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.


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.


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


I lightened the grove of aspen trees in the foreground

A Color Photographer’s Conversion To B&W

Text & Photography by Chuck Place©

I have been a photographer for over 40 years and recently have developed a real interest in black & white photography.

Like all photography, it’s a journey and I am inviting all of you to join me in exploring the medium of black and white.

In order to pre-visualize in black and white, I realized that I need to learn b&w processing. I will be doing most of my black and white conversions in Adobe  Lightroom. It is my primary post-production tool for color images and works quite well in b&w. I also have a b&w plug-in for Lightroom called Silver Efex Pro 2. By now I’m sure there is a newer version of Silver Efex, but I’m using what I have.

I will continue to shoot in RAW and convert the color image. When color is stripped out of an image, b&w photographs are all about shapes, contrast and texture. I especially notice the increased impact of texture and contrast without the “distraction” of color. It’s almost as if you can feel the texture of surfaces.

Sand dunes, Death Valley

In the B & W Panel, I used the Adjustment Point Tool. The warm orange tone of the face of these dunes in Death Valley National Park was selected and lightened.

Along those lines, I first started converting color landscape images. I started with sand dunes, just like pretty much every landscape photographer in the Western U.S. These dune images become quite graphic and even more sensuous in b&w than color.

Although there are several different ways to approach black and white conversion in Adobe Lightroom, I found a 4-step workflow that gives me lots of choices but can be quite simple if I choose to go that way.

First, make a virtual copy of the original color file. Command ‘ is the shortcut or go to Photo in the toolbar at the top of the screen and scroll down to “Create Virtual Copy”. This keeps the original color image visible which will soon become useful in adjusting the luminance of certain areas. Click on the Develop module and under “Basic” on the upper right, click on “Black & White”.  This gives you a basic b&w version of your color original. You can stop right there if you are happy with the results.

Redwood grove

This moody landscape from Redwood National Park easily converted to a b&w image. I increased the contrast a little for texture and lightened the foggy area slightly with the Adjustment Brush. Easy.

My second step is usually to make local adjustments to areas of the image I want lighter or darker using either the Adjustment Brush or the Graduated Filter in the top panel on the right side of the image window. I can also make a more detailed selection by using the B & W Panel, also on the right. Click on the Adjustment Point Tool in the upper left of this panel and drag your cursor across an area of the image that you would like to darken or lighten. The cursor selects the original color of the area and you can use the sliders to change the luminosity of the selected area. https://www.slrlounge.com/understanding-each-section-in-the-hslcolorbw-panel-in-lightroom-4/

Sand dunes, Death Valley

In the B & W Panel, I used the Adjustment Point Tool. The warm orange tone of the face of these dunes was selected and lightened.

The next step I try is a shortcut of sorts. I see how my image looks using one of the Presets located in Lightroom. There are quite a few. I also check out the Presets in Silver Efex Pro. In either case, a preset allows me to get close to how I want the finished image to look. https://nikcollection.dxo.com/silver-efex-pro/

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

One of the B&W Presets in Lightroom was chosen to bring out the texture in these sandstone cliffs in Canyonlands National Park.

Lastly, I’ll fine tune contrast using the Shadow and Highlight sliders in Lightroom’s Basic Panel and dodge and burn specific areas with the Adjustment Brush. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGUKd_FV-y8

It actually takes longer to read this than to perform the 4 steps necessary to produce a successful black and white image. In many ways it reflects the traditional steps of shooting a b&w negative and making a final print. Less messy but very similar.

As I convert existing color images to black and white, I am also getting a feel for what works well in b&w and what doesn’t.

As Ansel Adams commented, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it”.

I’m working on that twelve inches and pretty soon I may actually start pre-visualizing in black and white. That’s my goal at least.

Check out my upcoming classes this Spring at https://www.chuckplacephotography.com/Workshop&Classes/Classes/

 


Un-cropped winter mountain range

Fill The Frame For Greater Visual Impact

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

Famous war photographer Robert Capa once said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” I came across that quote early in my career and soon realized the truth of that statement.

