Natural Order

Gary Hart Photography: Raindrops on Poppy, Sierra Foothills, California

Raindrops on Poppy, Sierra Foothills, California

I’m often asked if I placed a leaf, moved a rock, or “Photoshopped” a moon into an image. Usually the tone is friendly curiosity, but sometimes it’s tinged with hints of suspicion that can border on accusation. While these questions are an inevitable part of being a photographer today, I suspect that I get more than my share because I aggressively seek out naturally occurring subjects to isolate and emphasize in my frame. But regardless of the questioner’s tone, my answer is always a cheerful and unapologetic, “No.”

We all know photographers who have no qualms about staging their scenes to suit their personal aesthetics. The rights and wrongs of that are an ongoing debate I won’t get into, other than to say that I have no problem when photographers arrange their scenes openly, with no intent to deceive. But photography must be a source of pleasure, and my own photographic pleasure derives from discovering and revealing nature, not manufacturing it. I don’t like arranging scenes because I have no illusions that I can improve nature’s order, and am confident that there’s enough naturally occurring beauty to keep me occupied for the rest of my life.

Order vs. chaos

As far as I’m concerned, nature is inherently ordered. In fact, in the grand scheme, “nature” and “order” are synonyms. But humans go to such lengths to control, contain, and manage the natural world that we’ve created a label for our failure to control nature: Chaos. Despite its negative connotation, what humans perceive as “chaos” is actually just a manifestation of the universe’s inexorable push toward natural order.

Let’s take a trip

Imagine all humans leave Earth for a scenic tour of the Milky Way. While we’re gone, no lawns are mowed, no buildings maintained, no fires extinguished, no floods controlled, no Starbucks built. Let’s say we return in 100 Earth years*. While the state of things would no doubt be perceived as chaotic, the reality is that our planet would in fact be closer to its natural state. And the longer we’re away, the more human-imposed “order” would be replaced by natural order.

* Since this is my fantasy, I’ve chartered a spaceship that accommodates all of humankind and travels at 90 percent of the speed of light. While Earth has indeed aged 100 years during our holiday, we travelers return only a year older. (Dubious? Don’t take my word for it, ask Albert Einstein.)

What does all this have to do with raindrops on a poppy?

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Read the story of this saturated shoot in my All Wet blog post

Venturing outdoors with a camera and the mindset that nature is inherently ordered makes me feel like a treasure hunter—I know the treasure is there, I just have to find it. Patterns and relationships hidden by human interference and the din of 360 degree multi-sensory input, further obscured by human bias, snap into coherence when I find the right perspective.

Finding water droplets to photograph can be as simple as picking a subject and squirting it with a spray bottle of water or (better still) glycerin. But what fun is that? If I’d have been staging this, I probably would have insisted on an open poppy, maybe with more and bigger drops. But that’s not what Nature gave me this soggy afternoon. So I photographed this raindrop festooned poppy (and many others) the old fashioned way—within minutes I was as wet as the poppy, and (to quote the immortal Cosmo Kramer) lovin’ every minute of it.


Finding Natural Order

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All Wet

Gary Hart Photography: Looking Up, Raindrops on Poppy, Sierra Foothills

Looking Up, Raindrops on Poppy, Sierra Foothills

Last Monday seemed like the perfect day for a poppy shoot in the foothills. I had the afternoon wide open—with the California media buzzing about this year’s “superbloom,” plus a forecast promising ideal conditions (calm wind and thin clouds), I couldn’t help dreaming about my own images of poppy-saturated fields. What could possibly go wrong?

Getting on the road proved a little more problematic than anticipated, but by 2 p.m. I was on my way, encouraged forward by an occasional poppy beside the freeway. Adding to my optimism, the aforementioned clouds were just right: thick enough to diffuse the sunlight, but not so dark that they’d close the sun-loving poppies. I exited the freeway as soon as possible, opting to drive the 2-lane roads that follow the hills’ natural contours. While my preferred my route isn’t the most direct, it is the most scenic, winding me through oak-studded hills deeply greened by this year’s copious winter rain. Though this drive takes a little more than an hour, the time passes quickly with so much pastoral beauty filling my windshield.

