Two Helpful Changes in Lightroom Classic

Adobe just a released a new update to Lightroom Classic. There’s nothing earth-shattering here, but they’ve added a couple of nice new features that I think you’ll find helpful: a new Hue slider for local adjustments, and an updated interface for the Tone Curve. I explain these changes in this video:

(If you don’t see the video, click here to view it on YouTube.)

As I explain in the video, the new Hue slider allows you to completely replace the colors in part of an image. I like the color in my photographs to look natural, so Lightroom’s previously-available color controls for local adjustments worked have worked well for me most of the time. But the new Hue slider might prove useful, in some instances, for tweaking color in ways that I couldn’t before, and I can always dial down the saturation if the colors become too intense. I often find that I need to use a new tool for awhile to understand its potential.

These new features have been added to Adobe Camera Raw, of course, since ACR and Lightroom’s Develop Module are twins. Adobe also revamped the user interface for ACR to make it more similar to Lightroom:


 

Longtime ACR users might not like the change, but the old interface was looking rather dated, and as someone who primarily uses Lightroom, and delves into ACR only occasionally, I appreciate working in this new, more familiar environment.

Alas, the keyboard shortcuts in Lightroom and ACR are still different. But you can now use the scroll wheel on your mouse to change the brush size in ACR. Yay! For years I’ve been instinctually trying to use the scroll wheel to change the brush size in ACR, since I’m so used to doing that in Lightroom – only to meet with frustration when nothing happens. But now this works! If only Adobe would add this shortcut to Photoshop proper…

There’s one more change that you’ll want to be aware of if you sync images between Lightroom Classic and the “cloud” version of Lightroom. The sync activity used to be visible in the upper-left corner by clicking on your nameplate. Now you view the sync activity and settings in the upper-right corner by clicking on the little cloud symbol:

There are few more changes, all of which seem pretty minor to me, but maybe they’ll be more important to you. You can see a complete list here.

That’s it for now! If I find any other useful new features I’ll let you know.

Michael Frye

Related Posts: Image-Adaptive Behavior in Lightroom’s Tone Controls; The Profile Browser in Lightroom Classic

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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From the Archives: Footprints on Sand Dune

Footprints on sand dune, Death Valley, California

Footprints on sand dune, Death Valley, California

This photograph is from October of 1995 – deep in the archives.

Most of my photographic ideas arise spontaneously, as I react to the light, weather, and my surroundings. But sometimes an idea pops into my head at home, or while driving, or, especially, while falling asleep.

The idea for this footprint image was one of those occasions when an idea just popped into my head, though I don’t remember exactly where or when. I had been experimenting with light painting at dusk and at night, using flash and flashlights, and somewhere during that time I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool show a line of footprints on a sand dune, and use a flashlight to make the prints glow?”

Sure. But how could I do that?

The first problem was figuring out how to light the footprints without making other, unwanted prints all over the dune. Maybe I could take a step, then reach back and light the previous footprint with my flashlight, then take another step, and so on. But I didn’t think that would work because, first, I wouldn’t be able to make a straight, natural line of prints that way, and second, the body contortions required would make me mess up the footprints.

I finally figured out a perfect solution for that problem. It seemed obvious once I thought of it: make a double exposure. This was long before I started using a digital camera, or even Photoshop, but I had made many multiple-exposures on film. The Mamiya 645 camera I used for this image was designed for this; flipping a small lever allowed you to re-cock the shutter without advancing the film, so I could make as many exposures as I wanted on one frame.

So I figured I could make the footprints before sunset, then set the camera on a tripod and make an exposure for the footprints and dune at dusk. I could leave the camera in place, and then, after dark, open the shutter again and walk wherever I wanted to light the footprints, knowing that my new prints wouldn’t show up on film because it would be completely dark. In that second exposure, only the spots I lit with the flashlight would be bright enough to be visible.

I had a chance to try this idea in the Imperial Dunes in southern California. I found a suitable dune, walked barefoot up the dune to make the line of prints, put my camera on a tripod, composed the scene, and made an exposure at dusk.  I had to wait about an hour for it to get dark enough to open the shutter again and light the prints with my flashlight. When I finished the dune was covered in footprints, but I knew that didn’t matter; only the original line of prints and the light from the flashlight would be visible in the final image.

All that worked as planned, except that when I got the film back the light on the prints looked like shapeless blobs, not footprints. I had tried to carefully trace the outlines of each print, but obviously that hadn’t worked well enough.

So back to the drawing board. How could I make the light take the shape of a footprint?

I realized that I needed to actually project a footprint shape onto the ground. This involved, first, taking the reflector out of a powerful flashlight so that the bulb would be a single-point light source. Then I cut out the front of a small, cheap, portable soft box (the kind that’s typically mounted over a small flash). Next I drew the shape of a bare foot on a piece of cardboard (it took several tries to get this right), cut out that shape, and taped the cardboard to the front of the soft box. I taped an amber gel filter over the cutout, and then mounted the whole rig onto the flashlight.

So I tried again, this time in Death Valley. Again, I made an exposure at dusk for the prints and dune. Then, after dark, I opened the shutter a second time, lit the right-hand prints using my jerry-rigged footprint projector, closed the shutter, flipped the footprint-shaped cutout around, opened the shutter a third time, and lit the left-hand prints.