Snowy mountain peak cropped tight with long lens.

Snowy mountain peak cropped tight with long lens.

Adapting that approach to my own work, I have found that to increase impact, crop tighter.

Original beach sunset before cropping.

Original beach sunset before cropping.

Sounds simple, right? But what about all that other stuff you want to keep in the frame? Do you really need all that? Does it make your message stronger? Sometimes less is actually more, as they say.

Cropped beach sunset for greater impact.

Cropped beach sunset for greater impact.

Often, I find my students loosely cropping an image. When asked why, I find they aren’t totally sure what constitutes the main subject. Another famous photo quote, this one by Ansel Adams, is “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

Farmers Market vendor with lots of produce.

Farmers Market vendor with lots of produce.

The first step in creating any image is knowing what you want to say about a subject or location. Be clear in your own mind what is important and what is secondary. Then make it clear to your viewer by cropping out most of the secondary material.

Farmers Market vendor cropped tight in camera.

Farmers Market vendor cropped tight in camera.

Cropping tight and filling the frame increases the impact of your image and makes it easy for your audience to “read” your message about the location or subject.

Chinese tourist films Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Chinese tourist films Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes the environment around a subject is as important as the subject itself. I would hate to crop out the Forbidden City in the above image. But if you feel like some of your photographs seem a little flat or dull, try cropping tighter in post-production. Experiment with it and if you like the results, you will soon find yourself cropping tighter in-camera. That’s when you will realize that your work has taken another big step up in mastering the power of photography.


bowl of summer strawberries photographed from above

The 4 Piece Photo Challenge

Text and Images by Chuck Place

It’s raining outside, you can’t go out and play and you’re developing cabin fever. What to do? Assign yourself the 4 Piece Photo Challenge! Sounds silly, I admit, but it’s a great tool for building up your photographic creativity.

The Photo Challenge works like this.

Pick out 4 objects or sets of objects in your home and use these to create interesting still life images. This is an exercise that I find often results in portfolio-quality photographs.

Let’s walk through the steps of an actual shoot–the strawberries at the top of this post. Item 1 was a basket of fresh strawberries. Item 2 was a bowl of complimentary color from my kitchen. Item 3 is an antique fork, also from my kitchen, and item 4 is a napkin. You can probably guess where I found that. The surface is a piece of slate I found at a stone yard. It was cheap but it weighs a ton. I think the guy discounted the price just to see if I could pick it up.

Photographs from directly above

Photographs from directly above produces a more graphic image

Food photography is one of my main specialties, so I tend to create food still lives with a slightly modern feel. Anything will work for this Challenge however—cut flowers, old glassware, your baseball trading card collection, Pez dispensers—anything. A few support items, in this case a bowl, fork and napkin, and any surface that works with your main subject and you’re in business.

Essentially you are creating a photo set.

For lighting, I like window light. It’s soft, directional and I can manipulate it quite a bit. Pick a window with indirect light flowing through it. There should be no direct sunlight passing through the window. This should give you soft edged shadows and large highlights.

Photographing strawberries at a low angle

Photographing strawberries at a low angle produces an intimate viewpoint

If you want darker shadows, move your set farther from the window or place a black sheet of matt board or foam core board on the room side of your set to block any ambient fill from the room. If you want lighter shadows, move your set closer to the window or add a white board to the room side of the set to provide fill light.

The shooting angle will also have a big impact on the success of your final image.

Placing your camera directly above a set creates a rather graphic look to the image while shooting from a lower angle, say 45 degrees, produces more intimate visual. In either case, make sure you are getting good highlights on reflective surfaces.

Change some props and the surface

Change some props and the surface to create a new set of photographs

If you want to push yourself a little, change a couple props and create a new set of images.

In any case, drop a sheet of white paper in the very first exposure and then remove it for the rest of the shoot.  This gives you a target so you can neutralize the usually cool light from the window in post-production.

