Spring is in the air here in Tokyo, and the Cherry Blossom has come early. Although at the time of writing it’s pretty much fallen from the trees, replaced by the green leaves that you’ll see in some of the shots that I’ll share today. As usual, I have been busy with one thing and another, but I didn’t want to let the blossom pass by completely without a single photo, and the relaxation of just being out with my camera is more necessary than ever, so on Saturday, I grabbed my gear and set out for a walk around my local area where there are a few rows of Sakura Trees that I was sure would provide at least a few opportunities.
I started with some wider shots of the tunnel formed by the blossom just after the nearest train station to our apartment, but as is often the case, I’m not really a fan of the wide shot. Tokyo is an urban jungle, and although makes for great street photography, I find it too busy and not really pretty enough for my tastes. For that reason, I tend to shoot very tightly cropped images of the blossom, as you’ll see, although I do have some shots that appear to be wider, but, in fact, are shot at 500mm on the long end of my RF 100-500mm lens.
I’ve selected ten images from my two-hour walk and will walk you through my thoughts as I shot each image. These aren’t really anything special, but in the spirit of sharing my life as a photographer and business owner, this is about my lot at the moment, and hopefully, you’ll be able to gain something from this.
The first thing that I look for as I try to decide what to shoot, is some flowers that can be isolated to a degree. The other thing that appeals to me is flowers that are mostly in the shade or being caught by the light shining through a gap, like these first few sprigs of flowers that were blooming in the base of one of the first branches from the main trunk of the tree.
As I said, the green leaves were already starting to mingle with the blossom, which is a sign that the blossom is coming to an end. The light was catching the leaves towards the top of the frame, increasing the contrast somewhat, but also adding a splash of slightly more vibrant color, which I don’t dislike. For me though, the main appeal of this shot is the blossom in the left foreground. I shot this with the Canon RF 50mm ƒ/1.2 lens with the aperture set to ƒ/2.2 so the depth of field is intentionally very shallow. I focussed on those foreground blossoms and let everything else gradually go out of focus.
When working with such shallow depth of field, I generally move my selected focus point so that I can place it over the main subject, rather than focussing with the center focus point then recomposing. The plane of focus moves slightly as you refocus, and can cause the main subject to slip out of the depth of field, so I try to avoid that. It’s also important to note that I was shooting handheld, so I also will be rocking slightly as I breathe, so moving the focus point also reduces the time between focusing and releasing the shutter, and that also helps me to avoid moving and again losing focus on the main subject.
This next image (below left) is a similar deal. I found a sprig of blossom shooting from the main trunk that was mostly in the shade. I went with a vertical orientation for this, mainly because horizontal would have allowed the edges of the trunk to come into frame, and I wanted to avoid that. Because I’d gone vertical though, I placed the blossom on the top third. I was physically looking up at the blossom, so this composition helps to give them some perceived height. This was shot at ƒ/2, so a slightly shallower depth of field, and again, I moved the focus point around so that I didn’t lose focus on the flowers. I’m actually generally trying to ensure that I get some of the stamen sharp, as I find that these details are the most important element to give the overall impression of the sharpness of the blossom.
There is a water duct that flows alongside the road where I was walking, and the cherry blossom trees have some branches that reach out over the water. There are some places where it was possible to isolate just one sprig of blossom with a relatively clear background, like this, but because the branches and twigs were much further away, I had to switch to my RF 100-500mm lens at this point and would continue to use it for the rest of the shots I’ll be sharing.
At 500mm with this lens, my widest possible aperture is ƒ/7.1, and that is what I shot this at. Because the longer focal length causes the depth of field to become shallower, I actually have a shallower depth of field for this shot at 500mm and an aperture of ƒ/7.1 focusing at around 1.6 meters or 5 feet than I did for the previous images, shot at 50mm with an aperture of f/2 at around 55 cm. This is why I really enjoy playing around with the 100-500mm as a close-up lens. It not only enables me to frame up things that are further away and sometimes not even physically approachable with a macro lens, and it still has wonderfully shallow depth of field.
Note too that to keep the eye in the frame for this shot, I applied a vignette to this image in Capture One Pro, and reduced the exposure of the vignette by around two stops. There was also some natural vignetting which helps to keep the look quite natural.
I walked back to the trees by the road and found probably one of my favorite clusters of blossom, that you can see in this image. I like the balance of these flowers, almost forming a starburst, or like an asteroid shower, all coming from a single point in the center of the flowers. They are also relatively clean, and don’t have a significantly large green leave in with them, so I like the relative minimalism of this shot.
I positioned the blossom on the left side of the frame as there were more flowers that seemed to be “looking” to the right, so I wanted to give their gaze more space. The focal length was 451mm, and that being slightly closer allowed me to open up the aperture slightly to ƒ/6.3.
As I walked along further, there was another bridge over the water duct, so I stepped out onto that and shot this next image. This was towards the late afternoon sun which was out of frame to the left of the camera. It’s a busy shot, but again, at 500mm the aperture of ƒ/7.1 enabled me to isolate some of the blossom with the focus plane.
You might also notice that there are multiple lines formed by the out-of-focus twigs and branches, which is caused by the aperture of the RF 100-500mm lens. It’s not the best bokeh I’ve seen in a long lens, but with this kind of subject, I still find it relatively pleasing.
Sticking with the Japanese photography terminology, in addition to the word “bokeh” which we’re all used to using, there is a compound word called “maebokeh” which means foreground bokeh. This is the technique of placing subjects in the foreground, between or as in this next image, around the main subject. This technique can be very appealing, and indeed, this is another favorite shot from my walk.
It was tricky, timing-wise because the breeze was moving the foreground blossom around continuously, so I had to shoot around thirty frames to get one that I liked. Ironically, this was one of the first of the batch, but the experimentation was necessary to give myself some options and something to compare the images against. This was still at 500mm with an aperture of ƒ/7.1 and I find the foreground bokeh in this shot to be much more pleasing than the previous shot.
The next image (below left) is similar to an earlier image, but I wanted to include this as well, for a few reasons. Firstly, despite the majority of this image being beautiful, clean blossom, there is a patch of decay starting to form on the bottom-left flower. This is, to me, somewhat in line with the Japanese concept of “Wabisabi” or beauty in imperfection.
I’ve seen some cups made by Japanese potters that have bugs painted on the inside. This was originally done to hide imperfections in the vessel but became a way of intentionally adding an imperfection in the spirit of wabi-sabi. I also own a number of cups that I’ve bought with my wife over the years that are made from clay that uses a high level of soil, so they are very earthy and rough. They are some of my favorite cups to drink sake from. I should put a few hours aside to photograph them and share them with you as well, as they are quite beautiful in their own right.
Here is another vertical orientation image (above right), though this time it was purely for aesthetic reasons. The blossom and accompanying buds and leaves were slightly taller than they were wide and just felt that portrait orientation would suit that more. Plus, from a stock photography perspective, it’s always nice to have some vertical options as well. One of these portrait aspect images will probably find itself on the cover of the eBook that I’ll put together for MBP Pro Members as soon as I’ve released this post.
This next image is somewhat different to the rest of the closeup shots, simply because there is more detail in the bark, and a wider area of blossom, buds, and leaves included. This is actually a little too busy for my liking, as I really prefer a minimalist look. Come to think of it, I actually used a Luma Tone Curve and darkened the bark down very slightly in most of the other images, just to make the blossom more prominent and reduce the competition for the viewer’s attention.
We’ll finish this relatively short episode with one last image, which I shot from the side, so that the bark of the tree overlaps with the right edge of the blossom, to kind of give it a peekaboo feel, as though the blossom is looking around the side of a building. Again, shallow depth of field with the 100-500mm lens at 300mm and an aperture of ƒ/5.6, and once again, I was careful to get the stamen sharp, as it feels like a mistake to me when I see the stamen out of focus in shots like this. I think those little orange balls of detail help to anchor the image visually in the midst of the rest of the blurriness.