I knew the poppies in Northern California were starting late due to our relatively late winter, but was fairly confident I’d allowed enough time for the golden hillsides to kick in. In a good spring, poppies dot the entire route, but by the time I was southbound on scenic Highway 49, I started realizing I hadn’t seen any poppies since leaving Sacramento. Soon I was pretty resigned to the fact that this year’s superbloom was limited Southern California, and wondered if I’d find any poppies at all. Then it started to rain.

Gary Hart Photography: Yosemite in a Raindrop, Valley View, Yosemite

Yosemite in a Raindrop, Valley View, Yosemite

As easy as it would have been easy to cut my losses and turn around, I simply changed my expectations. With fresh memories of a brief but rewarding raindrop experience in Yosemite, I realized I didn’t need to find entire hillsides covered with poppies, that even a single poppy could be nice. So, rather than zipping along Highway 49 at 50 MPH (-ish) looking for golden slopes, I started exploring some of the quieter tributary roads and quickly realized that there were a sprinkling of poppies out.

I ended up spending two hours photographing a small patch of poppies I found on a dead-end road near Jackson. It rained the entire time, but with rain gear in my car for just these situations, I stayed warm and dry. My camera? Not so much. I tried working with an umbrella, but after a few minutes realized I was one arm short and just decided to test the water resistance of my Sony a7RIII. I’m happy to say that it passed with flying colors, as did the Sony 100-400 GM.

In the two weeks since I shot those raindrops in Yosemite, I’ve been plotting how to get even closer. On the Yosemite shoot I added extension tubes to my 100-400; this afternoon I returned to the extension tubes, but added my 2X teleconverter (which, I might add, handled the rain perfectly as well). I thought I’d try a few lens/extension-tube/teleconverter configurations, but I was having so much fun that I ended up shooting this way the entire time.

On a rainy day, light is already limited. But adding a teleconverter and extension tubes compounds the light problem. Because f/stop is a ratio with focal length as the numerator and lens opening as the denominator, adding a teleconverter and extension increases the focal length, resulting in less light reaching the sensor. A 2x teleconverter cuts two stops of light, which means my 100-400 that’s normally wide upon f/5.6 at 400mm becomes f/11 at (the teleconverted) 800mm (400mm x 2). And adding extension tubes also extends the lens’s effective focal length, further reducing the light reaching the sensor. To compensate for all this missing light, I shot everything this afternoon at either ISO 1600 or ISO 3200.

One of the cool things about this kind of photography is how different the world looks through the viewfinder. I love putting my eye to the viewfinder, moving the lens around, and changing focus slowly to see what snaps into view. In this case I was looking for a poppy to isolate from its nearby surroundings, but that also has something nearby (usually another flower) that I could soften enough to complement without competing. Sometimes I had a general idea of a subject before looking through my camera, other times I’d just explore with my lens until something stopped me.

Because depth of field shrinks not only with focal length, but also with focus distance, every frame I clicked this afternoon had a paper-thin range of sharpness. With such a shallow depth of field, none of these images would have been possible without a tripod. With my composition set, I’d pick a focus point (usually, but not always, a prominent raindrop), focus in my viewfinder until I was “certain” it was sharp, then instantly debunk my that “certainty” by magnifying the image in my viewfinder. This little exercise quickly taught me that with such a small margin for error, the best I could reliably achieve without magnifying the view was almost sharp enough, making pre-click magnification an essential part of my focus workflow (instead of just a cursory focus-check).

Each time I do this kind of photography I learn something. In this case it was how far away I could be and still fill my frame with a poppy. All of the images I captured this afternoon were from four to six feet away.

I wrapped up when the sky darkened further and the rain started coming down pretty hard. I couldn’t believe I’d been out there two hours, and spent most of the drive strategizing new ideas for the next time.

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Getting the Drop on Nature

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Wild about wildflowers

Gary Hart Photography: Dancing Poppy, Sierra Foothills, California

Dancing Poppy, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a7R II
Sony FE 90mm f2.8 Macro
1/800 seconds
F/4
ISO 1600

I’ve given up trying to predict California’s wildflower bloom. There are a lot of theories about the conditions that cause a great wildflower bloom: wet winter, early rain, late rain, warm spring, wet spring, and so on. For each condition correlation you can cite, I can cite an exception. So now I just cross my fingers and wait to see what spring delivers.

