Line of margaritas with soft background

Shallow Depth Of Field—Photography’s Most Powerful Technique

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

It has always seemed ironic to me that, as a professional photographer, the technique I use most often is something I can not see with my own eyes. Shallow depth of field is a product of camera optics and I can only “see” it as I previsualize an image and on the back of my camera, of course, after I shoot.

Powwow dancer photographed with shallow depth of field
Powwow dancer photographed with shallow depth of field

Shallow depth of field is such a powerful effect that I carry my camera with the lens set to f2.8, no matter what focal length lens I have mounted on my camera. I can always stop down the aperture for more depth of field if I need it—see my previous post—but most of the subjects I like to photograph appear best with shallow depth of field. People, food, flowers, wine—they all “pop” with shallow depth of field. 

Let’s start with “Why” we would use shallow depth of field and then get to the “How To”.

Shallow depth of field separates a vendor from the background
Shallow depth of field separates a vendor from the background of a busy Farmers Market

Shallow depth of field is used to separate our main subject from the background and sometimes even from the foreground. This sharply defined subject forces our viewers to focus on our main subject first and understand that the softly focused environment is secondary in importance to our main subject. It helps create a visual storyline, something I strive to create in all my images. 

If everything in the frame is sharp due to great depth of field, as in a landscape, a viewer tends to wander around the image visually and decides for themselves what is important and what isn’t. Leading lines and forced perspective can guide the viewer to some extent, but the photographer is telling their viewers that everything in the frame has equal importance. 

It all depends on your storyline!

Shallow depth of field portrait of a young kitten sleeping
Very shallow depth of field portrait of a young kitten sleeping on a chair

The first step in creating shallow depth of field is setting your lens to a wide aperture or f-stop. F2.8 to f4 or so will do the job and because these settings let in lots of light, a fast shutter speed is often necessary for a proper exposure. This is a bonus when photographing people, wildlife or sports.  

Snowy egrets photographed with a 300mm lens at f2.8
Snowy egrets photographed with a 300mm lens at f2.8

Shooting a longer focal length lens also help soften the background behind your subject. The longer the lens, the softer the background becomes. Keep in mind that wide angle lenses have built in depth of field and it is pretty tough to do a wide angle shot with shallow depth of field, even with your aperture wide open.

Orchids photographed with a 100mm macro lens at f2.8
Orchids photographed with a 100mm macro lens at f2.8

The last step is rather counter-intuitive but makes sense if you think it through. Move closer to your subject. As the camera to subject distance gets shorter, the camera to background distance becomes relatively greater and the background becomes softer. Try it and see. Keep in mind the focal length should remain the same and because of that you will need to crop tighter on your subject as you move closer.

Roasted chicken photographed with very shallow depth of field
Roasted chicken photographed with very shallow depth of field to separate it from the background dish

There you have it. For sharp subjects with soft, buttery backgrounds, open your aperture wide, shoot with a longer focal length lens and move closer to your subject. 

Whether you are photographing people portraits at a busy Farmer’s Market, creating the perfect image of a margarita in a crowded restaurant or capturing an intimate moment with the kitten your kids just brought home, shallow depth of field pulls your main subject out of the background with great visual  impact.  

Don’t you wish your own eyes could work that way? Give it time. They will.


When You Want It All–3 Steps To Maximize Depth Of Field

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

Back in the day when my students actually shot on location together, pre-virus, discussions on depth of field were a continual topic. This was partly because some my students had just moved away from full camera automation, the dreaded “P” setting for Program, and had tasked themselves with taking control of their camera. Using the class  recommended “Av” or “A” setting, Aperture Priority, photographers have to manually set the aperture, or f-stop, and the camera picks the shutter speed for the exposure. The “A” setting not only controls exposure but also depth of field and that is where the confusion often erupted.

Keet Seel Ruins, Anasazi Indian, Navajo National Monument, Arizona

Now, if you have ever taken one of my classes, you know I stress the need to create a storyline with each image we create. Photography provides a wide range of tools with which to fine tune our storyline, including light quality, composition, lens focal length and many others. Arguably the most powerful tool in our shop, however, is the ability to control depth of field.

Depth of field is defined as the area of an image in front of and behind the plane of focus that is sharp. By changing the aperture setting, or f-stop, we control how much of our image is sharp and how much is soft. Because sharp detail is one of the components of an image that attracts a viewer’s attention first, this ability to guide the viewer’s eye gives photographers a powerful tool with which to show an audience what we feel is the most important aspect of an image. Every photographic decision we make impacts our storyline.

Spanish Church of San Buenaventura, Gran Quivira, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, New Mexico, United States of America

So, why would you want to make sure everything in your image is sharp? Landscapes are a popular subject where pretty much everything in the image has equal value, from the foreground to the background. Composition may be used to emphasize some component of the scene, but if everything is sharp, the photographer is indicating to the viewer that every aspect of the scene is equally important. Architecture is often handled the same way.

Mission Santa Barbara and the Rose Garden, Santa Barbara, California

Maybe you have a subject within a larger environment. If everything is sharp, you are telling the viewer that both the main subject and the environment are equally important to your storyline.