Like I said, nothing really special, but I like to keep you updated with my antics, and as I mentioned recently, these short shoots of things that I enjoy photographing are keeping me sane as I work on other tasks that are not always as enjoyable as being out with the camera. If you still have some blossom in full bloom near you at the moment, I hope this might give you some ideas on how you might compose something perhaps a little more minimalistic than the wider shots that can sometimes feel more natural to shoot. And, of course, if you have any shots of your local blossom to share, feel free to drop a link into the comments below.
Last month, in episode 732, we talked about Depth of Field, Hyperfocal Distance, and Infinity, and also touched on the Circle of Confusion, the Airy Disk, and Diffraction. I originally shared how to test your lenses to find their Diffraction Limit around four years ago, but I had yet to go through this exercise with my EOS R5 and new RF lenses, so I decided to talk you through this process again today. This is also relevant right now because I have just released a new version of our Photographer’s Friend app for iOS that includes a new Pro feature called Diffraction Limit Guide Adjustment, so I’ll also share a little information about that today as well.
As we discussed in episode 732, the depth of field in our images gets deeper as we stop down our aperture, so ƒ/11 has a deeper depth of field than ƒ/8, and ƒ/16 has a deeper depth of field than ƒ/11. The problem with stopping down the aperture for deeper depth of field though, is that it forces the light through a smaller hole, and when you force light through a small hole, the Airy Pattern starts to get disturbed and spreads out, causing it to overlap the neighboring Airy Disk pattern to the point that the image is considered no longer resolved, as I’ve shown in this diagram.
Based on my Pixel Peeper calculations which I added to Photographer’s Friend, around four years ago I realized that I could calculate the diffraction limit based on the size of the Airy Disk as it grows with the decreasing size of the aperture, and I provided Diffraction Limit Warnings in the form of traffic light coloring of the Airy Disk label, and the Aperture dial, which is responsible for the limitation. Unless you have changed these colors with the theme customization feature, green will show you that you don’t need to worry about Diffraction. Orange or amber shows when Diffraction will probably start to show itself and red alerts you to the fact that that you will almost certainly be seeing the effects of Diffraction in your images. These color warnings correspond with the Well Resolved, Just Resolved, and Not Resolved Airy Patterns in the diagram.
The calculated warning points are pretty accurate, but how much you allow this to concern you depends really on how much Diffraction you are seeing in your images, and this is both why I like to test my lenses, but also with this latest release, why I wanted to be able to adjust the kick-in points of the warning in Photographer’s Friend.
Where to Start?
The tests are easy to do, and although I used an old Lens Align tool that you can see in the above photo, you can just use a steel rule or even just an open book with a page of text. I like the Lens Align tool because it is easy to vary the angle of the rule and it has lots of text and numbers along the rule to help you to evaluate sharpness. Although we’d usually be looking to see where the focus falls on the rule, for Diffraction Limit testing the point at which you focus is less important. We’re just going to check for a lack of sharpness across the entire image as we stop down the aperture.
I recommend using Pixel Peeper mode in Photographer’s Friend for the most accurate information on which aperture to start testing from, and it depends on your camera’s sensor and the number of megapixels, which you’ll need to dial into the Depth of Field Calculator settings. You’ll also need to select your sensor format with the Format dial. For the Canon EOS R5 I’ll select 35mm as it’s a full-frame 35mm sensor. If you use a crop factor camera or medium format camera, select the appropriate Format. I then press and hold the Format dial to lock it, to prevent me from accidentally changing it later.
With the megapixels set to 45 and Pixel Peeper mode enabled in the settings, and also ensuring that the Diffraction Limit Guides are turned on for the Airy Disk label and aperture dial, we can then adjust the aperture until we see the dial change from green to amber. The last green aperture is where we’ll start to test from as we know that this should not be displaying any signs of Diffraction. With my camera details dialed into the settings, I see that my starting aperture is ƒ/8, so I’ll set my camera to ƒ/8 for my first test shot.
With your camera on a tripod, line it up with the Lens Align tool or whatever you are going to use in your tests, and pick a point at which you are going to focus, just as a reference.
If you don’t have Photographer’s Friend and don’t care about Pixel Peeper mode, then ƒ/8 is still a good starting aperture for your tests, then stop down one third or half stop at a time, depending on your camera, and shoot an image with every change until you reach the smallest aperture of your lens, which is ƒ/22 with most of my Canon RF Lenses.
To make exposure easy, I use Aperture Priority mode for this, and I set the ISO to 100. High ISOs can cause the image quality to degrade as well as Diffraction, so it’s better to avoid auto-ISO. In Aperture Priority mode though, your camera should automatically adjust the shutter speed for you as you stop down the aperture. I also use a two-second timer so that I can take my hand away from the camera during the exposure to avoid shaking the camera.
If you are testing a zoom lens, to be thorough, it’s a good idea to test at least three focal lengths. The two extremes and then something close to the middle of the zoom range. For example, when I tested my Canon RF 15-35mm lens I shot both 15 and 35 mm shots as well as a series at 24mm. For the 24-105mm lens, I shot at 24mm, 50mm and 105mm.
Once you’ve shot an image for each aperture from the starting aperture to the smallest aperture available on your lens, you’ll then need to transfer your images to your computer and open them up in your usual image editing software and evaluate the sharpness. With the high-resolution displays that we have these days, I generally find that I have to zoom in to around 200% to really see the sharpness, and as I worked through these images shot at 24mm starting at ƒ/8 then working through each smaller aperture, the first noticeable degradation in sharpness I could see was at ƒ/16. A certain amount of diffraction kicked in right there, and the image got gradually softer towards ƒ/22, although we are talking a very small amount.
Here is the series of images from my Canon RF 24-105mm lens at 50mm, so that you can see what I’m talking about. This is the center 1440px of each image cropped from the larger image, so if you click on these to open up in the lightbox you will be able to see the images at 100% and may be able to see the diffraction starting to kick in.
At 50mm diffraction didn’t really start to kick in until ƒ/18, but it got worse slightly quicker and by ƒ/22 it was about the same softness as at 24mm. At 105mm diffraction was relatively weak but slightly noticeable from ƒ/16 and got worse at ƒ/20 and slightly worse still at ƒ/22. From my findings though, I now know that I don’t have to be concerned about Diffraction until ƒ/16, and if possible, I want to avoid using ƒ/20 and ƒ/22. Based on this, I went into the settings of the Depth of Field Calculator in Photographer’s Friend, and adjusted the amber warning slider to +1.6 stops, and also the red warning slider to +0.3 of a stop. As you can see from these screenshots, that puts the actual warning colors displayed so that the aperture dial is green until ƒ/14 then changes to amber at ƒ/16 then to red at ƒ/20.
For your reference, note that I also tested my Canon RF 50mm f/1.2 lens, which has a smallest aperture of ƒ/16 and once again, I really couldn’t see any diffraction until I hit ƒ/16, so I’m pretty happy to leave my warning color guides at these settings. Because the math dictates where the default settings go, and because I’m testing some of the best lenses available, I don’t want to adjust the default settings. I really think people should do these simple tests themselves to really see the effects of diffraction as it kicks in, and if you do use Photographer’s Friend, I hope you find the ability to adjust your warning sliders useful.
Note that this is part of the Pro Add-on as it all takes additional work that was not included in the base price of the app, and also not something that everyone will want. The good news is though, if you already bought the Pro Add-on or the Complete Pro Bundle including the Apple Watch add-on, this feature will automatically be activated when you update to version 3.7.1 which is available now in the App Store.
OK, so I hope you found that useful. Before we finish I’d quickly also like to mention that if you absolutely must stop down to a small enough aperture to cause your system to become diffraction-limited, it’s not the end of the world. If you are a Canon user, you can consider using Canon’s Digital Photo Professional software and applying the Digital Lens Optimizer, which removes the effects of diffraction very well when detected. Also, my image management and editing software of choice, Capture One Pro, has a Diffraction Correction option under the Lens Correction section which also does a very good job of cleaning up the effects of diffraction when your images are affected. Photoshop and Lightroom also have lens correction in Adobe Camera Raw which removes the effects of diffraction pretty well too. I rarely have to use this option because I’m generally fine with the slighter wider apertures, but it’s good to know what your options are.
