One of the components of photography I have come to really appreciate is the ability to create a three-dimensional image with a two-dimensional medium. Never having had the sense to take a photo class, I slowly stumbled on compositional techniques that create a very real sense of depth, from forced perspective to leading lines.
A framing element in photography is essentially a visual frame within the frame of our image. Sounds simple, right? Well, it is, but like many techniques in photography, framing elements have their own set of rules.
Usually a framing element is positioned in front of our main subject. Well, pretty much always. In addition to creating a sense of depth, it helps focus a viewer’s attention on the main subject in our image and can be used to hide elements we don’t want the viewer to see—like a parking area in the image above.
If the foreground framing element is slightly darker than our main subject, it creates a greater sense of depth, as will keeping the framing element softer than our main subject using shallow depth of field.
Having said all this, I occasionally use a framing element solely to capture the viewer’s attention and skip trying to create the 3D effect. The framing element can be tight to the main subject and can be brighter or just a color that contrasts with our subject, like the image of lobster in the .featured image above.
An open doorway, trees and leaves, cornstalks, archways, window frames, shadows, a fence—the choices are endless. In any case, the framing element should relate to the storyline of the image or increase the visual drama of the photograph.
Try adding this technique to your own bag of tricks. It can change an average image to a good one and a good image to a great one.
My favorite lens is my 24mm-70mm f2.8 Canon Zoom Lens. I use it to create a vast majority of my images and often shoot at either end of its zoom range. It’s my “walking around” lens and the most versatile lens that I own. I tend to keep it set on a wide angle setting which I use more often than the longer focal lengths. Wide angle images are just more fun.
I work with full-chip bodies, meaning the sensor is the same size as original 35mm film, and a normal focal length lens on my camera is 50mm. This covers the same angle of view as human vision and anything with a wider angle of view is considered a wide angle lens. If you shoot a small-chip body, a normal lens is more like 38mm and anything wider is a wide angle lens.
OK. That gets rid of the technical definitions.
Personally, I don’t care about the technology. Everything in photography seems like magic to me. I only care that my equipment gives me the results that I visualized before hitting the shutter button.
Wide angle lenses do just what their name implies—they capture a wider angle of view than we can see without moving our head. The only part of this that captures my attention is how can that unique ability of the lens help me to create images with impact and a meaningful storyline? That’s all that matters, right? Let’s see what we can do.
You can break wide angle images down into 3 broad categories with the first being the most obvious—the sweeping scenic.
Broad natural vistas such as National Park Viewing Points make beautiful wide angle images. The park terrain and features are dramatic and a wide angle zoom lens allows us to capture as much of the vista as we want. Add in great lighting or weather events and you have a great image. The same can be said for city views or even cloud patterns or lightning storms. This is often the first subject photographer’s capture using a wide angle lens.
Because wide angle lenses have “built in” depth of field and most objects are distant in a scenic, it isn’t necessary to stop down very far to get everything in focus. This is another advantage of these lenses.
Scenics, however, are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wide angle images.
Another consideration is convergence. If you can keep your camera lens horizontal, vertical lines run straight up and down, but if you have to tilt your lens up slightly to capture the tops of buildings, vertical lines will converge.
If this leaning in of buildings is too extreme, then it feels like the buildings are going to fall in on the viewer. Unless that is the effect you want, going to a wider focal length with its wider angle of view and stepping back a ways allows you to lower your lens into a more horizontal position reducing the effect of convergence. Conversely, if I am shooting down on a structure, like a huge multi-storied shopping mall in China, vertical lines will spread apart or diverge.
My favorite use of a wide angle lens involves the distortion properties of that type of lens. This is where a wide angle is really fun!
Practically every camera out there comes with a wide angle to short telephoto zoom lens. The wide angle range is much more than a tool to capture wide open spaces. Use it to create a sense of great depth or produce an image with a dramatic foreground. Work with the distortion and pump up the impact of your images. That is why wide angle lenses are fun, and in my view fun is the whole point of photography.
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recently I gave one of my photography classes a lecture on lens focal lengths—their strengths, weaknesses and their creative potential. Because I listed the focal length of the lens used to create each image on a full chip camera body in our presentation, I reminded everyone that the effective focal length of a lens can change with the size of the sensor in their camera, as we had discussed in our first class a couple weeks before.
One of the great failings of on-line classes, in my view, is that I can’t see a wave of confusion sweep over my class when I make a statement like that.
An email arrived the next day asking for more information on effective focal lengths. I realized I needed to cover the subject in greater detail and felt a new post on my photography blog was the best solution.
Most 35mm cameras contain one of two sensor sizes. Full frame, or full chip, camera bodies contain sensors the same size as 35mm film—24x36mm. Most small chip cameras from Canon, Nikon and Sony come equipped with sensors that are roughly 15x23mm with a crop factor, or magnification factor, of about 1.5X.
Let’s look at an example of how effective focal length works.
A 50mm lens mounted on a full frame camera is considered a “normal” lens because it’s angle of view is similar to that of the human eye. A normal lens is also the dividing point between wide angle and telephoto lenses. If we mount that 50mm lens on a small chip body with a crop factor of 1.5X, it is still a 50mm lens, but the angle of view is narrowed by the smaller sensor, effectively creating the equivalent angle of view of a 75mm lens, a short telephoto, on a full frame body.
