Going into depth

Going into depth

f/1.2, 1/320 sec, at 85mm, 100 ISO, on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

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.


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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.


  1. Matt Connors

    Good read Matt. I love that your questions and answers struck you while talking with other photographers. I have that same sense of growth, exploration, and inspiration whenever I get together with other photographers. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen nearly enough.

    • Matt Brandon

      Matt, I think it is must be that creative synergy that happens with others.

  2. CathyTopping

    Hey welcome back! Been missing your posts 🙂

    A really interesting read, not elementary in the slightest. I’ve been using pretty much just 2 lenses for the past few years (lack of funds, not necessarily a choice) – a 50mm and a 24-105. (as an aside, those 2 lenses have served me in all sorts of situations, assignments and projects.)

    In the last 6 months or so, I’ve gotten so bored with the varial focal length lens, mainly because of it’s f4 limit. But also because zooming in and out, I didn’t feel in control of what I was producing. So I found myself just using the cheap, plastic 50mm f1.8 most of the time.

    So I invested. A couple of hundred dollars in a 35m f2.0. And more recently an 85mm f.1.8 for another few hundred. Yes, they’re the Budget Brothers of prime lenses, but boy am I having a good time.

    I’m loving shuffling around on my feet, being forced to move. Talk about elementary! And the combination of the right distance from my subject combined with the right aperture with the right lens (for what I want to achieve) is such a nice feeling.

    Ahh. Gear chat!

    • Matt Brandon

      Cathy, I love it when a photographer finds fulfillment in using primes lenses. We often get so lazy with our zooms that we forget to move our feet and limit our perspective. By the way, limited budgets can force us to be even more creative.

      • Cathy

        Yes, we can be forced to be creative with the limits that are imposed by our gear…but I think that lack of gear can also stifle our creativity. It really does depend where you are with your photography, what you are shooting and, more importantly – WHY you need a piece of equipment.

        Throwing money at expensive equipment isn’t going to improve your photography in and of itself. However, my experience has been that it’s time to get a new lens (or camera body), when I feel I’ve hit the limit of what I can achieve with what I’ve got. When I have an idea or an image in mind that I just cannot achieve with – say – f4, or a 50mm focal length.

        I actually feel that my creativity has grown by buying new equipment – heresy! – but the footnote to that statement is that I have only spent that money because I knew why I was buying a full-frame camera (that one was mainly for my clients) or why I needed a particular lens. It was an idea-driven purchase, not just a shiny new toy for the sake of it..

        • CathyTopping

          That was me, by the way! I got confused with the Disqus wotzit.

  3. Ursula

    Nice post!  It puts the finger on why I often don’t “get” the picture I have in my mind’s eye. More and more I realise that I need a full frame body and lenses with lower f-stops.

    • Matt Brandon

      In the meantime, use those things that limit you to force you to me more creative. 😉

  4. heimana

    Hi Matt, nice to read from you 😉
    As Cathy I’m mainly shooting with the 24-105 f4 (and feels the same problem as her about the f4, even stabilized) and my 50 f1.4… Depending on what I shoot, I also use a 70-200 f2.8 and an old 17-35 f2.8 (this old buster is blocked at 2.8, no repairing they said at Canon).
    I often shoot at the smaller f-stop possible by the way, but now trying to educate myself to use other f-stops too 🙂 Also thought it is/was to separate the subject, but now you opened a new perspective!
    Thanks for your posts, they’re always interesting! Take care!

    • Matt Brandon

      Heimana, thanks for commenting. Like so many things, it isn’t a case of A or B. It is both. I shallow depth of field does isolate the subject as well as create depth. It also plays off of the rule that our eyes go to objects in focus over things out of focus. As I said, there is a lot at work.

  5. Tripp

    I’m getting ready to move to FX, and in deciding which lenses to get, I thought about this same exact thing.  Though I have a 17-55mm for DX, I found myself using it less and less, and so I decided to forego completely a “normal” zoom when I move to FX.  I’m pretty much just like you; I have my 16-35, plus 50mm f/1.4 and 85 f/1.4 that I mostly will be using, and like you, I tend to use them at their extremes for the same exact reasons (same for DX currently).  In fact, sometimes I force myself to *not* shoot at 16mm (or 12mm for DX) just to try to get a bit different perspective.  I kind of think of normal zooms as “boring” now, no matter how great those new 24-70’s perform!

  6. Mick

    Of course by its very nature choice is intentional…

    I think it is often a good exercise to go out with just one lens. It forces you to approach things in a different way than if you had half a dozen in your bag to choose from. I was recently in Cambodia when my 24 – 70 died on me. I’d not gone out with all my kit so was left with a 70 – 200  to shoot a crowded market. It was a challenge but resulted in some good pics.

    And the 1.2 is very much a fashion with photographers at the moment…much like the vomit-inducing Lens Baby. If you like bokeh the Canon 1.8, 85 mm is an excellent prime and a fraction of the price of the 1.2….and in all honesty much easier to use. Of course it doesn’t have that little red line on it which may put some people off…

    • Matt Brandon


      Not sure about how the 1.2 is in “fashion” when only a fraction of photographers own the thing. It is crazy expediencies. But, you are right that the 1.8 is a great lens. I shot it for years. It was the money lens for me. But they deffinately do not make the same images. The 1.2 bokeh is distinct.

      You also make a good point, that I have made here in these pages many times. Limitations breed creativity. It is always a good exercise to take only one lens out and shoot with it. It sharpens your compositional eye and forces you to make new and creative decision.

  7. Jerod Foster

    Indeed, a great point to make about depth, Matt! Seeing the significance of physical depth (or the lack thereof) for each image is essential. I tell people all the time that my favorite function/mechanism on any camera+lens combo is the aperture. It’s the first thing I consider when shooting, no matter what. There’s so much visual control in such a small set of collapsible metal leaves…

    This read is certainly not a waste of 10 minutes.


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