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Today we’re going to look at both Depth of Field and his cousin Hyperfocal Distance, and take this to Infinity and Beyond in one post. I’ve covered Depth of Field and Hyperfocal Distance a number of times in different posts, but an update that I just completed for my iOS app Photographer’s Friend introduces a new concept related to Infinity, so I figured I’ll pull all of this into one post that will hopefully be all you need to reference to get a good understanding of these theories. We’ll start with the basics, and then geek out a little with some of the calculations, and then move on to some examples to illustrate why keeping your eye on your depth of field is important.
What is Depth of Field?
Let’s start with an explanation of Depth of Field, which is the area of a photograph that is in focus at any given setting. The depth of field is affected by a number of factors. On your camera, the setting that affects Depth of Field the most is your aperture. Wide apertures like ƒ/2.8 or ƒ/4 have a shallow depth of field, where not much is in focus, and smaller apertures, like ƒ/16 and ƒ/22, have very deep depth of field with a lot of the image in focus.
The other main parameters that affect the depth of field are your focal length and focus distance. Wide focal lengths like 24mm have more depth of field and longer focal lengths like 100mm have less depth of field, so the more you zoom, the shallower your depth of field gets. And the closer you focus, the shallower your depth of field gets as well. Let’s note too that when using smaller apertures at close range, in general, depth of field extends on third towards your camera from the point at which you are focused, and two-thirds back. The far focus limit extends out more as you approach hyperfocal distance, but we’ll talk about that shortly. For example, say you focus a 50mm lens with the aperture set to ƒ/8 at 18 feet or 5.5 meters, the near limit of the focus would be at 11 feet or 3.4 meters, and the far limit of the focus would be at 29 feet or 9 meters. So approximately one-third in front of your subject and two-thirds behind.
Keep in mind that the focus doesn’t just switch abruptly from being sharp to not being sharp. The point at which you focus your lens is the sharpest image that your lens and camera can resolve, and the image gets gradually softer as you move away from this point. The depth of field is the area that we would consider acceptably sharp, and it is a gradual defocussing of the image to the point where we would consider it no longer acceptably sharp, and these are the near and far limits of the depth of field.
Long-time followers might recall the following six diagrams showing the mechanism of depth of field at different focal lengths and focus distances. It’s important to understand the relationship between aperture, focal length, and focus distance before we go on, so while trying not to go into too much detail, let’s outline what I’ve covered in these diagrams. Diagram #1 shows the depth of field with a 50mm lens with the aperture set at ƒ/2.8 and focussed at 2 meters or 6.6 feet. Because the aperture is wide at ƒ/2.8 the light is focussed at a more acute angle, between the two widest points of the aperture. This means that the circle made by the light as it passes through the aperture reaches a point where it is no longer acceptably sharp quite quickly. You can see that the near limit is just 1.9 meters or 6.2 feet and the far limit is 2.1 meters or 7 feet. The total depth of field is just 27 cm or just under one foot.
In Diagram #2 we stop the aperture down to ƒ/5.6 at the same distance and the depth of field increases to 54 cm or 1.8 feet. This is just because the angle of the light passing through the aperture is now less acute. In Diagram #3 with an aperture of ƒ/11 the depth of field increases to 1.14 meters or 3.8 feet at the same focus distance, once again, because the light is passing through a smaller aperture and therefore the circle of acceptable sharpness is reached much further away from the point at which the lens was focussed. All three of these diagrams were assuming a 50mm lens focussed at 2 meters or 6.6 feet.
In Diagram #4 we take the same 50mm lens and this time focus it at 5 meters or 16.4 feet with an aperture of ƒ/5.6 and we now get a depth of field of 3.8 meters or 12.5 feet so by increasing the focus distance from 2 to 5 meters or 6.6 to 16.4 feet our depth of field is almost eight times deeper at the same aperture. Again, this is because focussing further away gives us a shallower angle of the light, so the circles of acceptable focus are further away from each other.
Conversely, in Diagram #5 we focus closer to the lens, still with an aperture of ƒ/5.6 and see that the angle of the light is much more acute and the acceptable focus circles are close together, giving us a depth of field of just 3cm or just over an inch. And the final diagram shows the angle being more acute still as the light passes through a wider aperture of ƒ/2.8 for just 2cm or 3/4 of an inch depth of field. If any part of this was new to you, I hope it’s relatively easy to understand how depth of field is affected by the aperture and focus distance. I’ll share a formula shortly that will help you to understand the relationship with the focal length as well, but before that, let’s talk about Hyperfocal Distance.
For any given focal length and aperture combination, there is a point at which the far limit of the depth of field is so far away that everything after the near limit of your depth of field can be considered acceptably sharp, and this is what’s known as the Hyperfocal Distance. Here is a diagram that I created to illustrate this back in 2013, although you may see this stolen and illegally rebranded on other sites, and you can see that for a 24 mm lens at an aperture of ƒ/16 the hyperfocal distance is much closer than with a 50 mm lens, and much closer still than a lens set to a focal length of 200 mm.
You’ll see that I’ve added a note which reads: Although still a good reference point, note that the calculations on this diagram are based on the somewhat outdated traditional depth of field calculations which assume the photograph has been printed at 8 x 10 inches and is being viewed at arm’s length. I’ll explain more about why this might be something you need to be concerned about shortly, but these numbers are still a good standard to help talk about the theory, and before we jump further down the rabbit hole, there is another part to all of this that we’ve already touched on but need to cover the terminology first, and that is the Circle of Confusion.
The Circle of Confusion
Until now I’ve been calling it the circle of acceptable focus, to avoid ‘confusion’ but in optical physics, it’s known as the Circle of Confusion. In terms of focus, this is the limit that the light rays can spread out but still appear to be in focus. In this diagram from a post an older post, you can see that I have included light from the near and far focus limits, and tried to show how it gets gradually more blurry as we move away from the critical focus point, which is light coming from the point at which we focussed the lens.
The reason that the Circle of Confusion is important to this topic is that it is required to calculate Hyperfocal Distance. The calculation is actually not very difficult, so let’s go over that quickly before we move on. First here is the formula with words rather than numbers. So we have Focal Length to the power of two over the Aperture multiplied by the Circle of Confusion. This gives us the Hyperfocal Distance.
If we replace the words with some real numbers now, we’d do, for example, 24 to the power of two over 16 multiplied by 0.030, which gives us 1200. This is 1.2 meters, which is the distance I had in my earlier diagram for hyperfocal distance. This assumes a circle of confusion of 0.030 millimeters or 30 µm (microns or micrometers) which is a commonly used circle of confusion for 35mm sensors.
So, this brings us up to speed on the theory behind Hyperfocal Distance and Depth of Field is calculated from the Hyperfocal Distance, but it’s considerably more complicated, so we won’t go into that much detail today, as the main reason for the inaccuracy of the traditional calculation is the circle of confusion, which we are now up to speed on,
Why is the Traditional Depth of Field Calculation Outdated?
As I mentioned, the traditional Depth of Field calculation based on evaluating sharpness in an 8 x 10 inch print at arm’s length, is outdated because unfortunately, more than 99% of images that are created today are never printed, so it’s really only useful as a standard to discuss the theory. Most people check focus on the computer screen, and most of the time, we check by zooming in to 100% at a point where it is important for the image to be in focus. It’s fashionable to dismiss this kind of evaluation as being too picky, but in the dark corners of our studies, hotel rooms, or basements, I know that people do this. It’s human nature to want the best for our creations, so before we really commit to liking a shot, we have to know that it’s sharp and will bear up to a certain level of scrutiny. Seriously though, if, for example, you are going to print your work out large or display it on a big screen, you have to check that it is sharp unless you did not intend it to be.
