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

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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.

Photo Workshop Schedule

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

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

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