Depth of Field

I used to think that a small aperture, which allows for maximum sharpness of an image from near to far, was the best approach to my photographs. But I’ve since learned that using wide apertures in some situations makes for a much more artistically pleasing image. A wide aperture will give you a much shallower depth of field, but sometimes having everything in sharp focus is just too much information for one picture to handle.

Here’s two photos I took of some tansy plants. I decided to experiment with using a wide aperture of f/2.8. In the first photograph the front group of flowers is in sharp focus. In the second photograph, I focused on the flowers in the rear and allowed the foreground flowers to blur.

tansy flowers

Changing the area that you choose to have in focus can create a significant difference in an image’s appearance, and that affects how a viewer responds to the image.

Spider Chrysanthemum

White chrysanthemum

White chrysanthemum

Fall officially started last month, and I haven’t had much time to write anything for Focal Plane since the end of summer. Actually, not having the time isn’t quite true. My time has been spent in other ways, including doing quite a bit of nothing. I suppose most people feel overwhelmed occasionally. I sometimes find that when I have too much to do, it’s easier to just put it all out of my mind and do nothing. Plus, I’ve been sick with the flu for about a week and a half and just haven’t had the mental energy to think, let alone write coherently.

Well, the rainy weather has finally let up and the flu bugs have left me for another home, so I’ve finally had some time to go back through my photographs for some ideas to jump-start some new art and writing projects. Sometimes you just have to go through the motions even if you don’t feel inspired, you know? The physical work of typing sometimes is enough to get ideas moving. Not flowing, exactly: just sort of creaking along at a glacier’s pace. But that can be enough. Even a slow-moving glacier eventually carves out the whole valley! Anyway, on to the featured picture.

This spider chrysanthemum was one of the first studio photos I took. It’s lit by professional overhead lighting, but a single strong light source at least three or four feet overhead would give a very similar look. If you want to replicate the lighting, make sure you only have one light source: all windows and doors should be shut or covered, and any other lights turned off. You will still need the flash on your camera to help bring out the detail in the petals. This technique is called fill flash, because you use the flash to help fill in the details in the darker parts of the scene. If you don’t use a flash, the upper part of the flower will be lit but the lower part will be too shadowy for you to see detail, and you can’t coax them out in a photo editing program, either, because they won’t be there. The detail has to be there when you take the picture. Start with a good photo before you try to do photo editing. Remember: garbage in, garbage out.

Here, the flower is simply resting on its side on a black cloth, and the camera is placed level with the table about three feet away. I don’t remember the lens I used, but it was most likely in the 75mm range. If you have a macro lens, this is the place to use it. See how the pressure of the flower resting on the table creates an almost triangular shape to the flower? Notice how the contrast of the petals at the top (which are fanned out so nicely) with the petals at the bottom (which are pressed together) creates a dynamism to the photo. There isn’t the traditional symmetry here that you would expect from a straightforward flower shot.

When you’re photographing familiar objects, try placing them in unusual positions. Most people would expect a flower in a vase, photographed from the side. But a head-on shot of a flower gives a whole different image, and placing the flower so that light and shadow give it an unusual shape adds another dimension to the image. It’s this play of light and shadow that gives the photograph its appeal, so don’t be afraid to try unusual settings for your subjects.

Woodland Flowers

white-flowers-and-fern-leaf.jpgPhotographing white flowers can be difficult because it is easy to overexpose the image and end up with a washed-out, featureless shape. One way to get around the problem is to bracket your shots.

Bracketing means that you take several pictures of the same flowers, with different exposure times for each frame. Some you will overexpose, and some you will underexpose. But you should be able to end up with one that’s “just right!” But where do you start?

Begin by familiarizing yourself with your camera’s built-in meter system. Most SLRs and even the most basic digital point-and-shoot cameras have program modes for aperture priority, speed priority, and manual modes. Aperture priority means that you set the aperture and the camera will set itself for the best speed for that lens opening. Speed priority means you set the speed and the camera will change the lens aperture to get the best image possible for that speed setting. In manual mode, you fly solo, setting both aperture and speed yourself with no help from the camera. While this can be confusing for a beginning photographer, it also allows you the most creative freedom. But save that thought: for now, let’s get back to the white woodland flowers.

I wanted to capture the detail in the center of the flowers, while keeping the fern leaf from getting too dark. Some definition in the background would be nice, but it’s not necessary. The background could go completely out of focus and this might improve the image, because it would help declutter the image. Too many competing elements can make an image less interesting, because the eye wanders over the frame and there’s no clear-cut subject of the photograph.

In this case, I wanted to bracket to make sure that I got the shot. I started by going with aperture priority so I could control how much of the image was in focus. By choosing a small f-stop, the stamens of the flowers would remain nice and sharp, and I could keep the petals and fern leaf in focus, too. Aperture priority means that the camera selects the speed, so this would give me a starting point to bracket from.

I took one frame at the aperture priority setting, noting the speed that the camera had used. Then I switched the camera to manual settings. Using the same aperture, I changed my speed settings and took one frame at a shorter exposure time, and one at a longer exposure time than what the aperture priority program used. This is how to bracket: now I had three frames of the same flowers, with three different exposures. Sure enough, one turned out very dark, while one was light. This is the middle frame, which is the one the camera picked.

It doesn’t always work that way, though — the camera doesn’t know what results you are trying to achieve, and the program modes often just end up being a compromise between too light and too dark. Sometimes images work best when they’re slightly dark, so don’t be too quick to throw away your images before you have a chance to really look at them.

Is it Spring Yet?

crocuscrowd.jpgHere in suburban Maryland, the weather hasn’t been able to make up its mind what season it wants to be. For the better part of the last two months we’ve had quite a few days with temperatures in the mid-30s, which is pretty cold for this area. It warmed up to 70 for one day, then went back down to the 40s the next. You need to carry clothes for every season, because you’ll need them all in the course of the day!

Our crocus have come up and are blooming. This photo is from last year, because I haven’t done much photography yet this year, and the crocus we have are already fading. I had to dig some of them up for the house work last fall and didn’t get around to re-planting them. Still, the ones that I didn’t dig up are finding nice sunny spots for themselves and blooming away. They’ve even escaped from their flower bed and are free-ranging in the front yard. Unfortunately, they get stepped on by the mailman. There’s nothing sadder looking than a squished crocus.