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


Sunsets are often underexposed when shooting in Aperture Priority exposure setting.

Aperture Priority–The Auto Exposure For Photographers

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

I almost always have my camera set to “Manual” exposure. I admit it. I’m a “Manual” snob. Taking full control of my camera’s shutter speed and aperture, or f-stop, gives me perfect exposures no matter the subject or the lighting.

Making the leap from “Program”, where the camera makes all the exposure decisions, to full “Manual”, where the photographer is in charge, is a big step however. Let’s face it, “M”, or “Manual”, can be rather intimidating.

Are all the auto-exposure settings a waste of time? No, of course not, but one is better than the others.

Back lighting for Aperture Priority exposure of sailboarding

Back lighting of sailboarder in Aperture Priority exposure can be tricky.

Let’s break down exposure. Assuming a proper exposure is the final result, shutter speed usually just needs to be fast enough to produce a sharp subject. Whether 1/500, 1/1000 or 1/2000—they all will look the same, assuming you aren’t photographing a hummingbird. Shutter speed is generally used to freeze motion—and give you a proper exposure, of course.

Set Aperture Priority exposure for great depth of field in landscapes

Set Aperture Priority exposure for great depth of field in landscapes

Aperture settings, or the f-stop, also control exposure, but determine depth of field in an image as well. Depth of field, or how much of the image in front of and behind the plane of focus is sharp, is one of the most powerful tools in photography. Changing from great depth of field to very shallow depth of field completely changes how a viewer “reads” your photograph. The storyline of an image changes dramatically with a change in depth of field.

Aperture Priority works well for dusk images

Aperture Priority works well for dusk images but a tripod may be necessary for the long exposures.

Aperture, or f-stop, is the exposure setting that a photographer must control absolutely!

Conveniently, there is an auto-exposure setting on most cameras that allows a photographer to set the proper depth of field while the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed for a correct exposure—“A” or “Aperture Priority”.

Photographing people often requires shallow depth of field to separate the subject from the background.

Photographing people often requires shallow depth of field to separate the subject from the background.

If you want to separate your subject from the background of an image, set your aperture, or f-stop, to a wide opening of f2.8 to f5.6 for a shallow depth of field. Conversely, if the background or environment is as important as the subject, pick an f-stop that creates greater depth of field, say f16 or f22. The photographer must make the decision on how much depth of field is appropriate, then the camera picks the shutter speed to create a proper exposure.

Aperture Priority for travel subjects

The Aperture Priority exposure setting is perfect for travel photography under changing light.

“Aperture Priority” is especially useful in situations where the lighting changes quickly, like sports, weddings, travel, concerts and street photography. It’s fast and eliminates half the work of “Manual” exposure.

Is it foolproof? Well, no.

Pick shallow depth of field for food shots using Aperture Priority exposure settings

Pick shallow depth of field for food shots using Aperture Priority exposure settings

Your camera may still underexpose sunsets like the one above, light-colored buildings and backlit subjects just like it did on “P”. Much of the time, however, the exposures will be great and each image will have the depth of field that you want, rather than what the camera “thinks” is correct.

Even in the tricky lighting environments listed above, the exposure will be close and can be corrected in post-production. Not that I advocate fixing everything in post—quite the opposite—but the “A” exposure setting makes setting exposure relatively fast and painless. Take control but make it easy. Shoot in Aperture Priority and relax!


Location photography workshop Spring 2019.

Join A Location Photography Workshop In Spring 2019

Join professional magazine photographer Chuck Place for 5 fun location photo shoots on consecutive Saturday mornings starting March 23 in the Santa Ynez Valley wine country and Santa Barbara area. With input from Chuck, fine tune your photographic skills and develop a personal style while exploring towns, locations and events like Los Olivos, Solvang, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Figueroa Mountain and the Summer Solstice Parade or the Santa Barbara Harbor and Seafood Festival. 

Each photo shoot will be at a different location, depending on events and season. Get feedback on your images each week from Chuck and your fellow students and learn how a professional photographer approaches various subjects and lighting environments. Class size will be capped at 10 so that Chuck has plenty of time to spend with each student. See Class and Workshop Recommendations.

Tuition is $300. for all five weeks of the workshop payable at least three weeks in advance.

Cancellations two weeks or more before the start date will receive a full refund. Cancellations between one and two weeks before the start date will receive a 50% refund and there will be no refunds for cancellations the week before the start date. For more details, please e-mail Chuck at chuckplace@cox.net.


A level camera creates parallel arches

Great Photography Tool For Leveling Your Camera

Text and Images by Chuck Place

I love my cameras! There, I’ve said it. Neither my Canon 5D MkII or MkIII has ever quit on me. They give me consistent, predictable results. The quality is great and if an image does not resonate well, I know it is not the camera’s fault.

Fall aspen trunks converge with lens tilted slightly up.

Fall aspen trunks converge with lens tilted slightly up.

