As you probably know, landscape photography is a big part of Mark All My Words. Almost every article I write has some amount of it, and it’s what my site has become known for. Even so, I rarely write about the technical aspects of landscape photography because I try to focus on what’s in front of the camera rather than behind it.
But today I would like to change that.
So, to start things off, I’m going to be writing about one of my hikes from 2019, throughout which I will include commentary regarding one of several elements of photography that I would like to expand on in the future. This element is very basic, so basic in fact that many people overlook it altogether. But despite this, it’s incredibly important and can radically alter any photo by creating a sense of depth or space, depending on how it’s used. And that element is aspect ratio — which is, very simply, the proportion of width to height, in that order.
(To clarify, 9:16 — read as “nine by sixteen” — means there are nine units of width for every sixteen units of height, making a very tall vertical image, similar to what you’d see on Snapchat. In the same way, 16:9 means there are sixteen units of width for every nine units of height, making a very wide horizontal image, similar to what you’d see on Youtube. And of course there are many other aspect ratios, including 1:1, 3:4, 4:3, 5:7, 7:5, etc. Just remember that a smaller first number makes a tall shot and a larger first number makes a wide shot.)
With that settled, let’s get started.
On May 12th, 2019, I went hiking at the Eno Rock Quarry, one of the most iconic hiking destinations in central North Carolina. Of course I’ve been there and written about it before, but I’ve never taken quite the number of photos of the quarry that I did on this occasion, when the light was moody and overcast but also exceptionally even and natural. This in turn allowed me to take some of my best landscape photography to date.
After arriving at the Cabe Lands Access (4950 Howe St., Durham, NC 27705) at Eno River State Park in the late afternoon on a Sunday, I got out of my car and joined Cabe Lands Trail, planning to take an easy 1.8 mile hike. Taking the left trail from the parking lot, I hiked north on a gentle downward slope through beech and pine trees, headed for the Eno River. After a tenth of a mile, I came to a fork in the trail and turned left, taking the west branch of Cabe Lands Trail.
Continuing downhill, I soon came to a creek, which I crossed easily. After that, the trail started to ascend, winding back and forth through a forest of maple, beech, and pine. Occasional openings in the canopy revealed glimpses of the Eno Valley, extending for miles to the north.
After a half mile, I reached the junction with Eno Quarry Trail and turned left. Passing through a further stretch of beech and pine forest, with occasional indications of old roads and homesteads, I covered 0.4 miles and reached the edge of the Eno Rock Quarry itself.
Crossing Rhodes Creek by a ford made of stepping stones, I came to a very narrow stretch of trail, tracing a loop around Eno Rock Quarry.
After a few hundred feet, I came to an opening in the canopy and caught a stunning glimpse of the quarry — which gives every appearance of being a regular lake, despite the fact that it’s man-made and drops straight from the bank to sixty feet deep in places, with no shallows whatsoever.
Soon I reached a clearing, where the land to my left was marshy and sodden. As a result, I had to watch my footing as I found the best possible angle for my first comparison of aspect ratio.
Like most of the photos in this article, the resulting photo was in 9:16 aspect ratio, or “smartphone ratio.” This is the aspect ratio that many phones use as their default, since it provides a very tall image, well suited to the dimensions of a hand-held device. The advantage of this aspect ratio is that it shows a great deal of foreground, giving the viewer the sense that he can almost step into the photo. However, the disadvantage is that it requires a very narrow focus point — something sharply vertical, like a building, a tree, or a human face — otherwise it will make the image look cramped and claustrophobic.
Tilting my phone on its side, I decided to take a wide shot as well.
The resulting photo was originally in 16:9 aspect ratio, but I changed this after the fact. The result is an aspect ratio of 4:3, or “postcard ratio.” This aspect ratio is good for conveying a sense of spacious comfort, almost like a living room writ small. It works well with a variety of different focus points, both tall and wide, and looks good on both a phone and a tablet. However, it doesn’t give as much foreground and therefore lacks the depth and spatial immediacy of a 9:16 shot; similarly it lacks the widescreen effect of a 16:9 shot, which is even more effective at conveying wide open space.
Continuing my clockwise hike, I progressed around the west edge of Eno Rock Quarry and passed the main dive, where people jump into the water during the summer months. Then I reached the northeast corner, came to an opening in the forest canopy, and stopped to admire the view.
Returning to the trail, I soon reached the east edge of Eno Rock Quarry. Then I descended the steep embankment around the quarry and came to Rhodes Creek again.
For a moment, I thought about climbing back up the embankment and completing the loop of Eno Quarry Trail. But then I looked at the Eno River in the distance, noticed that the bank was navigable, and made a split-second change of plans.
Heading north, I went a couple hundred feet before reaching the banks of the Eno River. Then I turned right and starting hiking northeast, headed for Cabe Lands Trail. Before long, I came to an outcropping of rock, jutting into the river, that provided an ideal vantage point. After choosing the best possible angle, I pulled out my phone, pointed it upstream, and got to work.
The resulting photo was in 9:16 aspect ratio, with the waters of the Eno extending so far into the foreground that they appear ready to spill out of the frame.
Tilting my phone on its side, I tried another aspect ratio.
The resulting photo was in 16:9 aspect ratio, or “widescreen ratio.” This is the default ratio for Youtube and HDTV, and it’s very close to the standard that was used in movie theaters for many years. It provides a sense of immersion and expansion that’s ideally suited for wide open spaces extending far to the left and right. On laptops or televisions it looks very good, but it requires very high resolution on an HDTV to keep it from becoming grainy or pixelated. Similarly it loses a great deal of its potency on a phone, where it’s often compressed to fit the width of the screen, leaving empty spaces above and below the image.
Turning around, I realized the view was even better than the one I had just shot. So I pointed my phone downstream and got to work once again.
The resulting photo was in 9:16 aspect ratio, once again allowing the waters of the Eno River to extend so far into the foreground that you can almost feel the splash of cold water at your feet.
Tilting my phone on its side, I tried another wide shot.
The resulting photo was in 16:9 aspect ratio, allowing the forest to spill into the shot around the edges and accentuating the width and spaciousness of the river.
Returning to the river bank, I kept hiking and soon reached another ideal vantage point, where the waters of the Eno River stretched languorously into the distance.
After a quarter mile of climbing and scrambling over boulders and outcroppings of rock, I reached Cabe Lands Trail. Then I continued east for another quarter mile before the trail turned sharply to my right, headed south.
Hiking the last 0.4 miles back to the parking lot, I thought about the photos I’d taken and how they’ve changed the way I look at the world. I thought about how much more I see than I ever did before, how much more I understand because of what I see, and how that understanding has deepened my appreciation for life in ways I never imagined.
And that was when I realized, not for the first time, that landscape photography isn’t just about pretty pictures or aspect ratio or making people’s jaws drop. Rather it’s about a relationship with the land and the planet of which it is a part — a planet that desperately needs us to care, to feel, and to take action on its behalf.
Because if we don’t, then no one will.