Let’s look at the 3 techniques we use to create extreme depth of field.

#1 The first, and most obvious step, is stopping down the lens aperture. Remember how apertures work? The higher the aperture number, say f-16 to f-22, gives you the smallest lens opening and the greatest depth of field. This is why we need to take over setting the aperture on our camera so that we can control the amount of depth of field created by our aperture or f-stop setting. In this case, stopping down to f-22 gives us lots of depth.

Piedras Blancas Light Station, San Simeon, California

#2 The second step is choosing a lens focal length. Wide angle lenses have depth built in and the wider the lens, the greater the built-in depth of field. This is not to say that a normal or telephoto lens can not achieve extreme depth, but a wide angle lens can achieve this depth even at midrange aperture settings of f-8 or so.

cow skull on The Racetrack, Death Valley National Park, California

#3 The third step is a little trickier to understand. The greater the camera to subject distance, the easier it is to achieve great depth of field. As you move farther from your main subject, the difference between camera to subject distance and camera to background distance becomes less, making it easier to get maximum depth of field. If you move closer to your main subject, the difference between the two distances becomes greater and both smaller aperture and wider lens may be necessary to achievee the proper depth.

Santa Ynez Valley, California

There you have it. The three tools for creating extensive depth of field in an image are smaller lens aperture, wider focal length lens and greater camera to subject distance. But remember, you need a reason to keep your background as sharp as your subject. Know what you want to say about a subject or location and then create the necessary amount of depth of field. This is a fluid system in which depth of field is almost always your first decision. Take control by setting your camera to “A “ or “Av”, Aperture Priority, and set your lens aperture appropriately. All of this is just a bunch of words, of course, until you set your camera to “A” and start adjusting your depth of field as you shoot.

“You don’t take a photograph. You make it.” Ansel Adams

Our next post will be geared towards creating shallow depth of field, a great technique for separating your subject from the background. Coming soon.


medium altitude aerial of coastal sunset

Drone Photography–It’s All About Altitude

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

Often I am asked if composing a photograph with a drone is the same as creating an image at ground level. It is similar, of course, but being able to make large adjustments to the altitude of a camera adds a whole new dimension to the process.

Low altitude aerial of Knapps Castle at sunrise

Low altitude aerial of Knapps Castle at sunrise

When I am out shooting landscapes, I use a tripod and continually adjust the camera height from 1 foot off the ground up to about 5 feet high. Some times, adjusting the camera up or down just a few inches can have a big impact on a composition.

Low altitude aerial of lake produces better reflections

Low altitude aerial of lake produces better reflections than a higher altitude

Imagine having a tripod that can extend from ground level to 400 feet with infinite adjustments in between. For that matter, any photographer that can carry a 400 foot tripod would be equally impressive.

Welcome to the age of photo drones!

In an earlier post on drone photography, I mentioned that I shoot within three general height brackets—Sky High, Way Up and Tall Photographer—that cover every altitude from 10 feet to 400 feet. Notice I keep stopping at 400 feet above ground level. In the United States, that is the maximum allowable altitude for a drone. Manned aircraft have a minimum altitude of 500–1000 feet. Only a fool, or someone who gives little thought to the safety of others, flies a drone higher than 400 feet above ground level.

Because most entry-level and prosumer drones have built in wide angle lenses, at low altitude, near objects appear larger than the same objects farther away and assume more visual importance, just as if you were shooting at ground level.

Low altitude aerial of windmill and vineyard

Low altitude aerial of windmill and vineyard produces the same wide angle lens effect as at ground level

As your drone climbs higher, everything is at a distance and appears proportional to their actual sizes. Buildings and roads may be revealed that were not visible from ground level. Patterns as well. The monitor on your controller will show you what the drone’s camera actually sees, but the screen is small and the image is not easy to view in strong sunlight. Just like ground-level photography, pre-visualization is critical.

High altitude aerial of coast shows greater range of sea cliffs

High altitude aerial of coast shows greater range of sea cliffs

Pre-visualization is the key to most great photography and working with a camera drone is no different.

Block out the arrangement of components in your head so that the composition feels balanced. Fly your drone to an appropriate position and see how it looks. Usually you will fine-tune your composition by adjusting altitude or position to hide or reveal objects and then adjust your camera angle to control framing. Adjust exposure and shoot away. Then make a big change in your altitude and create a totally different image. That’s the beauty of a drone. You are working with a 10-400 foot tripod. Anything is possible.

Medium altitude aerial shows the pattern of marinas and boats in a harbor

Medium altitude aerial shows the pattern of marinas and boats in a harbor

If you are interested in drone photography, start cheap. Many photographers crash their first drone. Some crash their second and third drones. Learn to fly safely, then learn to shoot with a drone. It’s a great tool, but it can be tricky.

Future drone posts will examine camera angle and lighting direction. Check out our earlier drone post at https://santabarbaraphotographicworkshops.wordpress.com/2018/10/17/aerial-drone-photography-capturing-the-view-from-above/.

Stay safe out there.


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.


1/15 second exposure blurs Navajo Gourd Dancers.

Photographing Native American Powwows: Planning, Etiquette and Tips

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

I could feel the drum beat in my bones, almost like a heart beat.

