Archive for the ‘depth of field’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Macro Photography “in Flow”   5 comments

Morning dew in a Montana mountain meadow creates dazzling jewels in the light of the rising sun.

This series on flow and photography has taken on a life of its own; but don’t worry, it’s almost over!  If you haven’t been following along, flow is that state of intense focus where we lose track of time.  Check out Part I and Part II for tips on how to apply it to photography in general.  The rest of this series has applied flow to various genres (landscape, travel, etc.).  This week it’s macro and close-up photography.

Macro is probably the easiest kind of photography in which to experience flow.  There is something about focusing on the small that helps to capture and hold our attention, often for hours.  Macro can also require a lot of trial and error, at least for me it can!  If you don’t become frustrated too easily this can bring about intense engagement with the process.

Pasqueflower is a unique part of the alpine bloom every summer on Mt. Rainier, Washington.

Pasqueflower is a unique part of the alpine bloom every summer on Mt. Rainier, Washington.

Awhile back I did a series on macro photography, so check those posts out for a much more comprehensive tutorial.  The tips below are specific to achieving a state of flow during your macro shoots:

  • Look and Think Small.  It’s hard while on a walk to concentrate exclusively on finding macro subjects.  It would take hours to cover a mile!  But you will find macro opportunities if when you’re hiking along you look out for the odd bit of color, a contrasting shape or texture, or a little movement in the corner of your eye.  Both thinking about and looking for small subjects brings you into the present, and that facilitates flow, even before you take a single shot.
This brown basilisk in a Guatemalan forest almost escaped my attention.

This brown basilisk in a Guatemalan forest almost escaped my attention.

  • Work it.  When you do find something interesting, stick with it for awhile.  That is, work the subject.  Change settings and camera position to vary depth of field.  Vary angle and distance to get different backgrounds and compositions.  And don’t stop there.  Once you’re in “macro mode”, it’s easier to find other subjects, or as with flowers, other examples of the same subject.  Stay on your hands and knees, keep the macro lens on, and don’t worry about time.  Enjoy the flow.
After a few shots of this frog's whole body, I moved in closer and closer until I got a shot that empasized his watchful eye.

After a few shots of this frog’s whole body, I moved in closer and closer until I got a shot that empasized his watchful eye.

  • See the (small-scale) Light.  As photographers we are constant observers of the light.  But when you’re shooting close-up the patterns we are used to change.  All of a sudden you’re able to take advantage of the fact that your field of view is greatly reduced.  This makes it easier to get effective shots in light that would be difficult when shooting larger scenes.  So be a student of light on a small scale too.  Watch how it plays across confined spaces, and how larger elements like trees can help shade or spotlight your subject.  As with the first point above, this will help keep you in the present and accentuate flow.

 

A water lily in the middle of the Okavango Delta caught the light beautifully as we passed in our mokoro (dugout canoe).

A water lily in the middle of the Okavango Delta caught the light beautifully as we passed in our mokoro (dugout canoe).

  • Be Patient.  To one degree or another, patience is a requirement of all photography.  But when you’re waiting out the wind in a field of flowers or approaching an insect or other small creature inch by inch, you learn the real meaning of patience in photography.  Mastering patience is a key part of making flow a more frequent experience.

This was a recent shot.  I sat patiently waiting for one of the dragonflies buzzing around to land in this natural spotlight.

Macro photography is such a natural when it comes to flow that, even if you don’t normally do macro you’d do well to try it.  That’s because the practices that lead to successful macro photos will help you with the kinds of photography you do enjoy.  And because flow is relatively easy to experience with macro, you can more readily get into it next time you’re out, whatever kind of shooting you do.  Thanks for reading and have a happy weekend!

One of many desert five-spots in Death Valley, part of the so-called super-bloom of last spring.

One of many desert five-spots in Death Valley, part of the so-called super-bloom of last spring.

 

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Friday Foto Talk: Very Close Focus in Landscape Photography   2 comments

Lupine in bloom this past week at Rowena Crest in Oregon.  Shot with my 21 mm. Zeiss, a sharp lens but the modestly wide angle limits depth of field.

Lupine in bloom this past week at Rowena Crest in Oregon. Shot with my 21 mm. Zeiss, a sharp lens but the modestly wide angle limits depth of field. 21 mm., 1/13 sec. @ f/13, ISO 100; tripod.

Let’s continue with the focus on landscape photography.  I’m writing this on Saturday, April 16th.  My excuse is April 15th.  ‘Nuff said!  The topic is close focus, which is a challenge when shooting the near to far kind of landscape composition that is so popular today (it really wasn’t in the olden days).

With those very close elements in the foreground, most images call for focus throughout the scene.  As last week’s post indicated, these sorts of near to far compositions can work just as well when shooting intimate landscapes – those confined to smaller areas.  So let’s get into it!

  • CLOSE-FOCUS BENEFITS:  Near to far compositions are the kind that can lend a sense of depth.  Even more reliably they can also is highlight a foreground subject, giving the viewer a good look at it and maybe even “putting them into the scene”.  Why focus on or very nearly on this close subject?  If you’re using a lens with a wide enough angle (less than ~21 mm. full-frame or ~30 mm. crop-frame) you have to focus either right on or a hair beyond your closest element in order for that close subject to be in focus.  And you almost always want it to be in focus.  Generally an image with its closest elements out of focus rarely works.  It can when using those elements to frame the photo, but not very often (see image of tree below).
Rowena Crest, Oregon, sunrise the other morning.  I focused right on the nearest flowers but the wind kept them from being very sharp.  16 mm., 1/20 sec. @ f/13, ISO 200.

Rowena Crest, Oregon, sunrise the other morning. I focused right on the nearest flowers but the wind kept them from being very sharp. 16 mm., 1/20 sec. @ f/13, ISO 200; tripod.

  • THE CHALLENGE OF CLOSE FOCUS:  It’s often difficult to get everything in focus when you have very close elements.  And if your foreground is only a foot or two away, getting a sharp background is going to be especially difficult.  You’ll be forced to either move further away from your close subject, making it smaller and less impactful, or allow the background to be a little or a lot out of focus (deliberately by using a wider aperture).  Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with an out of focus background.  But what if you want everything sharp?  Read on.
Late November ion the Oklahoma prairie.  I wasn't too close to this cottonwood to pose much of a depth of field challenge, but the subject's size helped to create what I wanted.  16 mm., 1/50 sec. @ f/8.0, ISO 400, handheld.

Late November ion the Oklahoma prairie. I wasn’t too close to this cottonwood to pose much of a depth of field challenge, but the subject’s size helped to create what I wanted. 16 mm., 1/50 sec. @ f/8.0, ISO 400; handheld.

  • DEPTH OF FIELD SOLUTIONS – LENS:  Even at f/22 and at wide angles, most lenses can’t give you sharpness from say, a foot or two on out to 100+ feet.  Most of us use these more common wide-angle zooms that start at ~16 mm.  Despite the fact that they often can focus closer than a foot, for depth of field out to the background they work only up to a point, usually no closer than around three feet (and further if you’re out at 20 mm. or more.

But there are lenses with focal lengths significantly shorter than 16 mm.  On a camera with full-frame sensor equipped with an ultra-wide angle lens like Canon’s newish (and spendy!) 11-24 mm., you can get everything in focus with one shot.  The same goes for fish-eye lenses.