These are basically composition exercises, but I always try to imbed a storyline into each still life. The top image has the feel of a warm spring day eating the first strawberries of the season. It’s challenging but also lots of fun. And no matter how my images turn out, I get to eat some of the props. I’ll have to start shooting desserts.


Pizzas with hand for prop

Delicious Food Photography: The Basics Of Cooking Up Mouth Watering Images

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

My introduction to food photography was basically an accident.

I was shooting an article on Monterey, California, known for Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and great seafood. Dungeness crab is at the top of the areas epicurean list and I had already photographed a display of crabs on ice out on the pier. Although the shot was interesting, there was nothing appetizing about it. I was going to have to bite the bullet and go into a restaurant and photograph a crab dish properly.

Dungeness crab, Monterey, California

Dungeness crab photographed using window light.

Getting permission to shoot in a restaurant turned out to be easier than I thought. All I had to do was show up after the lunch crowd had thinned out, explain why I was shooting my lunch and confirm that I expected to pay for my meal. To seal the deal, I offered to send the restaurant a JPEG of the finished image for use on their web site or social media.

As I was deciding which table to use, a plate bearing an entire Dungeness crab was being set in front of a diner. The crab’s shell had been broken into many pieces, looking as if it had been run over by a truck. I was pretty certain a shot of roadkill on a plate wasn’t going to work, so I had my crab served whole without cracking. This was Food Lesson #1. Sometimes the presentation has to be modified so that the food looks good in a photographic image.

Crispy pork belly with simple staging

Crispy pork belly with simple staging

Rain had been falling the entire day and the restaurant was rather dark, so I picked a table close to a large window. As soon as food began to arrive, I quickly realized this was Food Lesson #2. Placing my subject near a large window, with no direct sunlight passing through it, gave me beautiful diffused light and large highlights on my food, making everything look quite luscious. If you want food to look tasty, make sure it has large highlights.

Now for the hard part!

Seafood fettuccine with food props

Seafood fettuccine with food props

An unadorned Dungeness crab sitting lonely on a plate wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to think of this as a still life and pick out props for my set. This is called food styling, one of the most difficult parts of food photography. In a restaurant there are few props with which to work—silverware and napkins, maybe a salt and pepper shaker, possibly a flower in a small vase. Props, I learned from Food Lesson #3, are often side dishes and drinks. Ideally, the side dishes should make sense within the context of the main dish and work with it visibly as well. In this case, the shape of the bowl of bread dipping oil and the roast tomato soup mimicked the circular shape of the crab and its plate. A glass of chardonnay, appropriate for seafood, rounded out the set.

Food Lesson #4 came later in my office while processing these images. Diffused window light is always a bit blue. Using the White Balance Selector tool in Lightroom, I clicked on the white plate to neutralize it and then added a little warmth with the Temperature Slider. Most food looks more appetizing if balanced slightly warm.

Dessert platter with flower styling

Dessert platter with flower styling

These days I photograph quite a range of dishes, chefs and restaurants. Often, when I finish, I am asked if I would like to try any of the dishes I have photographed. I always start with dessert—Food Lesson #5.

As evidenced by all the meals people post on-line, photographing food has become quite popular. There seems to be no downside to sharing photos of something you can then eat. Just be sure to work quickly before your food gets cold. And, of course, don’t forget Food Lesson #5!

 

Also Take A Look at “Create Stunning Aerial Photographs Of A Delicious Lunch


Forced perspective photograph of Taos Indian Pueblo

Forced Perspective: Add Drama And Depth To Your Photographs

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

Standing in the middle of Taos Pueblo, I was trying to decide how I would photograph the impressive five-story North Building. I knew I would use a technique called Forced Perspective to emphasize the scale of the building and create an exaggerated feeling of depth in the image. Ideally, the photograph would also illustrate the materials used to build this ancient pueblo—mud and straw.

