the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “Depth-of-field



PHOTOGRAPHS ARE NEGOTIATIONS between primary, secondary, and even tertiary levels of information, and how they will be arranged in a frame. You either feature or mute that information in order to direct attention to the primary story you’re trying to tell. The simplest example of this process is the selective focus engineered into many shots, with important details being rendered in sharpness while the rest of the competing data goes soft to help isolate the main message of the picture. In its simplest application this means a clearly focused foreground and a blurred background.

The blur used to be the eye’s clue that the information in that part of the picture was not a priority. Thinking in terms of portraits, for example, your subject is clearly defined, with the space  behind it dulled or diminished. You make that choice by selecting your depth of field and shoot accordingly. However, recent trends in the making of a photograph have elevated the status of the blurs themselves to something that needs to be chosen, or shaped for artistic purposes. In other words, the part of an image that is inherently unimportant, by virtue of being out of focus, is now a source of attention as to what kind of blur is being created. This formerly fussy concept of bokeh is popping up in more and more advertising copy for the sale of lenses. A given piece of glass is now touted as having great bokeh, which somehow makes it more desirable than some other piece of glass.

I love the way this zoom focuses on foreground objects; its background textures, not so much.

Bokeh is really nothing more than the quality of the shapes that occur when a particular lens breaks up light in its non-focused areas. Some people use the terms “buttery” or “geometric” or “dreamy” to describe the work of a given optic, and some lenses are actually marketed based on how this texture is rendered. I can only speak to this fascination from my own viewpoint, and so you have to plug in your own approach to photography, and whether the non-essential part of a picture is now, strangely, important to you.…important enough to influence your purchase of one hunk of gear over another. I admit that some bokeh acts as a beautiful backdrop to a foreground subject, but I also contend that, as seen in the above image, some lenses can actually render it in a way that is distracting, even irritating. However, whether I admire the swirls and ellipses of some forms of bokeh, I don’t see it as anywhere near as important as what I’m trying to feature in front of it. If all things in a frame are of equal importance, why not just shoot everything at f/11 and make sure it’s all recorded at the same sharpness?

I think that, in photography, as in many other art forms, we can become fascinated with effects rather than substance, and that, if you don’t know what you’re trying to get a picture to say, you can become more interested in how cool something looks instead of what a picture’s narrative is supposed to be. Bokeh can be lovely, but giving it too much prominence is a little like sitting in a theatre and intensely watching what the third Roman to the left is doing with his toga while Marc Antony is at center stage delivering his big speech. Things in a good picture must be arranged in a hierarchy, some priority of intentions, in order to communicate effectively. And if I have my choice between a bird and a blur, I will unapologetically choose the bird every time.





PHOTOGRAPHY IS GUILTY OF MANY AN UNTRUTH, simply by the very nature of how it mimics reality. And chief among these falsehoods is its assertion that it’s reproducing depth as well as length and breadth, that you’re not only looking at a photograph but into it as well. Compositional tricks employed to sell this illusion are as old as the medium itself, many employing the technique familiarly known as leading lines.

The phrase is practically an explanation in itself: two or more lines of some kind seem to originate near the foreword edge of the picture and trail inward, receding toward the “back” of the frame, usually toward a horizon line of infinity, at a point at which the lines seem to converge, like train tracks that grow closer as they fade into the distance. Leading lines can take the form of a spiral staircase, a winding stream, or some similar invitation for your eye to “buy into” the idea that the flat image is actually “deep”.

As surefire as leading lines can be, it’s also fun to experiment with other ways to convey the illusion of depth. The image seen here uses no obvious leading lines, and yet it achieves a reasonable effect of dimensionality. Several things can help “sell” the trick.

First and easiest is the choice of a 24mm lens. This optic qualifies as an “ultra-wide” and will always exaggerate the distance from front to back. Then there’s the detailed texture of rock and sand, whose particles shrink in size as the tide pool recedes toward the sea, and just as our mind knows it would in nature. As to focus, setting at infinity helps the eye look deeper into the shot, whereas just shooting only the family in sharpness might stop the audience at a shallower viewing point. Finally, the placing of the family at center and at the mid-point of the front-to-back distance means you have to “look into” the shot fairly deeply just to engage them, at which point your brain has already been dragged halfway to the rear of the shot.

And this is only one very elementary example of how you can effect the depth of a leading line image without….the leading lines. In some ways, photographic compositions are much like musical ones: both require orchestration and a willful conductor.




A Sovietera Helios 44M.

THE EXCLUSIVITY AND ONEUPMANSHIP which used to divide photographers into warring camps over lenses (it must be primes!) or cameras (I myself have always been a Leica man!) has met its match in yet another pompous arena of dubious distinction.

I’m speaking of the trendy and tawdry world of blur snobs.

You remember blur, right? All that stuff in your pictures that isn’t, you know, sharp? You wanted some of it in there to set your focused subject apart or pop it forward, so you set your depth of field appropriately. So we’re done now, right?