And this time when I got the film back it looked perfect – just what I had envisioned. It was a lot of work for one precious little piece of 4.5 cm x 6 cm film, but it was satisfying to work through all the problems and make this idea come to life.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Sand and Stars; The January 31st Lunar Eclipse

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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Photographing Forests

Dogwood and giant sequoia in the fog, Sierra NF, CA, USA

Dogwood and giant sequoia in the fog, Sierra Nevada, California. Fog is a wonderful complement to forest scenes; here, some ephemeral fog lasted just long enough for me to capture this image. 70mm, polarizer, 0.7 seconds at f/16, ISO 100.

People seem to love trees and forests. I know I do.

But forests can be difficult to photograph. Natural forests are usually a study in chaos, with haphazard arrangements of branches, trunks, logs, and leaves. There’s an organic order to all that, with trees and understory plants growing to take advantage of small patches of sunlight, and a cycle of birth, growth, death, and decay.

But visual order can be hard to find amid all that clutter. The chief challenge in photographing forests is usually finding a way to simplify things, and make order out of chaos.

Stand Back

Oaks and redbuds in the fog, Mariposa County, Stanislaus NF, CA, USA

Oaks and redbuds in the fog, Mariposa County, Stanislaus NF, California. A small man-made clearing allowed me to step back and use a long lens to photograph this scene without foreground branches getting in the way. 116mm, polarizer, 0.7 seconds at f/11, ISO 100.

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” Any photographer trying to photograph a forest will recognize the truth in that statement. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found an otherwise-perfect composition ruined by intervening branches or leaves. Sometimes I can put the camera on my tripod, compose, set a 10-second self timer, then walk out and gently bend the offending branches out of the way. But often that’s not possible, and I have to look for a different composition.

And what I usually look for is a place where I can step back from the forest a bit, without intervening trees or branches in the way. That means finding a small clearing or break in the forest, like a meadow, field, creek, road, or trail. Sometimes I can climb on top of a log or embankment to get above the foreground clutter. Although it’s possible to find good compositions in the middle of a busy forest, it usually helps to stand back a little bit and get some perspective.

Look for Order

Aspens and ferns, autumn, Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison NF, CO, USA

Aspens and ferns, autumn, Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison NF, Colorado. The trunks in the center provide a focal point, while numerous repeating patterns (vertical trunks, black spots on the trunks, horizontal layers of color) help provide visual cohesion. A small, fern-filled opening in the forest allowed me to step back a little from the trees and get some perspective. 50mm, 1/3 sec. at f/16, ISO 100.

Since forests are chaotic, you have to simplify. That means, first of all, resisting the temptation to include everything. You don’t need to show a whole tree to convey the idea of a tree. You don’t need to show a hundred trees to convey the idea of a forest. Try to narrow your composition down to the bare essentials.

And look for order amid the chaos. That means finding patterns and strong visual focal points. The focal point could be one tree that stands out in some way, a spot of light hitting a fern, or the sun edging out from behind a trunk. A pattern could be a series of vertical trunks, or repeating diagonal branches, or a pointillist arrangement of leaves.

Use Light to Simplify

Late-afternoon light in a redwood forest, Northern California, USA

Late-afternoon light in a redwood forest, Northern California. When sunlight streams through a forest it creates dappled, splotchy light that can be extremely difficult to deal with. It can sometimes work, however, when the sun spotlights an interesting focal point, like the trunk on the left side of this photograph. Here the light is also warmed by the setting sun, and it’s coming more from behind than the side, so the trees are partially silhouetted. Dappled frontlight in a forest is much more troublesome. 135mm, polarizer, 8 seconds at f/11, ISO 100.

Finding the right light is essential for forest scenes. You want to use light that helps to simplify the scene, which usually means avoiding frontlight and sidelight, and instead using backlight and soft light.

Inside a forest, frontlight (the sun at your back) creates splotchy patterns that add to the visual confusion. As the sun filters through the trees, random patches of sun and shade break up the shapes of trunks and branches, obscuring whatever order there might be. Sidelight can be a little better, but it’s still usually challenging to work with. Of course there are always exceptions, and this dappled light can sometimes work when the sun filters through the trees and spotlights a particularly interesting forest feature. But those instances are rare.

Backlight and soft light usually work better. With backlight, trunks and branches become dark silhouettes that stand out more cleanly and distinctly from the background, which makes it easier to show patterns and create some order. And soft light keeps things as simple as possible, because there are no random patches of sun and shade to break up the natural patterns.

Redwoods, ferns, and sunbeams, northern California, USA

Redwoods, ferns, and sunbeams, northern California. Backlight turned the redwood trunks into silhouettes, which makes the repeating pattern of vertical lines stand out clearly. Backlight also works well with translucent objects, like the foreground ferns. There’s a primary focal point (the sun), and a secondary focal point (the ferns), along with the repeating patterns – which all help to create visual unity and cohesion, and make a busy forest scene “read” clearly. The ferny glade in the foreground created a small clearing and allowed me to get some distance between the camera and the trees. 24mm, five bracketed frames, each at f/16 and ISO 200, blended with Lightroom’s HDR Merge.

With soft light there are, however, some thing to watch out for. First, any patches of sky that show through the trees will be much brighter than the shaded forest, drawing the viewer’s eye to those bright patches – which is probably not what you want. So when photographing a forest in the shade I avoid looking up toward the sky, and instead try to find elevated vantage points where I can look down into the forest, or else try to put a hillside or mountain behind the trees. This often means using telephoto lenses to narrow the angle of view and keep the sky out of the picture.

