No matter what tool, what technique or what challenge you give yourself, it always comes back to light. That one simple thing that we can’t avoid and must always abide by. Shooting at f/1.8 was a lot of fun in part because you can really maximize light. So much more light is coming in that you start to see things a little differently. It can get to the point where the light itself becomes the subject and the rest just falls away to the background.
Continuing on with my theme for this week about depth of field, is it better to be physically close to your subject to maximize the impact of the shallow depth of field, the subject and the distance between your subject and the background or is it better to be far away? If you’ve spent any time on social media or the web you’ll see lots of photos just like the one below where the photographer is close to the subject and you have a blurred out background. There’s nothing wrong with this but it’s done a lot especially in small scale stuff. Let’s think beyond that.
My setup was the Nikon D5, 85 f/1.8 at 1.8. Right there at 85mm I have to be moving around a lot in order to compose. It’s a prime lens I can’t zoom in or out but the challenge was shooting at f/1.8 the whole time so I went back and forth between distances. What was the result? While it is great to have those detail shots they don’t convey the story that I want them to. For years I’ve been going to Nevada City and I have yet to capture the image that really sums up that place to me. The only way to get it is to show more of the town not less. By shooting at f/1.8 the whole time I noticed that everything looked and felt smaller in the photo while still capturing more. That’s what you can do when you shoot further away. Cities are a great place to play around with this because there are so many lines to work with, you can really play around with how sharp and how blurred out you can make them. In the end it all comes down to the story and every one of those background elements comes into play.
Depth of field is a powerful tool that we must take full use of every time we step behind the camera. The relationship between the subject and the other elements in the photograph is key to telling the story and either maximizing or minimizing the amount of information we see by changing the depth of field is how we bring out that story to the fullest. But it’s not always easy to get used to changing your F-Stop and then to think about that relationship between the F-Stop and the story.
A really good way to challenge yourself is to pick a good area where there is lots to work with, grab one camera body and one lens and one F-Stop. Practice. Watch the relationship between the subject, the background and the light and what the differences are with that one F-Stop. I just did this because I needed to practice so I grabbed the Nikon D5, 85 f/1.8 and shot at 1.8 the whole time I was out walking around. That’s how you get better. You do these little challenges and learn from the results.
So here is a real basic but important truth to using that shallow depth of field. First off it vignettes which can be good or bad depending on what you are trying to say but I tend to like vignettes because it sucks the viewers eye into the photo. The real lesson here is the focal plane. Everything on the same focal plane will be sharp so if you’re shooting at 1.8 but everything is on the same focal plane then you aren’t really going to make use of that shallow depth of field. This is why you need to stay at a slight angle. I put up these two images to show just that since they were taken with the exact same setup.
For all those fellow photographers out there. If any of you are looking for a gift idea for someone special, you might want to consider looking within your own library. We have an item that is available to us that can bring great joy to others. Our photographs. If you need something still, I would recommend giving that person a print. It may not seem like much to us that print often but to the person on the other end, getting that nice big print of their favorite place or of their favorite critter can be pretty powerful. So if you know someone and are struggling to come up with something good, see what images you have laying around that might look good on a wall.
It was interesting to watch the sun rise that morning. It took almost an hour for light to hit the town over the hills to the east. One of the images I have always had in the back of my mind is the shot down main street. Nothing but buildings on either side leading out of town. I have yet to come across a town where I could capture that but it’s always been something I have thought about when I go to these towns.
Then there was these two cars. They are great train cars but in the worst spot. There is just no great way to photograph them it seems because the background always sucks. Right as I was about to pack up I thought, “hey how about an HDR into the sun.” Might as well can always just delete it if it sucks. Well It’s not perfect but it ain’t too bad either. It’s the first time that I have actually been able to do something with those cars that I kinda like.
You know how you can go to a place and get overwhelmed with how much there is and how you just want to work with one subject at a time? Well that very thought occurred to me and usually does when I’m in a place like that. I always want to see everything and try and figure out the right spot to be in for the best light, and I don’t want to miss anything. It’s those times that you have to just say to yourself, “alright I’m going to start here and move down that way.”