Wrong. Because you might not have the cool kind of blur in your pictures. Cool blur is called “bokeh”, because we said so, and its various swirls, refractions and currents means you must now master blur the way you once sought to master focus. The thing you once regarded as mere negative space is now incredibly artistic negative space. Or you’d better spend money until it is.

The world’s bokeh bullies eventually started to aggressively market glass guaranteed to deliver lots of it, for lots of dollars. The cool-blur movement revived interest in the 19th-century Petzval lenses, great, fast optics for portraits which, as a by-product of their slightly flawed design, delivered big-time swirly blur. Thing is, engineering new lenses to do that one “wrong”  thing on purpose meant coughing up an astounding amount of scratch for a lens that is, essentially, a one trick pony. Repeat after me, children: hipness is never cheap.

Turns out that, instead of popping for anywhere from two to six hundred peppers for “cool insurance”, you can get the same effect from a lens that’s so globally plentiful that it can be had for under $35.00. Enter the humble Helios.

The Helios‘ “swirlybokeh.

Helios lenses were among the most highly produced lenses in Soviet history, marching out of USSR factories pretty much non-stop from 1958 to 1992. They were based on several different Carl Zeiss Biotar designs, and, while mostly used on Russian SLRs, were also built for select Pentax models. One of the most popular, the 44M, seen here, was the kit lens for generations of cameras, shooting fully manual as a 58mm prime.

Shooting the Helio wide open at f/2, and with a decent separation between foreground and textured backgrounds, you’ll get a bokeh that looks like a gazillion little circles that spray into a swirl as they move toward the edge of the frame. As the rose image attests, it does look very nice, just not $600 worth of nice. You also need the patience of a brain surgeon to get used to nailing the focus. That and consistent access to large depositories of Crown Royal. But I digress.

Helios lenses are perfectly serviceable glass for general purposes, although they are a little soft at the open end. The Russian Federation, which, if you haven’t heard, is a little cash-strapped these days, is sitting on millions of these puppies, so prices are low, lenses can be easily adapted to most camera brands (mine came battle-ready for Nikon), and shipping is often free. For between 35 and 50 bucks, they’re an occasional guilty pleasure. On the other hand, hocking your houseboat or delaying heart surgery for the new toys marketed by the blur snobs to do the same thing is both needless and nuts.



Next Will Be The Soup Course (2016). 1/ sec., f/8, ISO 24mm.

Next Will Be The Soup Course (2016). 1/60 sec., f/8, ISO 400, 24mm.


ASK THE AVERAGE PERSON FOR A BRIEF COMPARISON BETWEEN PHOTOGRAPHY AND PAINTING, and you may hear the assertion that, ‘well, photographs are real..”, a statement that reveals the fundamental flaw in our thinking about photographs from their earliest beginnings. Simply because a camera measures and records light (perhaps also because it’s a machine), we’ve come to regard its end product as a literal representation of the world. But no serious examination of what artists have done with the photographic image will support that idea. Photographs are no more real than daubs of pigment, and no more reliable in their testimony.

Photographers twist and torture light and shadow to present their version of the world, not its literal translation. If they worked with top hats and wands instead of Leicas, their audiences would accept, with a wink. that a live rabbit was not actually produced out of the hat’s crown, but was, in fact, a feat of misdirection, of persuasion. The camera, on the other hand,  gets far more credit for being faithful to the real world than it deserves. As the old saying goes, a photograph is a lie that tells the truth.

Making any kind of image, the photographer has any number of simple techniques available to him to make the inaccurate seem real, most of it achieved in-camera. Take, for example, the attempt, in the above photo, to create as great a sense of depth as is possible in a flat image. First, the use of a wide 24mm lens will optically exaggerate the distance between the front and back of the scene, nearly doubling the sense of space versus that of the actual room. On top of that, the image is composed with the most severe diagonal possible to pull the eye into its already over-accented dimensions.

As a final touch, the shot is taken at the smallest aperture practicable in the available light, insuring uniform sharpness as the eye looks “into” the scene. The result is a three-decker compound illusion……fairly removed from “reality” and yet suggesting itself to it, much as the rabbit seems to have emerged from the hat. Indeed, with the creative manipulation of the photographic process, you might not need, in terms of reality, either the hat or the rabbit to perform your “trick”. But you can certainly show them both in the shot.



Horseshoe Bay, BC. The standard "post-card" scenic viewpoint.

Horseshoe Bay, BC. The standard “post-card” scenic viewpoint.


COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHY, FOR MANY OF US, CAN OFTEN INVOLVE NOTHING MORE than finding a thing we want to capture and getting it all in the frame. Click and done. It’s only later that we sometimes realize that we should have, shall we say, shopped around for the best way, from angle to exposure, to get our quarry in frame. Or even look for a better frame.

The same scene as viewed from a shop window, cropped to classic "View-Master" format.

The same scene as viewed from a shop window, cropped to classic “View-Master” format.

