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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

That close, fuzzy feeling I get...

This is a wee bit of a followup to the "Fun in the Dark" and "Dare to be Square" posts, both of which employed "large" apertures. Here's a few tips on something else to do with all that "fast glass" in your hands:

Back in "Fun in the Dark", I advocated procuring some fast glass (with maximum apertures of f/2.8, 1.8, or even f/1.4) in order to gain a few stops in low-light situations. Some of the kit lenses shipping with DSLR's nowadays give pretty decent image quality, but their price-point necessitates them usually being f/3.5 at best. Also, "constant aperture" zooms can be heavy and expensive, so the cheaper ones are usually "variable aperture". You may notice your kit zoom says something like "f/3.5-5.6" on it. That means its f/3.5 only at its widest, and really f/5.6 at its extreme. This helps keep the lens design lighter and cheaper, but means the lens lets in even less light as you zoom out. f/5.6 is also "two stops" slower than f/2.8, meaning its letting in FOUR times less light, and our shutter speeds in low light would most likely be too slow to hand-hold without camera shake.
(Confused about "f/stops" and all this aperture nomenclature?  Try this site for a basic explanation)
So, what can you do? Well, you can always plunk down serious money for a fast, constant aperture zoom with image stabilzation. Canon's 70-200mm f/2.8 with IS costs about $2,200, more than many decent DSLR bodies.
But say you're on a photographer's budget (research what photogs get paid, you may be surprised) - what are your options? One thing you can do is go "Prime", prime lenses that is. Unlike a zoom, a prime lens has a fixed focal length. Without having to do all the optical gymnastics a zoom is expected to do, a prime lens can be built faster, sharper, lighter and cheaper. The trade off is that you'll have to "zoom" with your feet instead. Price difference? Nikon has a 50mm f/1.8 lens for about $120. Canon offers pretty much the same with its 50mm 1.8, (which is about the sharpest lens they make, by the way). Each major manufacturer should have at least a handful of wide (less than 50mm) and telephoto (more than 50mm) primes around f/2.8 for less money than a comparably fast zoom, so poke around your camera manufacturer's lens sites and see what they offer.
So, what's all this getting around to? Once you have some fast glass in your possession, you can start playing around with both selective focus, and another aspect of large apertures, something called "Bokeh".
Bokeh is a term coined in the early 1990's from the Japanese "boke", and refers to the aesthetic quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photo. This may sound pretty esoteric at first. I mean, who cares what the blurry stuff in a photo looks like, its blurry right? Aren't we only concerned about the stuff that's in focus? Lets take a look...
Once you hold that camera up to your eye, or at arms length if you don't have a viewfinder, you immediately are deciding what to put in, or out, of the frame. Unless you have a way to capture 360 degrees of view, you're being selective about what you're including, or discluding, from your photo. While you're being selective about what you're placing in or out of the frame, you can also be selective about what in the frame is in, or out, of focus as well. Look at the two photos below; same lens, same camera, same subject...
In the first, everything is in focus due to the greater depth of field of using f/8. Depth of field basically refers to how deep fore and aft of the actual focus spot things appear to be in focus. The first photo has what's called a large depth of field, and this is related to what aperture you use. The smaller the aperture (f/8), the higher the f/number, and the greater the depth of focus. The larger the aperture (f/2.8), the lower the f/number, the shallower the depth of focus is. Knowing how and when to use this will allow you to employ selective focus in your photos for emphasis and effect.

If you'll scroll back up and look at the Yucca photo I started with, you can see how I've used selective focus to isolate the one yucca out of the bed of other yuccas its among. Here's another version of that same subject and technique:
Shallow depth of field is also a function of magnification, so for a shallower, more isolating look, move in even closer to your subject:
Above, I'm isolating the Yucca even from itself! You can get quite abstract if you get close like this. Often, I'll set my lens to its closest focusing distance, and focus on my subject simply by moving my position back and forth in order to get as close as I can.