Pixel Peeper Mode
This is why I developed Pixel Peeper Mode for the Depth of Field calculator in my Photographer’s Friend app. When you enable Pixel Peeper mode we calculate the pixel pitch of your sensor based on the sensor format that you select on the main calculator screen and the number of megapixels that you select on the settings screen. I’ve outlined both of these here for anyone that uses Photographer’s Friend. I’ve included two more screenshots to the right though, to illustrate this point and to help with understanding this concept.
The screenshot on the left shows both the Pixel Peeper Mode switch being turned on, and that I have selected the megapixels for my camera, which is the 45 megapixel Canon EOS R5. You will, of course, select whatever the megapixel count is for your own camera. Then on the main calculator screen, select your camera’s sensor format, which in my case is 35mm full-frame. If you use a crop factor camera select the correct ratio, such as CF1.6, 1.5, or 1.3, etc. The larger crop factors are actually for sub-medium format sensors and there are also sizes for medium and some large format sensor and film sizes to choose from.
The important thing with regards to depth of field here though can be seen on the two screenshots on the right side. Notice how the Hyperfocal Distance and the Hyperfocal Depth of Field readouts change when we have Pixel Peeper Mode turned on compared to when it’s off. The Hyperfocal Distance changes from 1.26 meters to 3.3 meters, which is 4.15 to 10.9 feet. Under the Hyperfocal DoF section, you can see that with Pixel Peeper mode turned off, we’re looking at the depth of field starting at 63 cm or 2 feet and extending out to infinity, which we will also talk about shortly. With Pixel Peeper Mode turned on, that increases significantly to 5.5 feet or 1.65 meters.
You may be wondering why the non-Pixel Peeper mode number is not 1.2 meters, as we saw in earlier calculations. This is because even without Pixel Peeper mode I am using a slightly smaller circle of confusion, rounded to 29 µm, as this is more accurate than 30 µm used before, and that gives us slightly longer distances. Notice though that when Pixel Peeper is turned on, the CoC label above the Format dial now shows 11 µm for the Circle of Confusion, which is much smaller. This is calculated from the sensor size and the megapixels, which enables me to calculate the Pixel Pitch, which in turn enables me to calculate the Circle of Confusion.
The Airy Pattern
There is actually another somewhat obscure piece to the overall puzzle that we should touch on to really make this post cover everything you need to know about depth of field, and that is the Airy Pattern or Airy Disk. With the understanding that we get greater depth of field as we make our aperture smaller, you’d think that when you want more of your scene to be sharper, you could just select a really small aperture. Many lenses for 35mm format cameras go down to f/22 and sometimes f/32 or smaller, and medium and large format lenses often go to much smaller apertures to get enough depth of field.
But, as good as the manufacturers make our lenses, there is a phenomenon that occurs as light passes through a very small aperture that causes problems. As light passes through a wide aperture, it makes its way to the sensor or film relatively undisturbed, but as light passes through a small aperture, it interferes with other rays of light, causing it to spread out. The result is what’s known as diffraction and to explain that, we need to talk about the “Airy Pattern” (right) with a central “Airy Disk”, both named after George Airy, the person who discovered this phenomenon.
As you can see from the mockup of the Airy Disk on the right, there is a central core of light which makes up about 84% of the light, and then a number of concentric rings. While there is still a gap between the central core or Airy Disk, and the next Airy Disk, the light is said to be “well resolved”. According to the Rayleigh Criterion, the dots are “just resolved” if the center of the first Airy Pattern is superimposed on the first dark ring of the second pattern. When two airy disks become closer than half their width, the light is considered not resolved. This is when you will see diffraction cause everything in your image to be slightly out of focus at small apertures.
Color-Coded Diffraction Warnings
Based on this and the information I already calculated in Photographer’s Friend, I am able to calculate the Diffraction Limits and this is what enables me to provide Color-Coded Diffraction Warnings. The AD label which shows the size of the Airy Disk and the Aperture Dial are color-coded to show the risk of Diffraction as you adjust the aperture dial. If you don’t see this, turn these options on in the Depth of Field Calculator settings.
Because the Circle of Confusion size is rather large in the traditional 8 x 10-inch print calculation method, you actually need to start being concerned when the Airy Disk gets to around 80% of the size of the Circle of Confusion. So, when you are not in Pixel Peeper mode, the color of the Aperture dial will change from green to amber when the Airy Disk passes 80% of the default Circle of Confusion size, and for 35mm format, that is around an aperture of f/18. It then goes red from 100%, which is f/22 at the default settings. This matches my own test results.
In Pixel Peeper mode, these boundaries are a little more conservative, but I set amber to kick in when the Airy Disk reaches the same size as the Circle of Confusion and then the red Diffraction Limit warning when the Airy Disk is twice the size of the Circle of Confusion. These parameters cause the dial to go amber from f/10 for a 35mm format camera at 30 megapixels, and then turn red from f/20.
Based on my own tests, I personally think that f/10 is a little too early, but the physics tells us that there is a possibility of seeing the effects of diffraction at this point, so that’s what we use, but consider this as intended, as an amber warning. Ideally, you’ll do your own tests to see when you start to see diffraction in your images and adjust your expectations accordingly. There are details of how to do diffraction tests in Episode 594, when I originally talked about this.
Infinity and Beyond!
As I mentioned earlier, I’m about to release an update to Photographer’s Friend which adds a number of new features, including translation into a number of new languages and some improvements to the user interface, but the relevance for this discussion comes in the form of a new Infinity slider on the Depth of Field Calculator Settings page. Because of the work involved in bringing you these features this slider is part of the Pro Add-on, which means you need to buy the Pro Add-on for this to be available, but if you already own the Pro Add-on, you’re good to go. What this slider does is allows you to set a custom distance for Infinity. You might initially think, well, infinity is infinity, why would I need to set it? But there are a few reasons why this might be useful, as I’ll explain.
Lens Infinity and Focus Infinity
I’m risking going down a rabbit hole by bringing this up at this point, as this took a lot of wrapping my own head around initially, but I think to ultimately avoid confusion, we should probably talk about the difference between the Infinity symbol that you see on your lenses and infinity in the context of the extent of focus in Depth of Field, because these are really not the same.
If you check your lenses you will see that what is considered Infinity looks slightly different, depending on the lens. For example, when I focus with my RF 15-35mm lens from Canon, in the viewfinder I see distance guides in meters which reads 0.28, 0.4, 0.6, 1, then the Infinity symbol, which, if you follow the spacing of the marked distances, seems to signify about 5 meters. My RF 50mm lens shows distances of 0.4, 0.5, 0.7, 1, 1.5, 3, then the infinity symbol, which in this case seems to signify around 10 meters. Finally, as a reference, my RF 100-500mm lens reads 0.9, 1.2, 1.6, 2, 3, 7, then the infinity symbol, and from my tests, focus stops increasing at around 40m.
When I initially developed this feature I added the ability to restrict Hyperfocal distance down to as little as 5 meters, or 16 feet, but I found it to be almost completely useless in this context. The reason for that is because the speed at which focus advances towards infinity is non-linear. After my 50 mm lens passes 3 meters when turning the focus ring at the same rate the speed at which focus moves towards infinity starts to increase much more rapidly. Although a quarter of a turn on the focus ring might take me from 1.5 to 3 meters, the following quarter-turn doesn’t take the lens from 3 meters to 4.5 meters. Rather, it takes the lens on a much steeper curve from 3 meters all the way to infinity, and that is really far!
As I researched these changes I found an old forum post where people were laying down the law about infinity by lens, some quoting infinity as being as close as 20 feet, but this assumes a linear increase in the focus and an abrupt stop after the last number of the focus dial or as in the case of my Canon mirrorless camera, the focus range displayed in the electronic viewfinder, as it’s no longer present on the barrel of the lenses. Another observation is that you can actually see the infinity calculations start to peak if you opt to display the calculated Infinity value that I’ll talk about in a moment. It was watching this peek that brought all of this home to me, and that is the reason that I’ve changed this functionality in Photographer’s Friend, because I know I’m not the only geek using it. I get excited when technology helps me to gain a deeper understanding of the world around me, and I wanted to share that.
