This Friday I’d like to continue with depth of field. But before I do I want to thank all those who contributed to my campaign to replace my camera gear (which tumbled over a waterfall several months back) and get back to showing you all some fresh material on this blog. I will be sending out a reminder email to those folks, to pick the images they want.
I didn’t make it all the way to my goal, but I got partway there. And that means something. I’m busy right now working 7 days/week doing the only thing I know how to do that makes me money quickly. And it’s actually legal, go figure! So it won’t be long before I make up the difference myself.
Make sure and check out the first two parts of this series: Part I and Part II. They go over the basics behind depth of field. The example here will show how to apply those basic principles in the field, so it’s important to know them.
Cape Ground Squirrel
I was traveling through Namibia when I took a break from the road. Namibia is one country in Africa where you can very easily rent a car and take off on an impromptu road trip, like you would in the western U.S. If the roads in the west were still largely unpaved that is.
I strolled up a small ridge with my camera and one lens (a 400 mm.). Suddenly directly ahead this cute little fellow popped his head up and looked at me with big dark eyes. I had never encountered this rather tall slender rodent before. Later I found out it was a cape ground squirrel, native to southern Africa.
Of course I wanted a shot of him, and quickly before he decided I wasn’t all that interesting. But as usual my position wasn’t ideal. A portion of the scrubby hillside formed the background not far behind him. My lens only opened up to a maximum aperture of f/5.6.
Since I wanted a portrait that showed him plus a bit of the bare ground at his feet but little else, the hillside was a problem. It was too close and would have been too much in focus, too distracting. I wanted as shallow a depth of field as I could get. But I was limited in what I could do. I couldn’t open the aperture larger than f/5.6, couldn’t go longer than 400 mm., and couldn’t change lenses.
I was down to one option, changing relative distance between camera to subject and subject to background. And since I couldn’t move closer without scaring him off, increasing the subject to background distance was all I had.
I grabbed a quick shot or two, in case he ran away. Then I slid down low, lying on my belly so that the hillside behind him was out of view. Now a much more distant ridge formed the background. Problem was, the lower point of view put my little friend out of view.
So I waited, hoping that his curiosity would get the best of him. Sure enough he popped his head up again. Luckily his long tail (which is what fascinated me about him in the first place) trailed to the side. I had been framing a vertical photo, but I quickly switched to get his tail in and fired off a few frames before he zipped off to continue his daily desert rounds.
I ended up with a pretty good shot of him, a key part of it being the smooth gray out of focus background. The shallow depth of field was afforded by a relatively long focal length of 400 mm. combined with the squirrel’s proximity to me relative to the distance between him and the ridge behind. The low point of view resulted in the picture’s main weakness, an out of focus rock low in the foreground.
I tend to combine all the factors controlling depth of field (aperture, focal length and positioning). But since focal length is pretty much dictated by the composition I’m after, aperture and positioning are the main variables. I’ll move closer or farther from my subject, change point of view to move background forward or back, or ask my subject to move if that’s possible (I haven’t figured out how to speak to animals yet). All the while I will adjust aperture to the degree that I can.
Of course I run into shutter speed limitations when adjusting aperture. But it’s easy to mitigate that by adjusting ISO. Better to have a little noise from a higher ISO than to have a blurry subject because of a shutter speed that is too slow. I have ruined many a shot because I thought animals or people were perfectly still when they weren’t. I’ve been a very slow learner in this regard. Always shoot live subjects at somewhat faster shutter speeds than you think are necessary.