Reflecting on the Polarizer

Gary Hart Photography: Aspen Autumn Reflection, Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen Autumn Reflection, Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/5 second
F/16
ISO 200

Who else loves reflections? I don’t know about you, but I love photographing them, and even without a camera, I just love staring at them. Part of a reflection’s power is its ability to engage the brain in different ways than we’re accustomed: Rather than processing the scene directly, we first must mentally reassemble the reverse world of a reflection, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently. And in a photo, a nice reflection simply introduces a soothing calmness.

So if reflections are so great, why do I spend almost my entire photography life with a filter designed to remove reflections? I’m talking about the polarizer, which I have on nearly all my lenses and rarely remove, except at night (and maybe a small handful of other situations). But truth be told, most reflections in nature aren’t the glassy water we picture when we think of reflections, they’re a distracting sheen that create distracting glare and wash out color on rocks, foliage, and water. And that’s where the polarizers comes in.

Polarizer 101

Put simply, a polarizer removes reflections.

As powerful as today’s image processing software is, one landscape-essential filter that can’t be added after the shot is the polarizer. Valued by inexperienced photographers only for darkening blue skies, more serious photographers value their polarizers more for their ability to remove the sheen that desaturates color, hides submerged objects, and flattens texture.

Even worse than not appreciating their polarizer’s power, some photographers screw on a polarizer without understanding how it works, mistakenly believing that merely having a polarizer on their lens is sufficient. The amount of polarization a composition calls for is a creative decision that can make or break an image. And unfortunately, a mis-oriented polarizer can be worse than no polarizer.

This won’t be on the test

So what does a polarizer do?

If you’re like me, it helps to understand that a wave of light oscillates (vibrates) perpendicular to its direction of motion. A real world example of this kind of motion is the way a wave in the middle of the ocean rises and falls as it advances: while the wave moves forward, the water moves up and down.

A wave of light is much more complex than an ocean wave, oscillating in every possible direction perpendicular to its direction of motion. For example, to represent the direction of motion, imagine a string connecting a light source to the subject it illuminates. To understand the wave’s oscillation, picture the string moving not only up/down, but also left/right and every other angle perpendicular to the direction the wave moves.

And still one more way to view this motion would be to visualize a beam of light (or our string) passing through the center of a spoked wheel, where the axle would be. Each of the spoke pairs (one on each side of the light beam) would represent a direction the wave would oscillate, and there could be an infinite number of spoke pairs.

In very simple terms, polarized light is light that has all but one of its planes of oscillation removed. So returning to our spoked wheel, we’d be left only with the light that oscillates in the direction of one of the spoke pairs.

Without getting too deep (or at least any deeper) into the weeds, a polarizing filter eliminates reflections by removing the light that carries reflections back to our eyes. Polarization (reflection reduction) is most effective when your lens points 90 degrees (perpendicular) to the direction of the sun or other light source; it is least effective when the lens points directly toward or away from the sun.

Polarizers come in two flavors, linear and circular (the designation has to do with the way the polarizer achieves its effect, not the shape of the filter). For today’s digital cameras, you want to use a circular polarizer (which is almost certainly what you’ll be sold if you ask for a polarizer). Most polarizers are comprised of two connected pieces: a circular threaded frame that screws onto your lens’s threads, and an attached piece of polarizing glass (in its own circular frame) that rotates independently of threaded frame. Rotating the polarizer’s glass element relative to the fixed lens varies the orientation, and therefore the amount of polarization. You can see the polarization effect (sometimes large, sometimes small) through your viewfinder or on your live-view LCD.

What a polarizer does for you

With reflections minimized by a polarizer, pale blue sky is transformed to a deeper blue, glare is removed from rocks and foliage to reveal underlying color and texture, reflections are removed from water to expose submerged features, and clouds that were barely visible suddenly snap into prominence. Or imagine mountains reflected in a still alpine lake: As you rotate your polarizer, the reflection is replaced by rocks and leaves dotting the lakebed; keep turning and the reflection returns.

So what’s the catch?

Lost light

A polarizer costs you one to two stops of exposure, depending on the polarizer and the amount of polarization you dial in. Since aperture manages depth and is often non-negotiable, landscape photographers usually compensate for the lost light with a longer shutter speed—one more reason to use a tripod. If motion is a concern, the next best way to compensate for lost light is to increase the ISO.

Differential polarization

Because a polarizer’s effect varies with the direction of the light, and wide lenses cover a broad field of view, light arrives at different parts of a wide scene from different angles. The result is “differential polarization”: parts of the scene that are more polarized than others.

Differential polarization is particularly troublesome in the sky, appearing as an unnatural transition from light to dark blue across a single frame. This effect can often be reduced, but rarely eliminated, with careful dodging and burning in Photoshop. Better yet, avoid images with lots of (boring) blue sky.

Vignetting

A standard polarizer is comprised of a circle of polarized glass mounted in a frame that screws into, and rotates relative to, the fixed lens beneath. Most also include an outer ring with threads for attaching other filters. The field of view of ultra-wide lenses can be so great that, at their wider focal lengths, they include the polarizer’s frame: vignetting. Polarizer vignetting manifests as dark edges on your images, particularly at the corners.

Most of the best polarizer manufacturers offer a low-profile version that mitigates vignetting. Low profile polarizers are more money (oh well), usually require a special lens cap (a minor annoyance), and don’t have external threads (not an issue for me).