Also, soft light is low in contrast, which can makes images look flat, so the subject itself has to provide the contrast. That could mean juxtaposing light and dark objects, like white dogwood flowers against a dark trunk. Or it could mean using color contrast rather than light-and-dark contrast. Soft light is often the perfect way to accentuate the colors of an autumn forest.

Aspen kaleidoscope, Uncompahgre NF, CO, USA

Aspen kaleidoscope, Uncompahgre NF, Colorado. Soft light helps to visually simplify busy forest scenes, and bring out color contrasts. The center-right clump of red trees here provided a focal point, and there were several unifying patterns: the flame-like tree tops, the repeating vertical lines of the trunks, and the multi-colored polka dots of the leaves. A small clearing next to a road allowed me step back, use a long lens, and find the patterns. 106mm, polarizer, 1/4 sec. at f/16, ISO 400.

But what I hope for, and dream of, is fog. Fog is the ultimate simplifier, blotting out background clutter. And I love the misty, primeval mood it adds to forest scenes. Even frontlight and sidelight breaking through the fog can be beautiful, while backlight often creates spectacular sunbeams.

Sunbeams in a redwood forest, northern California, USA

Sunbeams in a redwood forest, northern California. Fog in a forest can be magical – especially when the sun breaks through the fog. The sun is a strong focal point here, and the numerous diagonal lines form repeating patterns that help unify and simplify the composition. 16mm, five bracketed frames, each at f/11, ISO 100, blended with Lightroom’s HDR Merge.

* * *

Yosemite is still closed, and we had to cancel our annual redwoods workshop, so Claudia and I haven’t been able to get to some of our favorite forests recently. But we did manage to photograph a giant sequoia grove on national forest land this spring (the photograph at the top of this post), and hope to get up to the redwoods sometime during the summer fog season.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: The Primeval Forest; Dogwood Composition

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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Watch Out of Chicago Live!


 

The Out of Chicago Live online photo conference last month was so much fun. I think everyone who participated relished the opportunity to focus their attention on photography for a few days, rather than on the coronavirus. And the lineup of speakers and presentations was outstanding. I got to see some of the presentations live, but there were many, many others that I missed, so I’ve been catching up by watching the recordings of the sessions.

And you can do that too, even if you didn’t attend the conference as it was happening. Every session was recorded, so you can enroll in the conference after the fact and see them all – over 100 sessions, including presentations, tutorials, panel discussions, and image reviews. You can find more information, including a complete list of every session, here:

Out of Chicago Live

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Out of Chicago Live; Out of Yosemite Conference

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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From the Archives: Redbud Reflection

Redbud reflection in the Merced River, CA, USA

Redbud reflection in the Merced River, California

I made this photograph in March of 2004, with a 6-megapixel Canon 10D. That was my first digital camera, purchased only about nine months earlier, in the summer of 2003. The low resolution made this camera unsuitable for “serious” work, so for about two years I carried around both the Canon 10D and my Mamiya 645 film camera. I used the Canon for snapshots, and, when time allowed, to capture digital versions of my film images, so that I only had to scan the film captures when I really needed the extra resolution (like when making prints, or sending files to publishers).

I quickly learned to love digital capture. It was just so much easier: I could see the results right away, use the histogram to check the exposure, and magnify the image to see if everything was in focus. When photographing moving water I didn’t need to guess about the right shutter speed because I could try several, see the effects immediately, and dial in the shutter speed that best suited the situation. I found that the digital camera invited experimentation and creativity, because I didn’t have to pay for film and processing, and could see and refine the results of an experiment in the field. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, the dynamic range far exceeded transparency film, so the resulting images looked less harsh and more luminous. Resolution aside, when I compared images from my Mamiya and my Canon, I almost always preferred the ones from the Canon.

On the afternoon I made this image I had photographed a redbud along the banks of the Merced River, then walked downstream and noticed this amazing color in the water. The sun had just dipped below a ridge to the west, sinking the water into shade, while sunlight still illuminated the opposite bank. Several redbud bushes grew above that bank, casting their sunlit, magenta reflections into the water. I had never seen that color in a reflection before.

My first composition, made with the Mamiya, included some rocks on the opposite bank. I thought I needed those rocks so that something in the photograph would be sharp. I then switched to the Canon, and, seeing the images on the back of the camera, realized that composition wasn’t working. The bank was just a distraction.

It’s often hard to visualize in advance how a slow shutter speed will affect the look of the water, and, in turn, how that will affect the composition. But with the digital camera I could see exactly what it all looked like, and adjust accordingly. Still using the Canon, I tried honing in on just the most eye-catching part of the water, with those gold and magenta reflections and curving rapids. That seemed to work better, since the entire frame was filled with only the most essential and interesting parts of the scene. The patterns in the water itself provided enough structure to hold the composition together, even without having anything sharp in the frame. I used the slowest shutter speed I could get: 0.7 seconds at f/22, ISO 100 (I didn’t have a neutral-density filter for that lens at the time), and that seemed to give the water the soft effect I was looking for.