One of the first tricks I learned in travel photography was from the old scenic shooters who created the travel titles for View-Master Reels, who always thought in terms of framing to maximize the image’s 3-d effect. For a start, since they were working in square format, they automatically had less real estate in which to compose. Secondly, they had to shoot in “layers”, since the idea was to have subject matter in multiple planes, for example, overhanging shade tree right at the front, a tourist midway into the shot, and Mount Rushmore at the back. They also learned to position things just inside the frame’s edge, what was called the “stereo window” to accentuate the sensation of looking into the photograph.

Thing is, all of these compositional techniques work exactly the same in a flat image, and can draw the viewer’s eye deeper into a picture, if used creatively. Certainly you can’t go wrong with a great exposure of a beautiful view. But experiment as well with things that force your audience to peer intently into that view. The image at the top is standard post-card, and works well enough. However, in the shot at left, in taking ten seconds to slip inside a gift shop that also looks out on the same view, I’ve tried to show how you can get an atmospheric framing that both accentuates depth and provides a bit more of a sense of destination. It all depends on what you’re looking to do, of course….but it makes sense to develop the habit of asking yourself how many different ways are available to tell the same story.

Editing a solid portfolio of shots can only begin with lots of choices. Hey, you’re there, anyway, so develop the habit of envisioning multiple versions of each picture, and weed out what doesn’t work. Remember again that the only picture that absolutely fails is the one you didn’t try to make.




THE MEANING OF THE WORD NOISE HAS, IN RECENT YEARS, been expanded beyond its familiar role as an audio term, extending its usage into our visual vocabulary as well. A key shift in photo terminology, as film converted to digital, has been the re-purposing of  the word to denote a degradation in quality, with noise replacing grain as the way to describe a less-than-pristine image. Same idea, different wording.

And now, in recent years, I  have heard the word used even more widely to denote weaknesses in a composition, describing a picture with too much information or distraction as “noisy”. In a recent post on the blog, you find the following citation:

Often a photo will lack impact because the main subject is so small it becomes lost among the clutter of its surroundings. By cropping tight around the subject you eliminate the background “noise”, ensuring the subject gets the viewer’s undivided attention.

I personally would extend this metaphor to include not only the subject matter within a frame but its color range as well. That means, simply, that too many colors in an image might dilute the effect of a shot as much as the density of its elements, and extends the idea of noise to encompass anything that lessens the communicative power it has for the viewer.

Deflowered (2016).

Deflowered (2016). 1/50 sec., f/4, ISO 100, 35mm.

In the above shot, the idea of the composition was to convey the bits of orange peel as some kind of spent or withered flower. I didn’t decide, in advance, to eat an orange in a yellow bowl, but I believe that the same peels in a red bowl might have hardened the look of the shot by calling attention to contrast instead of content. Keeping the entire composition to a two-tone color range (along with a decidedly shallow depth-of-field to reduce the texture detail) rendered it nice and soft. Of course there are a million ways to conceive this image; I just chose this way.

Noise is not merely a technical registration of visual or audio distortion. I think the word has real value if you’re looking to streamline your images. Just think noise=clutter.

Then turn down the volume.


How soft is too soft? 1/30 sec., F/4, ISO 400,

How soft is too soft? Shot with a Lensbaby Sweet 35 optic at 1/30 sec., F/4, ISO 400, 35mm.


WINDOW TO THE SOUL: that’s the romantic concept of the human eye, both in establishing our emotional bonds with each other and, in photography, revealing something profound in portraiture. The concept is so strong that it is one of the only direct links between painting (the way the world used to record emotional phenomena) and photography, which has either imitated or augmented that art for two full centuries. Lock onto the eyes, we say, and you’ve nailed the essence of the person.

So let’s do a simple comparison experiment. In recent years, I’ve begun to experiment more and more with selective-focus optics such as the Lensbaby family of art lenses. Lensbabies are unabashedly “flawed” in that they are not designed to deliver uniform focus, but, in fact, use the same aberrations that we used to design out of lenses to isolate some subjects in intensely sharp areas ( so-called “sweet spots”) surrounded by gradually increasing softness.

As a great additional feature, this softness can even occur in the same focal plane as a sharply rendered object. That means that object “A”, five feet away from the camera, can be quite blurry, while object “B”, located just inches to the side of “A”, and also five feet from the camera, can register with near-perfect focus. Thus, Lensbaby lenses don’t record “reality”: they interpret mood, creating supremely subjective and personal “reads” on what kind of reality you prefer.

Exact same settings as the prior example, but with a slightly tighter focus of the Lensbaby's central "sweep spot".

Exact same settings as the prior example, but with a slightly tighter focus of the Lensbaby’s central “sweep spot”.

Art lenses can accentuate what we already know about faces, and specifically, eyes…that is, that they remain vital to the conveyance of the personality in a portrait. In the first sample, Marian’s entire face takes on the general softness of the entire frame, which is taken with a Lensbaby Sweet 35 lens at f/4 but is not sharply focused in the central sweet spot. In the second sample, under the same exposure conditions, there is a conscious effort to sharpen the center of her face, then feather toward softness as you radiate out from there.

