Line of margaritas with soft background

Shallow Depth Of Field—Photography’s Most Powerful Technique

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

It has always seemed ironic to me that, as a professional photographer, the technique I use most often is something I can not see with my own eyes. Shallow depth of field is a product of camera optics and I can only “see” it as I previsualize an image and on the back of my camera, of course, after I shoot.

Powwow dancer photographed with shallow depth of field
Powwow dancer photographed with shallow depth of field

Shallow depth of field is such a powerful effect that I carry my camera with the lens set to f2.8, no matter what focal length lens I have mounted on my camera. I can always stop down the aperture for more depth of field if I need it—see my previous post—but most of the subjects I like to photograph appear best with shallow depth of field. People, food, flowers, wine—they all “pop” with shallow depth of field. 

Let’s start with “Why” we would use shallow depth of field and then get to the “How To”.

Shallow depth of field separates a vendor from the background
Shallow depth of field separates a vendor from the background of a busy Farmers Market

Shallow depth of field is used to separate our main subject from the background and sometimes even from the foreground. This sharply defined subject forces our viewers to focus on our main subject first and understand that the softly focused environment is secondary in importance to our main subject. It helps create a visual storyline, something I strive to create in all my images. 

If everything in the frame is sharp due to great depth of field, as in a landscape, a viewer tends to wander around the image visually and decides for themselves what is important and what isn’t. Leading lines and forced perspective can guide the viewer to some extent, but the photographer is telling their viewers that everything in the frame has equal importance. 

It all depends on your storyline!

Shallow depth of field portrait of a young kitten sleeping
Very shallow depth of field portrait of a young kitten sleeping on a chair

The first step in creating shallow depth of field is setting your lens to a wide aperture or f-stop. F2.8 to f4 or so will do the job and because these settings let in lots of light, a fast shutter speed is often necessary for a proper exposure. This is a bonus when photographing people, wildlife or sports.  

Snowy egrets photographed with a 300mm lens at f2.8
Snowy egrets photographed with a 300mm lens at f2.8

Shooting a longer focal length lens also help soften the background behind your subject. The longer the lens, the softer the background becomes. Keep in mind that wide angle lenses have built in depth of field and it is pretty tough to do a wide angle shot with shallow depth of field, even with your aperture wide open.

Orchids photographed with a 100mm macro lens at f2.8
Orchids photographed with a 100mm macro lens at f2.8

The last step is rather counter-intuitive but makes sense if you think it through. Move closer to your subject. As the camera to subject distance gets shorter, the camera to background distance becomes relatively greater and the background becomes softer. Try it and see. Keep in mind the focal length should remain the same and because of that you will need to crop tighter on your subject as you move closer.

Roasted chicken photographed with very shallow depth of field
Roasted chicken photographed with very shallow depth of field to separate it from the background dish

There you have it. For sharp subjects with soft, buttery backgrounds, open your aperture wide, shoot with a longer focal length lens and move closer to your subject. 

Whether you are photographing people portraits at a busy Farmer’s Market, creating the perfect image of a margarita in a crowded restaurant or capturing an intimate moment with the kitten your kids just brought home, shallow depth of field pulls your main subject out of the background with great visual  impact.  

Don’t you wish your own eyes could work that way? Give it time. They will.


Camera Sensor Size And Effective Lens Focal Lengths

Text and Images by Chuck Place

Recently I gave one of my photography classes a lecture on lens focal lengths—their strengths, weaknesses and their creative potential. Because I listed the focal length of the lens used to create each image on a full chip camera body in our presentation, I reminded everyone that the effective focal length of a lens can change with the size of the sensor in their camera, as we had discussed in our first class a couple weeks before. 

One of the great failings of on-line classes, in my view, is that I can’t see a wave of confusion sweep over my class when I make a statement like that.

An email arrived the next day asking for more information on effective focal lengths. I realized I needed to cover the subject in greater detail and felt a new post on my photography blog was the best solution.

