Its effect is to flatten all before it, turning those mountains on the horizon into big hills and the city’s buildings to doll houses.

Maybe this is what we want. We want to show the grand sweep of the urban landscape. But is there a way we can do it better?

One way is to place something relatively close by prominently in the frame to suggest scale. We might include another nearby high rise building. Don’t let it fill the frame, just include it so that it is prominent against that grand sweep of urban landscape around it.

Is there a highway or river we can include that would lead the viewers’ eye through the landscape and create a sense of depth and unity? It becomes a path through the scene and as it narrows through the effect of linear perspective we get a sense of the vastness of the cityscape and depth in our photograph. As a single element winding through the scene it can have the effect of unifying our image.

Here’s a different approach. I used this atop a hill in an inner urban park from where the view to the north encompassed the tall buildings of the city centre which sloped to a ring of lower buildings then into the flatness of the surrounding suburbs. Instead of using a wide angle lens to show the largeness of the landscape, I fitted my telephoto lens and zoomed in on the city centre, making sure to include a portion of the lower-lying urban landscape around it. The image showed the city centre’s buildings rising from the surrounding lower landscape much like the hill I stood atop rose from the city park it was part of.

The idea was to show only a small portion of the landscape. That included the high rise of the city centre, a cluster of verticality contrasting with the flatness of its horizontal urban surroundings.

The focal point we choose could just as well be some natural feature like a hill rising out of the surrounding flat land or a bridge spanning a river. The point is to make only a potion of the landscape before us the focal point of our image. Our image will be softened and blued by distance and this will suggest space, of viewing the focal point from a distance.

Atop the mountain

Atop the mountain. I wanted to context the scorparia plant in the foreground in its mountainous environment of Tasmania’s Central Plateau. Crouching down so that the scorparia occupied the lowed third of the frame, I set a wide lens aperture and focused on the plant. This brought it into sharp focus while throwing the midddle distance and background out of focus. Doing that draws the eye first to the scorporia and then to the lake and ridge in the distance behind, creating a sense of depth.

We had spent the morning following the narrow, rough track. It had climbed steadily from Watersmeet to follow the Hugel River, here a series of rapids, until it met steeper country and left the river to start the steeper climb to the plateau. Crossing it and ascending above the treeline, we approached the steep scramble up to the ridge. We followed the ridge towards the summit at the far end, stopping only once to avoid the sleek black form of a large Tasmanian tiger snake, not the sort of wildlife we wanted to tangle with. What had brought it up here, anyway, I wondered? Surely hunting would be better down in the forest.

From the summit, before us lay the peaks and ridges at the centre of the national park. It was one of those fine, warm and cloudless days that travellers in these mountains value, as weather conditions here were often the opposite. Ridges faded into lighter tones of blue the further away they were. The rich dark brown of dolerite peaks rose above them. In the fold of the valleys the temperate rainforest showed as deep green. As appropriate to such occasions, out came the cameras. How would I capture what I saw and convey what I felt in an image?

First, emotions. What emotion did I want viewers of my images to experience? As I stood there the emotion I felt was that of being immersed in a grand, sweeping and rugged landscape. A small person in a big land. I could see that distance played a part in this and the impression of that came through the visual effect of those ridges fading to a lighter blue the closer they were to the horizon. It came also from the way the ridges overlapped and from the peaks that rose out of them.

The sky was a featureless light blue, no interesting clouds, which suggested that most of my photograph would consist of terrain. That is what I wanted anyway. So I composed an image that had peaks towards the edges and the more open ridge country in the middle. A fairly conventional and formal composition, for sure. That relatively open country led to a series of those higher ridges that faded the closer to the horizon they were and that crossed the frame. Because I wanted to convey a feeling of gazing into this landscape, I made sure that I included ridges and mountains whose forms overlapped each other I also included a few of my fellow bushwalkers who were looking into the scene and standing by a cluster of large rocks in the foreground. The fading blue ridges, the overlapping mountains and the figures conveyed the depth I wanted in the image.

Another way to approach an image like this would be to focus on the small rathe than the large. We could select a wide aperture on our camera instead of a smaller aperture (an aperture is the width the lens element opens to allow light to reach the camera sensor). If available, we could couch or lay down so as to get a flower in the immediate foreground and focus on that. With our large lens aperture we would end up with the flower and immediate foreground in crisp focus and the mountains beyond out of focus. They would appear as an indistinct suggestion of mountains which would also suggest depth in the image.

When we stand atop a peak or high ridge, it can be just as rewarding to focus on the small and close as well as the grand and distant. Better still, we could make both types of image.


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