Deconstructing the Shot – Photo 2

This post is the second in an occasional series in which I describe the making of a photograph, from both a technical and artistic standpoint.  I’ll go through the camera settings and why they were chosen, as well as the thought processes going through my head regarding composition and the creation of the image.  These types of posts will be concrete examples of a previous post of mine called How Pros Photograph, which describes the various decisions that may be going through a photographer’s head as they work a scene and make photos.  The first post in this series can be read here.

This one can be called the Shutter Speed Edition, as you will learn below.  For those looking to learn about Depth of Field, please also view Deconstructing the Shot post 3, the Aperture Edition.

Douglas J. Klostermann Photography
Canon Rebel XT, 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 II at 50mm, ISO 100, f/14, 1/20s

The Photo: The photo I’ve selected for this example (seen above) is one I took in Pucallpa, Peru in July 2008.  Pucallpa is a town located along the Ucayali River, a tributary of the Amazon.  Though it is a relatively small town, it has a bustling (though undeveloped) port which receives food and goods from deeper in the Amazon region.  The streets of Pucallpa buzz with the constant traffic of moto-taxis, the motorcycle rickshaws found in much of Peru and the developing world.  I had a few days before hopping on a slow boat to Iquitos, so I roamed the town looking for photo opportunities.  I’ve created some strips of photos to show a selection of images as I worked this particular scene:

Pucallpa Series 1

The Process: I wanted to capture the ubiquitous motion and activity of the traffic in the streets of Pucallpa, which is dominated by the moto-taxis.  The best way to do this, I decided, was to capture the blur of motion as the traffic sped by.  I was using a Canon Rebel XT with a 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 II lens.  I selected a busy and interesting intersection and set the camera to Shutter Priority mode (Tv on Canon, S on Nikon).  This is so I could control the shutter speed and set it to a slow shutter speed so that fast motion would become a blur.  I initially chose a shutter speed of 1/50, but that wasn’t resulting in enough blur, so through quick experimentation, I settled on 1/20.  This shutter speed, 1/20 of a second, is very slow for hand-holding.  While the motion will blur, it is difficult at this shutter speed to hold it still enough (without a tripod) so that the background will remain sharp and not cause unwanted blur due to camera shake in the in-focus areas.  I now actually recommend using 1/30 as a starting point for creating motion blur.  But even with 1/30, you have to pay attention to holding the camera very still.  I selected ISO 100 since it was a very bright, sunny afternoon, and because I atypically needed to work in a slow shutter speed range.

I initially took some images of the traffic crossing the intersection, trying to capture many vehicles at once to accentuate my idea of the busy traffic.  However, I soon decided to face directly across the street and capture the moto-taxis as they crossed my field of view.  I set the Drive Mode to continuous so that I could fire off a series of photos each time the light turned green and the traffic crossed my view.  The Rebel XT has a slow maximum rate of 3 frames per second (fps) but many current cameras will allow a more useful and faster frame rate of 5 or 6, or even 8 fps.  White Balance was set on Auto, though Sunny setting would have worked well too.  Metering was set on Evaluative.  However, since the lighting and the scene remained relatively consistent, it would not have been a mistake to determine the best exposure then switch the camera to Manual mode, M, and set that exposure for all the photos.

In Shutter Priority mode, you choose the shutter speed and the camera will choose the aperture, based on the ISO setting.  The aperture setting for this photo wasn’t too important to me.  Since the foreground was going to be a blur of motion, it was best that the background was relatively in focus.  So a narrow aperture providing relatively deep depth of field, such as f/11 or f/16 would be fine.  Based on the ISO and the amount of light, the camera was selecting apertures ranging from f/8 to f/22 for various images, with most of them somewhere in the middle of that range.  Also, since the subject was going to be a blur of motion, there was no point in trying to focus on it.  The motion would most likely confuse the auto-focus system anyway, so I switched the lens to MF, Manual Focus, and focused on the sign post directly across the street from me.  Though I may have zoomed slightly in or out with the lens at first, I settled on a focal length of 50mm and left it there.

Pucallpa series 2

While the subject of this composition is the blur of the vehicles, the background also comes into play, and as with every image, can not be ignored.  The street and trees beyond created a nice background, both showing the urban context of the scene and blocking out what could have been a large area of dull, light sky.  The yellow sign post, where I focused, added a nice element of color.  You can see that the yellow post and the curb of the far side of the street lie near the “rule of thirds” lines.  This isn’t an accident, and they were consciously placed there to help create an interesting composition.  This was done through squatting or kneeling in order to place myself at the desired point of view and still capture most of the vehicles from top to bottom.

I took a series of 59 images over a period of nearly 8 minutes, with 48 of the images being the straight-on images in a period of just 2 minutes.  I used a horizontal composition since that worked best with the blur of motion of the traffic.  I typically just held down the shutter button as the traffic started to go by, just after the stoplight changed.  By doing that I captured a variety of interesting images, with the moto-taxis blurring by in all types of configurations.  In a situation like this, luck and chance play a big part.  The photographer must control all the elements they can through composition, framing, and camera settings, and then allow the scene to play out in front of them.  So I would actually call this controlled chance.  There were a few very nice results, and I settled on an frame from the middle of the series, IMG_3306, as my chosen image.  In addition to showing the blur of the moto-taxi, it also captured some pedestrians across the street and fully showed the one-way sign, which I thought were nice additions to the image.  With these added elements, it becomes more of an overall “portrait” of the city streets of Pucallpa rather than just an image about motion.

The Post Process: To create the final image, I adjusted the color and contrast in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and in Photoshop (PS).  As you can see by the unprocessed images, the color and contrast is quite dull and lifeless straight out of the camera.  The original file was a JPEG file, and the Picture Style was Standard (I hadn’t started using RAW yet).  In ACR, the Blacks were increased to 10 to give it the nice deep blacks, which helps to make the bright colors pop even more.  A Fill setting of 10 was used to lighten up the foreground moto-taxi a bit, and Clarity +15 and Vibrance +10 were used to give it some, well, clarity and vibrance.  In Photoshop, the contrast was increased with Curves using a setting probably close to Medium Contrast.  I typically don’t make the blacks so black and purposefully lose detail in the shadows, but I was experimenting with this look and it seemed to work well here.  The image was sharpened using Unsharpen Mask, probably at Amount: 85 or 100, Radius: 1, and Threshold: 4.  Now I would try being more aggressive with the Amount and Radius, but I am not sure the 8MP JPEG file from the Rebel XT would withstand much more without starting to degrade.  Somewhere along the way, either in ACR or PS, the color temperature was also changed to warm it up a little, which is more in keeping with the afternoon sun of the Amazon region.  I didn’t crop the image at all, as you can see.  It is best to try to get the framing you want when you capture the photo, but I am somewhat surprised myself that I did it so well.  I once had a photo teacher in college who complimented me on my ability to capture the frame and not need to crop.  I just thought that was the way one was supposed to take a photo!  Thankfully I still sometimes demonstrate that ability.

