Just in case you have stumbled across this on an internet search and are looking for something else, it may be helpful to say that you are on a resource site for photographers, and this page is about scenic viewpoints. For our regular readers perhaps it would be helpful if I say, that when I did a little searching on the internet for scenic photography while drafting this article, just to make sure I hadn't missed anything, I discovered it's also a term used in the porn industry, to mean video filming done where a participant holds a video camera and films close up sections of the action. We will not be covering that today, but concentrating on the scenic stuff. I also found quite a few photography businesses around the country have called themselves viewpoint photography, I don't expect they did any research first.
When we think of viewpoints, its often the high points where we can see a long way that come to mind, perhaps a view across the countryside, a coastal view or a city or townscape. However we can find many other good viewpoints, some natural, some in buildings, on towers of churches and other similar buildings, from the London Eye, or without needing any height across open countryside.
In another article we are looking at how to find viewpoints , here I want to look more both at the range of opportunities and at what we do with them having found them.
The common feature, from a photographic viewpoint, that most photographs from viewpoints share is being able to see clearly some distance. It may be a mile or two or a considerably long range. Factors we will need to consider is the weather, visibility, lighting and time of day, depth of field we require, the camera angle required, any special challenges that the location presents, and how to do this safely from our viewpoint and that of others.
Weather and Visibility
The distance that we can see varies from day to day, and often over shorter times as well. Haze can be low level cloud, water vapour evaporating, a heat haze, pollution. There is an international standard used in aviation, shipping, weather etc, and technically, fog is when you can't see a kilometre, mist when you can see 1 to 2 kilometres, haze when you are restricted to 2 to 5 kilometres. When they talk of zero visibility they mean you can see less than 100 metres.
Seen from a distance, mist is bluish, while haze is more brownish. Whereas haze formation is a phenomenon of dry air, mist formation is a phenomenon of humid air, often warmer air over a cold surface or cold water. However, haze particles may act as condensation nuclei for later mist droplet formation. Sources for haze particles include farming practices like ploughing in dry weather, traffic, industry, forest fires and peat field fire.
Haze is a problem for long distance and viewpoint photography, where the penetration of large amounts of dense atmosphere may be necessary to image distant subjects. This results in the visual effect of a loss of contrast in the subject, due to the effect of light scattering through the haze particles. Haze can be defined as an aerial form of the 'Tyndall effect' therefore unlike other atmospheric effects such as cloud and fog, haze is spectrally selective, shorter (blue) wavelengths are scattered more, and longer (red/infrared) wavelengths are scattered less. For this reason many super-telephoto lenses often incorporate yellow filters or coatings to enhance image contrast. Many binoculars you will also find have a very noticeable orange coating for the same reason.
In black and white photography you can use yellow, orange and red filters to cut down mist and see further.
If you want to see an example of what is known as the 'Tyndall effect' then mix white flour with water, and you will see it looks bluish, this is because the blue wavelengths are scattered more than the red.
Its the extra dust in the atmosphere as it blows around the world after a major volcanic eruption that creates a series of more spectacular sunsets at these times. You can also get similar effects when you have extremely high pressure.
Its not easy to look at a weather forecast and say, its going to be a good day for viewpoint photography, there is a column showing visibility on the BBC local 5 day weather, which may help.
Obviously if its raining visibility is going to be limited, but what can we say about better visibility opportunities.
As a general guide air that is cold, moving from north to south, will have better visibility than the opposite way, although it can also cause morning mists.
Therefore the ideal might be a warmish cloud covered night (warmer ground), with a southern moving cool mass of air, with higher pressure. Too much difference between the ground and air and you get mist forming.
Like all weather related items its not going to be consistent over larger areas, so we get mists over water and in some areas and not in others.
Lighting and time of day
When the light is at a steeper angle, early morning and in the evening, the shape of the ground is more noticeable, because of the shadowing produced, this also may give the impression of it being clear and you being able to be able to see clear further. The light is also warmer, so counteracting or reducing the blue of the haze.
Against this you can get morning mists, which may present a number of opportunities.
Depth of Field
As you may know, the hyperfocal distance is the nearest point that you focus where infinity is still in focus. Infinity being the far off mountains, clouds etc. The Depth of Field stretches from about half way between you and the hyperfocal distance and through to infinity.
The hyperfocal distance gets nearer to you when you use a wider angle lens and a small aperture (high f number). The following is out of a Depth of Field Guide for Nikon cameras with DX sensors, like the D70, D80, D200 and D300. With full frame FX sensors the hyperfocal distance is considerably further away.
From this you can see that, with wider angle lenses generally depth of field does not present a challenge for this type of photography, but where longer lenses are being used it has to be seriously considered.
How wide an angle we need will vary with the view. However when we go very wide the foreground and sky can become huge compared to the distant detail, so although we may be able to see a large view it may not be very detailed, or interesting from a photographic perspective. For this reason we may instead look at using shorter lenses and stitching together a number of images to produce a wide, but not very tall, image, similarly you may decide to take a wide view and then section the image so as to loose the excessive areas you don't want. Amongst my lenses I have a Nikon 10.5mm special fisheye lens, this is a clever lens that can be used in a range of different ways. It corrupts the view to produce a similar effect with scenic shots to human vision, it looses a part of the foreground and sky, pulling forward the central part of the image, while at the same time showing an area truly from ear to ear, 180 degrees wide. Providing you don't have anything that has to be obviously vertical near the edge, this works well. You can also extract from it after, a 120 degree true wide angle photo if this is preferred.
When up high and looking down, we have the reverse of the effect of being close to and looking up at buildings, in that the vertical perspective can go, we can also, with very wide angles, effect the representation of the curvature of the earth.
Special challenges and safety
With viewpoint photography we have an equal number of opportunities and challenges. We have for example power lines across our view, but also lines of various types that we may be able to use to lead into the images. Often a relatively small change in position can improve the shot considerably. It may be getting slightly higher, it may be the opposite in that when lower we may loose items in the intermediate distance that are distracting to be able to focus on the grater view. As we are taking these photos we may see clouds change that not only enhance the view in their own right but provide a balancing affect or focus on the area of choice.
Safety is a consideration at any time we are in a position that may present us with dangers, perhaps near edges over or near traffic, or holding items high over other people, for example photographing a tower, we also have to consider our safety, reaching the point to take the photo and being able to get back down afterwards. Cliffs particularly can be far easier to climb than to find a safe way back down, and as I have discovered, going up and on to the top is not always a possible option. At one point, some years back, I reached the top to look over, expecting a field, instead I found a long drop the other side into sea, the material below was too loose to go back down. The only option was to walk sideways, and eventually climb over the remains of an old coastguard lookout covered in rusty barbed wire to reach land.
For black and white photography we can often improve the scene considerably by using yellow, orange or red filters that have an effect on contrast of different colours but also allow us to see further through mist. We may find an advantage in using a UV or sky filter, and in many cases we will find that a polarizer can be used to both improve colour saturation over a distance and reduce the effect of the scattering of light, and therefore reducing mist and haze. It can also improve cloud detail. Other filters we may want to use are graduated neutral density filters, to allow the sky brightness to be reduced, and on some occasions sunset filters and other effect filters.
Mast and Low Level Aerial Photography
In addition to being able to find a viewpoint, you can get artificial viewpoints by using a tall mast that your camera is on, Kite and balloon photography. Other possibilities are cherry pickers, funfair rides, fireman's engine ladders (very scary, they move a lot), hot air balloons and of course aerial photography with helicopters and the like.
In the article how to find viewpoints , we look at the somewhat easier task of locating places that provide opportunities with our feet on something solid.