Photography in the National Parks: DOF, Foreground Objects and Framing

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Pollen-Laden Bee and Prickly Pear Cactus Bloom, Big Bend National Park / Rebecca Latson photo.

This month’s article is a “threefer”: the three things about which I have written all deal with focusing the eye on the subject matter of your national park photo.

Let’s first start with:

DOF

Let’s eat, Grandpa!

Let’s eat Grandpa!

Yikes!

The example above was taken from Cyber Text Newsletter, a blog site on Wordpress, which has a hilarious post about how punctuation (or lack thereof) can totally change the meaning of a sentence.

Depth of field (or DOF) is a lot like adding (or removing) punctuation in a sentence. Altering the DOF literally changes what the viewer perceives as the subject of your image.

In a nutshell, DOF is the distance in front of, and behind, the focused subject at which everything still appears clear and sharp. The distance can be quite short, or all the way to infinity, depending upon the lens focal length, where you place your focus and which f-stop (aperture) is chosen.

Shallow DOF

Ever hear of a photographer talk about a “shallow depth of field”? By that, the photographer means there’s not much distance of clarity between the near and far objects; the subject is in focus, but in front of or behind and to the side of the subject, everything else is a pleasing “bokeh” (a Japanese word literally translated as “blur” or “fuzziness”). Bokeh represents the pleasing quality or feel of the out-of-focus parts of the photo. Photographer Ken Rockwell wrote an interesting 2008 article concerning the topic of bokeh.

Macro lenses, telephoto primes (and some standard primes like the 50mm f1.2), and zoom telephoto lenses all tend to have a shallow DOF. This is not a bad thing. A shallow DOF really centers the eye on your subject because it isolates the subject from its/his/her surroundings and provides a lovely, bokeh’d background. A shallow DOF works especially well with close-ups of wildlife, flowers, insects or human portraiture.

Long DOF

Landscape photographers, on the other hand, usually want a “long depth of field”. This means that pretty much everything in the composition should be sharp and in focus. Wide-angle lenses (anywhere from 14mm to 35mm) are best at providing long DOF to an image because these lenses have the ability to provide a nice, sharp, clear composition, edge-to-edge.

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The View Along Lost Mine Trail, Big Bend National Park / Rebecca Latson photo.

Now, let’s talk about:

Foreground Objects

At one time or another, a photographer may place some sort of object (rock, tree, chair, etc.) into the very front – or foreground – of their image. This is done:

  1. to create a sense of depth to a photo, and
  2. to draw the eye first to that foreground object and from there, lead the viewer’s gaze through the composition all the way to the background; a “leading line” technique.

When you are utilizing a foreground object for your composition, you may find difficult to keep that object in focus and as clear and sharp as the rest of your image. For a foreground object to be as clear as the rest of the photo, one needs to utilize a long DOF (aka wide-angle lens) and a very small aperture (large f-stop number). Many blogs and articles say that f16 or higher will give you a nice clear image from foreground to middle to background. I’ve found that f11 also works pretty well.

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Sotol, Cholla Cactus and Chisos Mountain Scenery, Big Bend National Park /Rebecca Latson photo.

Alternatively, you can photograph an object at the infinity focal length and then crop it to where your desired foreground object is located and it will be as clear as the rest of the photo. Again, a wide-angle lens is best to use for this kind of technique.

If you have a composition that is difficult to get completely focused, you can photograph the same scene more than once, keeping the camera in place on a tripod but focusing on different parts of the area (this is where an SLR with selectable focus points comes in handy so the camera remains aimed in the same direction). Then, during the post-process stage, all you need to do is blend the images together and every part of your scene will be in focus. There is even software on the market that does the blending for you (Helicon Focus at heliconsoft.com).

Last but not least:

Natural Frames

If you don’t choose to use a foreground object to lead the viewer’s attention to your image’s subject, then how about framing your subject, instead? I don’t mean a store-bought or hand-made picture frame, but a frame within the composition like a fence, a windowsill, trees or tree limbs on either or both sides, a geological formation like a natural arch, or even other people – all framing the actual subject of your photo. You don’t even need to completely frame your image – just the hint of a frame works wonders on focusing the eye toward your subject.

It’s All About Focusing The Eye

In previous articles for the Traveler, I have written that photography is all about telling a story and eliciting an emotion. Yup. It is. But in order to tell that story or elicit an emotion with your national park photo, you need to have your image in focus. The key is on what you and your camera choose to focus as well as what you choose for your viewer to focus upon. And that’s part of the fun of photography in the national parks.

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A View at the Top of Lost Mine Trail, Big Bend National Park / Rebecca Latson photo.

Comments

Good article on some basics. I always appreciate reminders. Funny how quickly, over the winter, one can forget "basics".