Me and my polarizer(s)

Always on

Since I’m all about simplicity in the field, and determining whether or not I need a polarizer and then adding or removing it as needed is more trouble than it’s worth, each lens in my bag has its own polarizer that rarely comes off during daylight hours. I remove my polarizer only when I need more light, want to use a neutral density filter (I don’t like stacking filters), or if I’m concerned about differential polarization.

But. Shooting with no polarizer is better than using an incorrectly oriented polarizer. If you’re going to follow my “always on” polarizer approach, you must be diligent about rotating the polarizer and checking its effect on each composition, or risk doing more harm than good to your image. This is especially important if you change a composition’s orientation between horizontal and vertical.

Protection

Like many photographers, I always use a filter as protection for my front lens element; unlike many photographers, I don’t use UV or skylight filters. While it’s possible to stack a polarizer atop a UV or skylight filter, I don’t. Instead, because it never comes off, my polarizer doubles as protection for the front lens element.

Given that my polarizers are in the $200 range, this gets a little expensive when a filter “takes one for the team,” but it’s cheaper than replacing an entire lens, and more desirable than stacking superfluous glass between my subject and my sensor, not to mention the vignetting stacking causes. On the other hand, I will use a graduated neutral density filter with a polarizer, because GNDs serve a specific (not superfluous) need that doesn’t disappear when a polarizer is added.

The polarizer and lens hoods

To those photographers who complain that it’s a real pain to rotate a polarizer with a lens hood in the way, I have a simple solution: remove the lens hood. I never use a lens hood. Ever. This is blasphemy to many photographers, but I hate lens hoods, which always seem to be in the way (see my “simplicity in the field” comment above). But (there’s that word again), jettisoning the lens hood must come with the understanding that lens flare is real and usually impossible to entirely correct after the fact.

When there’s a chance direct sunlight will strike my front lens element, I check to see if shielding the lens helps. With my composition ready (on my tripod!), I peer through my viewfinder and shade my lens with my hand or hat (or whatever handheld shade is handy). If shading my lens makes the scene darker and more contrasty, and/or eliminates lens flare (random fragments of light), I know I must shield my lens while exposing. Of course if the sun is in my composition, no shading in the world (or lens hood) will eliminate the lens flare.

Polarizer techniques

Polarizer on a budget

All scenes don’t benefit equally from a polarizer, and photographers on a budget can’t always afford one for every lens. If you’re only going to go with one polarizer, buy one for your largest lens, and step-up rings for each lens thread size. Or you could simply hand-hold the larger polarizer in front of the smaller lens (as long as you’re on a tripod).

Does this scene call for a polarizer?

To determine the polarizer’s effect, rotate the outer element 360 degrees as you peer through your viewfinder (or view the LCD in live-view). Often just holding the polarizer to your eye while you look in the direction of your composition and rotating it slowly is enough to determine its benefit.

Unless I’m trying to maximize a reflection, I rotate the polarizer until the scene appears darkest. If there’s no apparent change, I watch specific objects that might have a slight sheen (water, a leaf, or a rock) as I rotate the polarizer—I can almost always find some change. Shooting with a mirrorless camera, I have the benefit of a histogram in my viewfinder. Sometimes when I can’t detect a difference with my eye, I slowly turn my polarizer as I watch the histogram, looking for the histogram to shift slightly to the left (or my highlight alert “zebras” shrink). If you can’t see any change as you rotate your polarizer, you probably don’t need to worry about orienting the polarizer.

It’s not just for the sky

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Autumn Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

As nice as the the effect on the sky is, it’s the polarizer’s more subtle ability to reduce glare in overcast or shade that I find irreplaceable. Peering through your viewfinder, lock your eyes on a reflective surface and rotate the polarizer. The effect is most obvious on water, or wet rocks and leaves, but even when completely dry, most rocks and leaves have a discernible sheen. As you rotate the polarizer, harsh glare is replaced by natural color and texture; continue rotating and the glare reappears.

Usually my goal is to dial in maximum polarization, but if I’m photographing a reflection, I turn the polarizer until the reflection peaks. And there’s no rule that requires you to turn the polarizer to one extreme or anther (maximum or minimum reflection). Sometimes I want a little reflection plus a little submerged lake or river detail. In these situations I rotate the outer element slowly and watch the scene change, stopping when I achieve the desired effect. In my North Lake autumn reflection scene, I was able to find a midpoint in the polarization that kept the best part of the reflection (the mountains and trees), while still revealing the submerged granite rocks at my feet.

Floating Leaves, Merced River, Yosemite

In the image of autumn leaves floating in the Merced River, I used my polarizer to completely dial down the reflection, creating the illusion of leaves suspended in empty space. Polarizing away the reflection also helped the leaves’ color stand out by eliminating distracting glare.

Redbud, Merced River

An emergency neutral density filter

A polarizer can also be used as a two-stop neutral density filter by dialing it to maximum polarization (minimum light). In this image of a redbud above the surging Merced River, even at ISO 100 and f32, I couldn’t reach the 3/4 second shutter speed that would give me the motion blur I wanted. But the two stops of light I lost to my polarizer was just enough to snow my shutter speed enough to blur the water.

If you’re serious about your photography

Use only quality polarizers; you don’t need to spend a fortune, but neither should you skimp. Not only does the quality of the optics affect the quality of your results, I’ve also seen more than one poorly made polarizer simply fall apart for no apparent reason.

I advise buying polarizers that are commensurate with your lens quality—in other words, if you have top-of-the-line lenses, it makes no sense to use anything but top-of-the-line polarizers. I use Breakthrough filters because for their quality and emphasis on customer service.