The first exposure is big on mood, with Marian serving as just another “still life” object, but it may not succeed as a portrait. The second shot uses ambient softness to keep the overall intimacy of the image, but her face still acts as a very definite anchor. You “experience” the picture first in her features, and then move to the data that is of, let’s say, a lower priority.

Focus is negotiated in many different ways within a photograph, and there is no empirically correct approach to it. However, in portrait work, it’s hard to deny that the eyes have it, whatever “it” may be.

Windows to the soul?

More like main clue to the mystery.



THERE ARE MANY VALUABLE SERVICES OUR CAMERAS WILL RENDER without our consent or participation. Without even considering how many people shoot on full automatic 100% of the time, there are a hundred small calculations that these marvelous devices make to prevent the kind of errors in judgment that used to routinely trip us up, from autofocus and white balance, face detection and contrast control. However, there is a variable percentage of decisions on which we should really take personal action, despite the camera’s best efforts to, in effect, save us from ourselves.

In iffy light situations, for example, several key “semi-auto” modes are truly handy in helping us compensate for grey days or dark corners. One of these is called aperture control, in which you dial in the f-stop you want, based on your preferred depth of field, leaving the camera to set the shutter speed needed to properly expose at that aperture. At first blush, this seems to be a great short cut, and is in fact a neat option for people who are “running and gunning”..shooting lots of frames in a very quick time span. However, what looks like cutting your work in half can also mean cutting the legs off your creativity.

Aperture priority would have worked too hard to make this exposure "balanced", which was the opposite of what I wanted.

Aperture priority would have worked too hard to make this exposure “balanced”, which was the opposite of what I wanted.

In the above situation, I had a severely overcast day in a lushly green Japanese garden. Without shadows for contrast, I would need colors to be as deep as possible to bring off the mood I was going for, so a slightly underexposed look seemed to be in order. Dialing in f/5.6 as a desired D.O.F. in aperture priority was giving me very slow shutter speeds as the camera tried to give me an ideal exposure. This made a handheld shot a little tougher and gave me way too much high color to suggest anything quiet or moody.

Going to full manual, I dialed in a shutter speed that would render the greens nice and deep, around 1/80, and bumped up the ISO a tad as insurance. It was true that I was shooting a lot at the same f-stop, but not so fast that I would have to surrender fine control by shooting in aperture priority for mere convenience’s sake.

I love some of the protections against my own folly offered by today’s devices, but I just can’t go completely driver-less and feel that I am taking enough responsibility for my results. Hey, if I blow it completely, I can still explain a lousy shot in two simple words.

“…stupid camera…”




PHOTOGRAPHY IS OFTEN A GAME OF INCHES, a struggle in which outcomes vary wildly based on small, rather than large issues. Early photographers learned this the hard way, since their limited gear forced them to innovate composition and exposure with tiny tweaks that slowly but gradually added more refined skill to their work and better performance from their equipment. Ernest Haas’ great quote that a wide-angle lens is just as close as taking three steps backward still holds true. What has changed is that we have a greater tendency to think that we need more tech to make better pictures. That concept, simply, is poppycock.

For years, the option of a zoom lens was out of the question for the average photographer. The consumer-level zooms that existed were often optically inferior to standard or wide-angle glass (as testified to by Annie Leibowitz and other heavyweights), and so composition was acquired by physically closing or widening the actual distance between yourself and your subject. This is not to say that zooms didn’t eventually prove amazing tools, because they have. However, they demonstrate and instance in which tech has automated, and thus eliminated, an extra step of mindful concentration that used to reside solely in the photographer’s brain. This can lead, over time to an over-reliance on the gear to bring everything home, something it cannot ever do.

Learning to simply maximize the effect of whatever you have up front of the shutter is the easiest, and yet most overlooked aspect of many people’s work. We’d spend a lot less time lugging and swapping lenses if we knew how far we could push whatever we’ve got attached at the moment, and, indeed, masters like Scott Kelby, author of the best-selling Digital Photography Book series, has several “why change lenses? hunks of glass like the 18-200mm that can get him through an entire day without a swap. This works because he works a little harder at exploiting everything his gear can do.

Wide-angle lenses deliver a variety of effects beyond just width.

Wide-angle lenses deliver a variety of effects beyond just width.

Consider the above image. It’s taken at 18mm, but, because I arched the shot upwards, instead of maintaining a level horizon line, I forced the lens to do a little more of what it was originally designed to do….exaggerate dimensions and distances. The development of wide-angle lenses was, after all, pursued by shooters who wanted an enhancement, an interpretation, and not a recording, of reality. As such, the wide-angle in this shot over-accentuates the most prominent feature of this room within the old U.S. Customs building in Manhattan…its amazing murals. It also creates an illusion of vastness, front-to-back, in a room that is already pretty huge. And this is all done by pivoting my head upward about 30 degrees.

The game of inches is the great equalizer in photography between pro and amateur, because it gives the advantage to those who plan the best, see the most, and think the widest. And you don’t need a closet full of geegaws to do that.