Forced Perspective is a two-step process. First determine your main subject, in this case the North Building of Taos Pueblo. That’s the easy part. The next step involves picking a foreground subject that gives the viewer more information about the main subject and creates a strong sense of depth between the two.

That can take some searching.

Forced perspective photograph of fall aspen grove

Forced perspective photograph of fall aspen grove on San Francisco Peaks, Arizona

I settled on a large outdoor oven, or horno, to provide the foreground. Sunlight lit the oven from the side, emphasizing the texture of the mud and straw adobe used to build the entire pueblo. Placing my camera with a wide angle lens close to the oven made it look larger than it really is and made the North Building look smaller than it does to the naked eye.

Forced perspective photograph of Wukoki Ruins

Forced perspective photograph of Wupatki National Monument, Arizona

This wide angle distortion is at the core of this technique, producing a greater appearance of depth in the scene than actually exists. Stopping down the lens to its smallest aperture guaranteed everything from front to back is sharply focused.

This technique works equally well with landscapes.

Decide what your main subject will be, say a grove of fall aspen trees with the late afternoon sun shining through. Then move around until you find an interesting foreground, in this case a fallen aspen log in a meadow. Position your camera close to the log and stop down your aperture all the way for great depth of field. In this case, in addition to creating a feeling of great depth, the log also produced a leading line that our audience could follow visually back into the scene while backlighting emphasized the glowing colors of the fall aspen leaves.

See earlier posts on Leading LinesBacklighting and the compositional Rule Of Thirds.

 

Forced perspective photograph of brittlebush flowers

Forced perspective photograph of brittlebush flowers and cholla cactus, Joshua Tree National Park, California

One last tip.

Because your camera is positioned close to your foreground subject, move your plane of focus a little closer to camera position than you normally would. Make sure the foreground is tack sharp. If the distant background is a little soft, it looks like atmosphere. If the foreground is soft, the image should probably be tossed in the trash. Check focus on your camera back when you shoot, just to be sure.

Forced perspective photograph of sand dunes

Forced perspective photograph of sand dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Forced Perspective takes a little practice, but it’s a great technique for creating powerful, dynamic images with an exaggerated sense of depth. Try it next time you’re photographing architecture or landscapes. I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.


Farmers Market produce

An Exciting Photo Shoot At The Lively Farmers Market

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

My favorite location to try out new photography equipment is not California’s ragged coastline or soaring mountain peaks. Forget the rolling sand dunes of Death Valley National Park or the giant redwoods of Redwood National Park. Give me a good old Farmers Market to run a new lens or camera body through its paces. Whaaaat?

Customers wander a Farmers Market

Customers wander a Farmers Market

That’s right, a Farmers Market. It has everything necessary to test any equipment—or photographer, for that matter. Shooting strong images at a busy farmers market is a test of concentration. A photographer is forced to create order out of chaos, still lifes out of produce and portraits of people who are too busy for a portrait shoot. It’s a tough photography environment!

gold and purple beets

Still life of golden and purple beets at the Farmers Market

Often I take my students to a local Farmers Market, not because I like to see them suffer–not too much, anyway. All photographers that shoot on location need to learn how to take a large, bustling, crowded event and break it down into manageable visual pieces. If a photographer views a market as just a big, chaotic location, their work will reflect just that surface appearance. Let’s break it down.

Eggs and iris for sale

Everything from eggs to iris are for sale at the Farmers Market.

First I like to get some establishing shots as I make a quick survey through the various areas of a market. Different vendors have different products and some create more interesting displays than others. I also pick out the vendors I think will make good portraits. Their looks, their clothing, the lighting at their booth, how they view customers walking by—this all impacts whether I think they will make strong subjects.

cherry tomatoes at the Farmers Market

Diagonals are created from baskets of cherry tomatoes

Farmers Market sign

Farmers Market sign selling strawberries.

