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.


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/

 


Photography Backlighting

3 Photographic Techniques For Creating Beautiful Direct Sunlight Portraits

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

One of the most challenging lighting environments a photographer will face is creating portraits in direct sunlight. This light source has a strong specular quality that produces harsh shadows and strong highlights. The contrast range is often greater than your camera can capture and the portrait is anything but flattering. There are, however, several techniques that allow you to modify the sun’s light to create beautiful portraits with softly diffused, directional light.

Don’t settle for bad lighting—modify it.

The most commonly used, and easiest solution, is to shoot your portrait early or late in the day. Sunlight is softer at those times with a rich, warm color temperature and a definite direction—perfect for portraits. Early and late sunlight creates drama in a portrait that adds an extra layer of emotion to any image.

Sidelight with photographic reflector

Late in the day sidelight with a warm photographic reflector

For many years National Geographic Magazine has used this technique to set their photography apart from other publications.

Direct afternoon sunlight with a small photographic diffuser panel

Direct afternoon sunlight with a small photographic diffuser panel

The second technique is used while side lighting your subject during the day, but modifying the light with a diffusion panel. Diffusion panels come in a wide range of sizes, from big “silks” large enough to light a car to small, folding models that can be carried in a camera bag all the time. I myself carry a diffusion panel and a reflector on my camera bag, each of which is 8 inches across when folded and opens to 23 inches wide.  They essentially weigh nothing.

Diffusion panels are placed between the sun and your model and the larger the panel, the softer the light.

I have also found that the closer to the subject I place the diffuser, the softer the light becomes. Diffused light tends to fill in shadows and wrap around a subject, creating smoother looking skin. A bonus in portraiture!

Afternoon backlighting with a large photographic reflector

Afternoon backlighting with a large photographic reflector

A reflector or flash fill can also be used to control the contrast of direct sunlight, but I personally prefer the look created by a large reflector. By moving the reflector, I can easily shape the light on my subject and create a strong three-dimensional feel in the image.

Heavy backlight with a reflector

Heavy backlight with a photographic reflector to help fill in the shadows

The final technique is one of my favorites—back lighting. Often when I photograph portraits in bright sunlight, I position my subject so that the sun is behind them and I expose for the shadow side of their face.

Heavily backlit subjects are exposed for the shadow side of their faces

Heavily backlit subjects are exposed for the shadow side of their faces

This approach has several advantages when shooting in direct sunlight.

Backlit subject with a photographic reflector

Backlit subject with a photographic reflector

The first is contrast control. The shadow side of your model, as well as everything else in your image, is the same exposure. Backlighting also produces a bit of a bright halo around your subject, helping to separate them from the background. Your subject can also keep their eyes wide open. There is no squinting when your model has their back to the sun. Lastly, as you adjust your exposure for the model’s shaded side, the background becomes brighter relative to the subject. This gives your image a bit of a high key feel, especially with a shallow depth of field.

Admittedly, avoiding lens flare and dialing in the proper exposure is a little trickier than front lighting. You can find an earlier post on that subject at

With just these 3 techniques, you can create beautiful, striking portraits out in direct sunlight. Mastering some simple equipment and positioning your model properly can lead to startling results. Control the light and then connect with your model. A portrait is, after all, a partnership between you and your subject. Have fun. That will always show in the final portrait.


Alabama Hills at sunset

Mastering Lens Flare For Beautiful Images With Impact

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

Most photographers try to avoid flare. It occurs when a light source, like the sun, is positioned in front of your camera. If direct light from this source hits the front element of your lens, it bounces around inside the lens producing a hazy fog on the image and often large and small colored spots.

Camera lens flair

Camera lens flare pretty well ruins a sunset image.

This haze lowers the contrast and masks out detail. If the spots are present, they can make a real mess of your image. That’s all bad, right? Well, maybe.

I have come to realize that many aspects of photography that I thought of as mistakes are actually creative opportunities. Slow shutter speeds, soft focus, moving the camera during the exposure—they all have their uses, just like flare.

The late afternoon sun is patially obscured by fall aspen trees

The late afternoon sun is patially obscured by fall aspen trees to eliminate lens flare in a photograph.

Over the years I came to realize that I could control flare by placing the light source, usually the sun, half way behind an object. If I split the sun in half by placing a building, tree or sail in front of it, I created a dramatic star burst with very little flare. Easy!

The sun is partially hidden behind a sailboat spinnaker to create a star burst effect and eliminate lens flare in a photograph.

The sun is partially hidden behind a sailboat spinnaker to create a star burst effect and eliminate lens flare in a photograph.

It wasn’t until I started shooting with a drone that I was forced to truly embrace flare.

My DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone has a built-in camera with an effective focal length of 24mm. It’s a pretty good wide angle lens. There is no lens shade however. Flying with a lens shade would not only be exciting but downright suicidal. That lens shade would catch the air and introduce all kinds of problems flying. I love shooting backlit subjects, but with my drone, that always causes flare to some degree.

The sun is placed on the edge of the ruins of a Spanish Mission

The sun is placed on the edge of the ruins of a Spanish Mission to create a star burst effect and eliminate lens flare in a photograph.

I have learned to accept the flare in my drone images, even embrace it. I still hate the color dots and blotches and try to get rid of them in post production. The haze, on the other hand, can add a wonderful moody feel to an image.

sun is allowed to peak under a Farmers Market awning

The late afternoon sun is allowed to peak under a Farmers Market awning, creating a soft haze of light from lens flare .

Flare can add drama as the sun breaks through morning fog in a valley or define the warmth of late afternoon sunlight at a Farmers market. At times, flare even creates the effect of God rays streaming down over a beautiful mountain landscape scene, as in the Featured Image above.

The sun peaks over a mountain ridge at sunrise, backlighting the morning fog

The sun peaks over a mountain ridge at sunrise, backlighting the morning fog with little lens flare effect.

Shooting with the drone’s aperture wide open gives me rounded dots and blobs which I then circle with a soft-edged selection tool. I then color correct, de-saturate and lighten or darken the selection to match the background. Some shots are beyond help, of course, but many others correct easily. It just depends on the subject.

Now don’t get too carried away with this. Flare is like a rich dessert—a little is plenty. There are times, however, when a little extra drama or atmosphere can really improve an image. Try adding flare to some of your images and see if it works with your subjects. “Embrace The Flare” sounds a bit zen, but you may find it adds another layer of emotion to your photographs. Take control of flare and add another item to your photographic toolbox. You really can’t have too many tools. Right?


Wildflower bloom on Figueroa Mountain

Photographing The Beautiful Flower Show On Figueroa Mountain

Text and Photography by Chuck Place©

If you are a photographer, you can’t help but know that this has been a big year for wildflowers in SoCal. Superblooms like the California poppy explosion down near Lake Elsinore drew such big crowds that the nearest freeway exit had to be closed. Anza-Borrego Dessert State Park was also overrun with tourists.

California poppies and lupine paint a hillside orange and purple

California poppies and lupine paint a hillside orange and purple

We are fortunate to have our own flower bomb going off on nearby Figueroa Mountain—without the huge crowds.

As you climb up Figueroa Mountain Road, starting just across the highway from Los Olivos, whole hillsides in the distance appear orange and purple from blooming fields of California poppies and lupine. Hillsides are covered in soft green grasses and the oaks are just leafing out with pale green foliage.

Owl's Clover blossoms photographed at ground level

Owl’s Clover blossoms photographed at ground level

Nestled among the grasses are all kinds of exotic blossoms, from shooting stars and chocolate lilies to patches of owl’s clover. These are all “belly Flowers’, meaning you are going to have to lay on your belly to view or photograph them properly.

Bugs-eye-view photograph of poppies and lupine

Bugs-eye-view photograph of poppies and lupine

If you want a really intimate image of wildflowers, try a little trick I learned from one of my students.

Preset your camera exposure, set your wide angle lens to autofocus and place your camera on the ground beneath some flowers, shooting up toward the blue sky. Don’t try to look through the viewfinder. Just keep shooting as you move the camera around. It’s a lot of fun and I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised by the unusual bugs-eye-view of your patch of flowers.

Using a camera to capture both the grandeur of these massive blooms and the intimate delicacy of each flower is a challenge, but it can be done using a simple tool—backlighting. Light passing through a translucent flower petal will always be more saturated than light reflecting off the same surface and has the added advantage of highlighting all the tiny hairs, pistils and stamens that make flowers such exotic creatures.

Goldfield blooms

Sometimes a little lens flair is useful in creating a sense of tangible sunlight

Although it is a simple technique, backlighting does have a couple tricky aspects. First, make sure to check your histogram for exposure. Many cameras tend to underexpose backlit situations. You are essentially exposing for the shadow side of your subject and if you are using manual exposure, overexpose by about 2/3 of a stop. Second, avoid flair by checking the front lens element to make sure no direct sunlight is hitting the glass. If necessary, use something to shade the lens, like the brim of a hat or a gray card. Flair tends to lower contrast and hide details and nobody wants a blob of off-colored light in the middle of their image. See our previous post “The 4 Advantages Of Photographic Backlighting” 

California poppy photographed from a low level

California poppy photographed from a low level

A few things to keep in mind when you go. Take water, snacks and warm clothes. Go with a full gas tank and drive slowly. Some of the roads up there can be challenging, as can some of our fellow drivers. If you are a photographer, try to take some kind of macro lens. Many of the most unique blossoms are hidden away in the grass and rocks and it will take some “belly time” to find them.

