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.


Carvings on Mayan Pyramid in Mexico

Travel Photography with Chuck Place

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.

Travel Photography Class with Chuck Place

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.


Un-cropped winter mountain range

Fill The Frame For Greater Visual Impact

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

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

Snowy mountain peak cropped tight with long lens.

Snowy mountain peak cropped tight with long lens.

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

Original beach sunset before cropping.

Original beach sunset before cropping.

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

Cropped beach sunset for greater impact.

Cropped beach sunset for greater impact.

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

Farmers Market vendor with lots of produce.

Farmers Market vendor with lots of produce.

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

Farmers Market vendor cropped tight in camera.

Farmers Market vendor cropped tight in camera.

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

Chinese tourist films Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Chinese tourist films Forbidden City in Beijing, China

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


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?


Photo Capture–Only Half The Battle

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

Today’s photography software is amazing, especially post-production software like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom. Capturing an image is now only the first step in producing a finished photograph. How an image is processed can either emphasize what was obvious in the original capture or change it completely.

Standard processing of the original RAW file

Standard processing of the original RAW file

Ironically, we have traveled a long way to end up with a process similar to long-established black & white darkroom printing techniques. Change the contrast and exposure—no problem. Dodge and burn selective areas of an image—done and done. Now we have even greater control and we can manipulate color at both the global and localized level as well. All this processing power can be daunting and I have found that if I can pre-visualize the final image during capture, post-production goes quite smoothly.

That’s right, I shoot specifically for post-production.

Processing RAW file for an edgy look with Lightroom settings visible

Processing RAW file for an edgy look with Lightroom settings visible

The image above illustrates this process. This fitness studio caters to a certain age range of clients and the windows look out on a parking lot. The model was lit with a large softbox but I allowed the view out the window to over expose. The soft light was flattering to my subject and the blown out windows produced a high key feel to the setting while hiding all the cars.

Using my standard Develop settings in Lightroom, Clarity at 25 and Vibrance at 35, the image turned out as my client and I expected. Wanting to give my client some choices, I also processed this image with an edgier look, setting Clarity to 100 and Vibrance to -55. This look appeals to a younger audience. See the screen shot above.

Processing for normal black & white using Lightroom b&W preset

Processing for normal black & white using Lightroom b&W preset

We could have gone with a basic black & white look as well, or even a high key black & white treatment. Lightroom has a set of black & white presets and you can then alter those settings as your vision dictates.

Processing a high-key black & white image using a Lightroom preset as a starting point

Processing a high-key black & white image using a Lightroom preset as a starting point

One of the brilliant aspects of Lightroom is that it is a non-destructive software. For each unique version you create from a single image, Lightroom merely creates a low-res preview file. The original is never altered. Only when you export a file is a whole new derivative file created. Every version of your original image is saved as a text file that records the processing steps, saving tons of disk space. Brilliant!

How do you learn to pre-visualize a certain look that you create in post-production? Well, you have to play with images in Lightroom. Have fun trying out different slider combinations. Find a look that speaks to you and works well with the subjects you like to photograph.

I even have different Lightroom settings depending on whether the original RAW file comes from my Canon cameras or my DJI drone.

Remember, if you haven’t begun to master post-production, you are only working with half the available photography tools out there. If you want to get a better feel for what is possible using Lightroom, look into my Santa Barbara City College Non-Credit Class “Digital Cameras Digital Photos” or Bruce Burkhardt’s SBCC Non-Credit Class “Adobe Lightroom Essentials”. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.


Portrait of Hostess at a Winery Tasting Room

Directing Your Models–A Photographer’s Guide

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

On a recent Saturday, my workshop students and I spent the morning photographing produce, vendors and street musicians at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market. I had found a vendor with an interesting face, nice display and a farm banner that hid their truck. I asked if I could photograph him and he looked at me for a moment and then said “Since you asked, yes”.

Give your subject something to do with their hands.

Give your subject something to do with their hands.

He immediately squared his shoulders, dropped his hands to his sides and stared at the camera. Where I had started with an animated vendor, I now had a ridged statue. This happens more often than not when I ask to photograph someone and it’s my job to turn them back into a living, breathing, engaged individual.

When photographing people, there is a check list in my head that I usually follow.

First, is the subject in the best light for a portrait?

Although this changes depending on what I want to say about the person or their job, I usually want diffused, horizontal light. Maybe I need to move them to a better location within their environment. Maybe they need to be turned slightly or moved only a foot. Don’t be shy about asking. This helps establish your authority on the shoot and their trust in you will quickly grow, especially if you explain why they will look better in the new position.