And once in a while, I discover a function hidden away in the black hole of the Canon “Menus” that I actually need, like a built-in level. Who knew?

Built in camera level

Simulated camera with built in level at the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara. Level camera side to side and raise and lower lens axis until a green line runs all across viewfinder.

I am shooting more architecture lately and keeping the vertical elements in a scene straight up and down and the horizons level is critical. To achieve this, the lens axis and camera body must be perfectly level to avoid convergence, divergence or tilting horizons.

A leveled camera keeps vertical elements parallel to each other.

A leveled camera keeps vertical elements parallel to each other.

I don’t like a grid in my viewfinder. I find it distracting when I am not shooting architecture. I have been using a bubble level that mounts on the camera’s hotshoe. It’s convenient and cheap, but not super accurate.

Viewfinder grid and bubble level

Viewfinder grid and bubble level for leveling a camera.

While watching a video by Scott Hargis on architecture photography, I almost fell out of my chair when he turned on the camera’s built-in level. Where did that come from? A quick replay showed it was hiding in the “Info” button. I normally use the “Info” button to occasionally check an image histogram, but I have never clicked it without viewing an image.

Even a long lens can be leveled for parallel vertical lines.

Even a long lens can be leveled for parallel vertical lines.

“Hiding in plain sight” is a phrase that comes to mind.

If you are tired of shooting slanting horizons or a landscape where all the aspen trees lean into each other, read the manual and see if your camera has a built-in level. If not, the bubble level works OK and there are always corrections in post-production, but you have to love a tool that is built-in, highly accurate, easy to use and essentially free.

I love my Canon 5D MkIII. Even more now!


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.


Main building, Getty Museum

The Art of Subtraction in Contemporary Architecture Photography

Photography and Text by Andreina Diaz

When it comes to visiting, exploring and photographing contemporary architecture, there are two places in Los Angeles that I find myself going back to again and again; the Walt Disney Concert Hall (by Frank Gehry) and the Getty Museum (by Richard Meier). These two locations manage to capture my undivided attention for hours. Over the years I have created hundreds of photographs at each location and I still discover new photographs every time I go.

Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry

Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry

Aristotle said “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” but when it comes to photographing these specific locations I feel like the parts are greater than the sum. These two sites are architectural masterpieces, but what really amazes me are the lines, shapes, forms, textures, patterns, and colors you can find once you begin to break the buildings into sections and sub sections. This is what I call the “Art of Subtraction”, when you take parts of a grand subject and capture it in sections.

Getty Museum by Richard Meier

Getty Museum by Richard Meier

Next time you visit either of these places, try to capture their simplicity, harmony and mystery. Make sure you find an interesting composition that holds a unique point of view under the perfect lighting.

Getty Museum by Richard Meier

Getty Museum by Richard Meier

I can’t wait to see what you will find. Feel free to tag me on Instagram so I can see your pictures @eyeseesb

Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry

Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry

Eye See Santa Barbara offer photography tours for people of all photographic skill levels. Explore Santa Barbara with your camera while learning how to take better photographs by join one of our photo tours. For information about times, tour locations or to book a tour, visit our Photography Tour Section


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.


colorful building details

Have Fun Searching For Colorful Photographic Details

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

The colonial towns of Mexico are some of my favorite locations for photographing details. Early and late in the day, I’m often working on capturing the iconic buildings and sites of a town, but during the middle of the day the harsh sunlight is very strong and, like the locals, I try to avoid it. That doesn’t mean I have to stop shooting, however.

colorful windows details

colorful windows details, Oaxaca, Mexico

Many buildings have unique architectural details, while shops and galleries often display their wares outside in the shade. It’s all a bit like a photographic scavenger hunt.
Sometimes the image is perfect just the way I find it and sometimes I have to move things around for a better composition. Maybe a potted plant is in the wrong location or some carved animals need to be grouped together. I always ask permission first before I touch anything and have rarely been turned down.

carved wooden animal folk art

still life of carved wooden animal folk art, Oaxaca, Mexico

For me, these intimate photographic details often say more about the culture of an area than more general shots and they always add a spot of strong color during a drab part of the day.

cactus fence detail

cactus fence detail, Mitla Archeological Zone, Mexico

Sometimes in can be as simple as stumbling on a fence made of living cactus, sometimes it’s a detail of a popular form of folk art.

detail of black pottery

detail of black pottery, San Bartolo Coyotepec, Mexico

Colorful images can be easy to produce at the beginning and end of the day, when warm light is prevalent, but creating fascinating photographs during the rest of the day is definitely more challenging.

hotel archway details

hotel archway details, Oaxaca, Mexico

How many of us like to collect doorways and windows? They represent an entrance into another culture and I photograph them any time I find one that is unique.

old door detail

old door detail, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Developing your ability to find hidden color among the details not only broadens your coverage of a subject, it also fun and helps you see what others miss. And seeing the world with greater clarity is, after all, one of the main reasons we all love creating photographs.