Wildflowers on the Mountain have a short season, so don’t take too long to get up there. It’s quite a show and you don’t want to miss it. After all, who knows when it will rain again?

 

 


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


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.


La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

Great Looking Historic Photographs In 4 Easy Steps

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

I had just gotten back from a fun photo shoot with my class at La Purisima Mission State Historic Park near Lompoc, California. It was a Living History Day with docents dressed in period costumes demonstrating how people during the Mission Period made most of the things they needed fore their daily lives, from nails and blankets to saddles and candles.

Spanish priest, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

Spanish priest, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

I was able to create a lot of great images, but all that color seemed jarring in that historic setting. My students and I post our favorite six images after each location class on a private Facebook Group Page and I decided to sepia tone all of mine. Luckily, I can now do this without a darkroom.

saddle maker's shop, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

saddle maker’s shop, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

Sure, sure, I know. Some of you miss the old days of wet labs. Standing in a darkroom with stinky chemicals was never my idea of a great time and creating sepia images without stained fingertips has great appeal. Blasphemy? Not if you get the results you envision.

The first step is to pick out images with a bit of contrast or subjects that will not suffer from an increase of contrast. I have always found black & white or sepia prints with flat contrast to be rather boring. Just my opinion, but I like a little zip in my images. My favorite black & white photographer, Christopher Broughton, creates images with a great feel of life and texture, even in flat lighting.

weaver, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

weaver, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

Next I import my images into Lightroom, create a virtual copy of my favorites and convert the color images to Sepia Tone using the Lightroom B&W Toned Presets. Don’t bail on me yet! Certainly this is a shortcut, but it works fairly well.

soldier's quarters, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

soldier’s quarters, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

Now for the fun. If you liked burning and dodging under an enlarger in the days of paper prints, you have the same tools in Lightroom, but with much greater precision. I do a little subtle vignetting, as well as burning and dodging in order to guide the viewer’s eye and when everything looks right, I push the Clarity slider to 100 to add some texture to the final image. It gives me that zip that I want in my “old” images.

colonnade, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

colonnade, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

Admittedly, the portraits don’t have that stiff look produced by long exposures and neck braces, but I can live with that. With the right subjects this approach works wonders. And best of all, you get unique historic photographs and no stained fingers. Try it.


Rule Of Thirds Composition

Mastering The Rule Of Thirds For Beautiful Compositions

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

When I first started to get serious about my photography, I would go out for a few days photographing landscapes and come home totally exhausted. Just the mental process of creating a balanced compositions with my 4×5 view camera would wear me out. It was tough!

sand dunes in thirds composition

sand dunes in thirds composition

I once heard Earnst Haas, a pioneer of color photography, say that his process for composition was moving everything until it feels right. After a few years shooting thousands of images, Ernst Haas’ approach to photographic composition made sense, but in the beginning–it didn’t help much. What did help was stumbling on something painters had used for centuries—the rule of thirds.

The theory goes like this. If you split your composition into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, your main subject should fall on one of those lines or the intersection of two lines. Simple. This keeps your primary subject out of the center of the frame, which is rather static, and produces a more dynamic balance to your composition. Admittedly, this is a loose framework for composing an image, but it really isn’t meant to be a ridged structure. Let’s look at some examples.

Rule of Thirds Composition in Portraits

Rule of Thirds Composition in Portraits

My students often turn in portraits with the subject’s face dead center in the frame. This is often referred to as “Sniper School” for obvious reasons and the portrait often feels a bit “dead”. Moving the model’s eyes to the upper third line creates a better balance to the image. We have moved the subject out of the center of the frame “until it feels right”.

cholla cactus in thirds composition

cholla cactus in thirds composition

Landscapes follow the same steps of moving things around, or moving the camera around, until the balance feels right. In this case the foreground brittlebush flowers in Joshua Tree National Park fill the bottom half, middle ground fills the middle third and background the upper third. Remember, this is a loose framework.

carver rule of thirds composition

carver rule of thirds composition

In the above example of a wood carver in Oaxaca, Mexico, the carver is placed on the right hand third and balanced with extra carvings on the left. In this case, I did actually move things around until it felt balanced. It creates a diagonal flow when the image is viewed.

joshua trees at sunset in thirds composition

joshua trees at sunset in thirds composition

Even a simple silhouette of joshua trees at dawn benefits from the rule of thirds. Two groups of joshua trees are positioned in the upper right intersection and the lower left intersection with mountains in the background giving me a visually heavy base to support all the branching . This produces a much more dynamic composition than placing them all at the same level.

And always keep in mind–this is just the start of learning how to compose powerful images. You will break this rule as often as you use it. Like all rules of composition, just keep “moving everything until it feels right”. Words to live by.