THE PICTORIAL POTENTIAL OF SOME EVENTS, PHOTOGRAPHICALLY, TURNS OUT SOMEWHAT LESS MIRACULOUS THAN ADVERTISED. That is to say, a few of the things that you assume will certainly yield stunning image opportunities come off, in reality, with the majesty of, well, a flea circus. Sometimes, you think you’ll come home with the Seven Wonders Of The World inside your camera. Other times, you have to fight a strong urge to give up all this “pitcher-takin'” nonsense and take up honest work, like bank robbing, where you can at least set your own hours.

We’ve all been there.

Fairs, festivals, commemorations, parades…..these are all happenings which are ripe with potential, for which we have all camped out on the perimeter of what we hope and pray will be the Next Big Thing, only to come home with crumbs. Leavings. And the best thing to do when an event becomes a near-miss is to seek out what I call the “near saves”. That is, when the story at a given event is disappointingly small, go smaller….toward the intimate detail, the human component, the pertinent bit of texture or atmosphere. The overall panorama may fail, but a single face, a structural element, a series of shadows may deliver where the overall scene fails.

"Went To See The Gypsy..." 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

“Went To See The Gypsy…” 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

The above image happened almost by accident. Around early sunset, I rushed into an over-hyped cultural festival which failed to achieve full wonderfullness (trust me), and, hours after sunset, I was leaving in defeat, when, near the exit, I spotted a genuine, weirdo-beardo-freak-yourself-out gypsy fortune-telling machine, right out of Tom Hanks’ Big, wonderfully lit by ambient neon on the midway and the device’s own built-in “spook light”. The deepening dark of night was suddenly my best friend, boosting the mystery with oodles of deep shadow. With a 35mm prime lens, I could open clear up to f/1.8, keeping my ISO low at 100 and allowing me to get plenty of light at 1/40 of a second. I was amazed that I had walked right past this treasure when I entered the festival, but I was grateful for a second chance. Snap and done.

Thus,my best shots from the night were of anything but the main “attractions” of the event. Going small meant going beyond the obvious, the difference between a near miss and a near save.

The difference.


Child's bedroom, Rosson House Museum, Phoenix, AZ. 1/80 sec., f/3.8, ISO 640, 22mm.

Child’s bedroom, Rosson House Museum, Phoenix, AZ. 1/80 sec., f/3.8, ISO 640, 22mm.


THE ULTIMATE ADAGE ABOUT OLD HOUSES, I.E.,”THEY SURE DON’T MAKE ‘EM LIKE THIS ANYMORE“, is a sentiment which will haunt the casual photographer at every turn inside an historic home. No, they don’t make them anything like this anymore, especially when it comes to the size of rooms, angles of design, decorative materials, or light flow, and so shooting an antique residence requires a little re-fitting of the brain to insure that you come home with something that you can, you know, bear to look at.

Another cliché that comes to mind, this one about size: “the kitchen was so small, you had to go outside to chew.” Again, it can’t become a cliché unless it’s partially true, and it does apply to many of the rooms in pre-1950’s houses. People were shorter. The concept of personal space, especially in an urban setting, seems claustrophobic to us today. That makes for photos that will also look cramped and tight, so shoot with as wide a  lens as you can. This is the place for that 18-55mm kit lens you got with your camera, since it will slightly exaggerate the side-to-side and front-to-back distances within the smaller rooms. It will also allow you to get more in the frame when composing at shorter distances, which, on velvet rope tours, can be reduced to inches.

Multiple source of light can make things tricky. 1/40 sec., f/3.5, ISO 800, 18mm.

Multiple sources of light can make things tricky. 1/40 sec., f/3.5, ISO 800, 18mm.

One crucial thing to be mindful of is that 90% of the light you get on old house tours will be window light. Highlights will almost certainly be blown out on things like sheer drapes, but you need all the light you can get, since it’s a cinch that flash will be prohibited and the interior wood trims, floors and furnishings will likely be very dark in themselves, acting as light blotters. Learn to live with the extreme contrasts and resulting shadowy areas. Expose for the most important elements in a room. You cannot show everything to perfect advantage. In some interior rooms in older homes, you don’t have a shot at all, unless you ditch the rest of the tour group and have about twenty minutes to yourself to set things up. Unlikely.

A wide-angle lens helps to open up shallow spaces. 1/50 sec., f/3.5, ISO 800, 18mm.

A wide-angle lens helps to open up shallow spaces with an enhanced sensation of depth. 1/50 sec., f/3.5, ISO 800, 18mm.

If you are shooting with a wide-angle, you may not be able to go any further open on aperture than about f/3.5. This means either working rock-solid handheld or cranking up the old ISO. If you do the latter, don’t go back later with an editor and try to rescue the darker areas: you will just show the smudgy noise that you allowed with the higher ISO, so, unless you like the warm look of black mayonnaise, resist.