The Final Image:

Douglas J. Klostermann Photography
Canon Rebel XT, 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 II at 50mm, ISO 100, f/14, 1/20s

The Lesson: We should always learn from our photos, so that next time we are in a similar situation, we can create an even better image.  Some improvements I could have made to this image include using a neutral density (ND) filter or a polarizing filter.  This would have given me more control over the range of aperture settings that the camera selected and allowed for a wider-open aperture so that the far distance became more of a blur.  A polarizing filter would have also helped to darken the bits of sky that appear.  And as I mentioned above, a shutter speed of 1/30 would have still created the blur, but would have been slightly easier to hand-hold without creating unwanted blur in the background due to camera shake.

This image was chosen to be used on the cover of the programs for the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s Nuevo Latino Festival in 2009.  Incredibly, the near square crop of the image works really well too:

Douglas J. Klostermann Photography

So hopefully you can see from this explanation and from my previous posts that photographs don’t necessarily just happen.  They are created through a combination of thought processes, a series of decisions, and the application of camera settings based on these decisions and on the situation at hand – plus some controlled chance!

See the Related Posts section just below for links to parts 1 and 3 in this series.  And learn more about how to take control of your camera and the images you create with my Full Stop e-book camera and photography guides.

Full Stop photography e book camera user guide Nikon Canon dSLR

Cambridge Carnival 2010

Cambridge Carnival 2010 in Cambridge, MA:  the music, dancing, and vibrant colors of the Caribbean, conveniently found down the street from me today.

All of these images were shot using a Canon 50D (60D is current version) with the 70-200mm f/4L IS lens.

Douglas J. Klostermann Photography

Douglas J. Klostermann Photography

There is a very recent and timely post on PhotoFocus about photographing parades.  It has some useful advice.  I would add to that a few more:

-Arrive early and work your way into the assembly area, where there is often a sense of tension and pent-up excitement.  Capture photos of participants getting ready and chatting, musicians practicing, and posed portraits of individuals or groups who are eager to have their photo taken in their outfits or costumes.

-During the parade, always be aware of your image backgrounds.  Position yourself so that you have light or dark backgrounds as appropriate, or crowds of faces.  Be sure you have clean, or at least not distracting backgrounds.  Use wide open apertures to make the backgrounds blurry and less distracting.  Some distracting backgrounds I had to avoid at this event included a bright yellow rental truck with the name across it and porta-potties.  Keep your eyes open for these types of things.  Changing your position and point of view can make the street, some trees, or the sky become your background.

-Be very aware of the light and where it is coming from.  Position yourself on the best side of the street so that you can capture the light on the participants’ faces.  Or backlight them if you want photos with sun-flare.  Position yourself near intersecting side streets where the sunlight is unobstructed by buildings and trees to avoid shadows across the parade route.  Look for mirrored, glass, or light colored buildings to act as natural reflectors which throw back and diffuse the light nicely onto all the participants.  Of find areas with light and dark shadow areas and try to highlight a participant as they step into the light.

-Bring ear plugs so you can concentrate of taking images even when the giant sound truck is stationed right in front of you.

-Experiment with slow shutter speeds to create blurs of motion and color.  Put your camera on shutter priority mode (Canon=Tv or Nikon=S).  Try starting with a shutter speed of 1/30 and adjust from there as necessary.

-If you are using a flash outdoors, do not use your flash diffuser (like a Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce) except for very close portraits.  All you are doing is reducing the light coming from your flash and causing your flash to work harder and take longer to recycle.  It does not change the “softness” or the “warmness” of the light from your flash.  A flash diffuser works by bouncing light and diffusing shadows because the light is then coming from various directions.  It does not magically “soften” light.  You can not bounce light off the sky.  It just doesn’t work.  Use your flash straight on, dial it down minus 1 or 2 so that it doesn’t blow out highlights, and use an orange or straw gel if you want more warmth.  It is much more efficient to reduce the light from your flash by dialing it to -1 and having it use less of its power than it is to put something in front of it and cause it to use more of its power, all for the same look.  If you wish to spread its light, use the built-in, flip-down wide angle screen.  I don’t care if you see the “pros” or the guys with the big cameras using one – they haven’t bothered to read the instructions.  They aren’t able to bounce light off clouds just because they have big cameras.

Photographing in Natural Light

Some recent portrait sessions (see them here) have led me to the realization that it is finally time to get my flash off-camera and to expand my knowledge of lighting for portraits.  Since I’m currently working with a camera that doesn’t have built in remote flash triggering, this means I either need a cable or remote triggers.  But which one?  Expensive TTL or radio triggers?  Cheap eBay triggers?  A basic sync cord or a more costly TTL cord?  How long?  A 3′ cord for hand holding, or a longer cord for putting the flash on a stand?  Or both?  What situations am I going to be using them in at home and while traveling?

3268 LSS on beach
Jan. 2010 – Plum Island, Newburyport, MA – Canon Rebel XT, 105mm (28-105mm lens), 1/500s, f/4.5, ISO 200 – natural light at 4pm on beach

The more thought and research I put into it, the more the possibly necessary equipment began to add up:  a stand for the flash, plus maybe a Justin Clamp.  A stand and special arm for the reflector.  Perhaps then a softbox or an umbrella.  Then what else…?

I’m not a strobist.  While I admire the cool things one can do with lighting and I sometimes desire to overpower the sun, it’s just not the kind of thing that gets me excited about photography.  I have more of a photojournalist instinct.  I’d prefer to simply work without a flash most of the time, to make the most of natural light, and to capture the reality of situations in front of me.  But my experience has shown me this isn’t always possible so I decided to seek out a viable alternative for situations I assumed required flash, and to learn how to maximize my use of natural light without sacrificing lighting quality.  Thankfully I quickly discovered a book that demonstrated this was possible – Available Light: Photographic Techniques for Using Existing Light Sources by Don Marr.

Unlike countless photography books that stress the importance of looking at, understanding, and making use of natural light but then leave it to the photographer to figure out, this one leads you directly there.  It is short, simple, and intuitive – so much so that I didn’t write down a single note during my first reading.  It shares knowledge and techniques that can easily and immediately be put to use, such as with this photo I took soon after reading it – look at that glow!  100% natural light:

8772 LSS portrait
Sept. 2010 – Cambridge, MA – Canon 50D, 75mm (28-105mm lens), 1/125s, f/4.0, ISO 200 – natural light at 3pm just inside the shadow-line under a concrete overpass

While we all know to photograph in the shade on a sunny day or how an overcast day is supposed to create nice, soft lighting, with this book it suddenly all clicked and I really understood why these things are so.  When walking around outside, I’m typically always aware of the intensity, direction, color and quality of natural light.  I now realize that in itself was not nearly enough.  Now I have gained the knowledge to work with the natural light and modify it to create the softness/ hardness, direction, color, and intensity I want, whether I am working on an overcast day, at high noon, inside, outdoors, or any other type of situation.  The book also makes one very aware of the existence and potential use of natural reflectors everywhere which will help give you the lighting you want: a wall, the ground, a pole. And it explains the important concept and effective practice of subtractive lighting, used to even-out or create the desired lighting instead of turning to flash to artificially add to existing lighting. The author does not just guide you to finding and creating good light in any situation, but to light that fits your subject and the way in which you wish to portray them, whether that includes soft light or hard light, even light or deep shadows, hair light or flare – or whatever.  I would love to summarize the whole book in this post, but I think it’s better that you just go to your library or Amazon.com and get it!