My personal recipe for using a polarizer

  1. (Almost) always on
  2. No other filters except a graduated neutral density filter, when needed
  3. Compose my shot and lock it in place on my tripod
  4. Turn the polarizer to get the effect I want
  5. Check for lens flare and shield if necessary
  6. Meter the scene
  7. Click

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Aspen Autumn Reflection, Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen Autumn Reflection, Bishop Creek Canyon

This image is from the second of my two Eastern Sierra workshops earlier this month. Processing it reminded me of the struggle I had deciding how orient my polarizer, because in addition to the glassy water mirroring the colorful aspen across the pond, this scene also contained a lot of reflective sheen that I try to polarize away. What’s a photographer to do?

After a nice sunrise at North Lake, followed by another fall color stop a little down down the road, I set my workshop group free near this small retaining pond just downstream from Lake Sabrina (pronounced “sa-BRI-na,” BTW). There was so much happening here we could have spent hours, but a scene like this needs to be in full shade and the sun was slowly encroaching.

I spent most of my time with a few others in the group, drawn to this mirror reflection of gold aspen with parallel white trunks. After playing with a few different compositions, I ended up concentrating on a pair of leaves clinging to protruding rock as a foreground anchor. I chose a vertical composition largely to eliminate an unsightly stump jutting into the middle of the pond. Sometimes features like that can be the anchor I look for, but everyone working the scene agreed that it was more of a bulky blob than a viable visual element. The top of the frame was limited by the encroaching sunlight—any higher and I’d have had an unwieldy mix of shade and sunlight. And I put the bottom of the frame just above the muddy shore.

As soon as I identified my composition, it became apparent that my biggest problem was going to be what to do with my polarizer. This scene was all about the spectacular reflection, but the rock, leaves, and (especially) blue sky were all washed out by reflections from the bright sky overhead. If I turned my polarizer to maximize the reflection, I also maximize the sheen; turning the polarizer to minimize the sheen also significantly dulled the tree reflection.

My solution was to turn the polarizer slowly, with my eye on my view finder, watching the reflection increase, and stopping just as it reached the rock. The result was a workable compromise—not quite as flat in the close foreground as it would have been had I gone all-in with the polarization, and not quite as vivid as the reflection would have been if I’d have dialed it all the way up (minimal polarization). But my compromise gave me enough to work with in post, dodging (brightening) the “good” reflection, and burning (darkening) the “bad” reflection.

Breakthrough Filters


More Reflections

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

The Colors of Autumn

Gary Hart Photography: Aspen Carpet, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen Carpet, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM
1/8 second
F/11
ISO 800

Few things get my heart racing more than the vivid yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn. And after missing most of last year’s fall color thanks to the double whammy of COVID and California’s extreme fire season, I was especially excited as I motored over the mountains for this year’s Eastern Sierra workshops.

Of course as much as I love it, this trip doesn’t come without its anxiety (that’s just how it is when people pay you to deliver a workshop featuring something as unpredictable as fall color). On the other hand (I reassured myself), there’s a whole lot more to the Eastern Sierra than colorful trees (waterfalls, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, the ancient bristlecone pines, Mono Lake, and Half Dome from Olmsted Point in Yosemite). Plus, with Eastern Sierra elevations ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 feet (even higher if you don’t mind hiking), finding yellow (and occasionally orange and red) aspen from late-September through October is usually just a matter of changing elevation. Nevertheless, I have a few favorite autumn locations I love sharing with my groups, and it’s impossible to know in advance whether the color there will be early, peaking, or past peak.

The truth is, timing of the fall color peak is fraught with mystery and misconception. Show up at the lake where someone in your camera club said the color was peaking at this time last year, and you might find the trees displaying lime green, mixed with faint hints of yellow and orange. When you check in to the lakeside inn and ask the old guy behind the counter inn what happened to the color, he shakes his head and says matter-of-factly, “The color’s late this year—it hasn’t gotten cold enough yet.” Arriving at the same inn on the same weekend the following year, you find just a handful of tattered leaves clinging to mostly bare branches—this time the old guy hands you your keynd proclaims, “That freeze a couple of weeks ago got the color started early this year—you should have been here last week.”

While these explanations may sound reasonable, they’re not entirely accurate. The truth is, the why and when of fall color is complicated, and armchair experts resort to memory, anecdote, and lore to fill knowledge voids with partial truth and downright myth. But while we still can’t predict fall color the way we do the weather, science does provide pretty good insights of the fall color process upon which to base our plans.

A tree’s color

The leaves of deciduous trees contain a mix of green, yellow, and orange pigments. During the spring and summer growing season, the volume and intensity of the green chlorophyl pigment overpowers the orange and yellow pigments, and the tree stays green. Even though chlorophyl is quickly broken down by sunlight, the process of photosynthesis that turns sunlight into nutrients during the long days of summer continuously replaces the spent chlorophyl.

As the days shrink toward autumn, things begin to change. Cells at the abscission layer at the base of the leaves’ stem (the knot where the leaf connects to the branch) begin the process that will eventually lead to the leaf dropping from the tree: Thickening of cells in the abscission layer blocks the transfer of carbohydrates from the leaves to the branches, and the movement of minerals to the leaves. Without these minerals, the leaves’ production of chlorophyl dwindles and finally stops, leaving just the yellow and orange pigments. Voilà—fall color!

The role of sunlight and weather

Contrary to popular belief, the timing of the onset of this fall color chain reaction depends much more on daylight than it does on temperature and weather.  Triggered by a genetically programmed day/night-duration threshold (and contrary to innkeeper-logic), the trees in any given region will commence their transition from green to fall color at about the same time each year, when the day length drops to a certain point.

