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It seems too obvious to mention, but I’ll say it anyway: Photography is a futile attempt to render a three-dimensional world through a two-dimensional medium. Unfortunately, that reality doesn’t seem to keep people from putting their eye to their viewfinder and clicking without regard for their camera’s vision. But here’s a secret: While anyone with a camera can manage the lateral (left-to-right) aspect of a scene, the photographers who separate themselves are those able to convey the illusion of depth by translating a scene’s actual depth to their camera’s virtual depth.
Creating the illusion of depth isn’t rocket science. It starts with seeking a foreground for your beautiful background, or a background for your beautiful foreground. Once you’ve figured out your foreground/background, do your best to ensure that the elements at varying depths don’t merge with each other—the more elements in your frame stand alone, the more you invite your viewers to move incrementally through the frame, hopping (subconsciously), front to back, from one visual point to the next. Getting elements to stand apart often requires some physical effort on your part (sorry). Moving left/right, up/down, foreword/backward changes the relationship between objects at varying depths, sometimes quite significantly.
With your foreground and background identified, decide whether you want the entire image in focus, or selective focus that guides your viewer to a particular point in the frame. With all your pieces in place, you’re ready to choose your f-stop and focus point.
The Merced River at Valley View is a minefield of jutting rocks and branches. The above image took at least five minutes before everything was lined up to my satisfaction. Relative to the distant El Capitan, the close foreground changed significantly as I shifted position. After surveying the possibilities from a distance, I decided I wanted to be as close to the river as possible, with my tripod at its maximum height, to capture as much reflection as possible. With my camera off the tripod, I moved around on the slippery rocks at the river’s edge (easier said than done), framing shots of varying focal lengths until I had something pretty close to what I wanted. Next I brought over my tripod, affixed my camera, and made micro refinements until I was satisfied with the composition.
In this scene I wanted maximum sharpness throughout the frame. The closest rocks were about eight feet away; with the help of the depth of field app on my iPhone, I determined that at 35mm and f11 (my lens’s sharpest f-stop), I could focus about twelve feet from my camera and be sharp from six feet to infinity. Selecting a rock about twelve feet away, I switched to live-view, selected the rock, magnified the view ten times, and manually focused.
I dialed my polarizer to a point that balanced the El Capitan reflection (which I wanted) with the foreground glare (which I didn’t want) as much as possible (always a subjective exercise in compromise). To determine my exposure, I spot-metered on a bright cloud (live-view is off now) and dialed my shutter speed until the meter indicated +2.