No More Limits!
Until now, when displaying Infinity in Photographer’s Friend I have simply used 1000 meters as a generic cut-off, and although we showed the infinity symbol for the depth of field, as the distance went past 1000 meters we just showed greater than “>1000 m” and that doesn’t provide the information that feeds my curiosity. So from version 3.7 of Photographer’s Friend which should be available in the App Store in the coming days, whether you own the Pro Add-on or not, you will be able to tap the Depth of Field label or the Far Limit label and cycle through three different infinity display modes.
The default mode displays the preset infinity value in parentheses, which will remain at 1000 meters and display as “>∞ (1 km)” or “>∞ (0.6 mi)”. With the Pro Add-on, the distance will change to whatever you set it to with the Infinity slider on the settings page. The second mode will just show the greater than symbol and infinity symbol “>∞” when the distance is greater than infinity. This really just gives you the option to clean up the interface, making it less cluttered when necessary. The third mode is the geeky one, which shows the calculated distance as it races towards infinity, which actually can extend out way past the originally used 1000 meter limit, so for long focal lengths, you may see something like “>∞ 57 km” or “>∞ 36 mi”. The calculated distances increase very rapidly for wide-angle lenses, so it’s harder to see the gradual increase because of the distance steps, but if you change to a longer focal length like 500mm, you can actually watch the focus increase faster and faster as it heads towards infinity, and I personally find that fascinating.
Once we hit true infinity, the depth of field calculation actually returns a negative number, so I have to convert that to a large positive number, so at that point, I have no choice but to show an Infinity symbol as we really are at infinity.
By adjusting the preset Infinity value with the new slider in the Depth of Field Calculator settings, you are giving yourself more reference points as you shoot. Because of the non-linear nature of the focus advance towards infinity, I don’t recommend trying to use something like 20 feet or a really close number that you might find online, but I have made the slider start at 50 meters or 164 feet, which I feel is close enough to be useful, and it extends out to one mile or just over 1600 meters. You use this to get a reminder of when a wider angle lens is theoretically approaching infinity, because the readout labels for Far Limit and Depth of Field will change color, and you can select any three of the modes I discussed earlier, whichever you find most useful. Personally, I’m enjoying seeing the colored label and infinity symbol kick in, but I’m working mostly with mode three, which shows the actually calculated infinity distance, so you get the best of both worlds.
For example, in this screenshot, I have Infinity set to 100m which will put you at 330 feet if you hit the new measurement unit toggle switch that I also just added, or tap the distance dial label. The focus distance is set to 75 meters, which not greater than the calculated Hyperfocal Distance, but because I have the Infinity slider set to 100m I already have a colored label for the Far Limit and the greater than Infinity symbols in place because the far limit is passed the Infinity distance that I have preset, but I have an approximately equal symbol with the infinity symbol in the Depth of Field readout, to tell me that I’ve surpassed by preset Infinity distance, but it’s not yet greater than the calculated infinity distance. Basically, we can now use this as an indication that we’re approaching the calculated Infinity, and we can still monitor that we’re not quite at true infinity because of the approximation symbol.
Or, for example, here I have the focus distance dial past the Hyperfocal Distance and the Infinity display in mode 2, so I just get the greater than infinity symbols for a nice clean readout if that’s all I care about. How you use these features is completely up to you. I’m just providing the tools, and as is often the case with Photographer’s Friend, some uses are practical field techniques, and others are to help you get your head around the technical aspects of photography.
Why is Pixel Peeper Mode Important?
OK, so as we start to wrap this up, I’d like to talk a little about why it’s important to use Pixel Peeper Mode. In the past, I’ve spoken with people that had concerns about focus, and sometimes think there may have been a problem with their camera. Most of the time it turns out that the problems stemmed from a lack of information or full understanding of just how shallow depth of field gets with modern high-resolution cameras. Keep in mind that if you are going to check the focus in your images by making an 8 x 10-inch print and look at it at arm’s length, the traditional calculation is fine, but for larger prints and when checking your focus at 100%, especially on a large screen, your images won’t show as much depth of field as you would think based on the traditional calculations.
To illustrate this point though, take a look at this portrait of a young Himba girl from my Complete Namibia Tour. For this portrait, I used an aperture of ƒ/2.8 which will give us a reasonably shallow depth of field, although the lens would go as wide as ƒ/1.2. It’s tempting to shoot portraits wide open, and at times I do, but you have to understand just how shallow the depth of field is. With the traditional calculation, f/2.8 at a focal length of 50mm, and I see from my EXIF data that I was focussed at 65cm, learn that I have a depth of field of 2.5 cm or one inch. That’s already quite shallow, but if I switch to Pixel Peeper mode, which calculates the actual depth of field for my 30 megapixels Canon EOS R at these settings, I find that I actually only have a depth of field of 1.172 cm which is slightly under a half of an inch.
Now, I like this look and it was intentional, but if you study the image you’ll see that only her right eye, mouth, and part of her headdress are crisply sharp. Everything else gradually gets softer as we move away from this shallow plane of focus, of just over 1 centimeter.
One person that I spoke to in the past said that they couldn’t get a sharp photograph with the Canon EOS 5Ds R, and they were shooting with an 85mm ƒ/1.2 lens wide open at a distance of around 5 feet or 1.5 meters, and they thought they should have a few centimeters of depth of field. With the traditional calculation at these settings, indeed, they would have just over 2 centimeters of depth of field, similar to what I had in this shot of the Himba girl. What they actually had was 7 mm, and when we inspected the images we could see that there was a very thin line of sharpness, rather than the image being completely out of focus as they’d thought.
This is why it is important, especially when working with very shallow depth of field, to understand just how much focus you can expect, and Pixel Peeper mode in my iOS app can provide you with this information simply by turning it on and selecting your sensor’s megapixels. If you don’t already own Photographer’s Friend, you can find it on the Apple App Store here, and there are more details about the Depth of Field and other calculators and features on the product page here.
Stopping Down for Wildlife
Another thing that comes up in conversation a lot is the necessity to stop down your aperture a little for large wildlife subjects. Sure, if you just want the eyes sharp, and yes, that can provide a beautiful look, then staying wide open is fine, but if, for example, you are photographing a large bird in flight, and want to see more of the wings sharp, stopping down a little is important. For example, this Steller’s Sea Eagle shot at 16 meters or 52 feet has a wingspan of around 2.5 meters, just over 8 feet. Even with the wings folded slightly like this, we’re still talking about almost 2 meters from tip to tip. At ƒ/10 with a focal length of 400mm, my depth of field with the traditional calculation is 90 cm or just under 3 feet, but with a 30-megapixel camera, we’re actually looking at less than half that, at 42 cm or 16 inches. Now, I don’t mind the wing tips being out of focus like this, but the amount you see in this photo is based on my selected aperture of ƒ/10. If I’d shot this wide open, there would have been much less focus on the near edge of the wings, and it probably would have bugged the hell out of me.
For this Crane shot, when there were two subjects, I was focussing at a distance of 35 meters or 110 feet, with a focal length of 700mm, and with the traditional calculation I should have around 1.5 meters or almost 5 feet of depth of field, which would probably have been enough to get both birds sharp, but for a 30-megapixel camera, which is what I was using, in Pixel Peeper mode, I see that I actually only had 68 cm or 26 inches. The result is that the second of the two Red-Crowned Cranes is slightly out of focus, even at ƒ/11. I actually often stop down to ƒ/14 when there are multiple subjects, but didn’t on this occasion, and the results are, to me at least, a little bit disappointing.