I refined the composition, took a series of images, and noticed that the reflections were better in some frames than others. Thinking about this, I realized that the difference was due to the wind. Even though this wasn’t a mirror reflection, intermittent breezes would ruffle the surface of the water, dulling the reflections. When the wind was calm the water in the tongue of the rapid was smoother, and the colors popped out.

I started to time my exposures for moments when the wind died, and took another series of images. Then, having dialed in the composition, shutter speed, and timing, I switched back to the Mamiya. But by then the breeze was more persistent, and soon thereafter the light faded, so none of the film images were as good as the best of the digital captures.

Luckily, since there wasn’t any sharp detail in this photograph, the resolution didn’t really matter. I have a 30×40 inch print of this image, made with the 6-megapixel Canon 10D, hanging in my living room, and it looks great.

But to me this was just another example of the benefits of digital capture, and I couldn’t wait to get a digital camera with enough resolution to match my medium-format film. In January of 2005 I borrowed my friend William Neill’s new 16-megapixel Canon 1DS Mark II, and found that with the right sharpening the resolution of this camera actually exceeded drum-scanned images from my Mamiya 645. The 1DS Mark II cost around $7,000 at the time, but somehow I scraped together the money to buy one. I haven’t exposed a single roll of film since.

In the end, a camera is just a tool. There’s been a resurgence in film use recently, and I think that’s great. You should use whatever tools work for you and your vision. For me, those early days with that little 6-megapixel Canon 10D were a revelation, a glimpse of a digital future with amazing possibilities.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: It’s All About the Light; Can Intimate Landscapes Have a Mood?

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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Influences

Redbud above a rapid in the Merced River, CA, USA

Redbud above a rapid in the Merced River, CA, USA

My mother grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, in the hills above Panama City, running and playing all year in the tropical weather, watching sloths in the trees outside her bedroom window, shaking her shoes out each morning to make sure there were no scorpions inside.

When she was 13 years old her family moved to Queens, New York, but later, in the early years of her marriage, she and my father migrated to the outer suburbs, and once again she was surrounded by nature. She would often point out beautiful things she noticed to my brothers and me: the first buds of spring, a sunset, ice-coated branches, a bird singing, autumn leaves starting to turn…

As a child I got to play outside in woods and fields near our suburban homes, so I was immersed in nature all the time. But I don’t think I would have developed such a strong appreciation for the beauty around me without my mom’s influence.

Both my mother and father also loved art, and classical music. Looking back, it’s easy to see how I developed my love of nature, and art, and connect those early influences to the present, where I make my living as a nature photographer. My job is to look for beauty, try to show that beauty to the rest of the world through photographs – and help other people do the same.

Parents influence their children’s lives in powerful ways. To all you moms out there – Happy Mother’s Day!

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Soft Images in a Harsh Landscape; The Primeval Forest

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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Balance and Tension

Spring colors, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Spring colors, Mariposa County, California. 78mm; seven focus-stacked frames blended with Helicon Focus; each frame was 1/8 sec. at f/16, ISO 250.

I hope you’re all staying safe and not going too stir-crazy. I’m sure, like most of us, you’re anxious to be able to get out and photograph again. In the meantime, here are some thoughts about an often-overlooked aspect of composition that I hope will help you the next time you pick up your camera…

Balance doesn’t get talked about much, but it’s a vital aspect of composition. While looking for compositions I’m always thinking about balance – so much so that it’s become an unconscious act. I intuitively reject any composition that would feel unbalanced, and I’m often making subtle shifts in my camera position or framing to improve the balance of a photograph.

In the photograph above, for example, the whole frame is filled with flowers, and the various shapes and colors are distributed pretty evenly throughout the image. If one side or corner was empty – just green grass perhaps – the composition would feel out of balance.

There’s also a subtle-but-important focal point in this composition: the oval patch of yellow flowers just below center. When making this photograph I was aware of the need to include some kind of focal point among all the patterns – a spot for the viewer’s eye to land on and go back to – so I was happy to find this bright, eye-catching patch of yellow.

But I was also conscious of the the need to find balance. In this case that meant, first, centering the patch of yellow from left to right; putting that yellow oval left of center or right of center would throw the picture off balance. I put the patch of yellow below the middle of the frame mainly because the flowers above the yellow patch were more interesting, with a stronger pattern, than the flowers below it. But also – and again, this was an instinctive decision based on lots of experience – having the main focal point above the middle can make the image feel top-heavy. While that can work in some cases, here I wanted the composition to feel calm and grounded to counterbalance the visual chaos created by all that vibrant color.

From there, having figured out more-or-less where to place the patch of yellow, I had to arrange the top part of the picture in a way that created left-to-right balance. I noticed a subtle, bow-shaped arrangement of the blue lupines up there, along with another patch of yellow. So I walked back and forth, left and right, in order to line up the patch of yellow below center with the bow-shaped swath of lupines near the top.

As I said, that was all pretty instinctive. It took me less time to actually figure out that composition than it probably took you to read my description of the process.

In the next example I was also – as always – highly conscious of the need to find balance, both left-to-right and top-to-bottom:

Lupines, poppies, and owl's clover, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Lupines, poppies, and owl’s clover, Mariposa County, California. 25mm, 1/60 sec. at f/16, ISO 320.

The top-to-bottom balance was fairly easy. To me, the most interesting part of this scene was the flowers, so it made sense to devote more space to the flowers than the trees. The central green tree merely provides a visual focal point for the top part of the image – something for the foreground to lead your eyes to.