Douglas J. Klostermann Photography
Nov. 2009 – San Miguel Dueñas, Guatemala – Canon 7D, 135mm (70-200mm lens), 1/200s, f/4.0, ISO 1600 – natural light at 3pm diffused by the fiberglass panel ceiling/ roof of her home

I feel that this book has set me on the right path, away from what I thought was inevitable membership in the Strobist club.  While the author is not against the use of flash, and certainly not against reflectors, this book offers a refreshing and viable alternative to that never-ending accumulation of equipment and techniques, and I encourage off-camera-flash fans to read it as well so they can learn to look for beautiful natural lighting alternatives that will give them as-good or even better images, before instinctively setting up their lighting equipment and knocking down the natural light in order to rebuild it artificially.

In the process of my strobist research, I came back around to the photos of Joey Lawrence (Joey L), and in particular his images of the Mentawai.  They are wonderful images and beautiful portraits, but something about this project has always rubbed me the wrong way.  My recent research into artificial vs. natural light has helped me to think this through and start to figure it out.  I’m always disturbed when people or crews invade, er, I mean visit a culture or community like the Mentawai with a bunch of equipment and ask them or pay them to pose for photographs or footage.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with it and his subjects obviously enjoyed cooperating in his project, but I simply have a different philosophical and stylistic approach – more documentary and photojournalistic.  Plus I feel that there should be more of a unity of subject and technique.  In other words when celebrating (or is it romanticizing?) people’s close relationship with their natural environment, one should perhaps not light them with giant, unnatural, high power artificial lights!  The disharmony certainly creates stunning photos, and that kind of lighting is part of Joey L’s established style.  Possibly the contrast between the natural surroundings and the artificial light helps to emphasize the dichotomy of indigenous people living in a modern world.  But I just feel it would have been more interesting and authentic to make use of the unique natural light of that place when romanticizing, er, I mean portraying the people and their relationship with their environment.  That being said, I am very much looking forward to Joey L’s Faces of a Vanishing World TV series (starting on September 27th on Ovation TV) in order to get a glimpse into how he works in the field and see how he creates his dramatic and undeniably stunning images.

Douglas J. Klostermann Photography
June 2008 – Sillustani, Peru – Canon Rebel XT, 90mm (28-105mm lens), 1/800s, f/5.0, ISO 100 – natural light at 4pm on the altiplano near Lake Titicaca (that is a different lake in the background)

One of the unique aspects of different places in the world is their unique light:  the light at high altitude, in a desert, equatorial light, sunset in the Cinque Terre or Santorini, and of course the diffused light of a rainforest.  Why not try to capture that light as part of your images of a place?  At least, for the strobists out there, I encourage you to first look at and possibly incorporate the natural light before instinctively and blindly setting up the strobes.  In reality, I think it is probably a much greater challenge to find and shape the natural light, but it is a challenge I intend to take on for the long term.

0212 LSS Roosevelt Island portrait
March 2010 – Roosevelt Island, NYC – Canon 50D, 70mm (70-200mm lens), 1/125s, f/4.0, ISO 200 – natural light at 5pm in open area

Photography, Creativity, and Angst

It seems that a lot of photography blogs that aren’t caught up in discussing the latest equipment and technology (as I find myself doing lately) are often addressing the struggles of photography, art, and creativity. Most every photographer seems to relate to the frustrations of not being able to create the images that they wish they could – images like the ones of the photographers they admire or images like the ones they envision in their own mind.

This isn’t a bad thing, and in fact this dissatisfaction with one’s current work is one of the most important components in inspiring and pushing oneself to improve. But there is a huge problem if this struggle becomes angst and doesn’t serve a positive purpose. It is an easy path to fall into with photography, especially when just starting out or soon after technical and equipment mastery is attained. There is so much to learn and everyone else seems to have picked up important and secret knowledge which you don’t know where to find. And there are so many great photographers out there who you like and no matter how hard you try your images don’t look anything like theirs.

Rome Casa Blanca and Statue piazza del quirinale black and white italy
Rome – Statue in front of Palazzo del Quirinale

I fell into this trap when I first became serious about photography. I saw images in galleries, museums, and magazines (there was no internet yet…) that I wished I could create, but had no idea how. What kind of camera were they using? What kind of chemicals and darkroom techniques did they use? Where did they come up with their ideas and inspiration? I had no idea, but tried to learn what I could from books and experimentation. But the learning curve was so steep, my interests and ambitions were too broad and scattered, and the dedication was not yet there. The angst and frustration built and slowly I stopped even taking photos. I had wanted to create great images at will but knew I couldn’t. My results rarely matched my vision, so I stopped making any images at all.

Rome Bernini Fountain piazza navona italy
Rome – Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi by Bernini facing Sant’Agnese in Agone by Borromini and Rainaldi

I thought the angst was part of being an artist, a photographer, and that holding onto it would lead somewhere. But the angst didn’t get me anywhere. In fact all it led me to was abandoning photography. Years later, when I became frustrated with the limitations of my digital compact and dSLRs became affordable, I decided to give it another try. I went out on my first self-assignment, not really knowing what I was doing, relearning how to use a camera and compose photos. But this time I had a different attitude, a new mindset. The photos on my LCD screen still didn’t look like the ones in my head, but I didn’t care, and I continued to happily work away. I knew I was learning with each photo, I didn’t expect instant masterpieces. I knew I would improve over time when I studied the results and identified the differences between where I was and where I wanted to be.

Rome Piazza Navona woman walking italy
Rome – Piazza Navona

Most importantly I had finally given up on trying to take Ansel Adams’ photos and started to take my photos. If they weren’t any good, I would keep taking my photos, and figure out how to make them better versions of my photos. For the first time I was truly happy with my images because I stopped comparing them with some real or imagined perfect images that I would never take. It doesn’t mean I still don’t have the angst. Every time I look at Ami Vitale’s photos I want to take Ami Vitale’s photos. But I let it go, I don’t let it become a negative, limiting frustration. I study them and learn from them, but I continue to take my photos. Because those are really the only ones I can take, and those I the ones I am happiest with anyway.

