The Decisive Viewpoint

‘Rhue Lighthouse’, Loch Broom, Highland, Scotland
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon TS-E17mm f/4 L, 25 seconds @ f/16, ISO 50
LEE 3-stop ND, 2-stop ND & 2-stop ND Grad filters.
Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 + Manfrotto 405 Pro Geared Head.
Adobe Lightroom.

“The most decisive factor in determining composition is viewpoint.”

The Decisive Viewpoint

This magnificent lighthouse stands on the shore of Loch Broom, near Ullapool on Scotland’s west coast. I made my image during the magical ‘blue-hour’ at dusk, as the twilight colours caressed the western cloudscape.

On arrival at any new location like this, my initial thoughts are concerned with finding the best composition. The most decisive factor in determining composition is viewpoint, so I usually walk around, observing how the juxtaposition of various scenic elements changes when I move backwards, forwards, left, right and finally up and down. It helps to think of landscapes as featuring foreground, middle-ground and background elements; and the success or failure of an image like this depends on the perfect balance of these three ‘layers’. An appropriately chosen height of viewpoint is the key to such visual balance. Moving up or down reveals more or less of the middle-ground respectively: it actually has an even more significant impact on the foreground, but we can control this separately by choice of placement of the bottom of our frame, to reveal more or less.

The Canon 17mm tilt-shift lens is unparalleled for image quality at this focal length, even when used without any movements applied. However, the ‘shift’ function is invaluable for almost any composition: it has always been an essential component of workflow for architectural photographers, especially when using wide-angle lenses. When using low viewpoints, the vertical sides of a structure like this lighthouse will converge and make it appear like a triangle. When the front part of the lens is shifted upwards, such convergence is corrected so that the sides become parallel again. Even in purely natural scenes without any converging verticals, the ‘shift’ mechanism can be used creatively to ‘remould’ the composition, effectively ‘stretching’ and increasing the presence of any elements like mountains or clouds present in the top half of the scene. It therefore becomes possible to create new versions of any given scene with subtle compositional exaggerations.

I positioned myself next to this rock-pool and selected a low viewpoint that balanced the foreground to background elements and also included the reflection of the lighthouse. A long exposure ensured the creative blurring of the cloudscape. The movement of the clouds from directly above me towards the lighthouse, when distorted by use of such a wide-angle lens and exaggerated further using ‘shift’, created this fanning out appearance with wonderful lines leading the viewer’s eye to the main subject.

This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography Magazine. Reproduced with kind permission.