Well, it turns out this is a great year for wildflowers in California. Death Valley is winding down its “super bloom,” the best since 2005, my Facebook feed is suddenly saturated with California wildflower images, and it seems like every day I’m hearing about another don’t-miss poppy location.

While Death Valley’s bloom was dominated by yellow, daisy-like desert gold, with a few other varieties and colors sprinkled in, for most of California it’s the poppy that takes center stage each spring. The highlight of Sunday my drive from Phoenix to Sacramento (I know, not a lot of competition for highlights on this route) was top-to-bottom orange hillsides flanking the usually maligned Grapevine (if you’ve lived in California, you know what the Grapevine is; if you haven’t, just ask a Californian. But be prepared to endure a lengthy “that time my car broke down” story).

My close-focus technique

There are many ways to photograph poppies, ranging from wide panoramas that highlight poppies’ propensity to dominate vast expanses of the landscape, to tight macro views that emphasize their elegant curves and translucent gold and orange. Likewise, there are depth decisions to be made with each poppy composition, from complete front-to-back sharpness to a single, minuscule point of sharpness.

While I’ll employ whatever approach I think best serves the scene, my poppy images tend toward close focus and limited depth of field captures that use a paper-thin sharpness range to blur all but the most essential aspect(s) of my scene. With this approach, I can highlight my subject, blur away distractions, and create a complementary background of color and shape.

I start by identifying a flower or flowers that I can isolate from the surroundings. Finding the right background is as essential finding the right subject—without my subject and background working in unison, the image will almost certainly fail. What’s the right background? Other flowers, sparking water, deep shade (that I can turn dark green or black)—use your imagination, and experiment.

Given my desire for minimal depth of field, my lens choice is usually a function of the background’s distance from my subject—there’s an inverse correlation between focal length and depth of field, so the farther away the background, generally the longer the focal length I choose. Since a narrow depth of field is my goal, I usually start wide open (my lens’s widest aperture). To focus closer than the lens permits and further reduce the depth of field, I sometimes add one or more extention tubes.

With my subject, background, lens, and f-stop determined, I set up my tripod as close to the subject as I can focus and get to work. Because of the amount of review and refine I do, a tripod is an essential part of my approach—I can’t imagine doing close focus photography without one. With each click I scrutinize the result for adjustments, large or small—when I’m ready for the next click, having the scene I just reviewed waiting there for me on my tripod allows me to apply my refinements without having to recreate the image as I would if I had been hand-holding.

In the world of close focus photography, the scene looks completely different to the camera than it does to the eye, even more than most other types of photography. So I usually don’t identify my ultimate composition, focal length, and f-stop until I’ve worked the scene awhile. When I get the composition the way I want it, I usually run through a series of f-stops to give me a variety of subject sharpness and background blur effects to choose between when I review my images later on my large monitor.

At the kind of magnification I normally use for these close focus images, even the slightest breeze can introduce motion blur that ruins an image. I’ve become so comfortable shooting at high ISO with my Sony a7RII that my default close-focus ISO for shade or overcast is now 800. If there’s a breeze, I’ll go all the way to ISO 6400—sometimes higher. Whatever your camera’s high ISO capability, it’s very helpful to familiarize yourself with your ISO comfort zone for your camera.

Because your eyes see a close-focus scene so differently than the camera sees it, your close-focus photography will improve with experience. When you start, some of your best images may be accidents, blurred background effects that you didn’t anticipate. But soon you’ll come to learn what to look for, and how to achieve it.

Now go enjoy spring!

Workshop schedule


A poppy gallery

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The art of subtraction

Gary Hart Photography: Simple Elegance, California Poppy, Sierra Foothills

Golden Elegance, California Poppy, Sierra Foothills
Sony a7R II
Sony FE 90mm f2.8 Macro
1/200 seconds
F/4
ISO 3200

Photography is an art of subtraction—presented with a complex world, we identify and organize objects of visual interest and (ideally) do our best to eliminate everything else. It’s this last point that’s often overlooked. The best pictures often work as much for what’s not in them as for what’s in them. Most photographers have no problem seeing what to put in their images, but many struggle with what to leave out. Or how to do it.