So it is true – as everyone concludes their “photographer’s struggle” blog posts: just get out and shoot. That is virtually all there is to it. But there is another important component. Let go of the angst. Art and creativity does not equal angst. Change your mindset. Stop dwelling on creativity, thinking about creativity, reading about creativity…and just go create. Shoot your photos, improve on your photos, and be happy knowing that with each frame you are learning and progressing. Besides, you shouldn’t want to be imitating anyone else because you don’t want to be called “The next Henri Cartier Bresson.” You want some future budding photographer to be called “The next (your name here).”

Rome Sant'Ivo Sant Ivo alla Sapienza Borromini Italy
Rome – Street with view of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza by Borromini

(These photos were taken the first time I ever used a “real” camera, an SLR – a Canon AE-1 I borrowed for an afternoon. Taken in Rome, Italy in 1990 or 1991 while studying with the University of Notre Dame Architecture Rome Studies Program. Not a bad start, huh?!)

Deconstructing the Shot – Photo 1

This post is the first in an occasional series in which I will describe the making of a photograph, from both a technical and artistic standpoint. I’ll go through the camera settings and why they were chosen, as well as the thought processes going through my head regarding composition and the creation of the image. These types of posts will be concrete examples of a previous post of mine called How Pros Photograph, which describes the various decisions that may be going through a photographer’s head as they work a scene and make photos.

Douglas J. Klostermann Photography
Ventanas Abiertas – San Miguel Dueñas, Guatemala – Canon 7D, 16-35mm f.2.8L II at 35mm, ISO 200, f/5, 1/100s

The Photo: As the first example photo, I’ve chosen the full, original version of the current header image of this blog (also seen just above), a line of kids reading in the courtyard of Ventanas Abiertas, an after-school learning center in San Miguel Dueñas, Guatemala. I traveled to this NGO near Antigua in November of 2009 to photograph the center, its founder, teachers and students, and its work in the community. I created this strip of images showing select photos from the series as I worked towards finding and making this image:

The Process: As I roamed the center taking photos, I spotted the kids all lined up on a curb in the courtyard, reading. The linear composition and the striking yellow wall made for a pretty obvious opportunity. I had a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens on a Canon 7D, with a protective UV filter on the lens. I first took a shot from a standing position, composing the image with the kids across the center of the frame. The focal length of the lens was at 23mm, a wide shot to capture the whole scene. That shot has a bit of a snapshot look, and didn’t take full advantage of the yellow wall, had far too much of the grey concrete patio, and created too static of a composition which did not make use of the opportunity to apply the rule of thirds for a more dynamic composition. I re-framed to move the line of kids to the bottom third of the frame, and still had the lens wide and was standing. To better fill the frame with just the kids and to create a better point of view, more on the level of the kids, I crouched down and zoomed in to 35mm. Although the 35mm focal length is a wide angle and thus prone to distortion, due to my camera to subject distance there is only a slight amount of distortion in the image. If I had moved closer to the subjects, more distortion would have been obvious. At this point I checked my settings and saw I was at ISO 400 from the previous shots in the shade, so I lowered it to ISO 200 since the late afternoon light was still pretty bright. The lowest ISO possible for the given situation will typically create a higher quality image file. For all the shots I was using Aperture Priority mode. I almost always use Av mode unless i am dealing with motion or blur that needs to be controlled (then I use Tv mode), or am using the flash in a controlled situation (and then I often use Manual, M mode). The aperture was set at f/5.0 to give me a relatively shallow depth of field, but enough so that the kids and the wall behind them were all in focus, but anything inside the doorway and window would be a bit blurry and thus less distracting. Unlike most of my images, the aperture setting wasn’t critical here, as the depth of the entire image is mostly all within a couple feet, from the kids’ toes to the wall behind them. So f/4.0 or f/8 would have given me virtually the same image. At ISO 200, the shutter speed was at 1/80 or 1/100, which was fast enough for handholding. A little faster would have been better to ensure there was no blurring if a child moved their head or hands during a shot, so leaving the camera set on ISO 400 would not have been a mistake.

As you can see in the first several photos, many of the kids were aware of me taking their photo, and were posing, goofing, or self conscious. I continued to take a few shots and waited for them to begin to ignore me. I liked the composition, and the window and the doorway to anchor the sides of the frame, so I continued to take the same shot, attempting to get the best moment of poses and facial expressions. I attempted to keep the image straight, aided by the lines visible in the viewfinder of the 7D. For all of the shots, I manually selected an auto-focus point, using a point below the central focus point which would line up on or near the face of one of the central kids. This would take advantage of the nice contrast between the dark hair and the lighter face to ensure proper auto-focus. By selecting an AF point exactly where I wanted to focus, I didn’t have to worry about focusing or have to re-frame each subsequent shot. The exposure metering was set on evaluative. The bright yellow wall could have easily messed with the metering, and I’m sure another camera like my 50D would have miscalculated the exposure based on the wall, but the 7D performed nicely on this mode. I checked my histogram a couple times to make sure I wasn’t blowing out any highlights and thus needing to use exposure compensation to adjust for that.

Douglas J. Klostermann Photography
The Final Image: Canon 7D, 16-35mm f.2.8L II at 35mm, ISO 200, f/5, 1/100s

I took a series of 19 images of this same scene, over 1 minute and 12 seconds. As you can see, it didn’t take long for the kids to begin to ignore my presence. My chosen shot was from the middle of this series, IMG_3068. It stood out among all the others in the poses, positions, groupings, and facial expressions of all the kids. Throughout the time of the series, a head appeared in the window, and people moved around inside the doorway. Luckily with my chosen shot, the head was in the window, as I like this subtle, almost hidden detail. I liked the bit of green from the plant on the left, but my chosen shot unfortunately doesn’t show much of it.

The Post-Process: To create the final image, I adjusted the color and contrast in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR). I had shot the image in RAW for maximum quality and processing latitude. Due to the available light of the scene and the proper exposure, it required little processing. I set the Temperature at 4600 and the Tint to 8. I adjusted Recovery to 5 to bring back some of the detail of the yellow wall which was very slightly blown out, Fill to 15 to lighten up the children’s clothes, Brightness stayed at the standard 50, I set Contrast to 20 with plans to increase it a bit more in Photoshop. Clarity 20, Vibrance 15, and Saturation 0. I like a bit of color saturation, vibrance, and contrast in my images, but I prefer not to overprocess or to make the adjustments obvious. While the yellow of these images is definitely vibrant, especially compared to the dull, neutral RAW images, it is a realistic representation of the actual color. Typically I straighten and maybe crop a bit in ACR, but miraculously this shot was very level, and also left no room for cropping. In Photoshop I used Curves to adjust the contrast somewhere between the Linear and Medium presets, and used Unsharpen Mask to sharpen. I don’t know what my exact settings were, but I had to use aggressive sharpening because the Canon 7D I used had a severe front-focusing problem. The settings were probably Amount: 175 or 200, Radius: 1.8, and Threshold: 4.