Hyperfocal Distance Use in Landscape Photography
Finally, I’d like to mention that when doing landscape photography I actually rarely photograph using Hyperfocal distance. The theory is that if you identify the Hyperfocal distance and then focus at that point, you can ensure that everything from the near limit of your depth of field to infinity will be in focus. With relatively wide-angle lenses though, the depth of field is deep enough that in general, if you focus around a third of the way into the frame, you will be approximately shooting at the Hyperfocal distance, and don’t really need to calculate it. I generally still just focus on the subject that is most important in the frame and from experience I generally know that this is going to give me sufficient depth of field. It’s important to note though that I built that experience by using tools like my Photographer’s Friend Depth of Field Calculator and checking the results of my work to ensure that my understanding of the limitations we face is accurate.
In this image of me looking out across the valley at Landmannalaugar in Iceland, I simply focussed on the rock on which I intended to stand, and everything from the foreground to the distant mountains is in focus because I had a focal length of 38mm and my aperture set to ƒ/16. I had focussed around 10 meters into the frame and the hyperfocal distance is around 8 meters, so everything from 4 meters to infinity was in focus.
When you use longer focal lengths, even for landscape, the depth of field does need to be considered more carefully, so I will sometimes reach for my calculator when using long focal lengths, even for landscape. I love that my Canon mirrorless cameras also now have a distance scale right there in the viewfinder so that I can see the distance at which I’m focusing when I do want to use Hyperfocal distance for maximum depth of field.
Just so that you know, it’s actually not a simple task to find the actual focus distance of an image just by looking at the EXIF data in your computer’s file browser, as few programs actually show this. I use a neat piece of software called RawDigger for this, which allows me to see what Canon interprets as the Near and Far focus limits, and that allows me to approximate my focus distance, so I just wanted to give that mention.
Out of Chicago Live!
I do hope you found this post useful. We’ll wrap it up there, but before we finish I’d like to mention that I will be teaching alongside the world’s best photographers at Out of Chicago LIVE! This will be running from April 9 to 11th, 2021, so SAVE THE DATE! You can find more information at www.outofchicago.com. I hope to see you there!
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Before we jump into this week’s topic, I need to let you know that the 5DayDeal team are putting on another sale and presale giveaway that starts by the time many of you will listen to this podcast or read the post.
The Giveaway starts on October 10 at noon, Pacific Time, and the 2020 Photography Bundle launches on October 15, again at noon Pacific Time. As the name implies, the sale lasts for just 5 days, so if you read this before the end of October 20, do check this out. If you visit this page before these dates, please do go and check out the 5DayDeal website, and level-up your photography, or at the very least, broaden your knowledge and capabilities with the awesome tools and educational materials that you’ll receive as part of your bundle.
Days Hours Minutes Seconds
Let’s jump into today’s topic though. A few weeks ago I did a talk for the Oakville Camera Club, and included a number of slides on a topic that I’ve been gradually thinking about over the years, regarding looking for a style. As we start to learn more about photography, there comes a point where many photographer’s start to ask about finding their style. You’ll hear questions like “How do I find my style as a photographer” where the real question, which I also hear, is “How do I develop my style?”
The questions regarding searching for or finding a style are not necessarily flawed, if you are consciously thinking about looking within ourselves for the style, but the idea of looking outside of yourself to find your style is, in my opinion, fundamentally flawed, simply because, for our style to be truly ours, it can be nowhere else but already within us. Any style that you find or create based on external influence can never be yours.
Of course, we see imagery all the time, and we are visually influenced every time we view or imagine something that modifies our perception or appreciation of the world around us. Whenever we make a decision as to how we will compose a photograph, what exposure to use, when to use a wide aperture for shallow depth of field, or smaller aperture to get more of our photograph in focus, or even simply whether the image should be in portrait or landscape orientation. Every decision we make as we work comes from all of the influences that we’ve had until the point that we release the shutter.
That right there though, is exactly why our style is ours and ours alone, and why I truly believe that looking for a style as such is not something that we need to actively pursue. We form opinions about the world around us based on our life experiences, and these things help to form the core of our characters. This doesn’t only include positive experiences, as even some seemingly negative experiences, can make us better people. Of course, there are times when childhood maltreatment and other traumatic experiences scar an individual and can create some negative characteristics that we don’t really need to get into here, but assuming you aren’t an ax-wielding homicidal maniac, generally, our experiences in life tend to make us stronger in character.
This character forms a foundation for any style that we will ultimately start to see in our art, be it photography, or any other form of art. I’d hazard a guess that most people don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about how to become a better person. Good, in itself, is totally subjective, of course, but assuming that we are relatively happy with who we are, we probably arrived at that point without having to consciously work on our character.
I believe that we gradually form a style subconsciously as we perform the act of creating our art. If you look at any one image, with nothing to compare it to, you will unlikely see anything that leads you to the artist, unless it’s someone that has become known for a specific style, but they didn’t arrive at the point where their style can be recognized with one image.
As the viewer, it takes a relatively large body of work for us to recognize the similarities that we start to recognize as a style, but from the artists perspective, it will rarely be the result of sitting down with a pencil and paper and drawing out a plan on how they are going to develop that style. It’s generally a completely organic process, and comes from doing the art time and time again, but I believe that the purest styles are directly linked to the underlying character of the person creating the art, and it’s profoundly moulded into a style over many years.
Shoot From the Heart
Of course, there are young artists that crop up from time to time with what we might consider to be amazing styles, and without doubt, artistic pursuits come more easily to some than others, but there are very few real overnight successes. Even someone that seemingly becomes amazing overnight, generally has years of becoming who they are to bolster what they have become, and there is no saying that what we see at any given time will be the same as the art that they will continue to create for years to come.
If, though, they are true to themselves in the decisions that they make as they create their art, there will generally be an underlying style that is visible and common through their work over decades, if not, ultimately, over their entire lives. This is why I often find myself saying that we have to shoot from the heart, and why I believe that we should not look externally for our style. Nothing that you can find outside of yourself can possibly be you. Your style can only come from within, based on your own sense of aesthetic, with a foundation of your character, which is, as I say, a culmination of all our life experiences until the point that we release the shutter.
Overcoming Technical Hurdles
The other major part of the puzzle, is developing our technical ability and understanding of our cameras and the effect that the settings have on the image, to the point that it becomes almost second nature. The technical aspects of photography are important, but by the time we are making our art, will hopefully be completely second nature, and simply support the creative process, and not get in the way of it. If you find yourself missing shots in the field because you can’t figure out how to adjust the settings of your camera to create a certain look, then you need to study the manual and get a better understanding of the fundamentals of photography.
Of course, we can bang our cameras into full automatic mode and still make photographs, but there will come a time when you want a certain look, and you’ll need to understand how to achieve that look, and hopefully be so fluid with that knowledge and technique that you simply go to work when the time comes to make the image.
You may recall me talking about The Mental Checklist, that I started to work through many years ago, shortly after I started this Podcast, and found that I was able to prevent myself from making mistakes in the field by asking the questions that I knew I’d ask later as I prepared for a new post about the shoot. By simply being more deliberate in the field, I started to overcome issues that were preventing me from becoming a better photographer, and doing that year in year out has gradually made me more and more confident in my ability to simply knuckle down and do the work, and get the results I am looking for.
I also just did a search online to see what people have written about the stages of the creative process, as I seem to recall seeing this in the past, and many of them talk about something similar to Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, Evaluation and Implementation. In my mind, this is over conceptualizing the creative process for much of the photography that I’m thinking about as I write this post. For sure, if you have been given an assignment to create a certain type of images, maybe as a commercial assignment, these stages may come into play, but in my opinion, for a photographer working mainly for yourself, this would be something closer to Inspiration, Preparation, Contemplation, Implementation, and Confirmation.
By the way, I’m calling this the Pentation Cycle, but you won’t find that in a dictionary. I just made it up. All five words end in “tion”. Five “tions” so pentation.
I’m thinking that the process starts with either some kind of inspiration as to what you want to shoot, be it a studio shot completely dreamed up, or a location photo, where you have seen or heard of a location that you felt you’d like to photograph. The Preparation phase would be actually pulling together the gear and/or items required for the image. You might need a special kind of lens, or maybe need to book a model, or even book a flight etc.