My first task is usually to capture the market’s range of products while they are still available. The first tomatoes or berries of the season often sell quickly, so I try to capture those subjects first. Signs are always fun, flowers are always colorful and street musicians always make interesting subjects. I always ask permission from vendors and musicians and drop a dollar or two in the musician’s open instrument case so that I can create a range of portraits without getting the “glare”.

Photographic portrait of street musicians.

Photographic portrait of street musicians.

Later in the morning, after the crowds thin and sales slow down, I’ll work with individual vendors to create environmental portraits. By this point, they are getting a little bored and often welcome something to break up their morning. Because most produce is hauled in by trucks, the vehicles are lined up behind each of the stalls and make rather ugly backgrounds. I prefer to shoot down a row of stalls, filling the background with more produce. A shallow depth of field is necessary to separate my subject from the busy background and I prefer photographing under one of the white awnings. It produces a beautiful soft light with large highlights and great skin tones.

Strawberry_Vendor

Photographic portrait of a vendor selling strawberries.

By the time I’m finished with portraits, I’m a little worn out, my subjects are tired and I have to return to that stall where I bought those great blanched almonds with rosemary and sea salt. Although I tend to shoot all this with a single camera body and a 24-70mm zoom lens, my camera bag is usually full of treats to bring home.

Where else could I find a single location with such a range of photographic subjects and still shop for dinner supplies at the same time. Give it a try and don’t forget the almonds.


cheese fondue lit with window light

Window Light, An Amazingly Elegant Photography Light Source

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

Have you ever wished you could invent the perfect lighting system, one that generally gave you diffused light but could be adjusted to be more specular? A lighting system that provided directional, horizontal lighting that avoided the raccoon eyes of overcast days. A continuous source so you can see the results before you shoot and powerful enough to light an entire room and its contents. Oh, and let’s throw in cheap to buy and very light to carry. Perfect, right?

Alebrije in window light

A gold reflector bounces window light into the near side of a carved Mexican alebrije to control contrast and create a warm highlight.

We all have that lighting system available, of course. I use window lighting for a wide range of photographic subjects, but I have noticed in my classes that many students seem to ignore it. It’s a seemingly easy light source to use, but as in so many things in photography, mastering window light is quite another matter.

Cafe lit with window light

If windows are part of your composition, break them up as much as possible and don’t allow your camera to underexpose the interior, even though the light source is in the frame.

First, let’s define exactly what we are talking about here. Window light is any source of daylight that is horizontally directional and mostly diffused. This diffused daylight is often cool in temperature and does not have to pass through a real window. It would certainly be awkward carrying a window around all day. A large overhang of some sort outdoors will produce the same quality and direction of light as long as there is no direct sunlight intruding into our scene.

Window light also requires that we actually see how the light is impacting our subject, not how we expect it to look. This is one of the big hurdles in learning to be a photographer—actually seeing what is right in front of us.

pizza lit with window light

Pizza was photographed twenty feet from the window light source to emphasize the pizza texture with edgier light and balance the food exposure with the interior exposure.

This will lead to the realization that window light will change depending on where in a lit room we place our subject. Is there more than one window? Are there also artificial lights involved or will the paint color on the walls bias our color balance through bounce light. Do we want flat, even lighting or side lighting that creates dimension and brings up texture. Close to a window, the light is very soft and diffused. It becomes harsher, or more specular, as we move our subject farther from the light source. Do we have reflectors to modify contrast and shape the light? It’s getting a bit more complicated, isn’t it?

restaurant interior photographed with window light

A restaurant interior was photographed at a point where window light and the warm, incandescent light over the table and painting balanced perfectly.

When I first enter a window-lit room or an outdoor arcade with arches open to the ambient light, I sit for a few minutes and study people as they walk through the space. There is always a “sweet spot”, a location within the environment that gives me the perfect direction, the right amount of softness and perfect balance of light on my subject and my background.

Try it, but keep your eyes open. This is a subtle light source but a very powerful one as well. And you have got to love a light source that you don’t have to carry! I know I do.