  • MORE LENS OPTIONS:  One type of lens that does a slightly better job at depth of field is the wide-angle with a bulbous front glass element, like a fish-eye lens.   Examples include Nikon’s famous 14-24 mm. f/2.8, the Tokina 16-28 mm. f/2.8, and primes like Canon’s 14 mm. f/2.8L II.

Another option, again an expensive one, is the tilt-shift lens.  Canon’s excellent 17 mm. and 24 mm. tilt-shift lenses can be made (by tilting) to bring everything into acceptable focus.  The 17 mm. has the bulbous front glass as well, so it rocks in this department.  Note a big downside to using lenses with bulbous front glass elements:  you can’t use screw-on filters, at least without an extra kit – sort of a housing that goes around the lens and uses huge filters.  But these can be shockingly expensive.

A very simple shot of wind turbines in the Palouse, Washington.  16 mm., 1/40 sec. @ f/13, ISO 400, handheld.

A very simple shot of wind turbines in the Palouse, Washington. 16 mm., 1/40 sec. @ f/13, ISO 400; handheld.

  • DEPTH OF FIELD SOLUTIONS – FOCUS STACKING:  In order to get good depth of field front to back when your closest elements are very close, and lacking a specialized lens, one option is to focus stack.  You shoot several exposures of the same exact composition, using a tripod.  Start by focusing at one extreme (the closest element, for e.g.) and work toward the other, focusing on increasingly distant parts of the scene in our example.  Then in Photoshop you stack those images and blend them via masking to get one picture with everything in focus.  By the way, this technique is used in macro photography as well, since macro lenses have very short depths of field.

 

  • FOCUS STACKING CAUTIONS:  Most landscape photographers today focus-stack with nearly every image.  I’m the opposite; I prefer the simplicity of one exposure and don’t like sitting in front of Photoshop for too long.  If my focal length is relatively long then I consider it (image below).  One thing that’s often forgotten in the focus- (and exposure-) stacking frenzy is the fact that when things move in the frame from one exposure to the next, you’ll have a hard time later on the computer matching things up.  It may be impossible to create a natural looking image.  I’m talking things like living subjects, fog, waves and other stuff that’s not all at infinity.  This is a bigger issue with exposure stacking, since then even clouds can present problems.
Pink heather blooms on an alpine hillside in Olympic National Park, Washington.  28 mm., 1/8 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100; tripod; focus-stacked.

Pink heather blooms on an alpine hillside in Olympic National Park, Washington. 28 mm., 1/8 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100; tripod; focus-stacked.

  • CLOSE FOCUS FOR INTIMATE LANDSCAPES:   When you’re shooting on a smaller scale, the elements tend to appear more similar in size than when shooting a traditional landscape.  So if you want to highlight a subject by putting it close it may, depending on how intimate (small) your composition is, be necessary to get very close indeed.  Then you’re back to the same problem as mentioned above; even wide-angle lenses don’t like to put everything in focus when set on one or two feet.  It’s surprising how rapidly focus drops off.  Focus-stacking intimate landscapes can be a real pain, since they tend to be composed of a lot of vegetation and other hard-to-mask elements.
Recent image of a barn along Oregon's John Day River.  50 mm., 1/5 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100; tripod.

Recent image of a barn along Oregon’s John Day River. 50 mm., 1/5 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100; tripod.

Intimate landscape looking up into a large tropical hardwood: Monte Cristo forest (bosque) in El Salvador.    Note the out-of-focus framing branches at bottom.

Intimate landscape looking up into a large tropical hardwood: Forest (bosque) of Monte Cristo, El Salvador. Note the out-of-focus branches at bottom acting as a partial frame.

  • A FINAL WORD:  Every landscape photographer falls in love at some point with the near to far composition.  I did, and it was all I looked to shoot for a time.  But that phase passed and I realized I would be making a mistake by continuing to stress about finding super-close foregounds.  Sure, pigging out on a particular kind of image is useful to teach you how to shoot it.  But to continue in that manner is to be a one-trick pony.  It’s like going out looking for one specific image and being unwilling to take what is there; it’s a recipe for frequent disappointment.

I observe people doing this almost as often as I see other photographers in the field; for example the other morning.  It tends to produce herd behavior so it’s noticeable.  You will almost always get more good images when you avoid single-mindedness when looking for something to shoot.

As I’ve said before in this blog, variety is the spice of photography as well as life.  Flexibility is key too.  So use the tips found in this post and elsewhere when you’re focusing close.  But save yourself some hassle and shoot plenty with your closest subject far enough away to get everything in focus.  That can be satisfying as well (image below).

Swan River National Wildlife Refuge in western Montana, an image that despite no close subject has been purchased for large canvases.  58 mm., 8 sec. @ f/10, ISO 100

Swan River Wildlife Refuge in western Montana.  Despite no close subject this has been purchased for large canvas prints.  58 mm., 8 sec. @ f/10, ISO 100; tripod.

Friday Foto Talk: Focus   4 comments

Dawn at the salt flats: Death Valley National Park, California.

I’m feeling a little guilty about skipping a couple weeks of Friday Foto Talk.  My excuse is that I was mostly away from the internet, camping in the desert.  I think I’m about ready to collate all of these into an e-book (or two!).  Looking back I’ve poured a lot of my knowledge and experience into these Friday posts.

Last time we looked into a fairly subtle topic (subjective vs. objective approaches), so this Friday let’s get back to basics.  Achieving good focus, and the larger issue of getting sharp photos, should be one of the first things you get good at, from a technical point of view, when learning photography.  This post will focus on focus!  It won’t go into the other things you need to do to get sharp images, which I’ve discussed in past posts.

A blooming creosote bush at dawn in the sand dunes at Death Valley.

A blooming creosote bush at dawn in the sand dunes at Death Valley.

WHAT IS FOCUS

The best way to understand this is to play with lenses (free of cameras, eyeglasses or binoculars) and a blank wall or white sheet of paper, with a strong directional light source.  You probably did this in high school science class, drawing light ray diagrams like the one below.

Light rays (which can also be understood as waves) travel roughly parallel with each other as they travel from where they were reflected off the subject to your camera lens.  They are bent inwards by the lens, coming together into a focal point.  From the center of your lens to the focal point is the focal length, usually expressed in millimeters.  Just behind the focal point sits your sensor (or film), the focal plane where an image is formed.  By changing that distance between sensor and lens you bring the subject into focus.

A convex lens like that in a camera brings light rays together and an image into focus.

A convex lens like that in a camera brings light rays together and an image into focus.

It’s important to realize that once you have a subject in focus, it is sitting in a “plane of focus” (which corresponds to the focal plane inside the camera).  Things above, below and to the side of your subject that are the same distance from your lens also sit in that plane, and so are in focus as well.  Things that are off the plane of focus, either closer or further from your lens, are technically not in focus.  But hang on!  They only get blurry gradually as the distance from the plane increases.

What this means for a photographer is that, depending on your depth of field, much of the image (even all of it in many cases) can appear to be sharp & in focus.  This is despite only a small part of the image being smack dab on the focal plane.  It’s a case of having a sufficient depth of field.  If you go for shallow depth of field, only what is on or very nearly on the focal plane will be in focus, with the rest of the image being blurry.

I found this bighorn sheep skull far up a canyon in Death Valley. It sits on a blanket of mud and debris brought down in the flash floods that struck during heavy storms last fall.

I found this bighorn sheep skull far up a canyon in Death Valley. It sits on a blanket of mud and debris brought down in the flash floods that struck during heavy storms last fall.