You’ll then need to Contemplate how you are going to make your images. This may be when you are in the field, and have just seen a specific location or subject for the first time, and you need to think through your mental checklist for possibilities that will give you or at least start to lead you towards the images you feel work. The Implementation is the actual recording of the images, and is often going to be part of a mini cycle that will include more contemplation, and also confirmation as you check your images, so we have a little sub-loop going on here as we work the scene or subject.
The Confirmation stage takes a number of forms. As I say, there is confirmation as part of a mini-loop in the field, but then assuming you’ve done all you can in the field, you need to confirm that your images meet your expectations when viewed on the computer. The more you do this, the less likely that you’ll run into problems at that stage, but it’s important to check. Then there is the confirmation with at least one trusted critique that you are on the right track. This stage is more or less important depending on your goals and also depending on what drives you.
For me, the main thing that I want from my images is for them to bring a smile to my face when I look at them later. If possible, I want them to give me goosebumps, and enable me to smell the air that I breathed as I was shooting the photograph. As a very close second most important aspect, deep down I want my wife to like the work. If she doesn’t, and I do, I will still like it. We are not the same person, and she doesn’t have to like everything that I do, but since I was a child, I respond well to praise, and I think that most of us do, so this is probably more of a driving force for me than I’d like to admit, even to myself.
After that, the cycle starts again. The inspiration for another location or subject will pop into my head, and I’ll start to think about what I need to do to make it happen, and get myself to the place where I can start to contemplate what I feel will work, then make it happen. The mini contemplation and implementation loop continues as I shoot each each, and when working with digital, there’s no shame in chimping to ensure that we’re hitting the mark, but as I say, the main confirmation in this loop comes later, as we check our results and confer with our trusted critique.
Everything That Comes from the Heart is Original
I’d also like to revisit a concept that I introduced in episode 571 entitled Be a Creator Not a Collector of Photographs. Some may think this is cynical or pessimistic, and some will think that I’m just being a realist, but pretty much everything on the planet has already been photographed, and from pretty much every angle imaginable. Getting down low or climbing onto a ridge is rarely if not never going to give you the “something different” that many people strive for.
My main goal, and I’m completely serious about this, is for my work to be original to me, and to achieve that, I have to go into a shoot with as little visual input about a location as possible. In our now so very visual world, it’s hard to visit somewhere that we’ve never seen, and some of the inspiration for a new location to shoot that I mentioned earlier will mostly come from some kind of visual that gets into my eyes and makes me want to go, but once I have that desire, I stop looking at images. I might use the Photographer’s Ephemeris to scout the best place to stand based on an illustrated map, and I may even use Google Maps satellite view to get an idea of what I’m going to see too, but I try very hard to avoid looking at other peoples’ photographs of the location before I go.
If you look at other peoples’ photographs, you turn up at the locations, and immediately start looking for their images, or arguably worse still, you see their images and then rule that out as a shot, as beautiful as it may be, because you want “something different!” and that right there is where it all falls apart. The only reason that what you would ultimate shoot feels different to you is because you didn’t look at all of the other images of that same location, so if you take that back a step, and avoid looking at any images before you visit, everything you shoot is completely original!
In the greater scheme of things, with the cynical view that everything has already been done, we can flip that around and state that nothing is original, but that is where I draw the line. If nothing we can do now can ever possibly be original, there is no point in even getting out of bed in the morning, but I’m not having any of that. I will close my eyes and avoid external influences, shoot from my heart, and know that everything I come home with was me, shot with my own style that comes from within, and it will be totally original to me, and that is all I need.
Believe it or not, when I walked out to the edge of the lava field at Landmannalaugar in Iceland for the first time, led by my friend and partner for the four tours I did there, Tim Vollmer, I had never seen that valley that still to this day, I feel is a little bit closer to heaven than most places I’ve visited. I shot that valley with no preconceptions, and you know what, I just searched for the place to check that I spelled the name right, and most of the images that showed up in Google look just like mine, but I don’t care one bit. I love the work that I have and it is 100% original to me, because I’d never seen a photo of the place before I shot it.
Over the years I’d meet with different conditions, and try to get different angles to the shots that I already had, but it was all based on what I personally already had, and I find that incredibly satisfying as a photographer and an artist, or creative.
Mimicking Is Not a Sin
Before we finish I’d like to clarify a few other points that will probably come up as you think about this stuff. First of all, yes, it’s fine to mimic or gain inspiration from other photographers or any other art form for that matter. I’m not saying that you have to close yourself off to other art. Especially when we are just getting started, mimicking the work of photographers that you admire can be a great way to hone your skills.
I also believe that we draw compositional possibilities from a mental database of images as we work, and they don’t necessarily all have to be our own. I have found though that over the years, I have started to draw more from my own previous work, as I try to improve on what I already have. Thousands of possibilities flash through our mind as we work a composition, and when you don’t have much work on your own to draw from, it’s natural to think of other peoples’ imagery.
I also find that I’m not just drawing from work that I did, but also work that I wish I’d done. I sometimes get back from a shoot and kick myself for not doing something that maybe escaped me in the field for one reason or another. I try to remember these lost shots that haunt me, and then try to realize them as future opportunities arise.
Nothing is Set in Stone
Also, I’d like to note that just as we mature as human beings, it’s fine for our photography to change over time. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it would not be natural for it to remain the same, year in, year out. Even when we revisit the processing of images on occasion, we may find that what we liked in the past is no longer the case. I recall processing my Landmannalaugar shot above considerably more vibrantly when I first shot it. I was using Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro for much of my color work at the time, and the results were sometimes a little bit too colorful for my liking now.
I still like to give my images a little bit of punch, but not quite as much as before. The same goes for my black and white work. I would often take parts of the sky down to almost black as I do like that dramatic look, but these days I’m less likely to take it quite so dark. This is also one of the benefits of working with Capture One Pro, or any software that allows you to keep your images in the raw format, but for me especially the case with Capture One, because I can get the look that I want from my raw files without using tools like Color Efex Pro any more, and because the changes are against my raw files, if I decide to change anything, I simply go back to my image and tweak the sliders.
When you bake your changes in to a Photoshop file or a TIFF, you have to go and pull out your raw file and start all over again, and that is a huge waste of time that I really prefer to avoid. Anyway, the point is, it’s fine to change over time, but again, this comes down to our work coming from within. We change as we mature as people, so it’s only natural that our work gradually changes with us.
Be True to Yourself and Your Work Will Follow
I’d like to reiterate the importance of shooting from your heart and why I think it’s fine to do so, even if some of your work may not be original in the great scheme of things. Ultimately, when we work from our heart, and try to keep our work as uncontaminated as possible, we cannot help but infuse some of our own character, that comes from our own life experiences into that work. Not everyone is going to like it, but you know what? That’s just like your character too. Nobody can be liked by everybody else. We are always going to run into people that we just rub up the wrong way, as hard as we might try to make them like us. We have no control over how people perceive us. It helps to smile and treat people with respect. Being obnoxious is obviously going to help you to not be liked, but even when we are on our best behavior, we cannot ensure that everyone we meet likes us. And the same goes for our photography, so we have to be OK with that.
We live, every minute of our lives, until we die. That’s how it works, and we have no choice, but we do have a choice when it comes to how we spend each of those minutes, and the more of them that we spend indulging in creative thought or a creative pursuit, the better we will gradual get at it.
I just did a search for the theory of it taking 60,000 hours to master a craft, which I seem to recall hearing somewhere over the years. Having spent most of my adult life in Japan, I was happy to find an article which reminded me that in Western culture, it’s 10,000 hours to master something, and the 60,000 that popped into my head was the number used here in Japan, where craftsmanship is often a lifelong pursuit. I’ve said enough for one post, but I’ll leave you with two quotes from the article and encourage you to have a read for yourself too. The first is “There are no shortcuts to greatness.” and the second, is the closing sentence, “That human element will always come first, no matter what.”