Morning Light, Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Dome

Morning Light, Upper Yosemite Fall from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

Anything in your frame that doesn’t enhance it is a potential distraction. Removing distractions is often as simple as tightening the composition, or repositioning the camera.

For example, admiring a dramatic waterfall in the distance, you might walk around until you find a colorful bouquet of wildflowers for your foreground—so far so good. With your camera at eye level, you frame the scene with the flowers at the bottom and the waterfall at the top. Click.

The problem is that you also included a vast empty region in the middle of the frame, a region that does nothing more for your image than occupy space. The solution is as simple as dropping your camera to ground level, allowing you to subtract the empty space and replace it with larger flowers and waterfall (because with the flowers and waterfall more aligned, you can increase the focal length).

But compositional adjustments are only the beginning. Where most people stumble is when they have an opportunity to further simplify an image by incorporating the areas of their camera’s vision that differs most significantly from their own vision: light, focus depth, and motion.

Captive Crescent, Yosemite

Captive Crescent, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite
Read the story of this image

Light

Photographers frequently lament their camera’s limited dynamic range. And while extra dynamic range in a camera is great, limited dynamic range creates great opportunities to remove distractions and emphasize shape over detail.

Brilliant Poppy, American River Parkway, Sacramento

Brilliant Poppy, American River Parkway, Sacramento

Metering and underexposing the highlights in a backlit scene can saturate color and hide distracting details in blackness. I try to find striking subjects that stand out against the sky. Hilltop oak trees work well for this, but I can think of no subject in nature more suitable to silhouette photography than El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite. And since a crescent moon is always in the brightest part of the sky just before sunrise or after sunset, I always look for an opportunity to pair a waning crescent against Yosemite’s striking skyline.

But this approach isn’t limited to silhouettes. In the image at the top of this post, I didn’t want anything to distract from the poppy’s graceful curves, so I positioned the poppy against deep shade and underexposed the scene. This saturated the rich color and blackened everything that wasn’t poppy.

And using dynamic range to subtract distractions isn’t just about turning shadows black. Don’t like a blank blue sky? Metering on a shaded subject against a blue sky can completely blow out the highlights, creating a striking white background for your primary subject.

Focus depth

Poppy Lanterns, Merced River Canyon

Poppy Lanterns, Merced River Canyon

One of my favorite techniques for photographing colorful wildflowers and fall foliage is to narrow the range of focus until just a select part of my subject is sharp, softening the rest of the scene to an appealing blur of color and shape. This blur effect improves as depth of focus shrinks, and depth of focus shrinks with:

  • Subject distance—the closer the better
  • Focal length—the longer the better
  • F-stop—small f-stop means large aperture

While I’ve used pretty much every lens in my bag to blur my backgrounds (and foregrounds), I most frequently use telephoto and macro lenses, often with extension tubes.

Not only does this approach help the primary subject—or specific aspects of the primary subject—stand out, when executed properly it can eliminate virtually any background distraction. The most important thing to remember is that even when it will be blurred beyond recognition, the background matters.

Motion

Blurred water often gets labeled as “unnatural” or “cliché.” The unnatural part I’ll dismiss as misinformed—it’s no less natural than water droplets suspended in midair. While I’ll acknowledge that reflexively reaching for a neutral density filter at the slightest hint

Dogwood and Rapids, Merced River, Yosemite

Dogwood and Rapids, Merced River, Yosemite

of whitewater might be overdoing it a bit, the cliché label ignores the fact that blurred is often the only way to render moving water (ever try freezing a waterfall or churning cascade in shade or overcast?).

Regardless of your position on blurred water, detail in moving water can create a distraction that competes with your primary subject for attention. Smoothing moving water to one degree or another subtracts this distracting busyness.

