Fire at will

Poppy Pastel, Sierra Foothills, California
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/125 second
ISO 400
100 mm with 12mm extension tube added

Maximize your investment

I clicked 54 versions of this scene (I just counted). I’m usually a pretty low volume shooter, sometimes not taking 54 pictures on an entire trip. And I have to admit, after years as a film shooter, the whole digital “fire at will” paradigm took some getting used to. But I’ve finally reached a place where I have no problem firing 54 frames in 30 minutes when the scene calls for it. The light came on for me when I realized that, while in my film days every single click cost money, with a digital camera, every click increases the return on my investment (the more images I have, the less per image my camera cost).

For example

These poppies were just a small handful of the thousands coloring a steep hillside near the Mokelumne River in California’s Gold Country. I’d been working the area for a couple of hours, using various combinations of macro, telephoto, and extension tubes to isolate and selectively focus poppies with various foreground/background relationships. I spent about an hour futzing around with compositions, occasionally stumbling upon something decent, but more often than not moving on to something else after a handful of mediocre frames. But the longer I worked, the more productive I became and the more I started seeing things the way my camera saw them.

The late afternoon sun that I’d been working with (and around) had just about left the scene when I decided to shift from one patch of poppies to similar patch about twenty feet away. I’d been concentrating on extremely close shots (inches from my subject) with at least 36mm of extension on my 100mm macro and 70-200 lenses, but when I saw this trio of poppies on (more or less) the same plane, I immediately pictured a slightly wider scene featuring this group sharp against a blurred background of poppies and grass.

Cutting back to a 12mm extension tube on my macro lens, I started with a wide aperture to limit the depth of field and spread the grass into a textured green canvas. With a slight breeze intermittently nudging the poppies, I switched to ISO 400 (in the few frames where I went smaller than f5.6, I bumped up to ISO 800). The preliminaries out of the way, I went to work refining my composition, framing the more or less centered foreground (sharp) poppies with the soft orange background poppy splashes.

Given the minuscule margin for error, I can’t imagine shooting something like this without a tripod. With my tripod I was able to use live-view to ensure precise focus, after each click evaluating everything from sharpness to exposure to composition, all with the security of knowing that the shot I’m reviewing is still sitting right there in my viewfinder, just waiting for whatever refinement I deem necessary.

Fifty-four frames later….

They don’t all have to be winners

Not only should you not be shy about shooting, your goal for each shot doesn’t necessarily need to be a “keeper” image. Often the purpose of a frame is to simply move you toward that keeper image. Sometimes that means a tangible improvement, but many times it’s just an education because nothing fosters creativity better than taking an “I wonder what happens if I do this” approach (followed by an effort to actually understand what happened). On the other hand, indiscriminate clicking (“The more I shoot, the better the chance I’ll find a keeper when I get home”) will wear out your camera faster than it improves your photography. In other words, shoot a lot, but make each shot serve a purpose.

Each frame that afternoon was a little different from the one before it: nearer, farther, up, down, left, right, more DOF, less DOF. While each wasn’t necessarily an improvement over the preceding frame, at the very least it advanced my understanding of the scene and gave me ideas for the next frame. And each gave me a variety of options from which to select when I could review and compare everything on a 27″ monitor. It was also lots of fun.

A Poppy Gallery

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

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