Going into depth
I am what some people call an intuitive photographer. By that I mean, I take photographs often by what feels right. Many times people that are intuitive at any craft or talent make bad instructors. When asked why they do something they simply reply, “I don’t know, it just feels right.” As an instructor, I find this a challenging aspect of my teaching – to take those things that are intuitive for me and make them methodical. By methodical I mean, make it into a method or a system that others can use. I face the challenge to understand why I do something so that I can put it into words for others. Many times it is in talking with other people or reading articles about why people do things, is when the light comes on and I realize this is why I do something.
A light came on for me this past week. Over the last couple weeks I’ve had several people ask me what lenses I keep on my camera? The answer to this is pretty straightforward, on one camera body I keep my 16–35mm f/2.8, and on my other camera I keep either my 50mm f/1.2 or my 85mm f/1.2. When thinking about this, I realized that I am a creature of extremes. When I use my 16–35mm I almost always use it around the 16mm focal length. When I use my 50mm or my 85mm lens I’m almost always shooting at an f-stop of 1.2. But why?
It dawned on me recently while speaking with David DuChemin about dynamic balance and the rule/principal/suggestion of thirds that this really has almost everything to do with my use of extremes. Let me try to explain. I used the 16mm because I like a wide vista that allows me to frame my subject to one side of the image, yet still giving me plenty of room to play out the rest of the story in the frame. Not only does this add to the storytelling element, it is a compositional technique that gives a balance between your subject and often negative space. It allows the viewer to move there eye around the frame taking in information and returning to the main subject. Of course, this is based on the ever popular “Rule of Thirds”. This rule or principle states basically that by framing a subject on one of the four “power points” within the frame, the photographer creates a sense of tension or dynamic balance. It keeps your subject from being static and thus boring. Of course, you can do this with any lens, but a super wide-angle lens allows you to do this with ease and can include so much more information.
But why do I seem to fall back to f/1.2? Certainly, I love the look. But why does this appeal to me? While talking with Jarod Foster on Skype the other day it dawned on me, it’s not that much different than why I use a 16mm lens. It has to do with composition – only it’s more composition of depth. Most of us know a photograph should have a foreground, a mid-ground and a background. Often a photograph can be cluttered with detail that is extraneous to the image – or we can say, to the story. This information can actually distract a viewer’s eye away from the subject. By using an extremely shallow depth of field, your subject becomes isolated by the soft blurred background that often becomes negative space and can draw the viewer’s eye to your subject. Humans naturally view the world with varying depth of fields. Even now as I look at my computer monitor, behind it, through my window I see a roll of condominiums that stretch along the beach. Yet when I focus my eyes on what I’m writing, in my peripheral vision those condominiums are blurred and this allows my brain to maintain focus on what I am writing. I’m pretty sure that this sense of depth that we see in the real world is transferred into a photograph when we use the shallow depth of field. I think intuitively, I was shooting a narrow depth of field to create a sense of that depth. In the past, I have only described using a shallow depth of field as a tool to isolate my subject. But now, as I think about it, it’s more than just isolating the subject, it’s creating a sense of depth within the image.
I know this sounds extremely elementary for many of you. In fact, at this point you may have even felt you have wasted another 10 minutes by reading this post. But before you run off let me ask you a few simple questions. Are you able to articulate why you shoot the way you do? Can you tell me why you use the lenses you use? Why do you choose the f-stop you do? Are the choices you make intentional? If you can’t answer these simple questions, then maybe it’s time for you to sit down and think through the choices you make when you go to photograph a subject. Once you get to the point that you can articulate these choices, you will have much more depth to your images.