Motion blur isn’t just about water—pretty much anything that moves can be softened or eliminated with motion: clouds, blowing leaves and flowers, stars, and so on. While it’s not landscape photography, a device employed by architectural (and other) photographers is adding many stops of neutral density to slow the shutter speed so much that people and vehicles moving in the scene completely disappear.

Regardless of the object that’s moving, as with narrow focus depth, softening the secondary areas of a scene also helps the primary subject stand out by allowing your viewers to focus all their attention where it belongs.

It’s all about control

Because of the zero-sum relationship between photography’s exposure variables—changing one variable requires a complementary change in another—controlling light, depth, and motion is difficult-to-impossible unless you get out of the full auto exposure modes and start making your own exposure decisions. While it can be done in Aperture or Shutter Priority modes, I find Manual metering works best for this level of control. So, if you don’t have enough understanding of metering to shoot in Manual mode, that’s the place to start.

Here are some links from my Photo Tips tab that will help:

Workshop schedule


A gallery of subtraction

Among the wildflowers

Gary Hart Photography: Foothill Gold, Mokelumne River, California

Foothill Gold, Mokelumne River, California
Sony a7R II
Sony FE 90mm f2.8 Macro
1/125 seconds
F/4
ISO 4000

Last year, a busy spring schedule and mediocre wildflower bloom conspired to thwart the wildflower photography I love so much. Vowing not to let that happen again this year, a few days ago I packed my gear and headed for the hills with fingers crossed. My goal was a familiar canyon off of Highway 49 in the foothill Gold Country south and east of Sacramento.

This would be the maiden voyage for my brand new Sony 90mm f2.8 macro, and I was really looking forward to seeing if it’s as good as everyone says it is. Not only that, this would be my first wildflower shoot since switch from Canon DSLR to Sony mirrorless nearly a year and a half ago (!).

It’s a sign

On the drive I’d been streaming a Giants Spring Training game, but turning up the canyon I lost my signal, so I opened the Music app on my iPhone, put it in Random mode, and was immediately distracted by an entire hillside of poppies unfolding before me. Each bend in the road seemed to be trying to outdo the one before it, and I was several curves up the road before my ears caught up with my eyes. Of the 5000 or so possibilities on my phone, what I heard was Tom Petty telling me, “You belong among the wildflowers….” (true story). A sign, definitely a sign.

But anyway…

I followed the road to the end to identify the places I wanted to return to. On the drive back I stopped at my first choice and stayed until darkness and rain (not necessarily in that order) drove me out. I started with the macro, but before I was done I’d used every other lens in my bag too: 16-35, 24-70, and 70-200 (and would have used the 150-600 if I hadn’t loaned it to my brother a couple of days earlier)—with and without extension tubes.

With the sun already behind the hills and rain on the way, light was limited, and fading. There wasn’t much wind, but there was just enough flower-swaying breeze to concern me. My f-stop choice was completely tied to the creative side of my composition (selective depth of field), leaving ISO as the only exposure variable for controlling my shutter speed. Rather than guessing before each shot exactly how fast the shutter needed to be and dial in just enough ISO to get there (and remember to adjust each time my f-stop changed or I added extension), I just cranked the ISO to 4000 and went to work. Problem solved.

I found lots of things to photograph, from entire hillsides to individual poppies like this one. Regardless of my depth of field, I took extreme care to ensure that my background complemented my subject. In this case I maneuvered my tripod until my subject was framed by background poppies. It took several frames to get the composition just right; once I was satisfied, I tried it with a variety of f-stops and focus points. (I can’t imagine even attempting this without a tripod.)

More love for Sony

The Sony 90mm macro was as good as advertised. And I can’t tell you how pleased I am with the high ISO capability of the Sony a7RII. Putting my wildflower images up on my large monitor at home confirmed that everything that was supposed to be sharp was indeed sharp, and the noise at 4000 ISO was minimal and easily managed without detail loss—even the images I shot toward the end, in a light rain and fading light, at 6400 ISO were just ridiculously clean.

This ability to push my ISO threshold allows me to shoot scenes I’d never have considered before. Along with the dynamic range and night photography capability, it’s another Sony game changer for me. The a7RII is exceptional, but regardless of the camera you use, I encourage you to test its high ISO capabilities before you find yourself in a situation where ISO matters—you may be surprised by its capabilities.