GETTING FOCUSED IMAGES

Now that we’ve done a little optics 101, let’s get into some practical tips on how to achieve good focus.  Most of what follows applies to whatever DSLR you may be using.  It’s even mostly applicable to mirrorless cameras.  But since I use a Canon, there are a few things that you’ll need to translate to your camera’s specific controls.  Which leads to the first point:

  • Know your camera.  You should be able to work the controls that affect focus (and exposure) without looking, and really without thinking.  Most DSLRs allow you to change which buttons control focus and exposure.  The default setup that most people use is where shutter button controls both auto-focus and exposure.  A half-press of the shutter button starts autofocus and also forces the camera to take a meter reading, fixing exposure.  Full press takes the picture.
A purple mimulus (monkeyflower) blooms in one of Death Valley's canyons. Getting at least two of the blooms to line up on the plane of focus was key.

A purple mimulus (monkeyflower) blooms in one of Death Valley’s canyons. Getting at least two of the blooms to line up on the plane of focus was key.

  • Be flexible in how you use auto-focus.  There are several ways to go about shooting with autofocus.  As you get better as a photographer you’ll realize that where you focus is usually not the composition you want to shoot.  There are three basic ways to approach this using the viewfinder (see below for further options using LiveView).
    • You can point the center of the frame at your subject, half-press the shutter button to get focus, then move the camera to the composition you actually want.
    • It can be easier and more accurate to frame the composition you want first, then change the autofocus point to the one that covers your subject.  On Canon DSLRs, there’s a little button on the top-right that you press with your thumb.  Then you work the joystick on the camera back to change the AF point.
    • A third option is to just focus where you want the focal plane to be, for examples 2/3 into the frame for a landscape where you don’t have important elements that are very close to you.  Then switch your lens to manual focus and shoot away, concentrating on composition and exposure without worrying about focus.  This can be a quick and easy way to go if you’re doing several shots of the same general scene.
In this diagram what they are labeling focal plane I call the "plane of focus", to distinguish it from the actual focal plane, which corresponds to the camera sensor. Click image to visit source page.

In this diagram what they are labeling focal plane I call the “plane of focus”, to distinguish it from the actual focal plane, which corresponds to the camera sensor. Click image to visit source page.

  •  Depth of field and focus go hand in hand.  The diagram above shows depth of field in the simplest way.  And it really is simple in concept.  But the devil is in the details as they say.  How adept you are at working depth of field and focus directly affects how many good shots you get, especially in dynamic, rapidly changing circumstances. 
    • Focal length matters.  You probably already know about how aperture affects your depth of field (how much of the field of view is in focus).  What many novices don’t appreciate enough is how big an influence focal length is on depth of field.  The shorter the focal length (wider-angle of view), the more depth of field you have.  As you zoom in to longer focal lengths, you lose depth of field and need to stop down in aperture (higher f/ numbers) to maintain depth of field.  With some very wide-angle lenses, everything will be in focus for any apertures above f/5.6 or f/8.
    • Lens matters.  In a similar way to focal length, each lens has its own focus characteristics.  While it’s often subtle, some lenses tend to give better depth of field than others.  And of course some are sharper than others, but that’s really separate from focus.  Learn how your lenses render subjects in terms of focus and depth of field.
In Death Valley N.P., California, charcoal kilns leftover from the mining era high up in the Panamint Range offer a spectacular view of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada.

In Death Valley N.P., California, charcoal kilns leftover from the mining era high up in the Panamint Range offer a spectacular view of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada.

 

The narrows of Marble Canyon in Death Valley are one heck of a great hike!

The narrows of Marble Canyon in Death Valley, one heck of a fun hike!

  • Lens calibration.  Some lenses arrive to your door with their focus needing to be calibrated with your camera’s auto-focus system.  A lens may actually focus slightly in front or in back of the focal plane, where your camera says it is focused.  Most DSLRs have the ability to calibrate the auto-focus for quite a long list of lenses.  So check out your owner’s manual and Google to see how to check focus for new lenses.   I’ve only had to calibrate a couple of mine.  Most good lenses, especially when they come from the same company that makes your camera, seem to be spot on in focus.  But all it takes is one to mess up a lot of pictures, so it’s a good idea to check each lens.

 

  • Know when to switch to manual focus.  When light is dim, or when contrast is low (such as in foggy conditions), it’s time to think about manual focus.  Sometimes what you’re shooting is dim or low-contrast, making your camera search for autofocus.  Sometimes I point your camera in another direction, at a subject that is about as far away as my intended subject.  Then I turn off autofocus and switch back to shoot my intended composition.  Or if everything is pretty dim and/or low-contrast, I will go to manual focus.  When I’m working close-up, especially with a macro lens, I almost always switch to manual focus, often setting the distance and moving the camera back and forth until I get good focus.
Because of low-contrast, it can be tough to use auto-focus in foggy conditions. Shot this morning.

Because of low-contrast, it can be tough to use auto-focus in foggy conditions.  Shot this morning with manual focus.

  • Manual focus is often better.  For some shooting manual focus is actually easier and more precise, especially with macro as mentioned above but also with landscapes.  Your camera has ways it will tell you when something is in focus.  Let’s say you change the switch on your lens to MF (manual focus).  If you point the center of the frame (or your selected AF point) at your subject and then rotate the focus ring, a green light is visible in the viewfinder to let you know you’ve achieved focus.  Also if you have it enabled, an audible beep sounds as well.  I have a couple lenses that are manual focus only.  For those I use the focus confirmation light nearly all the time, unless I’m using LiveView (see below).  I don’t like beeps so I never have that enabled.

This kind of shot demands focusing very closely and upping depth of field as much as possible by using a small aperture and as short a focal length as possible.

  • Using LiveView to focus.  When you switch to LiveView, where the image is displayed on the LCD screen on the camera back, you can do everything that you normally do, including focus.  The ability to magnify the image makes LiveView a good way to achieve precise focus.  There is a little white square that shows which part of the image you will magnify, and you can move that white square around.  Normally the white square also is where your exposure is read from too.  Once you have your subject magnified, you then turn the focus ring slowly to get perfect focus.  Then you can move it around to check out how much of the rest of the scene is in focus.  By the way, you can also use autofocus with LiveView.  In that case the white square becomes your focal point, and lights up green when focus is achieved.

 

The low light of evening can make auto-focus difficult. Happy-green mesquite border the sand dunes at Death Valley.

The low light of evening can make auto-focus difficult. Happy-green mesquite bordering the sand dunes at Death Valley.

 

  • Use the depth of field (DOF) preview button.  If you’re using LiveView in the manner above, the DOF preview button comes in handy.  It will show you what is in focus in front or behind your focal plane.  Some cameras don’t have one, so for them you’ll need to shoot and review to zero in on your shot.  When you press the DOF preview button your lens stops down to the aperture you have set.  This allows you to see exactly how much of the frame is in focus, and how blurry the rest is.  You don’t have to be in LiveView; the button works through the viewfinder too.  But with LiveView’s magnifying abilities you can see a lot better.  Remember: whether you’re looking through the viewfinder or on LiveView, what you’re seeing is the view at the largest aperture your lens has (f/4 or f/2.8, for example).  It isn’t showing you the scene at the aperture you have set, and what the picture will be captured at.  If you’re at f/11 for example, you’re seeing more blurriness than the picture will have, unless you press the DOF preview button.

