Out of my depth

Gary Hart Photography: Hidden, Akaka Falls State Park, Hawaii

Hidden Waterfall, Akaka Falls State Park, Hawaii
Sony a7R II
Sony 70-200 f4
1/10 second
F/16
ISO 1600

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about appreciating the small stuff. Writing that article opened my eyes to how much I’d gotten away from aspects of photography that give me great pleasure, and that were a big part of my photographic style. Not completely away, but far enough to notice a difference when reviewing my images from the last year or so, a year that coincides with my switch from Canon DSLR to Sony mirrorless. While I can’t attribute this shift to a shortcoming in my Sony gear (far from it), I do believe the timing is more than coincidence.

First, with its radically different interface and shooting workflow, mirrorless is a new trick and I’m an old dog, and I think I underestimated the ramifications of the mirrorless switch. Nevertheless, within a few weeks I felt reasonably comfortable seeing through an electronic viewfinder, had embraced a new focus and metering paradigm, and became sufficiently familiar with my Sony a7R’s features, buttons, dials, and menus. So far, so good.

But simply knowing a camera doesn’t mean I don’t have to think about using it. And it’s the unconscious control of photography’s technical side—the focusing, metering, setting exposure variables, and so on—that frees my brain to create. (I suspect it’s this way for most other photographers too.) So until I can make my camera an unconscious extension that functions more like an extra limb, the interface is a distraction. After ten years, I’d taken for granted my ability to control every aspect of my Canon DSLRs by feel, in the dark if necessary, without conscious thought—simply put, it’s taken nearly a year to achieve that familiarity with my Sonys.

In that gap between familiar and intimate with my Sony bodies, bad (lazy) habits formed. Because while I was getting used to a new way of shooting, I became so enamored of my a7R’s extreme dynamic range that my photography began to skew in that direction. Suddenly sunrises and sunsets that had been especially difficult (or impossible) with my Canons, were easy, a luxury I was all too happy to indulge. Then came the a7S, with its mystical ability to see in the dark, and suddenly night photography was occupying much more of my photography time.

Compounding the problem, these high dynamic range scenes tend to be more dramatic, and drama impresses the masses more than subtle. I’d post a new image to rave reviews (“Stunning!”), and soon found myself lured by the instant validation. I loved what I was shooting, others loved what I was shooting, so what could possibly be wrong?

Or maybe a better way to put it, what’s missing? I’d scroll through my recent images and couldn’t avoid the vague sense that there were fewer images that excited me personally. There were some, but not as many as I’d been accustomed to. And then it hit me—my images lacked depth.

Depth is the final frontier for aspiring photographers. Photography attempts to render a three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional medium, and intuitive disconnect. But while true depth in a photograph is impossible, what is possible is the illusion of depth. I’ve always felt that most people can compose a nice two-dimensional landscape, but what separates the great photographers from the good is their ability to convey depth.

Conveying the illusion of depth starts with not settling for a dramatic background or striking foreground subject, but using that as the starting point for a scene that contains visual points throughout the (missing) front-to-back plane. If the primary scene is in the distance, find nearer objects that balance and complement it. Likewise, if your subject is in the foreground, make every effort to include complementary background elements.

But finding a complementary foreground and background is just the beginning. Once you’ve identified your foreground and background (and mid-ground if possible) elements, you have to manage their relationships while mentally subtracting the camera’s missing third dimension (depth). Things like creating imaginary lines that connect objects at different distances; avoiding merging of discrete objects; perspective management with focal length and subject distance choices; focus (depth of field) control to emphasize/deemphasize foreground/background elements (to name a few). All of these things take a scene from more literal, two-dimentional snaps to interpretive, artistic creations that exist only in your brain until the shutter is clicked.

And that’s what I think has suffered in the year since my Sony switch—I’m still getting captures that excite me (and others), but in settling for the scenes the Sony sensor makes so easy, I lost my way a bit. Now that I recognize what’s been lacking, it’s time to up my game and apply that amazing Sony sensor to our three dimensional world.

About this image

I traveled to Hawaii earlier this month vowing to reinvigorate my quest for depth in my images. With lush rainforests, rugged volcanic beaches, vivid sunsets, and an active volcano, it’s a great spot for filling the frame from front to back.

One place in particular I looked forward to visiting was Akaka Falls State Park. The little scene in this image is extremely familiar to me—it’s near the end of Akaka Falls loop, after the view of the fall, making it easy to think the show is over as you beeline back to the parking lot to escape the humidity. Each time I pass this spot I stop and try to make it work, which starts with finding a way to pull detail from the dense shade without blowing out the fully exposed foreground foliage. And even if I can make the dynamic range work, I still have to figure out how to balance the conflicting need for a small aperture that ensures adequate depth of field, against the need for a shutter speed long enough to pull the waterfall from the extremely dense shade, but fast enough to avoid blurring the leaves in the almost unavoidable breeze.

But several things worked in my favor on this visit. A heavy cloud cover reduced the foreground brightness to a more manageable level, and my new Sony a7R II has at least two stops more dynamic range than the Canon 5D III I’d used on prior visits—suddenly, dynamic range wasn’t a deal-breaker. Also, someone had flipped the switch on Hawaii’s usually reliable trade winds—the still, humid air was extremely uncomfortable, but far better for this kind of close photography. Last but not least, the high ISO capability of my a7R II made me quite comfortable shooting at ISO 1600, high enough to permit f16 while maintaining a fast enough shutter speed.

My focal length was 154mm, so even at f16 I needed to be careful about focus. In scenes where I’m not sure whether I’ll have enough depth of field to ensure front-to-back sharpness, I almost always find a point that keeps my closer elements sharp. To maximize depth of field, I’ll focus as far behind the closest visual anchor (in this case the closest flowers) as I can without sacrificing any foreground sharpness. In this case I was pretty sure I could focus on the back flower and still keep the closer flowers sharp. In a perfect world I’d have liked just a little more motion blur in the water, but even with the air relatively still, I wasn’t comfortable going beyond 1/10 second.

Read more about controlling depth of field

The illusion of depth

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

9 Comments on “Out of my depth

  1. Gary—lots of great images here but the image entitled ” First Snow ” with the 3 dimensional effect you’ve been able to produce is exceptional ! Great work.
    Best, Charlie

  2. Good technicians know how to use their equipment. Good photographers know how to compose an image. Great artists introspect like this, and understand their own thought process and the evolution of their art.

  3. Thank you for that. I’m kind of an old dog too, who rather likes the way her old camera sees (which you helped me to appreciate). I’d like to upgrade to the advantages of the mirrorless, but also retain some of the look of the old. I will look forward to what you have to say and show.

    • My pleasure, Wanda. Mirrorless is a different way of shooting, but there’s nothing to it that will preclude the kind of photography you’re accustomed to. My biggest problem was getting to the point where the interface was intuitive——I’m there now, but it took a little longer than I expected. I’d be open to selling my a7R if you’re interested——your Canon lenses will work with it using an adapter. Autofocus is pretty slow, but manual focus is easier, and metering works just fine.

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