Nevertheless, though it doesn’t trigger the process, weather does play a significant part in the intensity, duration, and demise of the color season. Because sunlight breaks down the green chlorophyl, cloudy days after the suspension of chlorophyl creation will slow the chlorophyl’s demise and the coloring process that follows. And while the yellow and orange pigments are present and pretty much just hanging out, waiting all summer for the chlorophyl to relinquish control of the tree’s color, that tree’s red and purple pigments are manufactured from sugar stored in the leaves—the more sugar, the more vivid a tree’s red. Ample moisture, warm days, and cool (but not freezing) nights after the chlorophyl replacement has stopped are most conducive to the creation and retention of the sugars that form the red and purple pigments.

On the other hand, freezing temperatures destroy the color pigments, bringing a premature end to the color display. Drought can stress trees so much that they drop their leaves before the color has a chance to manifest. And wind and rain can wreak havoc with the fall display—go to bed one night beneath a canopy of red and gold, and wake the next morning to find the trees bare and the ground blanketed with color.

Since the fall color factors come in a virtually infinite number of possible variations and combinations, the color timing and intensity can vary a lot from year to year. Despite expert advice that seems promise precise timing for the fall color, when planning a fall color trip, your best bet is to try to get there as close as possible to the middle of the color window, then cross your fingers.

Of course, fall color doesn’t need to be on the trees to be photogenic…

Up the creek in Lundy Canyon

Catching up from 2020, this year I did two Eastern Sierra workshops. On the second workshop’s next to the last day, I learned that an incoming storm that threatened to dump a few inches of snow on the highest elevations of the Sierra had forced the National Park Service preemptively close Tioga Pass. That meant I’d lose my Olmsted Point (Yosemite) sunset location, which forced me to improvise.

One option would be to return to Mono Lake South Tufa, but we’d just done sunset there the night before. Another option was the spectacular Minaret Vista above Mammoth, but between smoke (which had dogged us intermittently throughout the second workshop) and the incoming storm, there was no guarantee we’d even see the mountains. So I decided to move the Lundy Canyon shoot from the next morning (when it was supposed to be raining), to that night.

The road up Lundy Canyon starts at around 6500 feet and climbs to more than 8000 feet, with the last mile-and-a-half a pretty gnarly dirt road that can be navigated without high clearance if you take it slow. Lined with aspen, the road follows Mill Creek past a few small waterfalls and reflective beaver ponds. The color along most of the road normally peaks in mid/late October, but near the end of the road it can happen earlier.

We parked at the trailhead at the end of the road, about two hours before sunset. With so many options here, the group immediately scattered, some hiked 1/3 mile up the trail to the small lake behind a massive beaver dam and filled by a nice waterfall; a couple walked the short distance back down the road to another beaver pond; a few headed off into the nearby aspen.

The approaching storm provided the cloud cover we hope for when photographing fall color, but it also brought wind—not so great for fall color. I started with the group behind the beaver dam, then found my way into the aspen, where I spent a little time demonstrating my creative selective focus technique to a couple of participants.

I eventually moved deeper into the aspen, first searching for leaves or trunks to isolate against a soft background, but I hadn’t gone to far before I noticed that the entire forest floor here was blanketed with fresh aspen leaves. Hmmmm…

I added my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens to my Sony a7RIV to try something a little different. My thought was by dropping low, setting up close to the aspen, then going ultra-wide and angling slightly down, I could emphasize the white trunks and yellow leaves, and eliminate the (less attractive bare) mountainside in the background.

One thing I try to be careful about is avoiding any view of the world beyond the scene I want to photograph. By eliminating any hint of the world beyond, someone looking at this image could infer that this grove of aspen might just extend all the way to infinity. Of course that won’t be a conscious thought, but that simple exclusion makes the scene more inviting to anyone who loves the quiet and solitude of a deep forest.

Read more about photographing fall color


A Fall Color Gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

Extracting the Essence

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Light, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Autumn Light, North Lake, Eastern Sierra
Sony a7R III
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
3/4 second
F/13
ISO 100


Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Morning, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Autumn Morning, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Read about the travails leading up to this shoot in my previous post. But enough about that….


I’m afraid that when faced with a beautiful scene, photographers (myself included) sometimes settle for the obvious shot and leave more subtle opportunities on the table. But the most creative photography (though not necessarily the most popular) comes from looking beyond the obvious to find the scene’s essence.

The question photographers should ask themselves is: What about this scene makes it special? That’s really a personal challenge with as many answers as there are photographers seeking them. Once we identify something to emphasize, we need to figure out the best way to guide our viewers’ eyes. The tools at our disposal include our exposure settings to control the scene’s motion, depth, and light, and compositional elements like isolation, juxtaposition, lines, and shapes.

There were many “obvious” shots at North Lake this morning, and my group certainly did its best to exhaust them. But we spent enough time there that I was able to make it around to everyone to encourage them to break free of whatever they were locked onto and try to find something different. A couple dropped low with a wide angle to put foreground rocks close, some extracted a telephoto and isolated the reflection and/or colorful aspen across the lake, while others switched to a vertical composition that emphasized the clouds building above the peaks. Many played with variations of some or all of these approaches. I’ve shot here enough that I pretty content to observe, until…

About an hour into the shoot the clouds behind us parted and a shaft of sunlight snuck through to spotlight the cascade of orange across the lake, and I couldn’t resist. This sweet accent would be lost to wide field of the Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens I’d had on my a7RIII all morning, so I (very) quickly replaced it with my Sony 24-105 f/4 G and went to work isolating the scene’s best elements. Even though I hadn’t shot much, I’d been composing in my head all morning, so I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to do.