Whew!  That’s enough for now.  Practice makes perfect, so play with all the different ways to get your camera to focus where you want.  Use manual focus and LiveView, auto-focus points and the DOF preview button.  Change composition while fixing focus (and exposure) where it needs to be to get the focus and depth of field right for your images.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

A storm blows into Death Valley last week. Dramatic Tucki Peak stands eternal guard.

A storm blows into Death Valley last week. Dramatic Tucki Peak stands eternal guard.

 

Friday Foto Talk: Depth of Field III   13 comments

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.

The Cape ground squirrel lives in rocky areas of Namibia and South Africa.

The Cape ground squirrel lives in rocky areas of Namibia and South Africa.

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. 

Friday Foto Talk: Depth of Field II   19 comments

Sometimes quick off the cuff shots are the best. At a small rodeo in Oregon, not only the perfect depth of field, but the expression on this rider’s face was perfect as he looked respectfully at the bull that’d just “had fun” with him.  180 mm., 1/2000 sec. @ f/4.5, ISO 200.

This is the second of a three-part series on depth of field.  Take a look at my 1st one, where some basics are covered.

Depth of field plays a big part in how most images look. Thus it’s important that you are deliberate. I’m not saying be rigid; experiment with different apertures, focal lengths, etc. in order to get different looks. But when it comes time to select your best, when it’s time to decide which pictures you will put out there as representative of your subjects and your photography, then I think you need to take a more conscious approach.

It’s a fact that your choice of depth of field will influence the impact each of your images have. But your choices will also help to set the tone for each of them.  And what’s more, your choices will to some extent collectively influence your photographic style.  It’s like a sort of flow where you select and filter on the way to your unique identity as a photographer.  How you use depth of field is simply one aspect of that.

Along the Kafue River in Zambia, this black-backed barbet had some personality, so I went for shallow depth of field.

Along the Kafue River in Zambia, this black-backed barbet had some things to say, so I went for shallow depth of field.  400 mm., 1/640 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 200.

Who needs shallow depth of field when you place your subject at the entrance to a relatively dim barn.  This is Gold Dancer, apple of my eye for 8 happy years, who I just had to sell last week.

Who needs shallow depth of field when you place your subject at the entrance to a relatively dim barn. This is Gold Dancer, apple of my eye for 8 happy years, who I just had to sell last week.  121 mm., 1/60 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 200.

Honey-sellers in Ensenada, Mexico pass the time playing cards.  I wanted to put them only slightly out of focus.

Honey-sellers in Ensenada, Mexico pass the time playing cards. I wanted to put them only slightly out of focus.  28 mm., 1/80 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 160.

Whatever you do, you should not think of a particular aperture or depth of field as being right or wrong as judged by some imagined body of photography “experts”. It’s not even strictly right or wrong for your subject and conditions.  Rather, it can only be right or wrong based on your particular interpretation of the subject, light, mood, etc.  Trust your instincts and tune out the noise on Facebook etc.

That said, there are some general considerations:

      • Shallow depth of field is used most often to isolate a subject. The photographer wants the viewer to put maximum attention where the focus is and nowhere else. Along with relative brightness, focus is a great way to force a viewer’s eyes to go where you want them to go.
      • Large (deep) depth of field is used to show the whole story. In fact it’s known by many as a “storytelling” aperture. I’m not so sure that you can’t tell a story with an image that has shallow depth of field, but in general giving everything equal weight, focus-wise, facilitates movement of a viewer’s eyes through the scene. How you guide that eye movement is a big part of the art of composition.
      • Moderate depth of field is used when you don’t really have a good reason to go either shallow or deep. When everything in your frame is roughly the same distance away or when your subject is set against a featureless background, you might as well shoot at a medium aperture like f/8. The aperture at which most lenses are at their sharpest is in the f/5.6 to f/8 range.
Two Nicaraguan vaqueros, one of whom I wanted to focus on and the other not totally blur out.

Two Nicaraguan vaqueros, one of whom I wanted to be the focus while the other a supporting character (thus not totally blurred out).  127 mm., 1/250 sec. @ f/4.0, ISO 200.

 

When a large male great curassow stepped out of the jungle at Tikal, Guatemala, I didn’t worry about the fact that I had a messy background that was too close to blur no matter how shallow I went with depth of field.  I just thanked my luck and snapped the picture.  200 mm., 1/60 sec. @ f/5.0, ISO 200.

With this brown pelican in Sian Ka'an, Yucatan, I didn't need to go shallow with depth of field because the sky is featureless and would not distract.

With this brown pelican in Sian Ka’an, Yucatan, I didn’t need to go shallow with depth of field because the sky is featureless and would not distract.  200 mm., 1/2500 sec. @ f/6.3, ISO 200.

There are many ways to play around with depth of field, many ways to create a variety of looks in your images. Add to that all the additional control afforded by post- processing software, where you can simulate any lens effect and more, and you have a plethora of options.  Take it slow is my advice.

It all starts with the capture, and this is where the decisions you make regarding depth of field will make the most difference.  As I laid out in the 1st post in this series, aperture, focal length, positioning and lens choice are all worth adjusting and playing with in a wide variety of photographic situations. Soon enough you’ll know what works for you, and getting the look you want will become quicker and more unconscious.

But don’t let it become too automatic. Depth of field is too important a part of your photography to put on autopilot. Instead it should remain an integral part of your photography’s growth. Learn by shooting and making mistakes, by thinking and reevaluating, by questioning assumptions and yet going with it if it feels right.

Thanks for reading!  Next time we’ll look at an example or two.  All these guidelines are well and good, but how are decisions about depth of field actually applied while shooting in the real world?  Stay tuned.

Mount Hood Oregon and a blooming blue dick, and no way to possibly put them both in focus (without blending 2 shots), so I played around with different depths of field and selected this one.

Mount Hood and a blooming blue dick, with no way to put them both in focus without blending 2 shots.  So I played around with different depths of field and selected this one.  100 mm. (macro lens), 1/20 sec. @ f/32, ISO 160.

Monument Valley's Totem Poles at sundown.  This shot was all about maximizing depth of field.

Monument Valley’s Totem Poles at sundown. This shot, with elements I wanted in focus from the bushes a few feet away all the way out to the moon at a quarter million miles, was all about maximizing depth of field.  28 mm., 1/40 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100.

Weekly Foto Talk: Depth of Field I   8 comments

 

California poppies bloom in an impromptu roadside wildflower garden.

California poppies bloom in an impromptu roadside wildflower garden.  65 mm., 1/60 sec. @ f/13, ISO 200.

Depth of field is one of the most important elements of photography. For most of your captures, you’ll need to more or less consciously control depth of field. You probably already know that aperture is the way to do that. You may also know that it is not the only tool at your disposal. This post will briefly summarize the art of controlling depth of field, then I’ll discuss some of the factors you should consider when choosing depth of field for your images.

What is depth of field? A good working definition goes like this: The extent to which parts of an image are in focus from front (near the camera) to back (far away) is that image’s depth of field.  As you can see it is rather subjective.

Depth of field is often confused with depth, which I posted on awhile back. Giving your images a sense of depth, though related to depth of field, is quite different. Depth is the degree to which you foster the illusion of three dimensions in your two-dimensional pictures. A photograph with good sense of depth, for example, can have a depth of field that is shallow, deep or somewhere in between.