Native American dancers seemed to float just above the dance floor, red rock canyon walls towering over the dance arena. I was photographing the annual Gallup Inter Tribal Indian Ceremonial and the spectacle of so many dancers gathered together was quite amazing.

A 300mm f2.8 lens separates a Fancy Dancer

A 300mm f2.8 lens separates a Fancy Dancer from the other dancers.

In the Southwest, powwows also include demonstration dances by various Pueblo, Navajo and Apache tribal members in addition to the usual powwow dance categories. There is a lot going on and it isn’t always easy to capture the strength, energy and pride of the dancers in a single still image.

camera panning separates dancers

A slow shutter speed of 1/30 and panning separates a fairly sharp dancer from the other dancers.

Powwows take place all over the U.S. and Canada and a schedule of events can be found at several web sites, including https://www.powwows.com/2018-pow-wow-calendar/. These are often gatherings of many different tribal groups and have become a celebration of Native American culture.

Women's Fancy Shawl Dancers.

A long lens isolates a group of Women’s Fancy Shawl Dancers.

Before we get started, let’s talk first about etiquette at these events.

Not all powwows allow photography. Some allow still photography but not video. Some will allow photography but no sound recording. Do a little research and make sure photography is allowed before you pull out a camera.

If photography is allowed, that generally means in the dance arena or demonstration areas only. If you come across a dancer outside these venues–always, always, always ask permission! Never step onto the dance floor and if a ceremony is about to take place and the announcer asks that no photographs be taken, lay your camera down and don’t touch it until the ceremony has ended. These are Native American events and they set the rules. We are only visitors.

photographing dancer regalia at a powwow

A 70mm-200mm zoom lens allows you to capture details of dance regalia.

Powows can be held anywhere, even a high school football field. If you want a clean background, without goal posts, get there early and stake out your spot. I try to get right on the edge of the dance arena and sit on the ground or at the top of the grandstands, if they are available.

A high or low shooting angle pretty well eliminates backgrounds and these locations keep other people from blocking my view.

Apache Crown Dancers

Apache Crown Dancers are a fast moving photo subject.

I tend to shoot with two camera bodies, one mounted with a 70mm—200mm zoom lens and the other a fixed 300mm lens. Sometimes dancers are close, but often I need to reach out and isolate a single dancer. These two lenses will handle most dance floor situations. I also carry a 24mm-70mm zoom lens for portraits outside the dance arena.

Individual photo portrait off of the dance floor.

Individual photo portrait off of the dance floor.

I shoot these lenses hand-held and rely on fast shutter speeds for tack sharp images. One of my favorite approaches, however, is using shutter drag, or a slow shutter speed, to create a degree of image blur that illustrates the shape of the dancers motion. It’s really fun.

Zuni Pueblo Turkey Dancer.

Slow shutter speed captures the motion of a Zuni Pueblo Turkey Dancer.

This technique is just a matter of stopping down the lens aperture to eliminate light and then slowing down the shutter speed to compensate for a proper exposure. You can pan with the dancers to blur the background as well, or even tilt the camera during the pan to create even more blur. These can become quite abstract, so try different shutter speeds to get just the right amount of blur, which is a very subjective decision.

I have covered quite a number of these events and occasionally found I was the only anglo face in the crowd. I have always found Native Americans to be gracious and have never been made to feel like an intruder. Follow the rules, ask permission and be open to the spirituality that is part of some of these dances. Powwows offer a glimpse into proud, ancient cultures which we get to explore with our cameras. Look and learn with an open mind and have a great time.

Enjoy the experience.


Pizzas with hand for prop

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

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

My introduction to food photography was basically an accident.

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

Dungeness crab, Monterey, California

Dungeness crab photographed using window light.

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

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

Crispy pork belly with simple staging

Crispy pork belly with simple staging

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

Now for the hard part!

Seafood fettuccine with food props

Seafood fettuccine with food props

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

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

Dessert platter with flower styling

Dessert platter with flower styling

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

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

 

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


Forced perspective photograph of Taos Indian Pueblo

Forced Perspective: Add Drama And Depth To Your Photographs

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

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

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

That can take some searching.

Forced perspective photograph of fall aspen grove

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

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

Forced perspective photograph of Wukoki Ruins

Forced perspective photograph of Wupatki National Monument, Arizona

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

This technique works equally well with landscapes.

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

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

 

Forced perspective photograph of brittlebush flowers

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

One last tip.

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

Forced perspective photograph of sand dunes

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

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


Farmers Market produce

An Exciting Photo Shoot At The Lively Farmers Market

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

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

Customers wander a Farmers Market

Customers wander a Farmers Market

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

gold and purple beets

Still life of golden and purple beets at the Farmers Market

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

Eggs and iris for sale

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

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

cherry tomatoes at the Farmers Market

Diagonals are created from baskets of cherry tomatoes

Farmers Market sign

Farmers Market sign selling strawberries.

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

Photographic portrait of street musicians.

Photographic portrait of street musicians.

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

Strawberry_Vendor

Photographic portrait of a vendor selling strawberries.

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

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


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.