In my mind the scene’s best feature was the vivid color and its reflection. But as striking as these features were, to turn it from a scene into a picture, I needed something to move the eye, and a visual landing place. Enter the zig-zag diagonals and fortuitously positioned sunlight.

I wanted to compose as tightly as I could without losing the light and reflection. With the color as my canvas, I simply let the diagonals span the frame (taking care to include the intersection on the left), and the sunlight fall near the top.

Eastern Sierra Fall Color Photo Workshop


Extracting the Essence

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

Focus Magic

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Aspen,Grand Tetons National Park

Autumn Aspen, Grand Tetons National Park
Sony a7RIII
Sony 100-400 GM
Sony 2x teleconverter
15mm extension tube
ISO 1600
f/11
1/60 second


As we enter the fall color photography season, I’m revisiting and revising previous articles. This is the third in the series.


In this day of ubiquitous cameras, automatic exposure, and free information, a creative photographer’s surest path to unique images is achieved by managing a scene’s depth. While anyone with a camera can compose the left/right/up/down aspect of a scene, the front/back plane, a scene’s depth (that we human’s take for granted) is missing from a two-dimensional image. Managing depth requires abstract vision and camera control beyond the skill of most casual photographers. But it’s not hard.

While skilled photographers frequently go to great lengths to maximize depth of field (DOF), many forget the ability of limited DOF to:

  • Guide the viewer’s eye to a particular subject
  • Provide the primary subject a complementary background
  • Provide background context for a subject (such as its location or the time of day or season)
  • Smooth a busy, potentially distracting background
  • Create something nobody will ever be able to duplicate

They call it “bokeh”

We call an image’s out of focus area its “bokeh.” While it’s true that bokeh generally improves with the quality of the lens, as with most things in photography, more important than the lens is the photographer behind it. More than anything, achieving compelling bokeh starts with understanding how your camera sees the world, and how to translate that vision. The image’s focus point, its depth of field (a function of the f-stop, sensor size, focal length, and subject distance), and the characteristics of the blurred background (color, shapes, lines) are all under the photographer’s control.

No special equipment required

Compelling bokeh doesn’t require special or expensive equipment—chances are you have everything you need in your bag already. Most macro lenses are fast enough to limit DOF, have excellent optics (that provide pleasing bokeh), and allow for extremely close focus (which shrinks DOF). A telephoto lens near its longest focal length has a very shallow DOF when focused close.

Another great way to limit your DOF without breaking the bank is with an extension tube (or tubes). Extension tubes are hollow (no optics) cylinders that attach between your camera and lens. The best ones communicate with the camera so you can still meter and autofocus. Not only are extension tubes relatively inexpensive, with them I can focus just about as close as I could have with a macro. They can also be stacked—the more extension, the closer you can focus (and the shallower your DOF). And with no optics, there’s nothing compromise the quality of my lens (unlike a teleconverter or diopter). But there’s no such thing as a free lunch in photography—the downside of extension tubes is that they reduce the amount of amount light reaching the sensor—the more extension, the less light. On the other hand, since I’m using them to reduce my DOF, I’m always shooting wide open. And the high ISO capability of today’s cameras more than makes up for the loss of light.

Many of my selective focus images are accomplished without a macro or even a particularly fast lens. Instead, preferring the compositional flexibility of a zoom, I opt for my 70-200 f4 (especially) and 100-400 lenses. While my 100 macro is an amazingly sharp lens with beautiful bokeh, I often prefer the ability to isolate my subject, in a narrow focus range, without having to get right on top of it. On the other hand, if I have a subject I want to get incredibly close to, there’s no better way than my macro and an extension tube (or two, or three).

Managing depth of field

When using creative soft focus, it’s important that your background be soft enough that it doesn’t simply look like a focus error. In other words, you usually want your background really soft. On the other hand, the amount of softness you choose creates a continuum that starts with an indistinguishable blur of color, includes unrecognizable but complementary shapes, and ends with easily recognizable objects. Where your background falls on this continuum is up to you.

Your DOF will be shallower (and your background softer):

  • The closer your focus point
  • The longer your focal length
  • The larger your aperture (small f-stop number)

A macro lens and/or extension tube is the best way to get extremely close to your subject for the absolute shallowest DOF. But sometimes you don’t want to be that close. Perhaps you can’t get to your subject, or maybe you want just enough DOF to reveal a little (but still soft) background detail. In this case, a telephoto zoom may be your best bet. And even at the closest focus distances, the f-stop you choose will make a difference in the range of sharpness and the quality of your background blur. All of these choices are somewhat interchangeable and overlapping—you’ll often need to try a variety of focus-point/focal-length/f-stop combinations to achieve your desired effect. Experiment!

Foreground/background

Composing a shallow DOF image usually starts with finding a foreground subject on which to focus, then positioning yourself in a way that places your subject against a complementary background. (You can do this in reverse too—if you see a background you think would look great out of focus, find a foreground subject that would look good against that background and go to work.)

Primary subjects are whatever moves you: a single flower, a group of flowers, colorful leaves, textured bark, a clinging water drop—the sky’s the limit. A backlit leaf or flower has a glow that appears to originate from within, creating the illusion it has its own source of illumination—even in shade or overcast, most of a scene’s light comes from the sky and your subject will indeed have a backlit side. And an extremely close focus on a water droplet will reveal a world that’s normally invisible to the unaided eye—both the world within the drop and a reflection of the surrounding world.

