The Importance of Shallow Depth of Field

Shallow depth of field is an important part of the craft of photography. So often I get questions about how to get more depth of field, which can be important, yet getting less can be really, really helpful in creating better photos. It is a cool technique often missed by photographers who get stuck feeling they always have to have a lot of depth of field.

Just this week I photographed my son and his fiancé in a city park. We had no time to go to some other location, so park it was. I deliberately shot with very shallow depth of field to isolate them against a nice background that showed none of the park, the people there, the buildings in the distance, and so forth. The shot showing some of the background is from my wife’s iPhone — it gives an idea of the conditions.

Shallow depth of field is very important to nature photography, too. It can be a huge help in making sure your subject stands out in the photograph regardless of the surroundings. Exactly like my son and future daughter-in-law’s photos.

The easiest way to get shallow depth of field is to shoot aperture-priority exposure with your lens wide open (this means choosing the biggest f-stop which is also the smallest number) and using a telephoto focal length. The telephoto focal length also helps to compress stuff in the background, making it tighter and often less distracting.

For the photos of my son and his fiancé, I used my 40-150mm f/2.8 set to 150mm and f/2.8 (that lens on my MFT system is equivalent to 300mm in 35mm-full-frame and 200mm in APS-C formats). Sure, I had to back up to get the shots, but that backing up helped compress the background, making it more attractive, while that combination of 150mm and f/2.8 gave me extremely shallow depth of field. That meant making sure my focus was right on the eyes of the couple (any time eyes are out of focus, the photo will look out of focus to most viewers).

All of these photos required me to back up to get the shot, NOT stand in one place and zoom.

So if you are ever feeling trapped by a background, try getting out the lens you have with the longest, most telephoto focal length, then shoot with the widest lens opening (the smallest number). Then give this a try with other subjects. You may find it a lot of fun!

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Change of Venue

You may have noticed a change for my blog. I am moving my blog, www.natureandphotography.com, here, maybe temporarily, maybe permanently. The original site has to be moved, but I am not sure when the person working on it can move the archived, older blog posts. Until then, new posts will appear here. 

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Being Me – Being You

Be me2It has taken me a long time, a lifetime in fact, to learn a very simple rule for getting the best from my photography. Be me.

Over the years, I have chased the looks of photographs made by well-known photographers I liked. It is one thing to be inspired by others, but truly, the only people who can do their work are those photographers themselves.

I have chased gear that others had, even have been envious. Instead of focusing on the gear that is most appropriate to me. Gear is obviously important because without it, we can’t photograph. But thinking too much about the gear others have is a distraction from my own photography. Be me.

Be me1I have chased the latest techniques hoping that would lead to a breakthrough in my photography. Learning new techniques is always valuable, but not when they overwhelm who I am as a photographer. I really don’t have to know everything about every new technique. Some really aren’t for me. Be me.

I have chased the approval of people important to me, from other photographers to family. Sure, people close to me are important, but not as arbitrary evaluators/critics of what I do. I can desire to learn what people think, but only as one input of many and an input I can chose to use or not. Be me.

I have worked hard to produce work that no one can criticize. That is unrealistic and ultimately restrictive. It also guarantees mediocrity. If I try to please everyone, I end up pleasing no one, especially myself. Be me.

Really, the number one rule for better photography, for more satisfying photography, for more authentic images is to be me. And for you to be you.

Cannon Falls, MN

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The Joy of Minnesota Nature

Here is a sampling of photos from my recent trip to Minnesota. I am working to find images and compositions true to the area and authentic to Minnesota nature rather than simply taking generic nature photography ideas and applying them to Minnesota.

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Louisville Swamp area, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Louisville Swamp area, Minnesota

Question mark butterfly, Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

Question mark butterfly, Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstand, Minnesota

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstand, Minnesota

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstand, Minnesota

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstand, Minnesota

Cannon Falls, MN

Cannon Falls, MN

Cannon Falls, MN

Cannon Falls, MN

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Bloomington, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Bloomington, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Louisville Swamp area, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Louisville Swamp area, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

You can see more of these images at joy-of-nature-galleries. Check out my new book and short course package here.

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Photo Deconstruction and Exploding Images!

Cover 1Many years ago when I was trying to really understand how photos worked, I used to spend time going through published photos and analyzing them carefully. How did this photographer use space? Why did this photographer put the subject there? What did the use of a particular focal length do for an image?

That was very helpful to me, so I am am starting a new series that looks at specific photos I have taken and then takes them apart, deconstructs them, explodes them, to look at what is happening in them and why I might have done what I did. That’s always a little dangerous because that requires one to accept a certain amount of vulnerability. I hope this helps you as well.

This photo was taken at dawn in the Santa Monica Mountains. The early light has just reached this rocky ridge and still features a strong warmth to it. This is a great example of why it is important to use a specific white balance and not rely on auto white balance outdoors. Auto white balance would remove that warm color cast, but it would also fool you because the photo would still look “okay.” Unfortunately, that very important color would not be there and most photographers would not fix it in Lightroom or Camera Raw because the photo would look “okay.” The warm colors have an important cold/warm color contrast with the sky color.

The highly directional light with strong shadows is very important to the image. It creates that strong presence to the rough rock at the bottom of the image, which then has an interesting contrast to the differently textured sky. Texture contrasts can be an important part of nature photography.

This image is a little unusual for me in that it is cropped from a horizontal. I needed a vertical for a book project I am working on now (more about that as I go along), and I really liked what was happening with the light in this image, so I decided to check out what might happen with a vertical from the original shot.

Cover 2I like the original horizontal. The light is very important and gives the scene a lot of life. In addition, I love the wonderful pattern of the sky. But I had no vertical of this. I find I don’t shoot as many verticals as I used to (not necessarily a good thing), largely because these days, I need verticals much less. Digital slideshows favor horizontals, as do a number of digital projects I have been working on.

I like the way the vertical abstracts the scene, yet still gives a feeling of place. I am personally not attuned to doing abstracts divorced from their reality (some people love this and do it very well). But I do like a simple, abstract sort of design to a composition that still holds a reference to the original scene as the vertical does. Notice, though, I am not trying to hold the whole rock formation at the left. That was important to the horizontal, but not to the vertical. Actually, I kind of like the strength of the simplicity of the vertical.

Cover 1The vertical creates a very strong spatial relationship of ground to sky in the composition now. That was in the original horizontal, but not to the degree it is now. I also love the hint of bush at the right that adds a visual counterpoint to both rock and sky. It really helps that that bush is in the shadow and silhouetted against the sky.

The large space used by the sky is important because it creates an interesting dynamic to the relationship of sky and ground. There is a tension from the use of space that keeps the viewer connected to the image. It also strongly creates a feeling of looking up across the scene.

Something else that is quite interesting about this image for me. The original was shot with a 9-18mm lens (Micro Four Thirds; equivalent in 35mm-full-frame would be 18-36mm, and APS-C would be 12-24mm). I am finding that I don’t use that lens much anymore. I used to use that focal length range a lot, but now I seem to be gravitating more to the 12mm focal length for wide shots (35mmFF – 24mm; APS-C – 16mm). The cropped shot is closer to 12mm.

Or maybe I am coming back to it. I used to love this focal length and it was my go-to focal length for many, many years when shooting film. The very wide focal lengths do some interesting things, but I am less interested today in such extreme effects. The 12mm works very well for me to give a strong wide-angle effect without being too strong for me.

 

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