Another thing I enjoyed about shooting macro with the a7RII was the ease of achieving precise focus. With depths of field measured in millimeters, sometimes fractions of millimeters, identifying the focus point and getting it perfectly sharp is imperative. With my recent Canon DSLRs (1Ds Mark III and 5D Mark III) I’d become a real convert to live-view focus, but glare on the LCD can sometimes make seeing well enough to get precise focus difficult. That problem disappears completely with the ability to view the scene in the viewfinder.

I’m not done

I had so much fun last week, I’ll be going back as often as possible, until the hills brown and the wildflowers fade. With all the rain promised for the next couple of weeks, that might be quite a while—maybe all the way until dogwood season in Yosemite. Life’s good.

Blooming hillsides

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Going for bokeh

 

Forest Dogwood, Yosemite Valley

Forest Dogwood, Yosemite Valley
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/80 second
159 mm
ISO 800
F4

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. Anyone with a camera can compose the left/right/up/down aspect of a scene. But 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.

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.

Forest Dogwood, Yosemite Valley

Forest Dogwood, Yosemite Valley
I worked this scene for about a half hour before I was satisfied. I started with this dogwood branch and moved around a bit until the background was right. Then I tried a variety of focal lengths to simplify and balance the composition. Once I was satisfied with my composition, I used live-view to focus toward the front of the center cluster. Finally, I ran the entire range of f-stops from f4 to f16, in one-stop increments, to ensure a variety of bokeh effects to choose from.

 

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.

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

 

Customize your camera

Sparkling Poppies, Merced River Canyon

Sparkling Poppies, Merced River Canyon
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/200 second
F/8
ISO 200
200 mm

A recent mishap forced me to replace my Canon 5D Mark III (a story for a different day). A quality backup and good equipment insurance made my accident no more than a minor inconvenience, but setting up my new camera this morning reminded me of a few camera settings I consider equal parts essential and obscure (or taken for granted). So essential that I set them once and they simply become part of my in-the-field workflow; so obscure that I have to hunt to find many of them in the menu system. What I share here is specific to Canon in general, and the 5DIII in particular, but much of it will apply to Nikon and other DSLR cameras as well. Some of my suggestions may seem obvious, but you may find some surprises too.