Sensor Size Crop Comparison

Most 35mm cameras contain one of two sensor sizes. Full frame, or full chip, camera bodies contain sensors the same size as 35mm film—24x36mm. Most small chip cameras from Canon, Nikon and Sony come equipped with sensors that are roughly 15x23mm with a crop factor, or magnification factor, of about 1.5X. 

Let’s look at an example of how effective focal length works. 

A 50mm lens mounted on a full frame camera is considered a “normal” lens because it’s angle of view is similar to that of the human eye. A normal lens is also the dividing point between wide angle and telephoto lenses. If we mount that 50mm lens on a small chip body with a crop factor of 1.5X, it is still a 50mm lens, but the angle of view is narrowed by the smaller sensor, effectively creating the equivalent angle of view of a 75mm lens, a short telephoto, on a full frame body. 

50mm X 1.5 = 75mm

If we take that 50mm lens and multiply it by .66, or 2/3, we get the focal length lens that will give us a similar angle of view on a small chip body, roughly 33-35mm. That would be a normal lens and the dividing line between wide angle and telephoto lenses for a small chip body with a crop factor of 1.5X. Essentially every lens focal length gets longer when mounted on a small chip body due to the cropping effect of the smaller sensor.

Knowing how to convert lens focal lengths is useful if you shoot both a full chip body and a small chip body, although most photographers shoot one or the other. It is also useful to be able to equate a lens with a similar angle of view on a small chip body during a lecture like mine where focal lengths are given for a full chip body.

But in any case, we all get used to using certain lens focal lengths for particular effects and subjects. We don’t need to do conversions in the field as long as we stay with one sensor size in our camera bodies and start to anticipate  the way our camera sees the world. 

To avoid future confusion, I think I’ll change the labels on my presentation PowerPoint slides to wide angle, normal and telephoto lenses and get rid of the actual focal lengths.  Simpler.


When You Want It All–3 Steps To Maximize Depth Of Field

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

Back in the day when my students actually shot on location together, pre-virus, discussions on depth of field were a continual topic. This was partly because some my students had just moved away from full camera automation, the dreaded “P” setting for Program, and had tasked themselves with taking control of their camera. Using the class  recommended “Av” or “A” setting, Aperture Priority, photographers have to manually set the aperture, or f-stop, and the camera picks the shutter speed for the exposure. The “A” setting not only controls exposure but also depth of field and that is where the confusion often erupted.

Keet Seel Ruins, Anasazi Indian, Navajo National Monument, Arizona

Now, if you have ever taken one of my classes, you know I stress the need to create a storyline with each image we create. Photography provides a wide range of tools with which to fine tune our storyline, including light quality, composition, lens focal length and many others. Arguably the most powerful tool in our shop, however, is the ability to control depth of field.

Depth of field is defined as the area of an image in front of and behind the plane of focus that is sharp. By changing the aperture setting, or f-stop, we control how much of our image is sharp and how much is soft. Because sharp detail is one of the components of an image that attracts a viewer’s attention first, this ability to guide the viewer’s eye gives photographers a powerful tool with which to show an audience what we feel is the most important aspect of an image. Every photographic decision we make impacts our storyline.

Spanish Church of San Buenaventura, Gran Quivira, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, New Mexico, United States of America

So, why would you want to make sure everything in your image is sharp? Landscapes are a popular subject where pretty much everything in the image has equal value, from the foreground to the background. Composition may be used to emphasize some component of the scene, but if everything is sharp, the photographer is indicating to the viewer that every aspect of the scene is equally important. Architecture is often handled the same way.

Mission Santa Barbara and the Rose Garden, Santa Barbara, California

Maybe you have a subject within a larger environment. If everything is sharp, you are telling the viewer that both the main subject and the environment are equally important to your storyline.

Let’s look at the 3 techniques we use to create extreme depth of field.