In the northern Guatemala forest, near the ruins of Tikal, a young brown basilisk posed for me while I worked out a good angle for the background depth of field.  200 mm., 1/60 sec. @ f/8, ISO 320.

In the northern Guatemala forest, near the ruins of Tikal, a young brown basilisk posed for me while I worked out a good angle for the background depth of field. 200 mm., 1/60 sec. @ f/8, ISO 320.

A hoary marmot high up on Mount Rainier, Washington.

A hoary marmot high up on Mount Rainier, Washington. 280 mm., 1/1600 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 200

I wanted this young Himba in a Namibian village to be the star of the picture, but I also wanted the village to be noticed too, so a moderately shallow depth of field was necessary.  68 mm., 1/320 sec. @ f/8, ISO 200.

I wanted this young Himba in a Namibian village to be the star of the picture, but I also wanted the village to be noticed too, so a moderately shallow depth of field was necessary. 68 mm., 1/320 sec. @ f/8, ISO 200.

 

Control depth of field in your images using one or a combination of the following methods:

      • Aperture: Small apertures (big f/numbers) yield greater depth of field, where more of the scene is in clear focus. Large apertures (small f/numbers) give shallow depth of field, where just your subject is in clear focus.
      • Focal Length: The longer the focal length you use, the shallower your depth of field will be. A short focal length (wide angle)will give yield greater depth of field.
      • Relative distance:  To get greater depth of field, increase the distance from you to the closest thing you want in focus. To get shallower depth of field, simply move closer to your subject. That’s the simple way to explain it. Really what you want to do is change the relative distance between you and the subject as compared with the distance between the subject and background. For greater depth of field increase this relative distance. For shallower depth of field decrease the relative distance. See the example images below.
      • The right lens: It may not seem so, but a particular lens’s characteristics can lean the images it produces toward greater or lesser depth of field. This is a minor factor compared with the others, but it’s real. I’m not talking about lenses with large maximum apertures (“fast” with low f/number designations), in order to achieve shallow depth of field. That’s all about factor #1 above.

I’m talking about how some wide-angle lenses allow you to photograph scenes where all is in focus, even if elements are both very close and far away. And how other lenses tend to yield an especially smooth out of focus background, or nicer-looking bokeh (out of focus highlights). Tilt-shift lenses are a somewhat extreme example of lens build influencing focus characteristics. And of course macro lenses have much shallower depths of field than other lenses do (see images below).

A macro shot of the inside of a flower.  Shallow depth of field is virtually guaranteed.    100 mm., 30 sec. @ f/16, ISO 200.

A macro shot of the inside of a flower. Shallow depth of field is virtually guaranteed. 100 mm., 30 sec. @ f/16, ISO 200.

Fairy Bells bloom in the forest with more shade than most flowers prefer.  100 mm., 1/25 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 400.

Fairy Bells bloom in the forest with more shade than most flowers prefer. 100 mm., 1/25 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 400.

This will get us going on the discussion.  Please let me know if you have anything to add or any questions.  And if you’re interested in any of my images, whether on here or on my main gallery page, please let me know by contacting me.  I would be happy to honor any request no matter how unusual.  Stay tuned for more on depth of field.  Thanks for reading and have a great week!

My girl, Gold Dancer.  70 mm., 1/1250 sec. @ f/4, ISO 200.

My girl, Gold Dancer. 70 mm., 1/1250 sec. @ f/4, ISO 200.

 

Friday Foto Talk: Sharpness vs. Depth of Field, Part II   3 comments

A train runs up the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.  This is not an image with many tradeoffs.

A train runs up the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. This is not an image with many tradeoffs.

This is the second of two parts.  Last time we discussed lens sharpness in general, & learned how to find a lens’s sweet spot.  Check out Part I.  Did you do your homework?  Hint: it was finding the sweet spot for your lenses!  Remember all these images are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission.  Just click on them to check out purchase options on the main part of my webpage.  If you can’t find something or have any other questions just contact me.  Thanks for your interest.

Now we come to the meat of the matter.  How much does all this matter?  For one thing, you should realize that photography has changed with the advent of digital cameras, specifically the emergence of high-quality digital cameras.  Sharpness and clarity are now expected by people.  This is not generally a bad thing.  But it is narrowing the range of images that people will look at for longer than a nanosecond.  And that is a bad thing.

Dawn on the upper Columbia in Washington.  Shot at f/22 to maximize depth of field.  Sharpness is not at maximum for this lens though.

Dawn on the upper Columbia in Washington. Shot at f/22 to maximize depth of field. Sharpness is not at maximum for this lens though.

Notice I said sharpness and clarity, not focus.  As an example take my post for Single-image Sunday, the Fog Returns.  It’s an image that, while perfectly focused, is not particularly sharp.  I’m using the word sharp in its broader sense here.  It is encouraging that I a little push-back against this quest for sharpness in all images.  But there are currents that are taking us in the other direction as well.  For example focus stacking (where several images are captured and combined in Photoshop to have several focus points in the same image) is subtly changing the expectations of image viewers.  To think I’m essentially being forced to do composites in Photoshop: ugh!

I posted this in a previous post, but here it is again because it's one of just three images I have photo-stacked thus far.

This image from Olympic N.P. appears in a previous post, but here it is again because it’s one of just three images I have thus far captured & processed by photo stacking.

But let’s leave that aside and focus on sharpness vs. depth of field.  You might be aware of all the tradeoffs in photography, and this is certainly one of them.  But before we discuss that, here are a few givens:

      • Some lenses are sharper than others, but that’s not your concern.  Your concern is to get the best pictures possible with the equipment you have.
      • Most images that are not as sharp as they could be are down to user error.  If you don’t stabilize your camera on a tripod (or shoot at a fast-enough shutter speed if hand-holding), do not expect a sharp image.  Use a cable release or timer delay as well.  Mirror lockup, if your camera has it, has a lesser effect but is still worth doing.
      • Atmospheric conditions, particularly at longer focal lengths, will also affect apparent sharpness.
      • Some lenses are capable of being sharper stopped all the way down than other lenses, and can thus give you a greater apparent depth of field.
      • The wider your focal length, the greater your depth of field will be.  Though it’s a continuous change, think about 21 mm. as the cutoff between very short/wide focal lengths and just wide/longer focal lengths.  Telephoto lengths (greater than 70 mm.) will yield much shallower depths of field.
      • Despite the above factor, aperture is still the biggest influence on depth of field.
Sandstone formations in Utah.  I was very close to the foreground and my focal length was not super wide.  While managing to get good sharpness in the foreground, I sacrificed some sharpness in the background.

Sandstone formations in Utah. I was very close to the foreground and my focal length was not super wide. While managing to get good sharpness in the foreground, I sacrificed some sharpness in the background.  Since I did not want this to be too noticeable, I used a small aperture – f/22.

Shooting “Deep” Scenes: The Trade-off

Now let’s get to that tradeoff between sharpness and depth of field.  If you want to maximize depth of field in your image (that is, sharpness from very close to very far away), you will be shooting at small apertures.  So unless you are going the focus stacking route as mentioned above, you will be shooting a good ways past your sweet spot.  Once you are two stops above the sweet spot (f/16 if your sweet spot is f/8, for example) you’ll notice a small drop in sharpness.

Let’s take an example.  Say you are shooting a sunrise over a lake, with interesting rocks close by and beautiful forested mountains in the background.  If you get low and close to those rocks, you might choose a very wide angle in order to get everything in.  This will also help to maximize depth of field, but to really get there you will also use a small aperture like f/22.  In order to show the fascinating detail in those foreground rocks, you will be  focusing fairly close, perhaps only a foot or two past the closest rock.