For everyone

  • Set Date/Time and keep it accurate: Okay, maybe this one isn’t too obscure, but I think the time and date are important to get and keep right, rather than something set once and forget. In fact, when Daylight Saving Time starts/ends, I (try to) make a point of going in and making the appropriate adjustment. The same applies to travel through time zones. Why is all this important? Because often I like to know what time the Rainbow starts on Bridalveil fall in April, or when the light leaves Delicate Arch in October—when my calendar and clock is right, all I need to do is return to a past image and check its capture date/time. I can also figure the altitude (angle above the horizon) of any location by checking the time of an image of the sun or moon rising/setting at that location on a given date, then refer to an app or website for the sun’s/moon’s altitude at that time.
  • Enable Highlight Alert (“blinking highlights” that flash when blown): I can think of no reason to not turn Highlight Alert on, but remarkably, on many cameras it’s off by default. Blown highlights are death to an image, but sometimes we overlook them until it’s too late. And sometimes whatever’s blown is too small to even register on the histogram—not a big deal if it’s a patch of snow on a distant peak, but a huge deal if blown highlights are in the rising full moon that’s the focal point of your entire scene. Not sure your whether your Highlight Alert is turned on? Take an extremely overexposed image and replay it on your camera’s LCD (don’t forget to cycle through all possible views)—if you don’t see any flashing, Highlight Alert is off.
  • Disable Release shutter without card (or whatever it’s called on your camera): This is another no-brainer that comes set backward on all the Canon cameras I’ve owned (your results may vary). All it took for me to learn this lesson was losing an entire shoot with a new camera because I forgot to put a card in (true story). Maybe you have a reason to click your shutter with no card, but for most of us those times are few and far between.
  • Reduce LCD brightness (and turn off auto-brightness): We all like our LCDs to be super bright because it makes our images easier to see in full sunlight, and images just look better when they’re brighter. The problem with a max-bright LCD is, no matter how well we understand histograms and tell ourselves to check it with every shot, there’s a natural tendency to base exposure decisions on the way the image looks on the LCD. A bright LCD fools us into thinking a too-dark image is just right. Not only do I see workshop participants doing this (all the time), I catch myself making this unconscious mistake too. So, if you’re frequently frustrated by images that look much darker on your monitor than they did on your LCD (don’t increase your monitor brightness!), it’s probably because your camera’s LCD is too bright. I actually believe that a too-bright LCD is the source of many “My prints are too dark” complaints—the LCD tells you an image is bright enough (because you didn’t check the histogram), but when you put it on the computer at home, it’s too dark. Rather than fixing the real problem by giving your images more light at capture (something the histogram would tell you, BTW), you simply make your monitor brighter. Of course the best solution is to always check and trust your histogram—if you train yourself to do this, your LCD can be whatever brightness you like.
  • Turn image rotation on for the monitor, off for the camera LCD: I like to use my camera’s entire LCD to view my images (long side of the image, whether horizontal or vertical, matches the long side of the LCD), but Canon (and maybe Nikon and the rest) must think nobody ever turns their camera vertically, because my camera’s default behavior is to rotate a vertical image so its top aligns with the top of the camera (where view-finder is). While Canon’s default rotation is great for my always horizontal monitor, I can and do flip my camera quite easily. Turning off rotation for the camera’s LCD ensures that the long side of horizontal and vertical images always aligns with the LCD’s long side.
  • Download the manual’s PDF and put in on your smartphone: Okay, not a camera menu option, but definitely one of the first things you should do when you get a new camera. For years I’ve loaded my camera’s manual onto my computer, but with my Dropbox app I can also access it on my iPhone. Because manuals are big, and often the times I most need it I’m in an area with poor or no wifi or cell service, I use the Dropbox Favorites selection to ensure that the manual is always with me.
  • Save your custom settings: On the Canon cameras I’ve used there’s an option to save and restore all of your menu settings to/from a media card. Do it (you can use one of those old, small capacity cards rattling around in the bottom of your camera bag), then mark the card containing the settings and set the card aside. Not only will this make recovery easier the next time you drop your camera in a creek on Maui (for example), it’ll save lots of frustration when you get your camera back from a repair and find everything back to factory default.