The Lesson: We should always learn from our photos, so that next time we are in a similar situation, we can create an even better image. Some improvements I could have made to this image include possibly crouching or sitting even lower to be more on level with the kids faces (although this would have caused keystoning of the vertical lines), eliminating the doorway at right by either re-framing or moving slightly to the left (which would cut out a child or two on the right) or moving to my right and shooting back towards them at a slight angle, but this would have affected the straight-on view which I feel is important to this composition. I would not have minded a little more of the green plant on the left in the frame. The image demonstrates the importance of keeping the camera level and the sensor parallel to the subject to avoid unwanted distortion. The best way to keep the horizontal and verticals straight while taking the photo is to make sure the camera is not tilted up or down and that the sensor is parallel to the wall. This involves moving yourself and the camera up or down to get the framing you desire. Also, in post-processing, I could have used the lens correction menus in ACR or Photoshop to perfectly straighten all the verticals and horizontals. Finally, although the color looks good, now I would have paid more attention to adjusting the Temperture and Tint, or adjusting the white balance using Curves in Photoshop because I have experimented and learned a bit more about these settings since then. Also, now that I see IMG_3074 again, (the last one in the strip above) I like it a lot, and should probably process that one and add it to my collection of final images.

So hopefully you can see from this explanation and from my previous post that photographs don’t necessarily just happen. They are created through a combination of thought processes, a series of decisions, and the application of camera settings based on these decisions and on the situation at hand.

See the Related Posts section just below for links to parts 2 and 3 in this series.

And learn more about how to take control of your camera and the images you create with my Full Stop e-book camera and photography guides.

Full Stop photography e book camera user guide Nikon Canon dSLR

One on One Digital Photography Instruction

Digital SLR Camera Lessons

I am offering one-on-one, individual instruction (or small group workshops) in all aspects of digital photography in the Boston and Cambridge, MA area. I will create a unique lesson with you that can include topics such as choosing a new digital SLR or advanced compact camera and related equipment, learning how to use the various settings and features of your digital camera, photographic composition and taking stronger images, processing and editing your images in Photoshop, and preparing for photographing while traveling.  The lesson plan is up to you and is customized to your interests, needs, level of experience, and specific equipment.  Subjects will be explained, demonstrated, and practiced in ways you will understand, remember, and use.

Please view the Lessons page here, or under Lessons in the blog menu above, to learn more details.

Douglas J. Klostermann Photography Cambridge, MA
Central Square – Cambridge, MA – “Crosswinds” mural by Daniel Galvez

Learn to use your camera with confidence, get the most out of your digital SLR photography equipment, and learn to take better images. Get in touch with me at doug (at) dojoklo (dot) com or at 347-272-Seven Thousand.

How Pros Photograph

or What Pros are Doing When it Looks Like
They are Just Pointing and Clicking

You’ve probably had the experience where you locate the right spot and attempt to take the same photo as one you admire, yet the outcome is never quite the same. Or maybe you’ve stood next to a photo tour leader, and think you are taking the same photos, yet your images don’t seem to look like theirs do. Why is this? What is an experienced or professional photographer doing differently? What’s the big secret, the trick to getting those images?

It’s not impossible, it’s not luck, and it is not dependent on tricks. It’s not necessarily equipment or Photoshop skill. But rather it is a number of decisions and accumulated experience, all happening in those brief moments when a photographer sees a scene, raises their camera to their eye, frames the shot, adjusts the settings, and clicks the shutter. Here’s what the pros are doing in those moments when all you think you see them doing is pointing and clicking:

Festival de Tinajani - Smiling Woman Dancer
Festival de Tinajani – Ayaviri, Peru

The Right Light: A photographer is always chasing the best light. Their eye is always looking for good lighting, interesting lighting, the interplay of light and shadows, silhouettes. They are always aware of the quality of light – the color, the warmth or coolness of the light. Ideally they shoot only at the best times: in the morning and evening. But that isn’t always possible, so they must seek out interesting lighting, make the best of the available light, use a flash or off-camera lighting, or work in shaded areas. If the great light is there, but the subject isn’t, they wait for a subject to come into the scene. They consider not only the lighting on the main subject but also the lighting on the background and how it might enhance or distract from the subject. They place themselves in the best position in relation to the light and the subject to ensure their subject is illuminated as they desire, they remain aware of the light/ subject relationship, and move around as necessary as it changes.

Pre-Visualizing: The photographer begins to see the composition of the image before they raise their camera to their eye. They look at the elements and decide how they want them to relate to each other in the final image. They consider how near and distant elements will relate when compressed into two dimensions. As with the lighting, they look at not only their main subject but also the background that will appear behind it. They look for strong lines, color, weight and balance of elements, symmetry or asymmetry of the elements. They consider their main subject and the environment around it and determine how much they want to include – if they want a wide shot or wish to zoom in or move in for a closer shot. They consider which point of view will best express their subject – high, low, eye-level? They determine if the image and relationships will work best in landscape or portrait orientation, and hold the camera accordingly. They scroll through their mental file of similar images they’ve taken, and consider what was and wasn’t successful and how to improve this shot.

Festival de Tinajani - Woman Dancers Practicing
Festival de Tinajani – Ayaviri, Peru

Metering: When they see that interesting or challenging light they know how to meter for it. They don’t count on their camera to know how they want the scene exposed and they don’t want to blow out their highlights, so they may use partial metering or spot metering directed at the right part of the scene to determine their exposure settings. They do this quickly and instinctively because they’ve practiced and experimented with numerous types of difficult lighting scenes, and…

Camera Settings: …they know their camera inside and out. They know which settings to change and how to change those settings. They’ve customized their buttons and menus to quickly get to the settings they use most frequently. Their eye is on the aperture, shutter speed and ISO numbers in the viewfinder, and their fingers know which dials to move to adjust them without taking the camera from their eye. They know how their camera tends to under-expose or over-expose in certain situations, and they change the exposure compensation accordingly. And they (hopefully) remember to reset these settings when they move into a different lighting or subject situation.

Aperture Priority Mode: The pros often work in aperture priority mode so that they can control their aperture and depth of field and thus establish relationships of near and distant elements, foreground and background. They blur the background to call more attention to the subject, or dramatically place just a narrow plane of the subject in focus. Or perhaps they bring everything from near to far into sharp focus. They select their depth of field based on the relationships they desire to create. They know how the lens they are using renders images at its various apertures, and perhaps use the depth of field preview button to verify.

Festival de Tinajani - Twirling Skirt
Festival de Tinajani – Ayaviri, Peru

Shutter Priority Mode: They turn their mode dial to shutter priority mode when freezing or blurring motion is key to the image. They use a high shutter speed to freeze action, or a slow one to blur or pan. They know the proper shutter speed is critical to this type of shot, and don’t let the camera choose it for them.