Sunrise at Lost Lake with Mount Hood emerging from the fog.  This is the same scene as last Wednesday's post, the Fog Returns.

Sunrise at Lost Lake with Mount Hood emerging from the fog. This is the same scene as last Wednesday’s post, the Fog Returns.

This all sounds wonderful doesn’t it?  But as with many things in life, there’s a hitch.  One of photography’s tradeoffs has raised its ugly head!  Depending on your lens the overall sharpness of your image will be just a bit less than what it is at the sweet spot (say that is f/8).  This is because of diffraction, as mentioned in Part I.

But that’s not all.  With most lenses, that image will also have its background slightly out of focus.  If you’re lucky (rich?) enough to have a Nikon 14-24 mm. or other similar lens with a big curved front element, this effect is certainly minimized.  But it is still there.  You can focus deeper into the image, but then your foreground will be slightly out of focus.  Shooting at a very wide angle and with a high-quality lens helps out with this tradeoff, but it will always be a balancing act.

This is hot off the presses, from last night.  If you are interested in the high-resolution version, just click on it.

This is hot off the presses, from last night. If you are interested in the high-resolution version, just click on it.

I normally just accept some diffraction-related softness and go with f/22.  But this is when I’m using my Tokina 16-28 mm. lens.  With my Canon 24-105 f/4, I know it’s softer at f/22 than the Tokina and does not attain quite as large a depth of field.  This is only partly because of the longer focal lengths; some has to do with the lens optics. The Canon does more things than the Tokina, so it can’t do the one thing as well.  More tradeoffs.

Focal Point & Depth of Field

Let’s dive a bit deeper into the focal point: where to focus?  It’s a question many photographers struggle with.  For me, it not only depends on my desired focal length, but on the balance between background and foreground in the image.  You should ask yourself, which is the dominant feature in my image: is it in the foreground or background?  That main subject is what you should try to keep as sharp as possible.

Sometimes I will sacrifice and move back from my foreground, especially if my background subject is a strong one.  This will increase apparent depth of field, but it might also force a longer focal length, which in turn decreases depth of field.  Again, a balancing act.

Death Valley, California.  Good detail in the foreground sand was most important here, and the background dunes were not as big a part of the image.  So I shot at f/16 and focused on the sand in front of me.

Death Valley, California. Good detail in the foreground sand was most important here, and the background dunes were not as big a part of the image. So I shot at f/16 and focused on the sand in front of me.

Blooming beargrass on Silver Star Mountain in Washington, with Mt Adams in the background.  At this focal length (165 mm.), no chance for sharpness in both fore- and back-ground.    But I still shot at f/22 so the mountain wasn't too out of focus.

Blooming beargrass on Silver Star Mountain, WA. At this focal length (165 mm.), no chance for sharpness in both the flowers & Mt. Adams. But I still shot at f/22 so the mountain wasn’t too out of focus.

Focal Point & Subject

Say you have a strong foreground and a less important background.  It’s a seascape with a fascinating foreground and no interesting boat or other element in the background.  You may just focus on the foreground and not care much about the background, even shooting at f/11 in some cases.  This is how I handle those scenes.  But I will often bracket my apertures, shooting at f/11 to f/22 (or whatever the minimum aperture is).

Now say you’re shooting a scene where your background subject is most important, yet you still want maximum depth of field.  First off, definitely consider putting your foreground a bit further away as mentioned above.  But this time, since the background is dominant, focus closer to it; about one third into the scene is the rule of thumb.  Since your background is most important, you might increase focal length to make it bigger (longer focal lengths increase magnification).  But careful!  You could lose too much depth of field, putting your foreground out of focus.  This is more likely if you’re tempted to shoot at wider apertures (smaller f/number) to get closer to that sweet spot.

Mount Rainier in the morning.  This is a shot where sharpness on the background is important but so is good depth of field.

Mount Rainier in the morning. This is a shot where sharpness on the background is important but so is good depth of field.

Recent foggy shot at Lost Lake. While sharpness is somewhat important for the baby tree, great depth of field is not that important.

Recent foggy shot at Lost Lake. While sharpness is somewhat important for the baby tree, great depth of field is not that important.

You can always keep a very wide angle and crop later, thus helping to get better (apparent) depth of field and sharpness both.  The tradeoff in that case is a smaller digital file, which is not really good if you’re thinking of printing the image large.  If you’re using focal lengths of 50 mm. or greater, focusing one third into the scene should be your default point of focus.  Just don’t get too locked into this, and always try to check focus right after the shot by zooming in on your LCD.

Okay, that’s enough for now.  I’m willing to answer any questions on this somewhat convoluted topic, so fire away.  If you’re not getting a quick answer it means I’m probably out shooting!  Have a great weekend everyone.

It's getting dark earlier!  Although some depth of field is important here, I opened aperture up a bit (f/8) to avoid using a high ISO and keep exposure time reasonable (to avoid smearing the clouds and moon out too much).

It’s getting dark earlier! Although some depth of field is important here, I opened aperture up a bit (f/8) to avoid using a high ISO and keep exposure time reasonable (to avoid smearing the clouds and moon out too much).

Friday Foto Talk: Sharpness vs. Depth of Field, Part I   15 comments

Good morning Sunshine!  One more shot from my recent trip to Olympic National Park.  I needed maximum depth of field here and so things are not at maximum sharpness for this lens.  Is it enough?  I think so.

Good morning Sunshine! One more shot from my recent trip to Olympic National Park. I needed maximum depth of field here and so things are not at maximum sharpness for this lens.  Is the image sharp enough?

This is a bit of a sore subject with me.  One reason is that it’s one of those things in photography that is a trade-off, a limitation if you will.  When you’re going for either super-deep or super-shallow depth of field, a fall-off in image sharpness can occur.  This is a much bigger deal with the small apertures (big f/number) used to maximize depth of field than it is with large apertures (to throw background out of focus).  It’s also more noticeable with some lenses, and generally speaking the higher quality your lens the less falloff in sharpness.

But there’s another more important reason I’ve avoided this topic on Friday Foto Talk to this point: I think it’s an overdone subject, at least the way it’s discussed on so many photog. forums.  Too many folks obsess too much over the sharpness of a particular lens or lens/camera combination.  In my experience, images that are not as sharp as I would have liked are not the fault of my equipment. They’re my fault!

An example of a shot with foreground so close it is difficult to get everything sharp front to back.

An example of a shot with foreground so close it is difficult to get everything sharp front to back.

The Sweet Spot: Testing your Lenses

You might have heard of this before.  The sweet spot of a lens is that aperture where sharpness is at its peak.  It is generally about two stops above (smaller than) the lens’s maximum aperture.  So for example with a 24-70 mm. f/2.8 lens, the aperture that will yield the sharpest images is about f/5.6 give or take.  Since the sweet spot varies quite a bit by lens, you need to take each lens and experiment to find it.  Once you find it, it’s a good go-to aperture for images where depth of field is not a concern, particularly if you’re printing very large.  But don’t be like so many others and over-emphasize this.  Photography is about making pictures; it’s not a sharpness contest.