Again, if shooting wide, remember that you can also zoom in tight enough to isolate clusters of items in charming still life arrangements with basically no effort on your part. Hey, an expert has already been paid to professionally build your composition for you with period bric-a-brac, so it’s easy pickings, right?

Admittedly, shooting in an old house can be like trying to conduct a prize fight inside a shoe box.

Or it can be like coming home.



OFTEN, THERE ARE ONLY SCANT MOMENTS TO DETERMINE HOW TO “USE” PEOPLE IN YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS. The decision as to how prominently a person figures in the overall scheme of a given image is frequently made on the fly, and your result will reflect whether that person is an element of the picture or a select feature.

Of course, you can wind up with wonderful photos either way, which is one of the most attractive aspects of picture making. This is all multiple choice, and there is no wrong answer. Also, if the answer was right for you, chances are that it will be so judged by others. Your conviction carries the picture to its desired audience, if you will.

This October, I fell into a virtual pot of gold on a trip to visit friends in rural New Mexico, since the entire countryside was awash in a gilded flood of yellow with the turn of the leaves. You could literally point the camera at a trash can, and, if it was next to a cottonwood tree, the thing became a palace. As a  midwestern kid who has spent nearly fifteen years in the Arizona desert, I was long overdue for the richness of the autumnal palette, and I got a little drunk on it all. I wanted to immortalize every tree, shooting generally at small apertures to get as much sharp detail as possible.

1/80 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

1/80 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

That’s what I was doing in the side yard of a roadside gallery when my wife Marian wandered outside for a brief walk, so the first few frames I shot showed her and the background in about the same focus. Just for variety, I re-focused on mostly her at f/5.6, slightly softening the foliage beyond so it wouldn’t fight with her for the viewer’s attention. In that one frame, she morphed from element to feature, and all that color was put at her service, so to speak. As an afterthought, I made a dupe of the image, lightened it by about a third, then blended the two in Photomatix, since HDR processing also accentuates detail, giving me an even sharper contrast between her sharpness and the softer background. It wasn’t a big bump, processing-wise, just the bow on the box.

Experimental “light field” cameras, once perfected, may make such planning moot, since images taken with this very different technology allows the photographer to redo the depth of field on an image after it has been taken. For now, however, it’s a decision of the moment.

Again, part of the fun.


Wreck Of The Old '87. Wreck is right. 1/80 sec., variable depth of field created with a Lensbaby attachment, ISO jacked to 640, 35mm.

“Wreck Of The Old ’87”. Wreck is right. 1/80 sec., variable depth of field created with a Lensbaby attachment, ISO jacked to 640, 35mm.


WHEN SORTING MY IMAGES INTO KEEPERS AND CLUNKERS, I ALWAYS SUFFER THE SAME BIAS. Whereas some people might be too eager to find reasons why a picture should be inducted into the former group, I nearly always search for reasons to toss them into the latter one. I always know right away what I’ve failed to achieve in a given frame, and its flaws glow like safety orange in my brain to the point where I not only can’t credit myself for the photo’s stronger elements, I can no longer even see them. I therefore consign many pictures to the rubbish heap, a few of them prematurely.

Usually, however my first call is the right one. I very seldom revisit a picture I initially disliked and find something to redeem it. So it was kind of headline news when I recently “saved” a photo I had originally (and wisely) savaged. Hell, I’m still ambivalent, at best, about it, but I can’t truly classify it as an outright Lost Child anymore.

It came from a random day of practice I had undertaken with a Lensbaby, one of those effects lenses designed to give you the ability to manually throw parts of your image out of sharp focus, in fact to rotate around and create various “sweet spots” of sharpness wherever you want to. I don’t use the thing a lot, since it seems, on some level, damned silly to put defects into your pictures on purpose just to convince yourself you are, ahem, an artiste. But, all work and no play, etc. etc., so I was clicking away inside a dimly lit building at a railway museum in which a huge layout of miniature train dioramas is a regular attraction. I seemed to be going out of my way to create a picture that would normally be “three strikes and you’re out”…..that is:

poorly lit, and loving it

poorly focused, otherwise known as, sure, I meant to do that,  and

a half-baked attempt to make something fake appear real.

Only one of the shots sparked my interest at all, purely because it seemed to contain a sort of… mystery. So many dark corners. So many unexplained details. A very disorienting, dreamlike quality that had to have jumped into the camera without any help from me. It looked both hyper-real and utterly false, simultaneously fearsome and fascinating. Again, this all happened in spite of, not because of, any action on my part. I added no post-processing to the shot, except to desaturate it and slather on a layer of sepia. Other than that, I left it in its original sloppy, random state.

And then I decided it was still junk and forgot about it for a few months.

Just why I have, in recent days, tried to rehabilitate my thinking about it is anyone’s guess. Like I sad at the top, I look for reasons to reject my work, not excuse it. This has little to do with modesty. It’s just an admission that control is so much a part of my make-up that I recoil from images where I seem to have absolutely relinquished that control. They scare me a little.

But they thrill me a little too. And, as Vonnegut says, so it goes.

Perhaps the best thing is to maintain the Keepers and Clunkers piles, but add a third, labeled “Not Really Sure”.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.


Selective focus can help direct your viewer's eye. Taken with a Lensbaby Spark lens at 1/80 sec., f/5.6, ISO 320, 50mm.

Selective focus can help direct your viewer’s eye. Taken with a Lensbaby Spark lens at 1/80 sec., f/5.6, ISO 320, 50mm.


A LONG STANDING BIT ON THE DAVID LETTERMAN SHOW, rather than claiming to be entertaining, actually poses the question of what entertainment actually is. Entitled “Is This Anything?”, the feature consists of about thirty seconds of acts or feats that might be amazing (like juggling), might be banal (like, um, juggling) or might qualify as merely strange. After the curtain is drawn, Dave and Paul briefly discuss the merits of what ever strangeness just transpired, and ask each other if “that was anything”. Sometimes there is no clear-cut decision. The show has disclaimed responsibility, and entertainment remains in the eye of the beholder.

That’s how you can feel the first time you use a Lensbaby.

Released several years ago to inventor Craig Strong’s great monetary benefit, the Lensbaby comes in a variety of

DIY-style bokeh, courtesy of Lensbaby.

levels but is essentially an affordable tilt-shift attachment, a way to soften focus over selective areas of the frame while rotating the “sweet spot” of sharper focus wherever the shooter feels it should go. Now, essentially, selective focus is really part of every photo ever taken, since a choice of depth-of-field is made every time the shutter snaps. Lensbaby, however, offers the chance to pre-design the precise level of left-right, high-low focus, in the camera, and before the shot is taken. No post-processing is needed, and each use of the effect is completely under the shooter’s control, and at a fraction of what dedicated DSLR lenses cost.The Lensbaby effect is understandably an attractive gimcrack for the instinctive subculture of lo-fi photography, they of the hipster nonchalance and light-leaking, fixed-focus plastic cameras. Hey, it looks freaky, random, edgy. But, like everything else in your kit bag, it’s either toy or tool. The verdict as to which it is comes out one picture at a time.

So far I am whelmed….not overwhelmed, not underwhelmed. For one thing, Lensbabies are a lot of extra work. The entry-level model, the Spark, is actually a lens within a springy plastic bellows. You have to hold your camera body, delegate fingers from both hands to rotate the axis of the front of the lens, squeeze the bellows to bring part of the frame into focus (the Spark’s “sweet spot”  is fixed at f/5.6), allocate another finger for the shutter, and click. At least you can’t carp about not having enough creative control. There’s more than enough of that, especially at first, to O.D. on. Your chosen area of focus can be held in place more easily with upgrade models (which also include additional optics and add-ons), but the Lensbaby is truly best for shoots where you have a lot of time to think, plan, and create….the very opposite of the “shoot from the hip” attitude embraced by the lomography crowd. You will take a lot of pictures that miss by inches, or fractions of inches.

Lensbaby Spark gives you the control of a custom lens for under $80.

Lensbaby Spark gives you some of the control of a custom lens for under $80.

What will move me from whelmed to overwhelmed will be finding those images where the Lensbaby effect actually aids my storytelling, yet does not define it, as in the lucky shot at the top of this post. The camera gadgets I eventually consign to the “toy” pile go there because they call too much attention to what they can do, not to what I can do using them. The”tools” pile contains the gear that is essential to my saying something in a distinctly different voice. Finally, the two piles are divvied up only after taking lots of pictures and asking a ton of questions (a few gimmicks, like fisheye, have spent time in both piles; hey, I’m not above just playing around).

I sympathize with Letterman’s dilemma when he ironically asks, “Is this anything?”  Selective focus is a way to install big neon pointers into your pictures, a more emphatic command to look over here. It’s also a way to amplify the drama of certain data or simplify cluttered compositions. I get it.

But it needs to be about much more than that. Or, more correctly, I have to help it.


Exif data.

About three inches away with stacked diopters equivalent to 7x magnification. Manual focus, 1/200 sec., f/4.5, ISO 100, 35mm.


EVER SINCE I FIRST READ STORIES ABOUT THE ARCH-VILLAIN BRAINIAC shrinking and stealing cities from the across the galaxy (studying them like miniature trophies) in Superman comicsI knew that I would someday embrace macro photography.

Well, given the insane costs of dedicated macro lenses, maybe embrace isn’t the right word. Maybe one arm around its shoulder. Or a friendly handshake. Or a gentle chat in which I say I really like you, macro, but I think we should see other people.

Let’s face it. You shouldn’t have to mortgage to determine how often you’re going to want to use your camera to, say, count the crumbs on an Oreo. Yes, once you can crank in close enough to see the flea on the back of the buffalo on the nickel, you may become hopelessly infatuated with the world of tiny. But to make that decision, you needn’t assume the financial humility of a monk. Dedicated macro lenses are a monster investment (a minimum of $300, all the way to over $1,000), to be weighed against how many other shooting situations you’re likely to find yourself in, and the economics of whatever special hunks of glass you’ll need to accomplish all those other tasks. If macro is truly “all” for you, then that sort of justifies the complex construction and sharp autofocusing of a separate lens. Brutal honesty disclaimer: there is no substitute for the performance of a high-end piece of precision optics.

BUT, not all of us make a lifelong study of the number of dimples on a bee’s knees, and that can make a huge investment in macro an iffy indulgence. I’m a big one for not buying major toys until they justify their use in my work. Thus, the only photographic commandment I unflinchingly live by is: don’t buy even one more extra feature than you will actually use. 

Two main alternative options have emerged to serve the needs of “occasional” macro shooters. One of these are extension tubes, the hollow cylinders that attach between your lens and your camera body, creating an artificially enhanced range of maximum magnification. Being the same size as actual lenses (albeit with no glass inside), they do add additional bulk and weight to your setup, and may result in a loss of light, as well as a shallower depth of field. Investment-wise, you are still in for over $100 for a decent pair of these, as the cheap ones aren’t worth winding toilet paper around. Given the tubes’ limitations, you may be looking at sticking the camera on a tripod to lengthen your exposures, or jacking up the ISO. Different strokes.

The other, far cheaper option, and one which gives you a taste of macro without surgically removing your wallet, involves magnifying diopters. They screw on like filters, come in sets of three for well under forty bucks, and can get you in on the ground floor of macro (or the little tiny things crawling on said floor).

Diopters come in magnifying strengths of +1, +3 , +4, and above, so you can use a single diopter, attach several in series, or assemble a bunch into a custom mix and affix that to the front of your lens. Even with a cluster of them attached, you’re adding little more than an inch of extra depth to your lens body, and they’re easy to detach and stash in a spare pocket, something that cannot be done as easily with extension tubes. If you’re an on-the-go, travel-light kind of guy/gal, this is worth a mention.

Not good enough for recording sub-atomic particles, but, hey...


Now, let’s not delude ourselves. You can’t use your lens’ autofocus with diopters, which means you’re on manual. This is a serious consideration if you prefer to shoot hand-held, since you will louse up more frames, what with your every quiver being magnified and playing hell with sharpness. As with extension tubes, you may want to whip out the tripod.

If you are a techie as well as an artiste, do a Sherlock Holmes on the interwebs for the exact science of which option will give you the most control and best results. I am far from the best source for this kind of exact wisdom, since, as stated above, I acquired a good deal of my scientific knowledge from Superman comics. That said, if you need a peer review on the properties of Kryptonite, I’m your boy.

My point here is that I can only vouch for what has worked for me……and that’s the entry-level diopters option. Why jump immediately to the big-boy toys when you can master the baby steps with a smaller outlay of green, then move up as your needs dictate? Seems logical that training wheels should precede entry in the Tour de France.

Doesn’t take a Brainiac.

(reach Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)



Repose. 1/250 sec., f/3.5, ISO 125, 35mm prime lens. 


CERTAIN INANIMATE OBJECTS INTERACT WITH THE LIVING TO SUCH A LARGE DEGREE, that, to me, they retain a certain store of energy

Just horsehair and wood, but it has an elegance all its own.

Just horsehair and wood, but it has an elegance all its own.

even when standing alone. Things that act in the “co-creation” of events or art somehow radiate the echo of the persons who touched them.

Musical instruments, for my mind’s eye, fairly glow with this force, and, as such, are irresistable as still life subjects, since, literally, there is still life emanating from them.

Staging the object just outside the reach of full light, the picture sort of sculpted itself.

Staging the object just outside the reach of full light helped  the violin sort of sculpt itself. 1/800 sec., f/2.5, ISO 100, 35mm prime lens. 

A while back I learned that my wife had, for years, held onto a violin once used for the instruction of one of her children. I was eager to examine and photograph it, not because it represented any kind of technical challenge, but because there were so many choices of things to look at in its contours and details. There are many “sites” along various parts of a violin where creation surges forth, and I was eager to see what my choices would look like. Also, given the golden color of the wood, I knew that one of our house’s “super windows”, which admit midday light that is soft and diffused, would lend a warmth to the violin that flash or constant lighting could never do.

Everything in the shoot was done with an f/1.8 35mm prime lens, which is fast enough to illuminate details in mixed light and allows for selectively shallow depth of field where I felt it was useful. Therefore I could shoot in full window light, or, as in the image on the left, pull the violin partly into shadow to force attention on select details.

Although in the topmost image I indulged the regular urge to “tell a story” with a few arbitrary

The delight is in the details.

The delight is in the details.

props, I was eventually more satisfied with close-ups around the body of the violin itself, and, in one case, on the bow. Sometimes you get more by going for less.

One thing is certain: some objects can be captured in a single frame, while others kind of tumble over in your mind, inviting you to revisit, re-imagine, or more widely apprehend everything they have to give the camera. In the case of musical instruments, I find myself returning to the scene of the crime again and again.

They are singing their songs to me, and perhaps over time, I quiet my mind enough to hear them.

And perhaps learn them.