As I finally catch up on tasks after completing my 2020 Japan Winter Tours, I have just organized the images from the three trips and took stock a little, and being as so many of us are spending time indoors at the moment, I figured I’d share some thoughts on the process, in the hope that it might help you with your workflow too. Now might be a good time to enjoy your photography introspectively, and taking a look at your organization can lead to a deeper appreciation of your work as well as making it easier to get to.
If you’ve been following how I work, you may recall that I keep all of my current year’s images on one SSD drive, which includes everything I’ve shot, and then copy all of my final selects into a second SSD drive. My entire year drive is called my Traveler, because it not only travels the world, but it travels nicely between my computers too, as I also keep my Capture One Pro catalogs on the drive, so I can just catch up where I left off simply by moving the drive between my computers. I won’t go into as much detail as my previous posts, such as episode 466, so check out that post if this isn’t just a top-up for you.
My Finals drive also travels everywhere with me, but that is where I store everything that I feel is worth showing people, and images that I will actively use going forward. From this year’s trips, I ended up with 96 images from my Hokkaido Landscape Tour that I’m really happy with. 77 of them were shot with my EOS R and 19 of them shot with my Rolleiflex medium format twin lens reflex camera. From the first of my Japan Winter Wildlife tours, I came back with 270 images that I am really happy with, and from my second Japan Winter Wildlife tour, I found myself with 179 images. The main reason for the reduction on the second tour was the warm winter affecting the behavior of the sea eagles. Although we did still get some great shots, it wasn’t as productive as the first tour.
During my tours I try to show the group what I’ve been getting from time to time, to hopefully inspire them, but also to encourage them to share their own work, as that really helps us to inspire each other as we travel together. To facilitate this, and to help me speed up my workflow, I create a Smart Album at the start of each tour, that will automatically gather all images of two stars or higher during the dates of the tours, so as I go through my images each day and make my selections, they automatically appear in this Smart Album. Here is a screenshot of the settings, and although this is in Capture One Pro, you can do something very similar in Lightroom.
You can’t, unfortunately, select multiple Smart Albums at once, although you can create a new wider-ranging Smart Album, but I’ve just selected the albums individually and right-clicked the images in each album, and selected Export > Originals to copy them to a 2020 sub-folder on my Finals SSD. I usually specify to Prefer Sidecar XMP over Embedded Metadata in the Capture One Pro Preferences > Image dialog, as well as selecting Full Sync for the Auto Sync Sidecar XMP option. This, coupled with selecting the Include Adjustments checkbox during the Export of my Originals ensures that Capture One Pro includes all of the edits I’ve done to my images.
Capture One creates a few extra folders in the export directory to include some cache and settings files, including masks that I’ve drawn on images to make adjustments etc. When I open my Finals catalog, because this is the first time I’m copying images across for 2020, I initially have to Import my images at their current location, selecting the 2020 folder that was just created in my Finals folder on my Finals SSD. The important thing here is to ensure that the Include Existing Adjustments checkbox is turned on under the Adjustments section.
You can’t actually see the adjustments in your images in the import dialog, but once you have completed the import, all adjustments will be applied to the images and so we don’t have to redo any work that we did on the images on the original drive.
I actually recalled that I’d shot a few movie files while traveling as well, and so went back into my Traveler catalog to copy those over, and that reminded me that if you do have movies in your selection, you need to turn on the Include Movies option in the Export dialog, otherwise these will be ignored. I hadn’t even rated my movie files yet, so there were not included in my Smart Albums anyway, but that is something to keep in mind if you do shoot movies and use Capture One Pro.
That did give me the opportunity though to show you how updates are handled for the rest of the year, as I now have a 2020 folder in my Finals catalog, so all I have to do after copying any new work across is right-click my 2020 folder and select Synchronize. I find that it works better to select Show Importer on this dialog, as some changes to files have not been reflected when I haven’t done this in the past, although I haven’t checked recently to see if that is still a problem.
Once this process is complete, the beauty of my workflow is that I now have all of the current year’s work on one SSD, and I keep that with me at all times, until my cloud backup is completed, and we’ll touch on that shortly. In addition to the current year though, I also have one more drive that essentially has every image I’ve ever shot that I consider being worth a hoot. So with more than twenty years of my favorite shots in one catalog, I can get to images easily to send to people, for example, even if I’m traveling, or to use in demonstrations during my workshops or talks.
Brief Summary of Backup Process
As we came so close to this during the last paragraph, I’ve updated my Studio Backup workflow slide and included that here for your reference. To summarize, I shoot my images and initially store them in my Traveler SSD, and although it’s not on this slide, if I’m actually away from home, I do daily backups to a second drive, just in case anything happens to the first. I will then keep the Traveler in my pocket or a locker for the entire time.
When I get home from a trip, I plug the Traveler into my iMac Pro, and that kicks off a Chronosynch job I’ve created to synchronize my new images and updated Capture One Pro catalog to my Drobo. On my iMac I’m running Backblaze which then starts to transfer my new images and catalog into the cloud. This can take a while, and I have to choke the upload speed a little so as not to get my Internet connection crippled by my stingy provider, but even after a wildlife trip with thousands of images, within a few weeks of getting home my new work will be backed up in the cloud.
Being slightly paranoid, I actually have a second Drobo which I turn on occasionally and run another Chronosynch job to synchronize my first Drobo with my second. This is just to save me waiting for a cloud backup to be delivered from Backblaze should I ever have anything go wrong with my Drobo. The cloud backup is really my ultimate disaster recovery plan, should something happen to my entire house, taking out both Drobos. My entire back is currently around 17TB though, so downloading it over the Internet is not really an option. I’d have to pay for physical drives to be sent out to me.
I also backup my Finals SSD to the Drobo, including the Finals Capture One Pro catalog, as I make most of my final tweaks on there, and it also contains lots of Collections for things that I’ve done over the years, including my yearly Top Ten selections, which I love to go back through from time to time. I also use it to create temporary collections like this Want to Print collection.
Printing Our Work
I’m not sure if I’ll have time to do this during the coming week, but I was thinking that I’d love to print some of the medium format work that I did during my Hokkaido Landscape tour in January. so I’ve just dropped twelve images into a Want to Print album. I might tweak the selection too, but there is something about the tactility of the format that makes me want to print at least a selection of images. I found it so interesting and calming to work with film after almost twenty years and also developing the film myself using the Lab-Box. There is something about deciding how to complete this analog work in the digital darkroom though that has me thinking a little harder than I have so far when printing digital work, so I’ll try to nail that down and talk about it once I’ve come to some conclusions.
Whether you shoot film or digital though, printing can be incredibly fulfilling, so I wanted to suggest that if you are staying safe and healthy during these times of crisis, and find yourself with some time at home to enjoy your photography, printing can be a great way to do that. It might be hard to source a new printer at the moment, but even if you have an inexpensive A4 inkjet printer hanging around, the results can be surprisingly good, so maybe give it a try.
This week I share a chat with my friend Don Komarechka about his awesome macro work and his upcoming crowd-funded book. Don is an incredibly talented photographer, and probably the only photographer I know that is geekier than I am when it comes to diving into the details.
There’s no shortage of geekiness in our chat either, and although I won’t transcribe the conversation for the blog, I have posted some of Don’s beautiful macro photographs below that we talk about in our conversation, along with a wealth of macro photography and mad scientist-style conversation with one of my favorite guests.
When we recorded our chat in the middle of May, Don was still working on getting his Kickstarter project launched, but luckily, the day before I left for Namibia, as I worked on this post, Don sent me a link and some beautiful shots of his new book, Macro Photography: The Universe at Our Feet.
I’ll create a gallery of photos of the book below, but for now, I’d like to also quickly mention that Don runs a great Podcast Photo Geek Weekly that you might also want to check out, and to see his workshops and connect check out Don’s main website at www.donkom.ca.
Anyway, here are the photographs that we discuss in our chat. Please listen with the audio player above. and I hope you enjoy the conversation.