The left-to-right balance was trickier. Again, I had to consider the balance for both the bottom and top parts of the frame. You might notice a vague V-shape to the lupines in the foreground. One of the reasons I was attracted to this scene was because I thought that V-shape would give the flowers some structure. There’s also a faint, snaking line of lupines leading through the middle of the frame. I positioned the camera so that the V-shape and the snaking line pointed toward the central tree. And in framing the scene I made sure to include the two small lighter-green trees flanking the larger, central tree; including only one of those smaller trees, (or worse, cutting one in half) would throw the top portion of the photograph out of balance.

The previous two examples were made on an overcast day, so the light was consistent, which allowed me to take my time, look around, compose carefully, and then wait for the wind to settle down long enough to capture a focus-stacking sequence. In the next photograph, the sun had just crested a ridge in the morning, creating streaks of sun and shade as the light sifted through a line of trees. These bands of light moved constantly, so I had to compose and shoot quickly.

Viewer’s eyes will naturally get drawn to bright spots in a photograph, so I looked for a sunlit patch of flowers that could provide a visual focal point for a composition. A bright band of poppies and grasses caught my eye, and I saw that if I placed that band in the lower-left corner of the image I could juxtapose that band with other diagonal streaks of light and shadow cutting across the hillside. The diagonal lines would create a sense of energy and motion, and the repeating pattern would help unify the composition and imbue a sense of order and rhythm:

Sunlight, shadows, and wildflowers, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Sunlight, shadows, and wildflowers, Mariposa County, California. 98mm; eight focus-stacked frames blended with Helicon Focus; each frame was 1/15 sec. at f/16, ISO 100.

Is this composition balanced? The main focal point is stuck in the lower-left part of the picture, but the rest of the frame has enough visual weight to hold its own. The diagonal streaks are distributed fairly evenly across the photograph, so that helps make things feel balanced. There’s a dark triangle in the upper-right corner that balances the dark triangle in the lower-left corner.

So it feels balanced to me, but it’s a dynamic balance, not a calm, static balance. It’s balanced diagonally, and asymmetrically, with the upper-right corner balancing the lower-left corner. This photograph has tension because of that asymmetry, and because the steep diagonal lines of the hillside make it feel like everything could roll out of the frame if given a little nudge. It’s an unstable equilibrium, like this…
 

 

… while the photograph at the top of this post has a more stable equilibrium, like this:
 

(Illustrations by OrdinaryArtery)
 

You can use different kinds of balance to create different feelings in a photograph – whether calm and tranquil or dynamic and energetic.

But before you can use balance expressively, you have to gain a feeling for it. Start by assessing photographs you see in books, or magazines, or online. Identify the most eye-catching elements in a composition, and see how they balance each other – or not. If the image feels balanced, how was that balance achieved? If not, why not?

And when composing your own photographs, ask yourself the same questions. What are the most eye-catching elements in the frame? Does the photograph feel balanced, both left-to-right and top-to-bottom? If not, how could you improve the balance?

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Photographs That Flow; Avoiding Bright Edges

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

The post Balance and Tension appeared first on Michael Frye Photography.

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How to Get Everything in Focus

Sun rising over a field of lupines, Redwood NP, CA, USA

Sun rising over a field of lupines, Redwood NP, California. The focal length was 16mm, and the closest objects to the camera were the flowers at the very bottom of the frame, about two feet from the lens. I used my hyperfocal-distance shortcut to find the optimum focus distance, by doubling the distance from the closest object and focusing at four feet. Then I stopped to down to f/16 to get enough depth of field to make both the foreground and background sharp. 16mm, three bracketed exposures at f/16, ISO 100, blended with Lightroom’s HDR Merge.

In this recent post I talked about the importance of having a solid, well-practiced field routine, so that you don’t forget important steps, and you’ll be less likely to panic when the light gets interesting.

One of the steps in my routine, focusing, deserves a little more attention, so I’m going to cover that step in more detail here.

(In that previous post I covered some of the basics about focusing and finding the hyperfocal distance. The next section repeats some of that information, but with additional details. If you don’t want to go over that territory again, however, feel free to skip down to the section below called “When the Hyperfocal Distance Doesn’t Apply.”)

Some Basics

First, let’s assume that you want to get everything in focus (which probably applies to 99% of landscape photographs). If everything in the photograph is far away, focusing can be easy. All the objects in the picture are essentially at infinity as far as the lens is concerned, so the focus distance for everything is the same. You can focus on any part of the frame, either manually or with autofocus, and be sure that you’re focusing at the right distance.

How far away am I talking about? That depends on the lens. You probably know that it’s easier to get everything in focus with wide-angle lenses than telephoto lenses. If you’re using a wide-angle lens (say 28mm or wider), it’s safe to say that if everything in the photograph is at least 50 feet away, then you don’t have to worry about depth of field, and you can focus anywhere in the frame. With a 50mm lens that “safe” distance is about 100 feet. With a 100mm lens it’s more like 250 feet. (These distances apply regardless of the sensor size, or crop factor. Only the actual focal length matters.)