In addition to being able to isolate your subject from its background, another quality of fast glass is its Bokeh - the "quality" of the look of its out-of-focus (OOF) areas. The specific design of each lens affects the shape and quality of the blur it produces. Some lenses produce OOF areas that you'll find more pleasing than others. There's no universal acceptance of what is "good" or "bad" bokeh, although the consensus seems to be that the "smoother the better", but ultimately what Bokeh you like is up to you and what lenses you have access to.
Just to compare, though, the following are examples of what I consider Good and Bad bokeh for me:
Nikkor 50mm f/1.4
The Photo above, from the "Dare to be Square" post, was taken using my legacy Nikon 50mm 1.4 lens at f/1.4, certainly a very fast lens and why I use it. While the shallow depth of field isolates the watering can from the background, the OOF areas still look a little busy to me due to this lens' Bokeh characteristics. The OOF areas come out as little squiggles. Maybe not horrible, and you may or may not like the "look" of this lens wide open. But compare it with the following:
Nikkor 28mm f/2 at 2.8
The photo above was shot using my legacy Nikon 28mm f/2 lens set at f/2.8. The area behind the Camellia is a boring gravel path lined with some bushes, all potentially distracting. By employing selective focus, I'm able to isolate the Camellia flower, which is all I want you looking at anyway (I especially love the little hidden green bud at the top right). But also notice how smooth the background is, almost buttery. This, in my opinion, is very nice Bokeh.
Here's another example of a very distracting background virtually eliminated by selective focus and good bokeh, taken with the same lens:
Nikkor 28mm f/2 at 2.8
So by now, you should be able to see that you don't need to escape to exotic locations to create interesting photos, you can do so right in your own backyard. So try this: photograph some of your favorite people and subjects right at home using large apertures, shallow depth of field and selective focus. And move in close. I bet that you'll find your home environment looks much more interesting in your photos than before. Let me know how you do.


  1. I am really feeling the need to go take some more pictures. I posted your blog on a couple of friends Facebook pages. They are into motorcycles and his dad is a retired photographer who is into motorcycles. I also Tweeted your site. Lets see if I can drive some readers to your site.

  2. By the way I was playing with the camera this weekend. I would take a picture and then increase the f stop by one and decrease it by one and compare the pictures. I tried this with 3 different lenses. I enjoyed it, the neighbors probably thought I was nuts taking pictures of the exact same things in my yard 3 different times.

    1. Why I don't have neighbors! Seriously, now you can go back and try comparing more than 1 stop differences. Most lenses are sharpest in the middle of their aperture range, hence the old adage to get great photos: "f/8 and be there!"
      This gets tricky, because when we say sharper, we mean the actual point of focus, not the "apparent" sharpness that comes with more things looking like they're in focus. If you were to focus on, say, the tip of a pen from about 3 feet away, and shoot it from f/1.8 thru f/22, then review the photos looking ONLY at the pen tip, you'd most likely see that 1. it's always in focus, and 2. Its degree of sharpness would vary from softer at 1.8 to sharpest at 5.6 or 8, then softer again at 16 and 22, even though at f/16 and 22 almost everything in front of and behind the pen tip would appear to be in focus, hence that version would appear "sharpest" overall, even though the actual sharpness would be degraded from f/8 version.
      But going down this rabbit hole is why its cliche that photogs are always out photographing pen tips, brickwalls, fencelines etc. Okay to do this a lot when a student, but eventually we just need to go out and make great photos based on what we've learned.

  3. Shutterpilot:

    I love your "handle". welcome to the blogging world. I remember that phrase " F8 and be there ", but only us older folk remember this, you're obviously too young . . .

    Riding the Wet Coast

  4. Made my first serious photo 1977, with a speed graphic. Old enough for you?
    Love how your wry sense of humour permeates your blog, you've been an inspiration.
    Feel free to chime in from time to time to let me know how I'm doing....

  5. ShutterPilot:

    I used to have a Speed graphic too. I still have several 4x5's, and MF film equipment. I also have legacy lenses I use on my NEX with adapters.

    Happy clicking
    Riding the Wet Coast