If you want to make this a real test, one where you can check your lenses’ real-world sharpness at the same time as finding their sweet spots, you’ll need to pick a day with clear air.  Dawn is usually clearest.  Go up high or out away from pollution, on a mountain or out on the prairie or desert is good.  Hey, you might as well have fun doing this!  Pick a mountain or hill at least a mile away with some good detailed features.  Trees backlighted along a ridge-line are perfect!   You want everything at infinity, and you want details at a variety of sizes.  If you’re testing a long tele lens, heat waves or dust will ruin the test, so a clear day is key.  If you’re testing a macro lens, print out a focus test chart from the internet and set it up carefully (google a tutorial).

A simple shot where it's easy to have everything in focus, thus the choice of f/8 for aperture.

A simple shot where it’s easy to have everything in focus, thus the choice of f/8 for aperture.

Back up on the mountain, put your camera on a tripod and use a shutter release or timer delay, plus mirror lockup if your camera has it.  Put it on aperture priority mode and focus by using Live View and zooming in.  Focus is of course critical.  After you focus, look at the focus indicator on the lens.  That is the point of focus for infinity, a good thing to know for each lens.  (I use this knowledge, for example, to focus for night shots of stars.)  It’s also good to check autofocus while you’re at it.  Just focus using AF then go to Live View and check the focus by zooming in.  If it’s off, you can adjust that on most DSLR cameras.  Check the manual or internet for directions on this.

Farmhouse in the Willamette Valley, Oregon.  Depth of field not a big concern, but shot at f/11 just to make sure.

Farmhouse in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. Depth of field not a big concern, but shot at f/11 just to make sure.

 

Now you’re finally ready to shoot.  Start with your lens wide open (max. aperture).  Keep shooting, stopping down one stop with each shot, until you come to the lens’s minimum aperture.  Then view each image on your computer monitor, zooming in to 100% to check sharpness.  Look at a variety of edges, from large shapes to small detail, and narrow it down to two or three to view in compare or survey mode in your software.  Don’t obsess, just make a call.  After you find the sweet spot take another look to see how the sharpness falls off in both directions from that aperture.  Don’t worry if you find some flaws in sharpness, especially if they’re in the corners.  It doesn’t mean your lens isn’t a good one.  This is just telling you its limitations, that’s all.  Always remember that sharpness is a relative thing and certainly not the most important thing in photography.  You’re just gaining information about your lenses, not seeing if you want to sell them!

A full-moon shot from the other night, the low light made me shoot at f/8.  I needed some depth of field here, and not everything has perfect sharpness.  But using my sharpest lens (a Zeiss) plus tripod sure helped.

A full-moon shot from the other night, the low light made me shoot at f/8. I needed some depth of field here, and not everything has perfect sharpness. But using my sharpest lens (a Zeiss) plus tripod sure helped.

You’ll see in your experiment that sharpness starts out pretty good, gets better to a certain point, then falls off (with some lenses quite dramatically) as you go to smaller and smaller apertures.  With every lens I’ve had, sharpness is much worse when the lens is stopped all the way down (minimum aperture) than when it is wide open (maximum aperture).  This is because of diffraction.  As light rays pass through a smaller and smaller opening, they are bent to a greater and greater degree.  Since your lens is the thing that’s supposed to do the bending of light rays, it’s obvious that if the rays also bend when going through the aperture opening then sharpness will be negatively affected.

Same place as previous shot but next morning.  I shot it at f/11 because the trees across the lake are much closer than the mountain.  So I needed good (not great) depth of field.

Same place as previous shot but the next morning. I shot it at f/11 because the trees across the lake were much closer than the mountain. I needed good (but not maximum) depth of field.

With large apertures you’ll probably see the softening coming in more at the edges (and especially the corners) of the image, not at the center.  Who puts their subject in the corner when shooting wide open anyway?  Still, better-quality lenses tend to minimize this.  Controlling diffraction at the small-aperture end, on the other hand, is a lot tougher. Some wide-angle lenses have large, curved front glass elements.  The Nikon 14-24 mm. f/2.8 and a few other ultra-wide-angle lenses account for diffraction at the small end, at least to some degree.  But diffraction is part of the physics of optics, so it cannot be eliminated, only controlled.

So now that we know what we’re dealing with, the question is: how does it affect our photography.  Let’s dive into that topic next Friday.  In the meantime, you have your homework.  Go out and determine where the sweet spot is for each lens in your bag.  Don’t worry if it’s hard to tell the sharpest point, say between f/5.6 and f/8.  If you shoot mainly for a lot of depth of field, write down the smaller aperture (f/8).  If you do a lot of portraits, wildlife and other shallow depth of field stuff, record f/5.6.  See you next time, and happy shooting!

The Willamette Valley.  Though I was not real close to the barn, I shot this at f/11 to keep the background trees in focus and the clouds from going too soft.

The Willamette Valley. Though I was not real close to the barn, I shot this at f/11 to keep the background trees in focus and the clouds from going too soft.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Focus   19 comments

A frog enjoys the shallows of Snow Lake at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

A frog enjoys the shallows of Snow Lake at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

I was inspired to do a rare Monday post by the Weekly Photo Challenge on WordPress.  Also, this week’s topic, focus, gives me a good excuse to post some of the close-up shots I captured during my recent trip to Rainier and Olympic National Parks in Washington state.  I had a great time up there photographing both the landscapes and small details of a beautiful corner of the country.

The mountain in the lake: Reflection Lakes at Mount Rainier National Park.

The mountain in the lake: Reflection Lakes at Mount Rainier National Park.

This challenge is deceptively simple.  Focus gives even experienced photographers fits on occasion.  I often take only a camera and lens on photo walks, no tripod.  My goal is to sharpen my creativity.  With no tripod and a lens choice of one, you need to improvise to get decent images.

Pasqueflower is a hairy beast!

Pasqueflower is a hairy beast!

For instance at Mount Rainier’s Paradise Park, which is the park’s most popular area, I didn’t want to be burdened.  I wanted to simply stroll through the wildflower meadows with only my camera and macro lens.  Doing macro with no tripod is definitely a challenge, and this time was no different.  But when I saw other photographers with heavy backpacks full of camera gear, tripods in tow, I felt very happy with my choice.

Tracking this interesting beetle was a challenge hand-held with macro lens.

Tracking this interesting beetle was a challenge hand-held with macro lens.

In the Olympics I hiked up to a popular waterfall, Sol Duc Falls.  While shooting this triple cascade, I noticed the wild huckleberries, along with some other kinds.  For some reason I was the only one who was partaking of these scrumptious trail-side treats.  I didn’t understand that, but I made sure to photograph the berries before plucking and popping them into my mouth.

A fresh huckleberry in Olympic National Park just before it became a snack.

A fresh huckleberry in Olympic National Park just before it became a snack.

Rain overnight and cloudy skies means perfect conditions for macro photography.

Rain overnight and cloudy skies means perfect conditions for macro photography.

I hope you enjoy the pictures.  Please note they are copyrighted and not available for free download, sorry.  Go ahead and click on the photos to be taken to my main gallery page, where purchase options are listed.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks for your interest.

Lupine in the morning dew, Mt. Rainier National Park.

Lupine in the morning dew, Mt. Rainier National Park.

The rainforest in Olympic National Park, Washington receives what it thrives on: water!

The rainforest in Olympic National Park, Washington receives what it thrives on: water!

Friday Foto Talk: Foreground   6 comments

A Rainier Morning

Mount Rainier and aptly named Reflection Lake. The foreground is de-emphasized here to focus on the fog in the middle ground plus the main subject.