Upper Yosemite Fall and rainbow, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Upper Yosemite Fall and rainbow, Yosemite. Although I used a telephoto lens (145mm) for this photograph, the cliffs and waterfall were at least half a mile from the camera – essentially at infinity as far as the lens was concerned. So focusing was easy; I could autofocus anywhere, knowing that every section of the photograph was at infinity, so the focus distance for everything was the same. And since the depth of field was minimal I could use f/5.6, a fairly wide aperture, and still be sure of getting everything in focus. 145mm, 1/180th sec. at f/5.6, ISO 200.

If there’s something in the frame that’s closer than that, you have to be more careful about where you focus.

Let’s say you’ve composed a photograph with a 24mm lens, where the closest object to the camera is 3 feet away, and the farthest object is at infinity. That’s a lot of depth, even for a wide-angle lens, so precise focusing is critical. Where (at what distance) should you focus? The short answer is: somewhere in between, and closer to the foreground than the background. (There’s more depth of field behind the spot you focus on than in front, so focusing closer to the foreground will allow you to stretch the depth of field to encompass both the closest and farthest objects.)

Can we get more precise than that? Absolutely. You could use a hyperfocal-distance chart or app, but I find these cumbersome and slow.

You could use an aphorism like, “focus a third of the way into the frame,” or “focus a third of the way from the bottom of the frame.” These both have grains of truth, and work some of the time, but don’t work at all for many situations.

Finding the Hyperfocal Distance

So we need something better. Here’s a shortcut that I use all the time: the hyperfocal distance is approximately double the distance from the closest object to the lens. So if the closest object to the lens is three feet away, then the hyperfocal distance is six feet. If the closest object is ten feet away, then the hyperfocal distance is twenty feet. Simple, right?

(Note that the hyperfocal distance is the optimum focusing distance for getting everything in focus from the foreground to infinity. It doesn’t apply to situations where the background isn’t at infinity, like if you’re trying to get everything from 10 feet to 30 feet in focus. For those instances, see the section “When the Hyperfocal Distance Doesn’t Apply” below.)

So in the example above, if I’m trying to get everything from three feet to infinity in focus with a 24mm lens, where should I focus? I just double the distance from the closest object – three feet – and focus at six feet. (You can use the distance scale on the lens for this, or just pick a spot six feet away and focus on it, either manually or with autofocus.)

Poppies, lupines, and oaks, late afternoon, Sierra Nevada foothills, CA, USA

Poppies, lupines, and oaks, late afternoon, Sierra Nevada foothills, California. Again I used my hyperfocal-distance shortcut to find optimum focus distance. The closest objects, the flowers in the lower-right corner of the frame, were about three feet from the lens, so I doubled that distance and focused at six feet. 17mm, 1/30th sec. at f/16, ISO 400.

There are limits of course. Even with a wide lens, like 24mm, I can’t get everything from six inches to infinity in focus in one frame. Here are some practical limits for getting everything in focus with various focal lengths at f/16 (the smallest aperture I’m willing to use before diffraction becomes objectionable). (I’m using a depth of field app to calculate this, with a circle of confusion of .02mm, which matches my practical experience with today’s high-resolution sensors.)

16mm: 1.5 feet to infinity (at f/16, focused at 3 feet)
20mm: 2 feet to infinity (at f/16, focused at 4 feet)
24mm: 3 feet to infinity (at f/16, focused at 6 feet)
35mm: 6 feet to infinity (at f/16, focused at 12 feet)
50mm: 13 feet to infinity (at f/16, focused at 26 feet)
100mm: 50 feet to infinity (at f/16, focused at 100 feet)
200mm: 200 feet to infinity (at f/16, focused at 400 feet)

You don’t have to memorize this (though that wouldn’t hurt). I’m just trying to show you the limits of what’s possible. You’re just not going to be able to everything from 10 feet to infinity in focus with a 100mm lens (at least not with one frame).

When the Hyperfocal Distance Doesn’t Apply

The hyperfocal distance is the optimum focusing distance for getting everything in focus from the foreground to infinity. But what if the background isn’t at infinity? What if you’re trying to get a range from, say, 10 feet to 30 feet in focus?

Let’s get back to one of those aphorisms for a minute – the one that says “focus a third of the way into the frame.” I can’t see how this axiom applies when the background is at infinity. For instance, if the closest object to the camera is three feet away, and farthest object three miles away, then should you focus one mile away? No, of course not – that would be at infinity as far as the lens is concerned. You need to focus a lot closer than that.

But this axiom is actually pretty accurate when when dealing with finite distances (in other words, when the far distance isn’t infinity). For example, if you’re trying to get a range from 20 feet to 50 feet in focus, then focusing a third of the way between those two distances would bring you to 30 feet, which is just about right. You still have to estimate those distances, which I often find difficult, but it might at least get you into the ballpark.

What about that other aphorism, “Focus a third of the way from the bottom of the frame?” That idea also can work if you’re photographing flat ground that recedes into the distance evenly (like a meadow, field, playa, etc.) But if you have objects in front of other objects (like trees in front of other trees), it doesn’t work at all.

A Technique for Any Situation

Aspens in fog, White River NF, CO, USA

Aspens in fog, White River NF, Colorado. I used the “quick-and-dirty method,” described below, to find the optimum focus distance for this scene. 70mm, 1/6th sec. at f/16, ISO 200.

Instead, here’s a technique I’ve been using for decades that works in any situation, whether the range you’re trying to get in focus is three feet to infinity, or three inches to nine inches. And it works even when you have objects stacked in front of each other.