Find the best light within your set for a portrait.

Find the best light within your set for a portrait.

Second, and equally important, do they have any mannerisms I can use?

Do they use their hands when they talk? Do they smile easily? Is there something unique in their mannerisms that I can incorporate into the image?

Watch for small mannerisms

Watch for small mannerisms that you can use during posing.

Third, give your subject something to do with their hands.

Give them something to hold, something to move, something to pour. Make sure it is something they would normally do so it feels familiar. Give a subject something to do with their hands and they will visibly relax in front of your camera. It’s an easy fix.

Give your model something to hold.

Give your model something to hold. Be careful, of course, about what you give them.

Remember, photographing a model is a partnership between yourself and your subject. There has to be trust and respect and you only have 5 to 10 seconds to establish that trust. Show interest in the person and what they do. By showing interest in the individual, you encourage them to be themself, not just a photo target.

It sounds daunting, but each time you photograph a stranger, it becomes easier.

Some portraits are as much about the job they do as it is the individual.

Some portraits are as much about the job they do as it is the individual.

Get the technical stuff worked out before you approach your subject. Give your model a role to play. Become the director. Careful! You may start to enjoy this.

For more on photographing people, see our blog post  “The Shy Photographer’s Guide To Putting Subjects At Ease”


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!


Traditional Native American dancers sidelit by the setting sun

Magic Hour Photography: Get Creative And Capture The Drama

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

Few photographers can resist shooting a beautiful sunset. Clouds build up, color starts to develop, you have a perfect ocean or lake surface for great reflections or you found some fascinating trees or buildings to silhouette against the colorful sky. It’s impossible to resist, isn’t it?

More often than not, however, at this time of day, I find myself turning my back on the sun as it goes down and watching for what it lights up instead.

Mesa Verde ruins sidelit

Mesa Verde ruins sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

That warm color of the low sun skimming across a landscape or buildings is pure magic. The soft, low-contrast sunlight at the end of the day is perfect for lifestyle images or dramatic portraits. It creates an ambiance to which everyone can relate. It’s the time of day we associate with relaxing and gathering with friends, enjoying a meal with others or just sipping a glass of wine. There is something truly magical about photographs created during the golden hour at the end of the day when the fleeting warm light mixes with cool-toned shadows to heighten drama and mystery in an image.

Native American Fancy Dancers sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

Native American Fancy Dancers sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

There is more to producing photos with impact at magic hour than just turning your back on the sun, of course.

Death Valley sand dunes sidelit by the setting sun

Death Valley sand dunes sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

If you are shooting in JPEG format, make sure you turn off Auto White Balance and set your camera white balance to Daylight or Overcast. Auto White Balance, or AWB, works great in a lot of lighting environments because it neutralizes color in an image, but it will also neutralize all that warm light at sunset. There goes all your atmosphere and saturated color. The Daylight or Overcast setting will capture the warm color balance that you typically see at sunset.

Woman practicing yoga is backlit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

Woman practicing yoga is backlit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

Even better, shoot in RAW format if your camera has that feature. The RAW format ignores the camera’s white balance setting while capturing the maximum amount of image data. This extra data makes it possible to correct or change your image to a much larger degree, giving you more creative freedom than can be achieved with a smaller JPEG file.

One of my favorite techniques is using warm sunlight to side light my subjects, creating an exaggerated sense of volume and contrast. Side lighting also separates the warm, lit side of your subject with the cool, shadow side, producing a more dramatic image.

Mission San Xavier del Bac sidelit by the setting sun

Mission San Xavier del Bac sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

Front lighting at magic hour produces rather flat lighting, but can be effective if the warmly lit subject is contrasted against a cool blue sky. Quarter back lighting is also effective at this time of day, especially for lifestyle and portrait photography. The soft, even lighting on the shadow side of your subject can be quite beautiful as long as the subject is not underexposed. Flair can be a bit of a problem when the sun is out in front of the lens, but flair can also create a strong ambience if it is controlled properly.

Aerial of the Alabama Hills front lit at Magic Hour

Aerial of the Alabama Hills front lit with sunset light at Magic Hour

Next time you are out shooting late in the day, break the sunset habit and turn your back on the sun. You may be surprised by the images you can create using sunset light, rather than photographing the actual sunset. It’s a magic time, after all.