I’ve been subconsciously avoiding this subject, perhaps because of my ambivalent feelings about it.  Foregrounds can be a frustrating part of landscape photography.  In my opinion they can be both under- and over-emphasized.  Let’s just say in the past I have had some trouble keeping the proper perspective regarding foregrounds, but I now believe I have a fairly balanced approach.

The Tatoosh Range catches the evening light at Mount Rainier National Park.  The foreground rock and trees are dominant.  I was very close to the rock and my viewpoint was (lacking a stepladder!) a bit too low.

The Tatoosh Range catches the evening light at Mount Rainier National Park. The foreground rock and trees dominate in the image. I was very close to the rock (which is good) but (lacking a stepladder!) my viewpoint was perhaps a bit too low.

I should say right here that despite being thought important only in landscape photography, foreground is often a key element in candid people shots, sports imagery and more.  Here are a few things a good foreground can do for a picture:

      • An interesting and/or very close foreground can add impact to any image.
      • Foreground elements can form leading lines, directing the eyes of the viewer to your main subject or toward the center of your image.
      • Similar to the previous point, the shapes of foreground elements can mimic the shape of your main subject or background.  This essentially increases the impact of your main subject or background.
      • Foregrounds can help to add depth to your images.  But it is rare that a foreground alone can give your image depth.  See my previous post on the important subject of depth.
      • If you want to give your main subject top billing, you can simply place it in the foreground.
Heather blooms on a high hillside in Olympic National Park, Washington.

Heather blooms on a high hillside in Olympic National Park, Washington.

Many people just starting out in photography tend to look right over foregrounds, concentrating a bit too much on that sunset, that sailboat, those animals, etc. Then they learn from the “experts” that they should always look for interesting foregrounds to give their images a lot of depth and impact.  After hearing this a few dozen times, many of us run around stressing about foregrounds all the time.  Like most advice in photography, this little nugget is abused and stretched beyond reason.  Yes foregrounds are important.  No they’re not absolutely necessary in an image, no they will not automatically give your pictures depth or impact.

Like anything in photography (life?) foregrounds should be used thoughtfully and judiciously.  Here are some tips on how to find and use them to help improve your images:

      • There are times you will want to sniff out foregrounds like a bloodhound sniffs out an escaped convict.  When you have a beautiful sky with a relatively flat horizon (i.e. you’re not in the Himalayas or Patagonia), you have a pretty but two-dimensional image.  This is a good time to search out interesting foregrounds.

* In the image below, for example, I was up on top of a hill near sunset overlooking Lake Powell in Arizona.  There were other people taking pictures, including two or three other serious photographers.  As the sky grew colorful, people began snapping away.  I suddenly realized it was a dull image without foreground.  So I scrambled quickly down the embankment, soon coming upon sandstone bedrock that wasn’t visible from above.

I quickly found a place where the outcrops formed angled shapes that (with a low camera angle) pointed into the sky.  The orange clouds also formed linear shapes, so luckily enough, I had an effective simple composition.  My willingness to chance missing the light in order to search for a better image paid off in this case.  But I could have easily been skunked and gotten nothing.

The desert sun sets over the ubiquitous sandstone outcrops that surround Page, Arizona.

The desert sun sets over the ubiquitous sandstone outcrops that surround Page, Arizona.

      • In most cases your foreground elements should support but not dominate your image.  There are major exceptions, so please don’t take this as a rule. Instead, think of all your images as a balancing act between each of the major elements within the frame.  The balance between foreground and background (plus middle ground) is just one of the little decisions you make before you press the shutter button.
      • Some people think if they have a fascinating foreground they will automatically have a fascinating picture.  But remember simple is often best in photography, and this definitely applies to foregrounds.  This is actually related to the previous point.  If your foreground is amazing, it will most often become your main subject.  If your background has an interesting subject or is otherwise awesome, you might be trying to jam more than one picture into your frame.  The main elements of your picture end up competing for the viewer’s attention – not a prescription for success.
These rocks plus the waves form a strong diagonal leading line on the Olympic Coast in Washington.

These rocks plus the waves form a strong diagonal leading line on the Olympic Coast in Washington.

      • Instead of desperately looking for the most fascinating foreground in history, it’s better to find something simple with perhaps a shape that complements your background or main subject.  Then to give that simple foreground more impact all you have to do is move closer.  Moving closer brings opportunities, along with challenges…

*   If you’re using a wide-angle lens moving closer to your foreground elements is necessary so they don’t look too small.  Wide angles (focal lengths of 35 mm. or less) are often used in landscape photography of course.  But they’re also used in environmental portraiture.  This is when you photograph people along with a bit of their surroundings.

*   Moving closer will help to bring out any interesting texture in your foreground elements.  Just be careful to expose so you can see the texture.  It’s common to need a graduated neutral density filter in these cases, so you don’t make the sky/background too bright.

*   When you move closer to your foreground, it becomes more difficult to keep everything in focus front to back.  This is known as good depth of field.  You will need to use the smallest aperture available on your lens, which is usually f/22.  It also helps greatly to know the particular ability of that lens to achieve good depth of field.  This requires repeated use and experimentation.  The small aperture means you will most often need a tripod.

Life thrives along the rugged northern Olympic Coast in Washington.

Life thrives along the rugged northern Olympic Coast in Washington.

      • It can be very effective to allow a foreground element to fade to black; in other words form a silhouette.  It’s most effective when the silhouette’s shape is recognizable.  It’s usually not necessary to move as close to a silhouetted foreground as you would an illuminated one.  This frees you from some of the above challenges.
      • Speaking of fading to black, great images can be had with no recognizable foreground, instead using a featureless or dark middle-ground.  Smooth expanses of water, featureless grass, fog, a dark band of rocks or trees, any of these can form a sort of mid-ground “base”, anchoring your main background subject.  These sorts of anchors can also partly or fully frame your image.
      • Lastly, don’t feel you always need a foreground.  Often a very effective image can be had with no foreground.  You can either utilize middle-grounds as mentioned above or simply zoom in on the background to highlight specific portions of it.
Dusk falls on the Olympic Coast in Washington.  Foreground elements are simple here, a combination of silhouetted rocks and subtly illuminated sand.

Dusk falls on the Olympic Coast in Washington. Foreground elements are simple here, a combination of silhouetted rocks and subtly illuminated sand.

I want to leave you with a sort of truism in photography, at least as far as I’m concerned.  It has to do with the point I made at the beginning of the post and again with that last bullet point.  If you go around shooting nothing but deep images where you’re 2 feet from foreground, you’ll undoubtedly get plenty of compliments. This is how most people are taught to shoot landscapes, and these sorts of images have a “pro” feel to them.

But if you go off on foregrounds your portfolio will suffer just as much as if you had never learned about their importance in the first place, as if you had stuck with shooting nothing but two-dimensional backgrounds.  Mix things up instead.  Diversity in your portfolio is worth having.  And it doesn’t just happen on its own.  You really have to work at it.  The good news is that it’s fun!  Variety, after all, is the spice of life.

Crescent Lake on the Olympic Peninsula is one of Washington's largest and most beautiful lakes.  The mossy rocks along the shore make for angular foreground elements while the shadows and shoreline form strong leading lines.

Crescent Lake on the Olympic Peninsula is one of Washington’s largest and most beautiful lakes. The mossy rocks along the shore make for angular foreground elements while the shadows and shoreline form strong leading lines.

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