Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

Landscapes and Micro 4/3

As much as I like my Olympus OMD EM1 and its inherent benefits (lightweight, flexible, weather resistant, less expensive lenses, etc.), it does have one serious drawback, I think, for anyone who takes a lot of landscape type photographs.  Its aspect ratio is 4:3.  The images are damn near square.  For a lot of things, that’s fine.  It works as well as or better than other “native” aspect ratios.  For landscapes, however, not so well.  It’s like taking a movie made in a 16:9 format and watching it on an old nearly square TV.  It just doesn’t look right.  At least not to me.  Some things are just meant to be viewed “wide”.  

Case in point: a single image I took last week at the Lower Falls in Letchworth SP:

Lower Falls, single frame

Lower Falls, single frame

It’s not bad, I guess, but to me it feels overly compressed, like you’re looking through one of those old spyglasses or something.  Or like looking through a tunnel.  Even if I’d never been to this particular spot it feels like there’s something missing.  You’ve got the bridge and the river and the falls in the background, but what’s off to the sides?

For me, this one works much better (a 4-frame stitched panorama):

Lower Falls, 4 frame panorama

Lower Falls, 4 frame panorama

Not a mind-blowing image by any stretch, but the sensation of looking through a tunnel is no longer there (at least not for me).  There’s more perspective and more context.  There’s a long leading line emanating from the lower left corner of the frame that for me provides context for the bridge.  The stone bridge is the only place in the park that allows hikers to go from the west side of the park to the east side (or the other way around) without having to drive.  The path coming towards you leads to some stone stairs that climb up a fairly steep gorge wall.  And of course you get a much better feel for the gorge wall itself.  You get a better sense of the textured wet shale that is so characteristic of New York’s Finger Lakes region.  It’s not so easy to see on a video monitor, but it’s very apparent on a large print.

The only drawback is that you have to know something about shooting panoramas, even if it’s only 4 frames wide.  For one thing, you really should use a tripod.  In my opinion, handheld just won’t work.  Yeah, I know.  I’ve seen panoramas shot with iphones, too.  It can be done.  But I really don’t think they’re very good.  Only a tripod – if set up correctly – can insure that the system is absolutely level.  If your camera isn’t level, the best you can hope for is minimal cropping in post.  And only the tripod will allow you absolute control over the degree of frame overlap and focus continuity.

But you’re not there yet.  Even if you’ve got the whole system level you still have to worry about parallax and the nodal point.

Say what?  Parallax?  Nodal Point?  Sounds like a couple of places up on the Maine coast……….

Well, to be extremely brief, parallax has to do with how we (or cameras) see things.  How we see a tree, for example, depends on where we’re standing (our angle of view).  If we move, or if the camera moves, our point of view changes.  It’s not hard to figure out that this might have an effect on a panorama, since the camera’s position – its “point of view” – changes with each frame.  This is especially true if there’s a foreground subject included.  If that’s the case, you get something like this:

Panorama with Parallax effect

Panorama with Parallax effect

This was taken (as a kind of “practice” shot) on the Lake Ontario shoreline.  It covers roughly 180 degrees of view from west to east.  If you know this spot you’ll see the problem immediately.  The foreground sidewalk makes a V-shape as it passes the location of the camera.  In reality, the sidewalk is a straight line.  There is no”V”.  That’s photographic parallax.

The reason you don’t see that effect in the first panorama is because there is no foreground subject.  There’s nothing in the frame that’s close to the camera.  Which means that one way to avoid the parallax effect is to keep foreground objects out of the picture.

If you want a panorama with a foreground subject in it then you need to know what a nodal point is (and how to calculate it).  The nodal point is found where the optical center of the lens is directly above the axis of rotation.  In other words, if the axis of rotation is at the center of the tripod’s head, then the optical center of the lens – not the weighted center – must be, and remain, directly above that point.  If you do this, parallax becomes a non-problem.

Who said photography was easy.  In any case, it’s worth learning, I think, if you own a micro 4/3 camera and like to take landscapes.  I honestly think that this format is not well suited for landscape photography.  Unless, of course, you’re willing and able to create panoramas.  For me, it makes all the difference.

One last point.  It’s now possible to stitch panoramas (or create HDR images) inside of LightRoom.  Previously, you needed to take the individual images into Photoshop (or some other application) to do the work.  That usually meant creating a TIF file before returning to LightRoom.  Now you can do it all in one place.  And it creates a dng file in the process, which means that you still have a full-fledged RAW image.  That’s really neat.