ISO: They check the setting that they are not controlling (the shutter speed in Aperture priority mode/ the aperture in Shutter priority mode) and adjust their ISO to bring that setting into the range they want or need. They know from experience which ISO range is appropriate for the amount of lighting they are shooting in, and change it in advance as they move between situations.

Manual Mode: They turn the mode dial to M when they have consistent lighting and a setting that they know is not going to change, or in challenging situations where both aperture and shutter speed are critical. They’ve determined their exposure by metering, and set the camera accordingly.

Auto or Program Modes: They never use these, as their lack of control scares them as much as Aperture Priority mode scares the new dSLR user.

Festival de Tinajani - Flag Dancers Posing
Festival de Tinajani – Ayaviri, Peru

Framing: As they look through the viewfinder, they frame the image based on their pre-visualization and composition decisions. They scan all parts of the frame and not just the subject, from edge to edge and each corner, from near to far, to determine if there are any unwanted elements, elements not essential to their image, or undesired relationships (i.e. the tree growing out of someone’s head.) They move slightly to the left or right, or slightly up or down to bring all the elements in the frame into the desired or most dramatic relationship.

Focusing: They manually choose their auto-focus point to ensure that the camera focuses on what they want it to focus on, not on what the camera chooses to focus on. They lock the focus setting if they need to slightly reframe or wish to hold that focus for a sequence of images. If there is going to be a dramatic shift between the framing seen while focusing and the final framing of the image, they lock the exposure setting on the final intended framing before or after locking in the focusing. They use the other auto-focus modes to capture action that moves across the scene or which is too fast for manually choosing a single point.

Waiting: They wait for the right facial expression and pose, or for the subject to relax, or the moving elements to fall into place, or the peak of action and then…

Clicking the Shutter: Finally! They press the shutter, slowly and smoothly. They have their camera set for single exposure or multiple exposure based on the situation. They fire off several quick shots, or slowly take a couple to ensure they got the shot or to take variations of the image.

Festival de Tinajani - Dancer with Rope
Festival de Tinajani – Ayaviri, Peru

Reviewing: “Chimping” is the somewhat derogatory term for looking at the rear LCD screen right after taking a photo to check out the image. When pros do it, they are not looking at the picture to see what they got. They know what they got. They know what the image looks like because they studied it when they framed and took the photo. They are looking at the histogram and looking for blinking highlights to ensure they did not blow out the highlights or in any way over- or under-expose the shot. If they did, they adjust the exposure compensation, or the aperture and shutter settings, and take it again.

Working the Scene: A pro continues to work the scene, looking for different perspectives, compositions, and points of view.  They look at how relationships of subjects and objects in the scene change, even with just a slight adjustment of the camera’s position or angle.  Even if they think they may have nailed the shot, they know from experience that there may be an even better image to be found or made if they continue to study and photograph the scene.  And they don’t accept “good enough” and continue on to the next scene or shot.  They strive to capture the best image they know they are capable of, sometimes even if it involves returning to the location at a different time of day or even a different season when the light might be better.

These are some of the things an experienced photographer is thinking and doing in those brief moments between the time they pause from scanning the scene around them, raise the camera to their eye, and take the shot. It’s not because they have a pro camera with pro lenses that they got a great image. It’s not some pro secret that was passed onto them when they read the right book and gained entry the right forum. It is the sum of an alert eye, numerous conscious decisions while visualizing and framing, knowing how to adjust their equipment and use its controls, as well as sub-conscious decisions based on taking countless images, experimenting, and learning from the results both good and bad.

To read about an actual example of this process in action in the creation of a photograph, see my post Deconstructing the Shot.

Exploring Metering Modes

It is one thing to know that your cool new Canon or Nikon digital SLR provides you with 3 or 4 different metering modes. It’s another thing to know how and when to actually use them in the field or in different real life situations. The Canon 5D, 7D, 60D, 50D and T3i all offer four different metering modes – Evaluative, Center-Weighted, Partial, and Spot – as I’m sure you have thoroughly read about in your manual, right? Nikons, like the D7000, D51000, and D3100 generally have three different modes: Matrix, Center-Weighted, and Spot. I’ll try to cut to the chase and simplify the explanations and their uses.  Note that there are some important differences between how they work for Canon and Nikon cameras, particularly the Spot mode.

Canon T3i T2i 60D metering mode partial spot viewfinder
The viewfinder of the Canon T3i (T2i and 60D similar) showing the areas evaluated for Partial Metering (superimposed grey area) and Spot Metering (black circle in center).

Evaluative (Canon) or Matrix (Nikon): This is the default mode for your camera, and it can be used for almost every situation you shoot. Yes, maybe 90% of the time, maybe more. The camera evaluates the entire scene, as divided into several zones, and chooses the best exposure based on its knowledge of thousands of potential image situations. The current metering systems are so good, they can even be relied on for backlit or other challenging lighting situations. An important feature of this mode is that advanced cameras such as the Canon 7D, Canon 60D or Nikon D7000, D5100 take into account the selected focus point in its determination of exposure settings. It is assuming your focus point is on your most important subject, so under challenging and critical situations, it is wise to confirm that the camera has chosen the focus point you want (well, this is always wise). Even better, you should typically manually choose the focus point or cluster of focus points, as the camera has no idea what your intended image is. So in special situations, such as dramatically back-lit scenes or a situation with bright light plus deep shadows, make sure you are not using the center point to focus and meter, and then recomposing to take the shot – because some of the zones that the camera evaluated are now no longer in your shot after recomposing, and other new areas are, so the camera has set exposure for an image other than the one you are taking.


San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala

Partial (Canon only): This mode meters a smaller area, about 9.4%, in the center of the scene on the 7D and 6.5% with the 60D. Nikons do not have this mode, though some Nikons such as the D7000 offer the ability to change the size of the Center-Weighted Metering circle (see Center-Weighted Metering below), so it makes up for this.  The area is approximately a circle that reaches to the top and bottom focus points, and the metering system ignores the rest of the frame. This mode is useful where there is a dramatic difference in lighting between the foreground or subject and the background. For example, when your subject is backlit – maybe standing in front of a bright window or the sun – and consequently their face is in shadow. I know I said evaluative mode can often handle this type of situation, but if you want the face or subject to be properly exposed and not risk blowing the shot, it is worth it to quickly switch to Partial metering mode. Again, another time to use this is when there is a wide range of light in your scene, from bright sunlight to deep shadows. Remember, this mode is not linked to your focus point. The partial area that is metered is always in the center, so meter on the part of the scene that is most critical and that you want properly exposed, using the central area of the viewfinder, lock in that exposure, then recompose and take the shot.