The basic concept is pretty simple. You focus on the closest thing to the camera, then focus on the farthest object, and then center the focusing ring halfway in between those distances. Not halfway out in the field, but halfway between the distance marks on the lens.

Let’s say I focus on the closest thing to the camera, and find out, according to the distance scale on my lens, that it’s seven feet away. Then I focus on the farthest object, and see that it’s 20 feet away. To find the optimum focusing point, I just manually turn the focus ring until it shows that I’m halfway between the 7-foot mark and the 20-foot mark on the distance scale of the lens, like this:

If the closest object to the camera is 7 feet away, and the farthest object is 20 feet away, then I focus halfway between those two marks on the lens.

If the closest object to the camera is 7 feet away, and the farthest object is 20 feet away, then I focus halfway between those two marks on the lens. In this case I ended up focusing just past the 3-meter mark, at approximately 11 feet.

What if the closest or farthest distances don’t conveniently align with one of the foot or meter marks on the focusing ring? First, I focus on the closest thing to the camera, and mark that distance on the focusing ring with a fingernail. Then I focus on the farthest object, and mark that with another fingernail. Then I focus halfway between my fingernails, like this:

Instead of using foot or meter marks on the lens, you can just mark the closest and furthest points with your fingernails.

Instead of using foot or meter marks on the lens, you can just mark the closest and furthest points with your fingernails.

The Quick-and-Dirty Method

The technique I just described works really well if your lens actually has a distance scale. Unfortunately, many modern lenses don’t. So then what do you do? Try the “quick-and-dirty method.”

Again, use manual focus. Look through the viewfinder, and focus on the closest object to the camera. Next, focus on the farthest object from the camera. Then, still looking through the viewfinder, rock the focusing ring about halfway between those two distances. (Again, I’m talking about the distance you’re turning the focusing ring, not the distance between objects in the field.)

Check yourself by seeing if the foreground and background look equally out of focus. In other words, if the foreground looks sharper than the background, you’ve focused too close. If the background looks sharper than the foreground, you’ve focused too far. If both the foreground and background look equally fuzzy, then you’ve focused at the right distance. (I call this the Equally Fuzzy Principal.)

Here’s an example of the quick-and-dirty method. For this patch of flowers in our yard I first focused on the closest thing to the camera – the flowers in the lower-left corner of the frame:

To use the quick-and-dirty method you first focus on the closest thing to the camera – in this case, the flowers in the lower-left corner.

To use the quick-and-dirty method you first focus on the closest thing to the camera – in this case, the flowers in the lower-left corner.

Next, I focused on the farthest thing from the camera – the flowers in the upper-right corner:

Next you focus on the farthest thing from the camera – here, the flowers in the Lightroom corner.

Next you focus on the farthest thing from the camera – here, the flowers in the upper-right corner.

Then I rocked the focusing ring about halfway between, and checked to see if the foreground and background were equally out of focus. Here, the flowers in the lower-left corner look about as fuzzy as the flowers in the upper-right corner, so it looks like I’m focused in the right spot:

Then you rock the focusing about halfway in between, until the foreground and background look about equally fuzzy.

Then you rock the focusing about halfway in between, until the foreground and background look about equally fuzzy.

Here’s a short video that demonstrates this technique:

(If you can’t see the video, click here.)

I actually use this quick-and-dirty method more often than marking the distances on my lens, even if my lens has a distance scale. It’s faster.

However, for this quick-and-dirty method to work the aperture has to be wide open, otherwise it’s hard to see what’s in focus and what’s not. This isn’t a concern with SLRs, since the lens diaphragm stays open until you press the shutter. So even if you have the aperture set to f/16, the diaphragm will actually be wide open at f/2.8 or f/4 (or whatever your lens’s widest aperture is) until you press the shutter. This wide-open viewing aperture makes the depth of field shallow, allowing you to see what’s in focus more readily.

But with some mirrorless cameras the lens may actually be stopped down even before you press the shutter – depending on the camera and its settings. I can’t go into detail about every camera here, but I’ll mention that with a Sony mirrorless cameras and Sony lens, the aperture is usually stopped down even before you press the shutter. So if you’ve set a smaller aperture like f/11 or f/16 it becomes hard to see precisely where you’ve focused, because there’s so much depth of field.

To change that you can either just manually change the f-stop to your widest aperture to focus (and then reset it to take the picture), or, in the menu, under Live View Display, turn the Setting Effect to Off, which makes the camera behave like an SLR by keeping the diaphragm open until you press the shutter. (Note that I recommend usually having the Setting Effect on, so that you get a live preview of your exposure. I put the Live View Display menu item in my Function menu for quick access, so I can turn the Setting Effect off and back on when needed.)

Naturally, any of these techniques take practice. You can practice focusing in your backyard – and now might be a good time to do that.

Setting the Aperture

Once you’ve found the optimum focusing distance, using any of the methods described above, then you need to pick an aperture, take the picture, and check sharpness.

Picking the aperture is actually pretty easy. For 95% of my photographs I use either f/11 or f/16.

If everything in the scene is far enough away to be at infinity, then depth of field isn’t an issue. You could use any aperture, so you may as well pick the f-stop where your lens is sharpest. For most lenses that’s in the middle range, somewhere between f/5.6 and f/11. I usually use f/11 to make sure I have enough depth of field. I might use f/8 or f/5.6 if everything is really far away, and I think my lens will be sharper at one of those wider apertures.