My favorite backgrounds include parallel tree trunks, splashes of lit leaves and flowers in a mostly shaded forest, pinpoint jewels of daylight shining through the trees, flowers that blur to color and soft shapes, sunlight sparkling on water. I also like including recognizable landscape features that reveal the location—nothing says Yosemite like a waterfall or Half Dome; nothing says the ocean like crashing surf.

The final piece of the composition puzzle is your focus point. This creative decision can make or break an image because the point of maximum sharpness is where your viewer’s eyes will land. In one case you might want to emphasize a leaf’s serrated edge; or maybe its the leaf’s intricate vein pattern you want to feature. Or maybe you’ll need to decide between the pollen clinging to a poppy’s stamen, or the sensual curve of the poppy’s petals. When I’m not sure, I take multiple frames with different focus points.

Exposure

Exposing selective focus scenes is primarily a matter of spot-metering on the brightest element, almost always your primary subject, and dialing in an exposure that ensures that it won’t be blown out. Often this approach turns shaded areas quite dark, making your primary subject stand out more if you can align the two. Sometimes I’ll underexpose my subject slightly to saturate its color and further darken the background.

Tripod

And let’s not overlook the importance of a good tripod. In general, the thinner the area of sharpness in an image, the more essential it is to nail the focus point.  Even the unavoidable micro-millimeter shifts possible with hand-holding can make the difference between a brilliant success and an absolute failure.

Virtually all of my blurred background images are achieved in incremental steps. They start with a general concept that includes a subject and background, and evolve in repeating click, evaluate, refine, click, … cycles. In this approach, the only way to ensure consistent evolution from original concept to finished product is a tripod, which holds in place the scene I just clicked and am now evaluating—when I decide what my image needs, I have the scene sitting there atop my tripod, just waiting for my adjustments.

September 2018

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Aspen,Grand Tetons National Park

Autumn Aspen, Grand Tetons National Park

Quivering, translucent leaves of yellow, orange, and (sometimes) red make aspen trees the perfect accent for any autumn mountain vista. But it’s the aspen’s knotted white trunks that really draw me, so when I get the opportunity to photograph aspen up close, I usually try to find ways to emphasize the trunks.

Last week I was in the Tetons helping my friend Don Smith with his workshop there. While Grand Tetons have some of the most spectacular grand vistas in America, I think I my favorite part of the week was the time we spent among the aspen.

One afternoon mid-workshop we stopped along Moose-Wilson Road. Moose-Wilson Road is a narrow, mostly paved track that winds through aspen groves broken by soggy meadows. Unfortunately, the preponderance of wildlife here makes Moose-Wilson a mecca for wildlife shooters hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the park’s numerous bear, elk, and moose. The mere act of exiting the care here draws wildlife shooters like mosquitos to bare skin, and I spent half of my time with this scene swatting them away.

For this shoot I’d taken the “go big or go home” approach, carrying only my tripod (RRS 24L and RRS BH-40 ball head) and Sony a7RIII with the Sony 100-400 GM attached. The longer the focal length, the shallower the depth of field, but I wasn’t satisfied with just 400mm, so I added my Sony 2X teleconverter to get out to 800mm. But I wasn’t finished—to focus even closer and further shrink my depth of field, I also added a 15mm extension tube. Because both the teleconverter and extension tube reduces the light reaching my sensor, I shot this scene at ISO 1600.

Between interruptions (“What do you see?”; “Is there a bear?”) I made my way to an isolated aspen, then circumnavigated the trunk until I could juxtapose it against a distant grouping of orange-red leaves. For the next 20 minutes I played with variations of the composition you see here, making small refinements after each click to get the right separation between the three aspen in the scene, the best arrangement of knots, and a depth of field that emphasized my foreground aspen with sufficient background blur. And because my depth of field was so shallow, after each adjustment I very carefully chose my focus point on the tree by magnifying it in my viewfinder, then focused manually.


More Examples

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite
This raindrop-laden dogwood image uses Yosemite’s Bridalveil Fall as a soft background to establish the location. An extension tube allowed me to focus so close that the nearest petal brushed my lens.

 

Poppy With a View

Poppy With a View, Point Reyes National Seashore
My goal this gray spring afternoon was to juxtapose a poppy against the distant surf, a relationship made possible by Point Reyes’ Chimney Rock precipitous edge. Once I found the right poppy, I dropped to the ground to frame the flower with the arcing coastline, experimenting with several apertures before finding the ideal balance of foreground sharpness and background softness.

 

Champagne Glass Poppies, Merced River Canyon, California

Champagne Glass Poppies, Merced River Canyon, California
The background color you see here is simply a hillside covered with poppies. To achieve this extremely limited DOF, I used an extension tube on my 100mm macro, lying flat on the ground as close as my lens would allow me to focus. Since my tripod (at the time) wouldn’t go that low, I detached my camera, rested the tripod on the ground in front of the poppy, propped my lens on a leg, composed, focused on the leading edge, and clicked my remote release.

 

Autumn Light, Yosemite

Autumn Light, Yosemite
I had a lot of fun playing with the sunlight sneaking through the dense evergreen canopy here, experimenting with different f-stops to get the effect I liked best.

 

Sparkling Poppies, Merced River Canyon

Sparkling Poppies, Merced River Canyon
The background jewels of light are sunlight reflecting on the rippling surface of a creek. I had a blast controlling their size by varying my f-stop.

