Think of landscapes and it's likely that the images you see in your mind's eye are grand vistas, vast areas and huge spectacular viewpoints.
Outdoor and nature photographer Rod Planck has a modification to make to that thought. For him, there's a landscape other than the vista, and it is, he says, "all the real estate that doesn't cover hundreds of acres." It's the section of the forest, the part of the canyon, the segment of the waterfall—all the bits and pieces that make up the grand whole. He calls his photos of those areas "intimate landscapes."
Examples? All the accompanying images.
"Long Canyon in Utah runs for over two miles, with thousand-foot high cliffs," Rod says, "but from the huge area I was walking through, the section I chose to photograph is probably five feet by eight feet." So instead of trying for a photo that aims to define or illustrate all of Long Canyon, you have the first image you see here.
"What I was looking for, and looking at," Rod adds, "are all the intricate, beautiful things that make Long Canyon, Long Canyon."
The intimate landscape, you'll notice, needn't have a sense of scale. "I don't feel that a true sense of scale is always important in a photograph," Rod says. "If you compare the section of Long Canyon with the mushroom [the second photo], and you had no idea what either one was, I could tell you the mushroom was the size of my house and the section of canyon wall was like a postage stamp. The goal of what I'm trying to do in those photographs is the same: I want you to look at the mushroom photo for the pattern and texture; same thing for the canyon wall. I don't want you figuring out how big either is."
In these photographs, Rod's not illustrating a textbook; he's aiming for a sense a wonder. He's said that he feels photography serves three purposes: documentation, illustration and creativity. All are valid, and he's comfortable with all, but the intimate landscape has to do, he says, "with using the camera as a tool to explore creativity."
But more important than the camera is the lens, and Rod's choices, and how he uses them, might not be what you'd expect. Many times Rod's intimate landscapes are captured with Micro-NIKKORS—the AF Micro-NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8D, the PC-E-Micro-NIKKOR-85mm-f/2.8D and the AF-Micro-NIKKOR-200mm-f/4D-IF-ED. "They're ideal lenses for this type of expression," he says.
The appeal of the 200mm Micro-NIKKOR is the longer working distance it allows. Working distance is pretty much what it sounds like—the distance your subject has to be from the lens in order for you to get the shot you want; the longer the focal length of the lens, the greater the working distance. Rod also likes the narrow angle of view the 200mm Micro-NIKKOR offers. "The tightest close-ups I make are often the result of the 200mm," he says.
"I find it easier to work with the extra working distance, and it's certainly easier to position the tripod for animated subjects—you can't do what I do with dragonflies with less than 200mm; they're not going to let me get close—but also for non-animated subjects. For the spider web photo [the third image], I couldn't get too close. If I'd moved a blade of grass, I'd have moved the spider web and knocked the dewdrops off.
"And the mushroom: in the terrain where it was growing, it would have been impossible to get that perspective with a shorter lens. I photographed it from underneath, and I had to get down this little slope to get below it with the tripod, and if I'd had to move the tripod up the slope to get closer with a shorter lens, it would have created a different perspective. Being farther away from the mushroom with the longer micro lens meant I could make the picture I wanted."
The fourth image, the blue-gray log and the frosted leaves of the wild blueberry, is a classic example of Rod's use of the 60mm Micro-NIKKOR. "I find that for slightly larger subjects, when working distance and angle of view are not as critical, the 60mm is perfect. It's great for 'photograph the forest floor' kind of photography." For the log photo the tripod head was tilted toward the ground, and you're looking almost straight down.
Rod also uses the 60mm Micro-NIKKOR to create panoramic images. The fifth image, the white birch forest panorama, is comprised of five vertical panels stitched together in post production. "I love the sharpness of this lens," he says. "The foreground elements are kind of close and there are some distant elements, and I needed both sharp. I used aperture as a tool for that. This photo needed the 60mm micro's tack sharpness at f/22."
The 85mm Micro-NIKKOR PC (perspective control) lens has become a workhorse for his intimate landscapes. Essentially, the barrel of a PC lens can be shifted to allow the camera to remain parallel and perpendicular to a subject. It can also be tilted, and this movement is the key to several of Rod's intimate landscape photos. "The tilt doesn't increase depth of field," he says, "it re-designates the plane of focus, and by doing that you've expanded not the depth of field, but the range of sharpness. I'm still stopping that lens down, but I've increased the area of focus."
A prime example is the sixth photo, the waterfall image, in which the foreground has the feeling of being quite close and the background has a distinct distant feeling. The photo is sharp foreground to background because Rod used the tilt capabilities of the 85mm Micro-NIKKOR PC to re-designate the foreground to background area as his plane of focus. The result is an increased range of sharpness. "In this photo I wanted to get a longer shutter speed to get a silky effect to the water and still have sharpness in the rocks.
"By choosing the 85mm PC, I'm optically magnifying what's in front of me over what a person with, say, a 24mm lens will be seeing. I often use the tilt if I don't want to or can't use depth of field for the sharpness I want to get—maybe greater depth of field will give me a slower shutter speed than I want; let's say I don't want flowers moving in the breeze, for example."
There's a good deal of technical expertise at work in producing these intimate landscapes, but the key to the images is the exploration of creativity. "The point of making these photographs," Rod says, "is to express my vision."
The Tilt Procedure
Before you begin the tilt procedure, make sure the lens is in the neutral position (the tilt and shift mechanisms locked). Compose your image wih the camera on the tripod, making sure that the horizon is level.
With the focus ring, focus on the closest point in your composition.
Without touching the focus ring, use the tilt knob on the lens to bring the farthest point in your composition into focus. This procedure throws the closest point in your composition out of focus; ignore this for now. (If the farthest point can't be brought into focus, you may be trying to tilt from a perspective that is too low. Raise your camera up a little and try again. Also, if you are tilting from a low perspective, the tilting process will change your composition, so you might want to recompose after you tilt.)
With the focus ring, refocus on the closest point in your composition. This procedure throws the farthest point in your composition out of focus; ignore this for now.
Again, without touching the focus ring, use the tilt knowb to de-tilt the lens (reduce the amount of tilt) to bring the farthest point in your composition into focus again.
With the focusing ring, touch up the focus if necessary. At this point, you may have to recompose slightly as de-tilting may have shifted your composition.
So, its focus on the close, tilt for the far, refocus on the close, de-tilt for the far, touch up the focus.