#1 The first, and most obvious step, is stopping down the lens aperture. Remember how apertures work? The higher the aperture number, say f-16 to f-22, gives you the smallest lens opening and the greatest depth of field. This is why we need to take over setting the aperture on our camera so that we can control the amount of depth of field created by our aperture or f-stop setting. In this case, stopping down to f-22 gives us lots of depth.

Piedras Blancas Light Station, San Simeon, California

#2 The second step is choosing a lens focal length. Wide angle lenses have depth built in and the wider the lens, the greater the built-in depth of field. This is not to say that a normal or telephoto lens can not achieve extreme depth, but a wide angle lens can achieve this depth even at midrange aperture settings of f-8 or so.

cow skull on The Racetrack, Death Valley National Park, California

#3 The third step is a little trickier to understand. The greater the camera to subject distance, the easier it is to achieve great depth of field. As you move farther from your main subject, the difference between camera to subject distance and camera to background distance becomes less, making it easier to get maximum depth of field. If you move closer to your main subject, the difference between the two distances becomes greater and both smaller aperture and wider lens may be necessary to achievee the proper depth.

Santa Ynez Valley, California

There you have it. The three tools for creating extensive depth of field in an image are smaller lens aperture, wider focal length lens and greater camera to subject distance. But remember, you need a reason to keep your background as sharp as your subject. Know what you want to say about a subject or location and then create the necessary amount of depth of field. This is a fluid system in which depth of field is almost always your first decision. Take control by setting your camera to “A “ or “Av”, Aperture Priority, and set your lens aperture appropriately. All of this is just a bunch of words, of course, until you set your camera to “A” and start adjusting your depth of field as you shoot.

“You don’t take a photograph. You make it.” Ansel Adams

Our next post will be geared towards creating shallow depth of field, a great technique for separating your subject from the background. Coming soon.


Processed RAW file

RAW Files vs JPEG–Photography’s Format Battle

RAW file versus JPEG? Which is the best image format? Well, I have found that it really depends on a number of variables. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. Let’s take a look at both.

Original unprocessed RAW file

Original unprocessed RAW file of image above exposed for maximum data capture

Do you want large prints of your work to hang over the living room couch? Starting with a RAW file and creating a derivative high-res TIFF file will give you the best quality prints.

RAW files capture the maximum amount of raw data that reaches your camera’s chip. Although RAW files are slightly compressed during capture, RAW files use lossless compression so no data is lost. You can’t print directly from a RAW file or post it on the web. They are large files and must be used to create derivative files such as high-res TIFFs for printing or low-res JPEGs for the web.

RAW files provide maximum data

RAW files provide maximum data for producing large prints

Did you get some great shots of your daughter’s soccer game over the weekend and want to post them to the family Facebook page? JPEGs are the format you want for anything on the web.

JPEG files are also compressed during capture, but the process uses lossy compression. Due to a greater amount of compression, JPEG files are much smaller than RAW files, which is critical for any image posted to the internet. These small files load quickly on the web, but do not have the amount of image information that a RAW file imparts to a high-res TIFF. In addition, image data is lost each time you save a JPEG due to the compression process, so a high-res TIFF is a better choice if you plan to retouch or manipulate an image to any degree.

RAW file of fitness studio processed for edgy, desaturated look

RAW file of fitness studio processed for edgy, desaturated look

Most cameras come set from the manufacturer for JPEG capture.

This is fine if you don’t do any processing of your image files or if you shoot strictly for your social media, website or blog. These files will also work well for prints in the 11×14 range or smaller. You can go into your camera menu and set the JPEG quality for high, which gives you a better quality file with less compression, and you can adjust the degree of saturation as well. A camera can also capture JPEG files faster than RAW files, making this a good format choice for sports or wildlife photographers working with motion and high-speed motor drives.

JPEG files of sailboat race action

JPEG files would be a better format for high-speed capture of the action in a sailboat race

If you have started processing your files in Lightroom or Photoshop, however, shooting RAW files is a much better choice.