Campo Nuevo, Guatemala

Important Note about Locking In the Metered Exposure: The metered exposure setting is sometimes locked in by pressing the shutter button half-way down or sometimes not “locked” until the image is taken (depending on your camera, or current shooting mode, or how you set it up – read your manual!).  The shutter button also typically locks focus (unless you have changed that setting).  If you wish to lock in focus and exposure separately, which you often will need to do, on a Canon use the AF-Lock (for focus) button and/ or the AE-Lock (for exposure) button – which looks like this: * – to lock in one of them before locking in the other with the half-press or full press of the shutter button. On the Nikons, you have to set one of your buttons to be the exposure lock button, either the AE-L/AF-L Button or the Fn Button on some cameras like the D7000. I suggest first metering on the subject and locking in that exposure by pressing the appropriate button, then recomposing and locking in focus right before or as you take the photo. Or else learning the advanced methods of back button focusing. Get in the habit of knowing how to do this instinctively, and if you need to hold or just press the particular button, so that it comes naturally during critical situations. On the 7D and D7000 and other cameras you can also customize how these buttons perform or set other buttons to do these tasks. You can see in the viewfinder that you have locked focus when the focus dot is lit. You can see that exposure is locked with the AE-L indication in the Nikon viewfinder or the * symbol in the Canon viewfinder.

Locking exposure and focus, independently, each in the brief seconds before you take a shot? Confusing? A little, but not impossible to figure out with some experimentation and practice. Remember, this is why you bought the fancy dSLR, so that you could make use of all these advanced features and take your photos to another level!

Center-Weighted Average: This metering mode is sort of a cross between Evaluative and Partial metering. It acknowledges that the subject is in the center and requires special metering attention, but it also takes into account all the other zones. Again, this is not linked to the focus point, but always to the center, so if your subject is off center – which it typically should be for a more dynamic image – you need to lock in exposure on your subject and then recompose. I have found that with the Canon 50D, this mode is actually more consistent than Evaluative metering, which often over exposes by 1/3 or 1/2 a stop.  Note that you can use the Custom Settings of the D7000 to change the size of the center area being weighted.

This mode can be used when you want to ensure that the subject is properly exposed, but you also want the camera to consider the background. However, if the background is much darker or lighter than the subject, and you want the camera to expose only for the subject and ignore the background, use Spot Metering…


San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala

Spot: This mode meters a small center area, 2.3% of the frame with the 7D, 2.8% with the 60D, and 2.5% with the D5100 and D7000. This area is indicated by the small circle in the center of the viewfinder of the 7D and 60D. There is no center circle in the Nikon viewfinder and you will soon find out why.  So when do you want to use Spot metering? This, again, is useful for scenes with great variation in light and shadow, or in very critical situations. One of the most common ways to use it is when metering for proper exposure on a dramatically lit face or subject, but the exposure of the rest of the scene is unimportant. Or perhaps your subject is set against a plain but consistent background, like a bird against a large blue sky. It is also used to determine proper exposure of a subject before switching the camera to manual for a controlled studio shot, or a critical shot or series of shots where the lighting is not going to change. If your background is completely dark or extremely bright, and you don’t want the exposure system to consider it at all when determining the exposure of you subject, use Spot rather than Center-Weighted or Partial. With Canon cameras, the Spot that is used to evaluate the exposure is in the center of the frame, and is often indicated by a small circle. However, with Nikon cameras like the D5100 and D7000, the Spot surrounds the active focus point and is not necessarily in the center of the frame unless you are using the center AF point. So it is wise to become familiar with how your camera operates.

A fifth metering mode is Manual metering, which isn’t actually a mode in your camera, but is a method of metering. This is where you use a light meter or use your camera as a light meter (such as described at the end in the Spot section above) and then manually set your exposure based on the meter readings. This is used when you want ultimate control of the metering and exposure.

You can learn much more about the Exposure modes of specific cameras, including the 60D, T3i, D7000 and D5100, in my e-book users guide. See my e-book website, Full Stop to learn more about them or click the banner below! The guides also go into much more detail about setting up the related metering mode Custom Functions/Custom Settings and camera controls.

full stop dslr photo photography camera manual guide for dummies canon nikon

I recently ran across an interesting article which takes this discussion to another level by addressing the use of different metering modes in the very specific situation of a wedding. Since one of the main subjects in typically all in white, and the other in black, the metering mode you select and where you meter can make a dramatic difference in the exposure. While that article is specific to weddings, it is useful and helpful to read to further understand how the different modes work, and how special situations might call for some extra thought.

Depth of Field Simplified

I’ve noticed that a lot of searches regarding depth of field (and how to use your aperture to create a blurred or blurry background in your photos, or what is called bokeh) have led to my blog.  I’ve also received some good follow up questions from my previous post about depth of field.  Unfortunately, my post on Mastering Depth of Field may be a bit advanced for those who are still learning about how to use their digital SLR, as it is intended for more experienced photographers.

As I explained in that post:

“depth of field is…the range of distances in which the objects in the photograph will be acceptably sharp. For example, if I am using a 100mm lens, set my aperture at f/5.6, and focus on a subject 10 feet away, everything from 9.69′ to 10.3′ away from me will be acceptably sharp or in focus in the resulting image.”


Open Windows, San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala

Depth of field, then, can mean that everything is in focus from a few feet away to infinity (deep depth of field), or it can mean that a person’s eyes and nose are in focus, but their ears and hair and everything behind (and in front) of them is blurry (shallow depth of field).  One of the best ways to make use of depth of field is to create dramatic, shallow depth of field – the subject is in focus, but the background is blurry.  This technique helps to call attention to your intended subject and minimize distracting background elements, and to make your photos look much, much more like those of the pros.

All of the numbers and fractions and settings and seemingly reverse logic are intimidating at first, and most books add to the complication and confusion.  But it is really quite simple.  Depth of field is controlled by the aperture.  A small aperture size (which is an aperture number like f/16 or f/22) will create deep depth of field, with everything in focus.  A large aperture size (which is an aperture number like f/2.8 or f/4) will create a shallow, dramatic depth of field.  (Since “f/number” is a fraction, f/16 is a smaller number and size than f/4, so I’m avoiding using small number vs. large number terminology, as I said I would try to keep this from becoming too confusing…)   So here is the quick and simple way to create dramatic depth of field:


Open Windows, San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala

Set your camera on Aperture Priority Mode.  On a Canon, rotate the mode dial to Av, on Nikon set the dial to A.

Set your camera to Auto ISO.  Or else if you wish to control the ISO, if you are indoors or in dim light without a flash, set it to 800 or 1600 ISO.  If you are outside in bright sun, set it to 100 or 200 ISO.  If it is a bit cloudy or you are in the shade set it to 200 or 400 ISO.