 

Dogwood, Merced River, Yosemite

Dogwood, Merced River, Yosemite
Looking down from the Pohono Bridge, finding the composition was the simple part. But as soon as I started clicking I realized that the sparkling surface of the rapidly Merced River was completely different with each frame. So I just clicked and clicked and clicked until I had over 30 frames to choose between.

 

Forest Dogwood, Tenaya Creek, Yosemite

Forest Dogwood, Tenaya Creek, Yosemite
Here, rather than background bokeh, I framed my dogwood flower with leaves in front of my focus point.


Bokeh Gallery

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Aspen abstract

Gary Hart Photography: Aspen Abstract, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen Abstract, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Sony a7R II
Sony 70-200 f/4
1/25 second
F/4
ISO 400

I recently started rereading Ansel Adams’ “Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs,” a book I’d recommend to anyone interested in the thinking side of photography. Though much of the book covers equipment and techniques that are irrelevant to today’s digital photographer, Adams’ words reveal a vision and mastery of craft that transcends technology. Like him or not (I do!), you can’t deny that Ansel Adams possessed an artist’s vision and an ability to convey that vision in ways the world had never seen.

©Ansel Adams Aspen, New Mexico, 1958 "The majority of the viewers... think it was a sunlit scene. When I explain that it was diffused lighting from the sky and also reflected light from distant clouds, some rejoin, 'Then why does it look the way it does?' Such questions remind me that many viewers expect a photograph to be a literal simulation of reality."

©Ansel Adams
Aspen, New Mexico, 1958
“The majority of the viewers (of this image) think it was a sunlit scene. When I explain that it was diffused lighting from the sky and also reflected light from distant clouds, some rejoin, ‘Then why does it look the way it does?’ Such questions remind me that many viewers expect a photograph to be a literal simulation of reality.”
Ansel Adams in “Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs”

Another takeaway from the book is Adams’ clear disdain for pictorialism, a more abstract approach to photography that (among other things) uses the camera’s unique vision to interpret the world in ways that are vastly and intentionally different from the human experience. Preferring instead the more literal front-to-back sharpness of the f/64 group that became his hallmark, Adams had little room for pictorialists’ soft focus and abstract images.

I, on the other hand, love using limited depth of field to emphasize my primary subject and disguise potential distractions. When we explore the world in person, our ability to pivot our head, move closer or farther, and change perspective allows us to enables us to lock in on a compelling subject and experience the scene in the way we find most meaningful. But an image is a constrained, two-dimensional approximation of the real world as seen by someone else. The photographer shares his or her experience of the scene by guiding our eyes with visual clues about what’s important and how to find it.

This reality wasn’t lost on Ansel Adams. Despite his distaste for soft focus techniques, Adams guided viewers of his images with in other ways, particularly his use of light. He knew that the camera and human eye handle light differently, and used every trick at his disposal, both at capture and in the darkroom, to leverage that difference.

At the risk of initiating a debate about the relative merits of the two techniques, I’ll just say that I’m a fan of both and am not afraid to apply whichever approach best suits my objective. And I suspect that if Ansel Adams were photographing today, he would be taking full advantage of the creative possibilities created by today’s technology.

Last October I was exploring the aspen grove at the end of the Lundy Canyon road near Mono Lake. With fall color peaking I put extension tubes on my Sony 70-200 f/4 looking for subjects that I could get close to, but with a distant enough background to maximize focus contrast (sharp/soft). I’ve always felt that soft focus aspen make a great background, but they need to be soft enough that individual leaves and trunk detail don’t distract.

I started looking for dangling leaves, either individual or bunches, but soon turned my attention to stark white aspen trunks that stood out in striking contrast against the distant wall of yellow leaves. I soon zeroed in on this trunk for its well-spaced knots, gentle curve, and clean, textured bark, plus the nice assortment of parallel trunks at varying distances in the background.

This frame I shot wide open at the closest possible focus distance to get the softest background focus. To emphasize the white trunks, I exposed the scene as bright as I could without clipping the highlights in the primary trunk. On my camera’s LCD at capture this image looked pretty much as you see it here, and required minimal processing.

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A Selective Focus Gallery

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Happy Nature Photography Day!

Aspen, Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen, Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/13 second
F/7.1
ISO 400
36 mm

Today is Nature Photography Day. Of course every day is Nature Photography Day in my world, but if designating a day to remind everyone the joys of photographing nature helps drive people outdoors with their cameras, I’m all for it.

Nature photography can be enjoyed in many forms. For some it’s simply the passive act of viewing images that inspire vicarious travel or that rekindle happy memories; for others nature photography takes a more active as an excuse to get outside or an opportunity to explore.

The stakes are higher for those of us who make our living with our images. Our ability to get outside and explore is tied to our ability to create images that touch others. For me that starts with finding scenes that touch me, then trying to find ways to convey them that will resonate with others.

My process is rarely a simple click. Once I’ve identified a scene, I devise a plan for the best way to organize and emphasize the  significant elements, then get to work with a series of clicks that continue until I’m satisfied (or decide there’s no image to be had). The first click is like a writer’s draft, and subsequent clicks are revisions. After each click, I stand back and evaluate the image on my LCD, refine the variables (exposure, relationships, focal length, depth of field, focus point), click again, then repeat as necessary.

I find this approach particularly valuable in macro and close-focus images, intimate scenes where even the slightest adjustment in composition, depth of field, and focus point can dramatically alter the result. It’s the primary reason I’m such a strong tripod advocate (evangelist)—when I’m done  evaluating, the shot I just evaluated is sitting right there on my tripod, waiting for me to apply the adjustments I deem necessary.