The depth of information in a RAW file makes it possible to alter the basic image in a wide range of directions without the image breaking down. RAW files have so much information that you can push those pixels all over the place.

RAW file vs JPEG file

The RAW file on the left and the JPEG on the right, shot at the same time, are quite similar

If you are just starting to learn how to process your images for greater impact, but you still feel more comfortable with JPEGs, open your camera menu and set your camera to capture both JPEG and RAW files for each image. This gives you a finished JPEG to use immediately and a RAW file to process into an image that has your stamp on it. If you are serious about image quality and don’t need to capture multiple images quickly, set your camera to RAW format. You can then create JPEG or TIFF files on demand, depending on the planned use of each image.

Maybe you want a unique “look” to define your style.

This is quite common among portrait or food photographers. Much of their distinctive “look” is created in post-production. Some photographers even sell groups of presets for use with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop that create certain contrast and toning effects. All of this requires image files that have large amounts of data—a RAW file.

Normally processed RAW file and cooler version using a plug-in on the right

Normally processed RAW file of risotto balls on the left and cooler version using a preset on the right

In many ways, Ansel Adams started this trend with his Zone System. It was essentially a system used to manipulate black and white images. Imagine what he would think of being able to process RAW files in Lightroom or Photoshop? I’m sure he would be fascinated to see the variety of images that can be produced from a single RAW File—essentially a digital negative.

If you are interested in learning more about RAW files, processing in Adobe Ligfhtroom and a whole lot more, please join my free Santa Barbara City College Non-Credit Classes “Digital Cameras Digital Photos” starting May 22 and July 8. This is an online class using Zoom for teleconferencing. These classes are a great way to take your photography to the next level while still sheltering in place. It’s a great use of all this down time and you will have new photography skills to try out when we are done with this virus. Hope to see you online this summer.


Black and White photograph of Taos, Pueblo

Stunning Architecture Photography In Black And White

Text and Photos by Chuck Place©

Architecture is one of those photographic subjects that cries out to be captured in black and white. Composed of shapes, texture and light with little inherent color, architectural images often turn quite dramatic when color is stripped away.

Black and White photograph of Walt Disney Concert Hall at dusk

Black and White photograph of Walt Disney Concert Hall at dusk

It’s almost as if the building’s soul is revealed when photographed in black and white.

The choices I make in processing architecture images into b&w are highly subjective, of course. For black and white architecture images, I prefer more contrast than in my landscape images and more emphasis on texture than in my tight portraits.

I’m not trying to sell real estate. I’m selling drama and impact.

The inherent sculptural quality of a structure is what I am actually trying to illustrate. Sometime approaching a building as an abstract object can be interesting, as in the case of Southwest and Pueblo adobe buildings. The texture of the adobe (see above) is as important as defining the massive planes of this traditional style of architecture.

Black and White photograph the church at Rancho de Taos, New Mexico

Black and White photograph the church at Rancho de Taos, New Mexico

At the other end of the scale are sleek, modern buildings like the abstract Walt Disney Concert Hall, especially fun while shooting with a Lensbaby, which is designed to distort reality.

Black and white photograph of abstract building detail using a Lensbaby

Black and white photograph of abstract building detail using a Lensbaby

Often, details of a structure can tell the viewer as much about a building as an overview.

I find this especially true in the case of older styles of architecture, like Victorian, and buildings from other cultures like China. Details can be interesting just because we often tend not to focus on them when visiting a site.

Black and white photograph of the details of a Victorian church

Black and white photograph of the details of a Victorian church

Black and white photograph of traditional Chinese architecture

Black and white photograph of traditional Chinese architecture

Whether your favored architectural subject is a lonely church out in the middle of the Western plains or a busy multi-storied mall with levels that look like the ribs of a gigantic creature, converting your color architecture image to black and white will visually pare the subject down to its elemental components and reveal the true personality of a building.