Look in you manual for how to change the aperture setting of the lens.  For a Canon dSLR in Av mode, that means rotate the little finger dial up there by the shutter button.  On a Nikon it means rotate one of the dials at the top right front or back of the camera, depending on your camera and settings.)  Turn the dial until you see f/2.8 or f/4 or f/5.6 on your screen or in the viewfinder. Since you are in Aperture Priority Mode, the camera automatically selects an appropriate shutter speed.  If you’ve selected the ISO yourself, or even if you are using Auto ISO, you may want to verify that an appropriate shutter speed is being selected.  For example, I found that with the Canon 7D, Auto ISO often selects a much slower shutter speed than what is best for a situation.  Press the shutter button half way down and check the shutter speed.  If it is anywhere from 1/100 to 1/250 or higher, you are fine if your subject isn’t moving.  If the subject is moving, make sure the shutter speed is 1/250 to 1/1000.  If it is any higher or lower than the range you want, you should adjust the ISO until the shutter speed it falls into that range (raise the ISO, keep the aperture the same, and this should result in the camera selecting a faster shutter speed setting).

Focus on your subject using the focus mode of your choice, and take the photo.  Preferably, use single point focus mode and select the focus point you want, so that you have complete control over where the camera focuses.  If the subject is a person or animal, focus on the eyes or eyebrows.  If it is something else, focus on what you want to be sharpest in the photo.

A good book to read to continue learning about this is Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson (Third Edition).  Click on the link to see it on Amazon.  It is geared towards photographers just learning about apertures, shutter speeds, and ISO, and helps to explain the concepts better than most other guides.

Let me know how the photos come out! Note in the first photo above that dramatic depth of field can be used to make the foreground blurry as well, not just the background.

Continue reading Mastering Depth of Field.

Mastering Depth of Field

(for a related post, see Depth of Field Simplified)

I recently came across an excellent website regarding depth of field (dof), including a handy online calculator for determining dof based on the focal length of the lens, the aperture, and distance from the subject. It even takes into account different sensor sizes, including the APS-C size sensor of the Canon 7D. You can also view and print dof tables as well as create, print, and assemble a field dof calculator based on focal lengths of your choosing. And if you have an iPhone, there is an app for that!  Have a look at the DOFMaster depth of field app.


Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala – 200mm, f/4, subject distance 2.7m
One figurine in focus, surrounding figurines dramatically out of focus – achieved by standing close, zooming way in and choosing wide aperture

Why is this all important? Well first, if you aren’t familiar with what depth of field is, it is the range of distances in which the objects in the photograph will be acceptably sharp. For example, if I am using a 100mm lens, set my aperture at f/5.6, and focus on a subject 10 feet away, everything from 9.69′ to 10.3′ away from me will be acceptably sharp or in focus in the resulting image. If none of this is clear to you, or only partially understood, then go out and read Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure first, and then come back to rejoin us. It is a bit complicated and difficult at first, but if explained properly – as he will do better than I could – it will soon click. Also, I have posted a simplified explanation and quick and easy lesson for using dramatic depth of field here.

So, according to George Schaub in Using Your Digital Camera (I have no idea who this is, but borrowed the quote from the above website) “(Depth of field) is one of the most creative and profound effects available to photographers.” I absolutely agree with this. My photography improved 2000%, virtually overnight, when I understood and began to use the creative and visual power of dof. And this is why I shoot on Aperture Priority Mode (Av) 98.5% of the time.

I don’t want to go into the technical aspects of dof, and it can get extremely technical, but I will touch on some of the practical aspects of it. The ability to control dof is one of the many advantages of a digital SLR vs. a digital compact camera. Due to the small focal length, small sensor, and limited aperture sizes, a compact can typically not create the dramatic dof available to a dSLR user. And if one has a super-zoom type camera that will allow better use of dof, the controls to utilize it may be more cumbersome that with a dSLR.


Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala – 200mm, f/4, subject distance 7.4m (image cropped)
Man in focus, surrounding people slightly out of focus – achieved by being a few dozen feet away, zooming all the way in with 200mm, wide aperture

So why does one utilize dof? One reason is to better call attention to, or even isolate the intended subject of your photograph. When looking at an image, the eye tends to first go to what is sharply in focus as well as to what is lighter. If it is a busy scene with lots of possible subjects, the eye wanders aimlessly around all parts of the photo, and won’t necessarily focus on the subject you intended them to look at. By placing your intended subject in sharp focus, and the background and other elements out of focus to a lesser or greater degree, the viewer zeros in on what you intended them to. It can also be used to create various relationships between your subject and their environment or between your subject and other subjects in the frame. For example, a person who is your subject could be in sharp focus, while the background or elements around them are very much out of focus. This visually draws the subject out and leads the viewer to see this person as the sole subject of the photo. However, if the background or surrounding elements were just slightly out of focus, the viewer then sees the person as well as their surroundings, and starts to consider the relationships between them. By manipulating dof, you can work towards suggesting, defining and creating these types of relationships in your compositions.


San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala – 97mm, f/4, subject distance 3.3m
Girl in focus, boy and background environment (their home) slightly out of focus – achieved by standing a dozen feet away or so, zooming in to 97mm, wide aperture

And why does one need the dof calculators? Since dof varies so widely depending on the lens being used, the distance to the subject, and the aperture, it is difficult to know precisely what distance range is going to be in focus. One can use the dof preview button on the camera, but it is often difficult to determine through the viewfinder what the dof will be. So with the dof calculator, you can plug in various numbers and learn how a certain lens is going to act in a particular situation. Then, by using your lenses often, and experimenting with various apertures and various camera-to-subject distances, one can begin to get an intuitive feel for how each lens works, and how dramatically different a 16mm at f/4 aperture is from a 200mm at f/4 aperture. And when you are in a situation that allows it, you can pull out your iPhone or your field calculator, and determine a precise dof in advance.


Antigua, Guatemala – 127mm, f/5, subject distance 5.3m
Woman in focus, statue on distant church facade out of focus yet recognizable – achieved by standing a few dozen feet away, zooming in to 127mm, wide but not widest aperture

I like using a very wide aperture (like f/4 or f/5.6) to create very shallow, dramatic dof in many of my images. However, I typically don’t want it to be so shallow that a person’s nose is in focus and their ear is out of focus (though this is a dramatic and sometimes desired portrait “trick”). Also, when photographing action, such as dance, I want a little leeway so that if I focus on a hat instead of a face, or if the person moves forward a bit, there is a enough dof that their face will still be in focus. And this is why I originally began to search for depth of field tables, so I could better understand how my lenses were going to respond in certain situations.

Now, as a little, technical side note, I was always taught in school to be aware of the 1/3 – 2/3 rule which says that 1/3 of the in-focus area will be in front of the spot where you focus, and 2/3 will be behind it. So if you were standing at the front of a row of people, and turned back around to look down the line and take a photo, and focused on the 8th guy in line, this rule says that perhaps (due to your particular lens/ aperture/ distance choice) one person in front of him will be in focus too, and 2 people behind him will be. It turns out, this really isn’t accurate at all. Most often it is closer to 1/2 the distance in front of the focus spot and 1/2 behind it. I have no idea why they taught us 1/3 – 2/3.