  

         

 

 

    

Advertisements

10 Responses to “Landscapes and Micro 4/3”

  1. TomDills

    That’s an interesting observation, Paul. I actually like the “squarer” format, and that is one of the things I like most about the Olympus. Probably is left over from my 6×7 film days. Plus, I tend to do a lot of vertical compositions, which I think lend themselves better to the 4/3 format.

    Reply
    • Paul Maxim

      I think you’re one of many who do like the square format, Tom. I like it for portraits, but for landscapes my personal preference is for a more rectangular frame. I’m not fond of the really wide panoramas, but I do like a stitched image of 4 frames or so. In my “film days”, I was strictly a 35 mm guy. I never once played with medium format stuff. So that probably explains my bias toward rectangular compositions.

      It’s funny that you mention vertical compositions. I actually do that a lot when I want to make a more rectangular landscape. You wind up with more top to bottom space which makes the resulting frame look less like a long strip of film. It took me a while, though, to find an L-bracket for the EM! (I finally got one from Really Right Stuff). The only downside is that with the 2 brackets attached you can no longer have the battery pack attached as well. Canon had that figured out better than Olympus apparently……….

      Reply
  2. themiddlegeneration

    I see the difference between the two shots. Thanks for your explanation. I still have a lot to learn about photography. Hopefully when I am retired. … until then I will just try to learn from your amazing photos!

    Reply
    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks so much for the generous thought. If only it were true!

      Learning about photography seems to be like learning about anything else – the more you learn, the more you realize how much there is that you still don’t know. I’ve just begun to try and learn how to do astrophotgraphy, for example, and I feel absolutely “dumb”. The biggest problem, of course, is trying to find a spot that’s dark enough at night. There’s so much light pollution here in the northeast that most stars are just about invisible. I might have to wait for our next trip to the southwest.

      Reply
  3. E. Brooks

    It’s taken me a while to “get use” to the 4:3 aspect ratio…can’t say I really like it all that well yet…but I’m use to it. A good post with some good examples and explanations here, Paul!

    Reply
    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, EB. The added benefit of doing a “small” panorama, of course, is that you get a bit more detail (as well as file size). Which works just fine if not much is moving in the frame! Although I was pleasantly surprised by the Letchworth panorama. The river was certainly turbulent and moving. But the LightRoom stitching process only used part of one frame for the river, leaving that part of the total image very sharp. I don’t know how it “decides” which part of each frame to use, but I was very pleased.

      Reply
  4. John

    It really depends on the subject matter. Frequently landscapes are more impactful as panoramas, but then urban shots can be as well. I like the square format for a lot of things, but again, it depends. For me I usually let the subject dictate the format (with veto power in my hands of course if I don’t agree!).

    Reply
    • Paul Maxim

      Hey, John. Yep, I completely agree. I just think that if you tend to shoot a lot of landscapes (someday I should go through my LR catalog and figure out the percentage) it might be a good idea to use a camera that creates a more rectangular format. With the Olympus I tend to do a lot of cropping from the top or bottom to make things look less square. I’ve just found that shooting 3 or 4 frame panoramas is less wasteful! Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going back to a big Canon DSLR. While I like the native aspect ratio of a “full frame” sensor, I like the lighter weight of Micro 4/3 even better.

      Reply
  5. Cedric Canard

    I like the second photo of the bridge. That wider aspect ratio complements the scene perfectly. I don’t like the 4:3 aspect ratio generally though I’ve see portraits done in that format which looked good. I would say that most of my photography is shot in 3:2 but often times my favourite shots are the ones I compose for 16:9. I also don’t mind the square format. In the end, I guess the best aspect ratio is the one that fits the scene best compositionally.

    Reply
    • Paul Maxim

      I agree, Cedric. For a lot of landscapes a wide aspect ratio is probably the best “fit”. I think the 3:2 format is a damn good one for that kind of work. One of my more prominent “second thoughts” about buying the EM1 is that maybe I should have given stronger consideration to Sony’s full-frame version of micro 4/3. But then you’re back to higher cost, more weight, and some of the other things that pushed me away from my DSLR in the first place. Like so many other things photography is all about trade-offs. To get something you have to be willing to give up something else.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: