Stretching Focus on Close-Ups

post-focus-1One of the challenges of close-up and macro work is that depth of field is very shallow. That can be good for backgrounds, but bad for the subject. But if you stop the lens down, the background can start to get distracting yet the subject still isn't as sharp throughout as you might like.

So I tried something completely different simply because the technology did not exist before. I can shoot with the lens set to a wide aperture so the background stays out of focus, yet I can get the subject all in focus! That is focus stacking, not new technology, but to make it work, my camera has something new in technology. It is pretty cool.

post-focus-3Last year, Panasonic introduced what was called "Post Focus" for a number of their Lumix cameras. What this did was to take a number of photos continuously while changing focus slightly between every shot. This allowed you to choose the "best focus" later, but what seemed most interesting to me was the potential for focus stacking.

Focus stacking takes multiple photos shot at different focus points and combines them so that all of the sharp parts show up in one photo. This allows deeper subjects to gain sharpness throughout even when depth of field is shallow. Many close-up and macro photographers have been doing this by manually changing focus as they shoot. Post Focus does this automatically.

My Lumix GX8 was capable of it with a firmware update. I did that update last fall, but never took the time to try out this technology until now.

It takes a little getting used to. You press the shutter and the camera takes over, changing focus as it goes, and you can see this on the Live View. Then you have to save the photos individually.

You can end up with a lot of photos. I put them into Lightroom and quickly weeded out the excess (photos that had little visible change), then adjusted the first image and synced those adjustments to all of the images.

Next, I sent the images to Photoshop from Lightroom, using Edit In with the Open as Layers in Photoshop command (select a group of photos, then right-click any one of them to see Edit In). There, I used Auto-Align and Auto-Blend (Stack) to merge all the images as one.

These photos are of manzanita flowers – manzanita is a California native plant that typically blooms about now. Below are two photos showing the original limited depth of field and then the final shot. There are a whole mess of photos in between the two "originals."

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Experience and Photography – What You Experience as You Photograph

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, Florida

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, Florida

I have been thinking a bit lately about how important experience is for me in how I photograph. I'm not talking about one's experience as a photographer. I'm talking about what one experiences as you photograph.

I recently rediscovered my copy of Great Photographic Essays from LIFE. I had had this book from years ago because I had always been impressed with LIFE magazine growing up. In reading through this book, and yes I was reading it not just looking at the pictures, it made me think how important experience, that is, how one experiences the world, was to my photography. For almost all of the photographers shown in this book, their experience of the world was what they were photographing, what they were sharing with the rest of the world. They were not concerned about creating fine art, about winning contests, about impressing other people, but about using their photography to communicate something that was special to them about the world they were experiencing. (This book has long been out of print, but you can find it used at low prices from AbeBooks.com or amazon.com).

This made me think how important this has always been to me. I think it probably had something to do with some of my college education that included learning photojournalism. Photojournalism really is about what is happening in the world around you, how you experience that, and how you translate that experience through your photography. This applies to all parts of our amazing world, not just the bold and dramatic.

Spring cherries in bloom, California

Spring cherries in bloom, California

When I think back at much of the work that I have done in the past, the things that really made me feel best about working as photographer, writer, and editor were the things that encouraged me to engage and experience the world in new ways. I've always loved learning new things about the world around us, especially in nature, and anything that I can do to better experience that world, to connect me better with that world, is something that I really enjoy. Plus I find it gives me my best photographs, both in terms of what satisfies me and what seem to connect well with others.

Now I know that not everybody is going to think of photography that way – that's OK. I am simply sharing one approach to photography, an approach that is important to me. Some people will see the world as place for raw material for them to deal with in their photographs as fine artists. That's fun for them. Some people just want to create interesting, beautiful photographs for the wall, or images to win contests, or to impress other people. If that's what turns you on about photography, good for you.

Native bee on San Diego sunflower (a small Southern California native flower)

Native bee on San Diego sunflower (a small Southern California native flower)

I'm not saying that I don't want to create interesting, beautiful images. What I am saying is that the experience of engaging the world through my photography is the starter for me. How I  then create my images, what I do with the craft of photography to better communicate through my images, to have better composition, to make sure that my technique is appropriate, is all about controlling my photography to better show off the world as I experience it.

I know that there are other photographers who feel the same way. I sometimes fear that this approach to photography is being lost by the overbearing influence of Facebook and social media on photography. Those places for photography tend to emphasize the ephemeral, the quick glance, the dramatic and colorful, resulting in mostly a quick, more cursory look at images.

I believe there is real value in sharing your experiences of the world through your photography. We all see and experience the world a little differently than others. That experience helps other people connect with you, connect with the world, and often provides new insights for someone else. And you know something interesting? I'm finding that my work connects better with people the more I share my experiences rather than simply showing off a bunch of pretty pictures.

Your experiences are worth sharing. Especially in today's world that can be so polarized and divisive. Photography is one way of bridging that gap because it is such a universal language. When we share our experiences, we share our humanity and that is something that has a great chance of connecting with others.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

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Environmental Portraits in Nature

environment-re-7For me, the environment of a natural subject can be very important. It can tell a lot about the subject, which in turn, means a photograph that includes that environment can tell a lot about that subject for the viewer, too. I have done this a lot with flowers and small critters, and now, I am becoming increasingly interested in the larger parts of nature and how they fit into a larger whole.

In this photo, you see a Minnesota winter landscape. Look a little closer, and you will see this is the environment of a muskrat and its home in winter. environment-re-5You don't have to know anything about the muskrat or the landscape before seeing this photo, yet you learn some things very quickly from the photo. First, you know this is an animal that builds its home in shallow water and with cattails. You can see the animal probably does not live in colonies of homes. It also appears to like the edge of deeper water as you can see a line of cattails right where the home is. This includes a forest of deciduous trees and the lake is in a depression surrounded by the forest. From this environmental image, you learn about a muskrat and where it lives, and indeed, a bit about its ecology!

environment-re-6This image is a bit unusual in that it does not simply feature a waterfall, but also gives you an idea of its environment. The trick to environmental photos is in how context figures into the composition and how you use technique to make sure the subject is clear. This image was shot with a wide-angle lens to allow me to emphasize the dark water which leads the eye aback to the waterfall. The wide-angle emphasizes the change in perspective from foreground to background which strengthens that dark water. The tree at the left, the trees along the top, and the trees at the right all help define the place and give context and contrast for the waterfall.

The top photo shows a group of oak trees growing at the edge of a prairie. In this case, I used a telephoto to compress distance slightly so that the trees would have a clear relationship to each other and give context to the low, central tree.

Posted in Close Up Photography, Composition | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Creating Depth in Photos Part 2

depth-9Late in November, I started this series on creating depth in photographs. Here is part two.

  • Focus contrast – Whenever you can create a contrast in focus from subject to background or key part of image compared to other areas, you quickly create a feeling of depth. The stronger the contrast, the stronger the impression of depth, though if the out-of-focus areas are totally unrecognizable, this creates a different effect (though cool in itself).depth-6
  • Size relationships – Whenever you can show recognizable objects in an image changing in size, you imply distance. In the real, 3-D world, objects get smaller as they go out into the distance, so emphasizing that in a photo allows you to create that feeling of depth.depth-7
  • Depth of field – Related to focus contrast and size relationships, depth of field for depth impression comes when you combine deep depth of field in a scene with distinct differences in size from foreground to background. The change in size of objects encourages the viewer to compare foreground to background, but depth of field allows them to better do that.depth-8
  • Focal length – You can stretch or shrink perspective by changing your focal length. Perspective has a major effect on the look of an image as it affects depth. Wide-angle focal lengths stretch perspective and give an impression of a deepness to the depth of a scene. Telephoto lenses flatten perspective and give an impression of flatness to the depth of a scene. (A little more for the technically minded: The use of a focal length by itself does not actually change perspective. It is the distance to your subject matter combined with a focal length to reveal the scene that changes perspective.)depth-10
  • Combine depth techniques – None of the techniques I have mentioned in either post have to be used alone. Use them together to clearly show your viewer what you want them to see. Plus, these techniques can be used both to create an impression of depth or, if you use the opposite, to remove any feeling of depth.
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Nature Photography Rocks!

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Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains near Lake Isabella, CA.

It is sometimes hard for me to keep up a steady pace of blogs, so I am going to revise and repost older blogs, including all new photos. Here's one:

I believe nature is worth the effort to make better nature photographs. And nature is definitely worth the effort to spend time there. Some of the most memorable times in my life outside of my incredible wife and kids come from time in nature.

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Florida Everglades. Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

Since I travel quite a bit, I often get asked, what is my favorite place to photograph. I am not being facetious when I say it is the place I am in at the moment. I love places like Acadia National Park and the Everglades (more than just the national park), but I can't go there all the time, so I am just as happy to be in the Santa Monica Mountains (low mountains northwest of Los Angeles) where I can be in less than an hour photographing the chaparral there. One spring, I spent a couple of days videotaping digger bees there –non-aggressive bees, but what an amazing experience to be with them. If you think there is adrenaline flowing when you are photographing big animals in Africa, try holding a video camera as you move it among swarming female bees above their nests! And no, I never got stung. They are not like honey bees.

Solitary or ground bees (Diadasia tuberculata), Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Los Angeles, California

Solitary or ground bees (Diadasia tuberculata), Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Los Angeles, California

I have to say that one of the most impressive places I ever visited was the front of a cave near Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. I was there during a gray bat swarm (a mating behavior of many cave bats), and the experience along with the photography, literally being in a bat swarm, was amazing.

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Gray bats swarming in early fall, Kentucky.

Even closer to home – when the terrible events of 9/11 occurred, I spent the afternoon connecting with nature by photographing in a local natural area. I did close ups of a native sunflower. That was so helpful and really helped me understand that there was still much beauty in our world.

Even closer. I planted most of my yard to native plants. This is an incredible place for me. Since I am in the Los Angeles area, the garden has something in bloom all year round, plus it attracts a lot of interesting insects (including butterflies and native bees) and birds (especially bushtits and hummingbirds). Not only do I have terrific subject matter right outside my door, but also, I feel a real connection to the natural world of California. So many yards and gardens are planted to exotic species that may be pretty, but they keep people separated from nature, rather than connected. Plus, they require a lot of water in an area that is naturally dry, so my garden is also drought tolerant.

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Tiny thrip on San Diego sunflower (a small sunflower).

Finally, last spring, my wife and I got a small place up in the mountains near Lake Isabella, California. This is in the Southern Sierra Nevada. I am loving being able to observe one large and beautiful natural area constantly over the year.

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Rocks at edge of desert, east side Lake Isabella.

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Creating Depth in Photographs

Whether we are photographing a landscape or a native bee, we have to translate the three dimensions of real life into the two dimensions of a photograph. Creating the impression of depth can be very important to showing off nature (though there are times that a two-dimensional image works, such as a flat pattern).

This has long been a challenge for any artist who is dealing with a flat surface for their art, from sketches to paintings and so on. This has been an important part of my studies of composition, and the techniques I have learned have definitely enhanced my craft as a photographer. There are more ideas than I can fit into a single blog post, so I will do this in several parts on creating depth in a photograph.

It is easy to assume that because we are photographing three-dimensions in the real world and that photography seems to show that world well, that we automatically get a three-dimensional look in our images. We don’t. There are things we can do in order to enhance the perception of depth in photographs as we create the image, and even when doing some processing of the image as well.

Here are some specific techniques you can use:

  • Frames – framing a scene is a classic way of creating depth. A frame can be anything that uses an edge (or edges of the photo) for some object to literally frame the scene behind it. A tree or a tree branch along the edge of the frame works well (although I am not fond of adding a branch to a scene that has few if any trees in it just for “depth” – that is a very inauthentic way of capturing nature). You can also look for objects with natural openings that can be used to surround your subject in the distance.

    Lake Mead Rec Area, near Las Vegas, NV

    Lake Mead Recreation Area, near Las Vegas, NV

  • Lines – the use of “leading lines”, compositional lines that lead the eye from the foreground to the background, is another classic depth technique. But it can also become a cliché. Any leading lines need to be an integral part of the scene, i.e., they need to feel like they belong there and are not used arbitrarily in such a way that they make sense to a composition but not the scene.

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    Redwood trees,                                                       Mountain Home State Forest, CA

  • Overlap – overlapping objects automatically gives a feeling of depth because only objects that change in distance, in depth, can overlap (if they were right next to each other, they could not). This has long been an important technique for painters, but it is not well known among photographers. All it often takes is some movement left or right so that something in the foreground overlaps something behind it (or even all the way to the background). I saw a commercial during a football game on Thanksgiving that did this extremely well.

    Barrel cactus with brittlebrush, Joshua Tree National Park, California

    Barrel cactus with brittlebrush, Joshua Tree National Park, California

  • Color – the use of color can have a very strong impact on the impression of depth within a photo. Think of colors as more than what an object looks like. Warm colors come closer in an image, cool colors recede, creating depth. Saturated colors come closer in an image, less saturated colors recede. So look for warm colors, saturated colors or both to include in your foreground, then compose to avoid them in the background, and you will increase the feeling of depth. And if you do the opposite, you decrease the feeling of depth.
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Giant coreopsis, Point Dume, CA

  • Light – light has a little bit of an unusual effect on depth. An area of bright light in the foreground with darkness behind creates a feeling of depth. An area of dark in the foreground with brightness behind creates a feeling of depth. It is the contrast that does it.

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    Sunrise, Wofford Heights, CA

  • Backlit shadows – with backlit shadows, you get an impression of depth from the lines and changing patterns in the shadows. This is especially true if they can be seen going back to a specific object.

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    Snow scene, Southern Maine

  • Aerial perspective – if you look into the distance, you will often see that things far away are hazy compared to close objects, that the distance often looks less sharp than anything up close, that the distance loses contrast, that the distance also looks bluer than anything up close, and that colors lose their saturation. This is called aerial perspective and a natural part of the world. You can use all of those ideas in a photograph to get more depth. However, there are challenges – sometimes the distant bluish haze just looks bad in a photograph.

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    Mountains, Southern Sierra Nevada, CA

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