After the sun rose, I started watching the saloon. It’s one of my favorite buildings in the town for a number of reasons. One being, it has a two story outhouse. Yes many bad jokes have been made about it. The other more obvious reason, it just looks bloody cool. I have found that everything from wide angle exterior shots to small details shots can be obtained with this one building. I never seem to run out of ideas with this building. The light of course makes a huge a difference in bringing out the texture and warmth in the wood.
Line and Symmetry are two very important elements in photography and can be the strongest elements in a photograph. Architecture has always been a great way to show off these elements because buildings always have a distinct sense of symmetry to them. The human mind is unique in the fact that we naturally see patterns and symmetry. Things that make sense and things that do not. These old buildings are a great way to show off these elements because most of them are made with thick pine wood boards. They are straight, have character and age to them. It naturally draws the eye in.
The great thing about lines is that they aren’t always an object but the light and shadows that the object creates. Like this average gate in a white picket fence. Nothing special about it, except someone had opened it and closed it making groves in the snow. The morning light is what made it special.
Then of course comes that one spot where everything lines up. No ferns, clutter, footsteps or anything else distracting. All it is, is line, shapes and light. The catch is to have a place for the eye to rest, or else the mind will scan over it and not stop.
Since this place is setup as any normal functioning town is, there are to be expected multiple buildings of different shapes, sizes, designs and of course purposes. There’s the saloon, livery stable, barbershop, blacksmith, hotel, general store and so much more. A simple trip down main street and you start to see how much character each of these buildings has.
My personal favorite is the saloon. Not sure why, maybe it’s because I have watched to many western films where the gunfights always happen outside of the saloon where the crowd is gathered around the hitching posts and the saloon girls are hanging out the upstairs windows but the saloon just signifies that Western town in my mind. If only I had remembered to bring the sheriff with me.
As we get older the little things seem to become more important. As I have quickly learned having to get up before sunrise every morning during the week, as so many other people have to do, really gets old. I think it is this mental barrier that makes it incredibly difficult to go out shooting for sunrise, with the exception for out of state trips. Unfortunately it is a very important barrier to break if you want to get better at landscape photography and is something I always find I have to tell myself. This past weekend we had absolutely gorgeous weather up here in Bozeman and I was compelled to enjoy every moment of it.
The great thing about living in Montana is all the old logging and mining towns that make for outstanding subjects in western landscapes. One of my truly favorite places to go is Nevada City. It’s outside of Virginia City only 15 miles from Ennis. It’s a pretty cool town, one which I have visited frequently over the years and from all that time, I can honestly say that winter is the best time to go down there.
The really cool part about this place, technically a tourist attraction, besides the shear size, is that there is a huge railroad station with lots of old cars. As you can see this is the main station where one set of cars is parked. The whole area is surrounded with Cottonwood Trees and between the faded sides of the buildings, the snow and the trees, the scene really does feel like something a century ago.
As you can probably tell with these three shots, I’m shooting towards the East. The sun is coming up and lighting the station as it does. By now you can probably guess how I shot these images and if not I’ll be happy to say that they are 7 image HDR’s. Although I don’t prefer the extra steps involved or the extra files, I do find that the technique is useful and therefore must be practiced. A place like this is perfect for just that because the town just screams opportunity.
In the Camera Bag:
Nikon D3, AF-S 24-70 f/2.8, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film
Recently I met someone that told me they had never been as far West as Montana before. The sight of the mountains here were almost overwhelming for him. Now this kind of got me thinking about those that don’t get to travel a lot or how much I get to. Living here in Bozeman I’m always surprised to here from people that they have never traveled further away than Idaho or Wyoming. It’s almost as if being here is like being in isolation. For myself I find it damn enjoyable to get away from everything else but still see the world around me. I am constantly reminded, and so should every photographer that spends time on the road, just how fortunate I am.
Watching sunrise over Mono Lake
The magic of sunrise at Yosemite Falls in Winter
Discovering the Grand Canyon on Kauai
Maybe just the backyard
A rainstorm blowing through the desert.
Or even winter in one of the most solitude of places.