Black and white photograph of solitary church in the West

Black and white photograph of solitary church in the West

Photographing a piece of architecture in black and white is rather like creating an insightful portrait of a person, only it doesn’t fidget as much.

Black and white photograph of a modern shopping mall

Black and white photograph of a modern shopping mall

Check out  Black and White Photography Conversions and  Black and White People Photography on this site and for more photo classes, check out my Spring 2020 class schedules in the Non-Credit Program at Santa Barbara City College. Thanks.

Chuck Place


Black and white of the Paradise Cafe

Black & White Photography–The Journey Continues

Text and Photography by Chuck Place©

I am continuing my quest to learn black and white photography through the process of converting a number of my color images to b&w. If you didn’t see my last post converting landscapes to black and white, jump back there and take a look.

Each photographic subject, whether sand dunes or deep forest, has presented its own unique challenges. I have been especially struck by the amount of burning and dodging that was necessary for images that look quite good in color.

Black and white of oaks in fog

Black and white of oaks in fog

It has also been a challenge deciding how much contrast I want, especially in the details. I like some velvety blacks in my images, but it is easy to go too far with contrast—almost like too much saturation in color images.

Let’s see how black and white conversions work with images of people.

My first portrait conversion was almost monochromatic to start with. While teaching lighting at a design school in China, I used the schools lighting kit—two fluorescent lights with umbrellas—to demo beauty lighting. These were tight head and shoulder portraits and I was going for a clean, graphic look.

Black and white portrait of student in China

Black and white portrait of student in China

I chose a student from the first row as a model and had her position her hands to help frame her face. The images looked pretty good, but I wanted a little more impact so I had her close her eyes.

The twin arcs of her dark eyelashes on her pale cheeks worked well and seemed to be a natural for black and white conversion. Using the HSL slider, I darkened her sweater and lightened her skin. The last step was pushing the Clarity Slider to -15, giving her skin a soft glow. Ridding this portrait of color seems to have created a more dramatic yet serene image.

Black and white portrait of server in Avila Beach

Black and white portrait of server in Avila Beach

Tight head and shoulder portraits seemed to convert well, but what about environmental portraits with all their location details? This, I found, was similar to converting a forest scene. Detail contrast was critical and some of the presets in the Develop Module proved useful shortcuts.

Black and white portrait of a farmer

Black and white portrait of a farmer

Subtle vignetting using the Radial Filter helped focus the viewer’s attention but a fair amount of burning and dodging was still necessary, just as it was in the landscapes.

The one thing that changed drastically from the tight portraits was the Clarity Slider. A slight negative Clarity setting smoothed out skin texture, but with less skin and more detail in the environmental portraits, I defaulted to my usual Clarity setting of plus twenty or so.

Black and white of hostess in a wine tasting room in Los Olivos

Black and white of hostess in a wine tasting room in Los Olivos

My “street photography” is often busy restaurant interiors, like the image at the top of this post, shot in the venerable Paradise Café.

Converting this image to black & white seems to pump up the energy of the scene, stripping away the soft mood of warm afternoon light and replacing it with pure vibrance and hard-edged light.

Black and white of an Old West town

Black and white of an Old West town

I’m starting to actually see the possibilities in a color image before I convert it. Decisions on the processing steps are getting a little more intuitive and the particular “style” of black & white that I personally prefer is also coming into sharper focus.

Black and white of an apple farmer in the Santa Ynez Valley

Black and white of an apple farmer in the Santa Ynez Valley

I’m getting a terrible urge to start printing some of these images, but I know my eye for black & white needs to develop further. A box of archival matte paper is already on my shopping list along with extra black ink cartridges, just in case my willpower fails.

If you are making this exciting journey to black & white along with me, let me know how you are progressing. This is turning out to be quite challenging but also a lot of fun.

For a listing of my tuition-free Spring 2020 Non-Credit classes at Santa Barbara City College, please click here.