The Importance of Camera Positioning

By Bruce Barnbaum Back to


The Lofoten Islands are a mountainous archipelago off the coast of Norway at the Arctic Circle. They look like the tops of Grand Tetons sticking up out of the water, perhaps the most striking land- and seascape I have ever encountered.

I first visited the Lofoten Islands in 1980, when I was invited to teach a photography workshop to an invited group of working professional Norwegian photographers. Prior to the workshop, I traveled to parts of Norway—a startlingly beautiful country—finding the Lofoten Islands to be even more magnificent than the rest of the country . . . and that’s saying a lot.

I’ve been there several times since then. My most recent visit was in 2000, when I presented a workshop exclusively on the islands. It was a marvelous 10 days of exploration and photography of a land that is utterly spectacular and wild, yet gentle and civilized at the same time.

Prior to the start of the workshop, I did some of my own scouting, exploration, and photography, driving from island to island over bridges or through underwater tunnels (in the recent past ferry boats took you from island to island). It’s now easy—perhaps too easy—to get from place to place, from island to island on the Lofotens.

On one of those scouting trips, I drove a long road hugging the shore of one of the islands, with spectacular views across the channel to the rugged mountains of the adjacent island. Eventually the road curved sharply and narrowed to a single paved lane, and then became a dirt road. I had no idea where it was taking me, but the exploration was wonderful. Everything I had seen along the road ranged from beautiful to spectacular (a narrow range to be sure, but offering little in the way of complaints), so I assumed it would have to be wonderful wherever the road ended. Eventually it ended . . . or at least petered out to something that barely resembled a road any- more, so I decided to go no farther.

I was just a few yards from the coastal waters between islands, and the scene across the channel was almost dreamlike. I was now looking at a set of completely different islands from the ones across the channel on my drive down to this point. These were not as high, but they were equally magnificent.

No more than 30 yards into the water from the beach were a set of black, rounded rocks forming not a barrier, but a frame for the distant scene beyond. Across the narrow channel (probably just a bit more than a mile away) there was an island of low, rocky hills (perhaps just a spit of the main part of the island), and beyond that another island featuring sharp pinnacles and rugged slopes. A still-more-distant mountain- ous island—or perhaps just a higher, more distant portion of the same island—loomed beyond that. Between the low spit and the island there was a light, low fog at the water level, just perfect for separating the two.

It was mid-morning, perhaps about 10:30. The water was not a perfect mirror; there was a slight ripple that glazed over the mountain reflections. It was a spectacular, yet amazingly serene scene.

Although I was standing in a small, boulder-strewn cove, I had leeway to move to the left or right, back or forward, up or down. I carefully placed the camera where I did because I wanted the rounded top of the high foreground rocks to be placed where the low point of the distant island stood, and the highest point of its reflection in the water. It was a location that had the optimum interactions of forms.

I have found in my workshops that students tend to overlook the importance of critical camera positioning, and how it determines the relationships of forms within a scene. This oversight is especially pervasive among 35mm shooters, and even more among digital users, who tend to snap first, and follow up with numerous variations, rather than first considering the message to be conveyed or looking carefully for the optimum camera position to best convey that message. Furthermore, many digital users believe they can “fix it in Photoshop,” thereby relegating initial seeing to the dustbin. That’s not a good starting point.

Using a 210 mm lens on my 4×5 Linhof Technika camera, I exposed the negative to yield ample density in the fore- ground rocks, placing them, on average, well above Zone IV… in fact, almost at Zone V. The thin, brilliantly backlit clouds were almost blindingly bright, so I gave the negative minus development to reduce the overall contrast somewhat. Yet the straight print shows that with good, but very light, detail in the clouds, the foreground rocks become an unacceptable mass of black tonality.

To make the final print, I first made a contrast-reduction mask (also known as an unsharp mask), which brought the overall tones of the rocks and the clouds closer together. This allowed me to increase the contrast filtration while exposing the negative (e.g., the negative together with the mask, of course), thus giving me greater tonal separation within the foreground rocks, as well as between the spit and the more distant island.

Yet the print still requires dodging the foreground rocks throughout the basic exposure. This is followed by burning the sky and the water at the bottom of the image to fully bring out the subtle tonal variations in both the upper and lower portions of the image. Following that, depending on how evenly I dodged the foreground rocks, I may do a little residual bleaching of the rocks to lighten and separate tonalities that still appear too dark for my taste.

I normally print this image at 16×20 inches, but I have printed it as large as 30×40, giving the viewer a dramatic feeling of presence, as if you could walk (or, in this case, swim) right into the image. The serenity of the lightly rippled water contrasts with the etched, dark masses of the land, punctuated by the sharp pointed mountain to the left of center.

About the Author

Bruce Barnbaum
Bruce Barnbaum teaches photography workshops throughout the year, focusing on the art of seeing and the art of conveying impressions of your photographed world (real or imagined). He has two monographs in print: Tone Poems - Book 1, 2002; and Tone Poems - Book 2, 2005. Both are collaborative efforts, featuring a CD of classical piano music performed by Judith Cohen.