I often look for a leaf, a flower, a rock, a place for my viewer’s eye to land, and try to isolate it from the rest of the scene. In the above image, captured several years ago in an aspen stand in the Eastern Sierra west of Bishop, I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to do and was quite content just exploring in the peace of a solitary autumn morning. When I found this collection of four vertically stacked leaves knew immediately I’d found what I was looking for. Starting with my 70-200 lens and a 25 mm extension tube, I set up my tripod with the leaves suspended in front of a receding line of bleached aspen (they’d have been lost against the background foliage) and played with the framing until I was satisfied—vertical orientation, fairly tightly composed.

Exposure was straightforward in the soft overcast, and a neutral polarizer helped the color come through the leaves’ waxy sheen. Though I settled on the general framing pretty quickly, an intermittent breeze meant I still had some decisions to make. The breeze ranged from light to apparently nonexistent, but I increased my ISO to 400 to enable a faster shutter speed and prevent my camera from picking up micro-movement I couldn’t see. I timed my clicks for pauses in the breeze.

Though I don’t always catch compositional balance, relationship, and border problems immediately, after several click/evaluate/refine cycles I felt I had the composition nailed. But that was only the first step. I wanted the leaves sharp, with the receding trunks soft but recognizable. I don’t trust critical depth of field decisions made in camera, so when an important composition (one I really like) relies heavily on DOF and focus point, I always take a series of frames, bracketing my f-stop around the DOF I think is best. Sometimes I’ll range all the way from f2.8 to f22. In this case I tried frames ranging from f4 (my 70-200’s fastest aperture) to f16 (at f16 I increased my ISO to 800), in one-stop increments. Since I thought f8 would give me about the right combination of sharp foreground and soft background, I even took a couple of extra frames in 1/3 stop increments around f8. Back home on my large monitor I scrutinized each frame closely and ended up choosing this one at f7.1.

In Lightroom I warmed the image slightly to remove a blue cast on the white trunks. Because I intentionally underexposed the scene a little at capture (to ensure that I didn’t clip any of the red channel, where most of the yellow is), in Photoshop I dodged the trunks to remove the dinginess introduced by my underexposure. Otherwise my processing was pretty much standard stuff—a subtle wiggle in Curves to add contrast, Topaz noise reduction, and selective sharpening of everything in focus with Unsharp Mask.

I’m pretty happy with this image, probably happier with it than the attention it generates. But that’s okay because every time I look at it I remember how much fun I had out there in the woods that chilly autumn morning.

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A gallery of my favorite nature images

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It’s not a click, it’s a process

Aspen in Autumn, Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
1/13 second
F/7.1
ISO 84
36 mm

A landscape image isn’t just a click, it’s a process that starts with an idea, a plan for the best way to organize and emphasize the scene’s significant elements, then improves with each subsequent click until the photographer is satisfied. The first click is like a writer’s draft, and subsequent clicks are the revisions. After each click, a photographer should stand back and evaluate the image on the LCD (I love the large LCDs on today’s DSLRs), refine (exposure, composition, depth of field, focus point), then click again. Repeat as necessary.

This approach is particularly valuable in macro and close-focus images, intimate scenes where even the slightest adjustment in composition, depth of field, and focus point can dramatically alter the result. It’s a prime reason I’m such a strong tripod advocate (evangelist)—when I’m done  evaluating, the shot I just evaluated is sitting right there on my tripod, waiting for me to apply the adjustments I deem necessary.

When photographing fall color, I look for a leaf, or group of leaves, to isolate from the rest of the scene. In the above image, captured in an aspen stand just down the hill from North Lake, west of Bishop, I started with this collection of four vertically stacked leaves, positioning myself so leaves were suspended in front of a receding line of bleached aspen (they’d have been lost against the background foliage). I wanted the background soft but recognizable.

Using my 70-200 lens with a 25 mm extension tube, and a neutral polarizer to help the color come through the leaves’ waxy sheen, I settled on the general framing fairly quickly—vertical orientation, fairly tightly composed. Exposure was pretty straightforward in the soft overcast, though an intermittent breeze meant I had some decisions to make. Since the breeze ranged from light to completely still, I used ISO 400 to enable a faster shutter speed, and timed my click for the brief pauses.

Though I don’t always catch balance, relationship, and border problems through the viewfinder, after two or three click/evaluate/refine cycles, I had the composition nailed. But I was far from finished—in fact, I’d just started. I don’t trust critical DOF decisions made through my viewfinder or even on my LCD, so when a composition I like a lot makes significant use of DOF and focus point, I always take a series of frames, bracketing DOF (f-stop) around the DOF I think is best. Sometimes I’ll range all the way from f2.8 to f22. In this case I tried frames ranging from f4 (my 70-200’s fastest aperture) to f16 (at f16 I increased my ISO to 800), in (more or less) one-stop increments. Since I thought f8 would give me about the right combination of sharp foreground and soft background, I even took a couple of extra frames in 1/3 stop increments around f8. Back home on my large monitor I scrutinized each frame closely and ended up choosing this one at f7.1.

In Lightroom I warmed the image slightly to remove a blue cast on the white trunks. Because I intentionally underexposed the scene at capture (to ensure that I didn’t clip any of the red channel, where most of the yellow is), in Photoshop I dodged the trunks to remove the dinginess introduced by my underexposure. Otherwise my processing was pretty much standard stuff—a subtle wiggle in Curves to add contrast, Topaz noise reduction, and selective sharpening of everything in focus with Unsharp Mask.

Join me for the next Eastern Sierra photo workshop

A gallery of nature intimates

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