For the serious landscape shooter

  • Set back-button autofocus (and remove autofocus from the shutter button): For stationary subjects, there’s little reason to connect focus and the shutter click (if your subjects are in motion, for example if you shoot sports or wildlife shooting, you can make a strong case for keeping the autofocus connected to the shutter button). By removing autofocus from my shutter button and moving it to a different button on the back of my camera, I can completely separate the act of focus from the act of clicking a frame. When I want to autofocus, I simply point my camera’s focus point at the place in the scene on which I want to focus, press my focus button, compose, and click. (Setting this up is less than intuitive on Canon bodies—each time I get a new camera I have to figure it out again.) Here’s a primer on back-button focus, including instructions for the 1D and 5D bodies.
  • Turn on Mirror Lock-up (to reduce vibration induced by the mirror snapping out of the way when you click your shutter): I suspect that modern damping mechanisms make mirror lock-up much less essential than it once was, and mirror vibration really is a problem only in the 1/10 to 1 second shutter speed range. But since Canon makes it a pain to turn mirror lock-up on and off, and I’m always on a tripod (if you’re hand-holding mirror lock-up is a total pain), I see no reason not to just leave it on and get used to clicking my shutter button twice (once to lock-up the mirror, and again to trip the shutter). Of course when you’re in Live-View mode, the mirror is already locked up, so this setting doesn’t matter if you always use Live-View.
  • Write to two cards simultaneously (if your camera is among the majority without two card slots, you can skip this one): I’m kind of obsessive about backups, so when I got my 1DSIII, rather than use the second media card slot to store more images, I opted to write each image to both cards. And when I learned that the 5DIII would come with two slots, I was pleased that I wouldn’t have to compromise my peace of mind to save $3500. Has this feature saved me? I don’t use cheap media cards, so I’ve never had a complete card failure (it does happen), but I have lost a few images on one card due to localized corruption. The solution? Just pop in the second card with duplicates of all the day’s captures. My capture workflow goes something like this: In camera, write each image to a 32 GB CF and a 32 GB SD card. At the end of the day (this assumes on the road), I upload the day’s images from my SD card to my laptop hard disk and a to a portable external drive. I don’t delete anything until I run out of space; since I’m not a high volume shooter (on my nine-day trip to Maui, I filled less than half of a 32 GB card), an entire trip’s images usually stay on both media cards in my camera. In the rare event that I do fill a card, I clear the SD and replace the CF with a fresh one.
  • Turn on ISO expansion: By default my camera’s ISO range is 100-12800. ISO 100 is my camera’s “native” (best) ISO, but when I want to slow my shutter, I like the option of dropping to ISO 50 before using a smaller (less than optimal) aperture. Unlike the film days, when ISO 50 gave you less noise, a DSLR’s ISO 50 is emulated and therefore not quite as good as its native ISO. I find that I lose about 1/3 stop of dynamic range at ISO 50. Expanding my ISO above 12800 is of little general value to me, but there are times when I find an extremely high ISO invaluable. For example, when photographing in the near absolute darkness of a moonless night, the meter, Live-View LCD, and viewfinder are of little value. Even though maxing my ISO gives me unsellable images, I can take sample frames that are clear enough to aid my exposure, focus, and composition choices.
  • Turn on the RGB Histogram: Since the RGB (the three-color) histogram gives you three times as much info as the standard (luminosity) histogram, it’s the histogram you should be looking at. Fortunately, if you know how to read a luminosity histogram, you can read an RGB histogram (trust me). A luminosity histogram tells you whether or not you’ve lost detail in your image; the RGB histogram also tells you whether you’ve lost a color channel. For example, a luminosity histogram will tell you everything’s fine even if you’ve blown (clipped) two of the three color channels, leaving you to wonder later why your lovely blue sky or yellow poppy looks washed out.
  • Set up the Custom Menu: My 5DIII has a custom menu screen that will hold all of the most commonly used menu selections so you don’t have to go hunting for them. When I press my menu button, this is always the first menu that appears. On my custom menu I have Battery Status, Format Card, Sensor Clean, VF grid display, Date/Time/Zone (see my very first point), and LCD brightness (to override my default setting when I want to check an image in bright sunlight). Many other cameras offer something similar. Since setting up my Custom Menu, I find that I do/check things I should be doing/checking much more frequently than I did when they required a hunt through my camera’s menu maze.

These are my settings, but I think they’ll benefit most landscape shooters. Do they make me a better photographer? Perhaps not, but they do reduce distractions that might make me a worse photographer. There are lots of other settings in your menus that might surprise you and benefit the way you shoot—the next time you have an hour or so, grab your camera and manual and go through the menus.

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About this image

Over the years I’ve accumulated a number of go-to poppy spots scattered about the Sierra foothills. This location in the Merced River Canyon west of Yosemite, where a small creek drains into the river, I don’t get to as often as I’d like. But a couple of years ago I happened to hit it right at the peak of the poppy bloom and took full advantage of the opportunity. Bright sunlight and a breeze made exposure and composition tricky, but I soon became comfortable with my surroundings and started concentrating on tight compositions using my 70-200 with extension tubes.

As I generally do with poppies, my goal was extremely narrow depth of field that highlights a prominent poppy (or two or three) and blurs background poppies and other wildflowers to smudges of color. But, noticing reflecting sunlight creating ephemeral reflections on the creek’s rippling surface, I wondered how my camera would capture sparkling water.

Dropping to poppy level, I used a trio of poppies on about the same focal plane as my foreground and experimented with different f-stops to change the size of each glistening facet. The larger my aperture, the larger and less defined the sparkle. I loved the effect on my LCD, but it wasn’t until I processed my images at home that I decided on this f8 frame that more or less split the size/definition continuum in the middle.

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