50mm X 1.5 = 75mm
If we take that 50mm lens and multiply it by .66, or 2/3, we get the focal length lens that will give us a similar angle of view on a small chip body, roughly 33-35mm. That would be a normal lens and the dividing line between wide angle and telephoto lenses for a small chip body with a crop factor of 1.5X. Essentially every lens focal length gets longer when mounted on a small chip body due to the cropping effect of the smaller sensor.
Knowing how to convert lens focal lengths is useful if you shoot both a full chip body and a small chip body, although most photographers shoot one or the other. It is also useful to be able to equate a lens with a similar angle of view on a small chip body during a lecture like mine where focal lengths are given for a full chip body.
But in any case, we all get used to using certain lens focal lengths for particular effects and subjects. We don’t need to do conversions in the field as long as we stay with one sensor size in our camera bodies and start to anticipate the way our camera sees the world.
To avoid future confusion, I think I’ll change the labels on my presentation PowerPoint slides to wide angle, normal and telephoto lenses and get rid of the actual focal lengths. Simpler.
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.
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.
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.
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.
#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.
#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.
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.
RAW file versus JPEG? Which is the best image format? Well, I have found that it really depends on a number of variables. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. Let’s take a look at both.
Original unprocessed RAW file of image above exposed for maximum data capture
Do you want large prints of your work to hang over the living room couch? Starting with a RAW file and creating a derivative high-res TIFF file will give you the best quality prints.
RAW files capture the maximum amount of raw data that reaches your camera’s chip. Although RAW files are slightly compressed during capture, RAW files use lossless compression so no data is lost. You can’t print directly from a RAW file or post it on the web. They are large files and must be used to create derivative files such as high-res TIFFs for printing or low-res JPEGs for the web.
RAW files provide maximum data for producing large prints
Did you get some great shots of your daughter’s soccer game over the weekend and want to post them to the family Facebook page? JPEGs are the format you want for anything on the web.
JPEG files are also compressed during capture, but the process uses lossy compression. Due to a greater amount of compression, JPEG files are much smaller than RAW files, which is critical for any image posted to the internet. These small files load quickly on the web, but do not have the amount of image information that a RAW file imparts to a high-res TIFF. In addition, image data is lost each time you save a JPEG due to the compression process, so a high-res TIFF is a better choice if you plan to retouch or manipulate an image to any degree.
RAW file of fitness studio processed for edgy, desaturated look
Most cameras come set from the manufacturer for JPEG capture.
This is fine if you don’t do any processing of your image files or if you shoot strictly for your social media, website or blog. These files will also work well for prints in the 11×14 range or smaller. You can go into your camera menu and set the JPEG quality for high, which gives you a better quality file with less compression, and you can adjust the degree of saturation as well. A camera can also capture JPEG files faster than RAW files, making this a good format choice for sports or wildlife photographers working with motion and high-speed motor drives.
JPEG files would be a better format for high-speed capture of the action in a sailboat race
If you have started processing your files in Lightroom or Photoshop, however, shooting RAW files is a much better choice.
The depth of information in a RAW file makes it possible to alter the basic image in a wide range of directions without the image breaking down. RAW files have so much information that you can push those pixels all over the place.
The RAW file on the left and the JPEG on the right, shot at the same time, are quite similar
If you are just starting to learn how to process your images for greater impact, but you still feel more comfortable with JPEGs, open your camera menu and set your camera to capture both JPEG and RAW files for each image. This gives you a finished JPEG to use immediately and a RAW file to process into an image that has your stamp on it. If you are serious about image quality and don’t need to capture multiple images quickly, set your camera to RAW format. You can then create JPEG or TIFF files on demand, depending on the planned use of each image.
Maybe you want a unique “look” to define your style.
This is quite common among portrait or food photographers. Much of their distinctive “look” is created in post-production. Some photographers even sell groups of presets for use with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop that create certain contrast and toning effects. All of this requires image files that have large amounts of data—a RAW file.
Normally processed RAW file of risotto balls on the left and cooler version using a preset on the right
In many ways, Ansel Adams started this trend with his Zone System. It was essentially a system used to manipulate black and white images. Imagine what he would think of being able to process RAW files in Lightroom or Photoshop? I’m sure he would be fascinated to see the variety of images that can be produced from a single RAW File—essentially a digital negative.
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.
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.
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/
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/
One of the B&W Presets in Lightroom was chosen to bring out the texture in these sandstone cliffs in Canyonlands National Park.
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.
Travel Photography is much more than shooting snapshots of your vacation. Images created during your travels should transport you back to the magic you felt as sunset light washes over an ancient Mayan pyramid or recall the drama of colorful powwow dancers as a late afternoon storm builds behind them in the distant mountains of New Mexico.
Join professional travel photographer Chuck Place in a new 6-week course in the Brooks at UCSB Program, learning to capture the magic of new places, people, events and flavors. Each 6-hour class will include a 2-3 hour location shoot here in Santa Barbara and then classroom lectures and assignment critiques covering such travel subjects as architecture, landscapes, people, activities and food.
Learn to capture memories and create images with impact. Join Chuck Place this fall and immerse yourself in Travel Photography.
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.
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
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
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 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
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.
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.
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.
Adapting that approach to my own work, I have found that to increase impact, crop tighter.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.