If the scene has some depth to it – enough depth to require focusing precisely, as described at length above – then I’ll use f/16. That’s the smallest aperture I’m willing to use before diffraction becomes objectionable. (For more about that topic, see this post.)

Sand dunes, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Sand dunes, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley. When a scene has some depth, like this one, I typically use f/16 – the smallest aperture I’m willing to use before getting objectionable diffraction. Here the focal length was 33mm, and the closest thing to the camera was the sand at the bottom of the frame, which was about 5 feet away. So I focused at double that distance (about 10 feet), and used f/16 to get sufficient depth of field. 33mm, 1/8 sec. at f/16, ISO 100.

Then take the picture, magnify the image on the back of the camera, and check to see if everything is in focus. If everything looks sharp, great – you’re done. If the foreground is sharp but the background is soft, then you’ve focused to close; adjust your focus and try again. If the background is sharp but the foreground is soft, then you’ve focused too far; adjust your focus and try again. If the middle is sharp, but both the foreground and background look soft, then you’re focused at the right distance, but you didn’t have sufficient depth of field. Try using a smaller aperture, or, if that doesn’t work, you’ll need to focus stack.

Obviously you need to use either aperture-priority or manual mode to perform this step!

So that’s it. I know this is a lot to digest, but I wanted to be thorough, and give you a number of options so that you can pick what works best for you. Good luck – and don’t forget to practice!

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Developing a Solid Field Routine; Focus-Stacking Season; Why F/16?

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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Out of Chicago Live

I just got the schedule for the Out of Chicago Live conference, and it looks amazing.

The instructors and topics include all genres of photography, but the lineup of landscape-photography instructors is really outstanding, with people like Alan Ross, Charlotte Gibb, William Neill, Ian Plant, Erin Babnik, David Kingham, Colleen Miniuk, John Barklay, Gavin Hardcastle, Michael Shainblum, Nick Page, Jennifer King, Patricia Davidson, Tim Cooper, Jack Curran, Thomas Heaton, Sean Bagshaw, Joshua Cripps, Matt Payne, Sarah Marino, Royce Bair, Alex Noriega, Jay Patel, Adam Gibbs, Colby Brown, and Alister Benn. Quite a list!

I’ll be giving an expanded version of the presentation I gave for the Out of Yosemite conference in February, called Capturing a Mood. I’ll also be presenting a Lightroom tutorial about using the Range Mask, and participating in a panel discussion called Landscape Composition Secrets of the Pros, along with Charlotte Gibb, Ian Plant, and Adam Gibbs.

I got to see Charlotte’s presentation, Discovering Small Scenes in a Big Landscape, in February, and its outstanding. She’ll be giving it again for Out of Chicago Live. I missed Alan Ross’s presentation, the Magic of Black and White Photography, in February, so I’m glad I’ll be able to catch it during this online conference. But there are so many others as well! I’m looking forward to seeing Ian Plant’s presentation, and Erin Babnik’s, and Alex Noriega’s, and Sarah Marino’s, and on and on…

Part of the fun of this conference is that it’s live, so you can interact, ask questions, and so on. But all of the sessions will be recorded, so if you miss anything you can watch it later.

The conference is just around the corner – April 24th to 26th. You can find out more here.

I hope to “see” some of you there!

— Michael Frye

Related Post: Out of Yosemite Conference

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

The post Out of Chicago Live appeared first on Michael Frye Photography.

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Developing a Solid Field Routine

Sunbeams from Tunnel View, spring, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Sunbeams from Tunnel View, spring, Yosemite. Having a solid, well-practiced field routine helps me to calmly capture fleeting moments of light like this. 40mm, three auto-bracketed bracketed exposures at f/11, ISO 100.

Do you have a consistent field routine? Do you go through the same steps, in the same order, every time you take photograph?

If you said no, you’re in good company. Most photographers I work with don’t have a solid, consistent field routine.

But I think having this routine is vital. Without one, you’re likely to forget important steps, like setting the right f-stop, or checking sharpness (and then kick yourself later when you realize your mistake). And when a rainbow suddenly appears over Yosemite Valley, or sunbeams break through the fog in a redwood forest, having a solid, consistent routine that you’ve practiced over and over will help you avoid panicking. You can just go through your normal routine and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that you won’t forget an important step.

And by making the technical aspects of photography a well-practiced routine, you can concentrate fully on more important things, like composition.

Now is a great time to practice your field routine. You don’t have to be in a national park; in fact it’s probably better if you’re not, so you can focus on practicing your technique, rather than striving to get a great shot. You can practice your field routine anywhere, including your yard or neighborhood.

Here’s my basic field routine, designed for photographing still subjects on a tripod. (Toward the end of this post I’ll show you how I modify this routine when the shutter speed matters, like when hand-holding, or photographing moving subjects.)

This routine has served me well in every situation for decades, so I know it works. But feel free to modify it to suit your style and choice of subject.

Step 1: Compose

First things first. You can’t make any decisions about exposure or focus without knowing what’s in the frame. Yet I constantly see people putting the cart before the horse. They start thinking about what f-stop they should use before they’ve even figured out their composition. Composition is probably the most important step in this routine, so give it the attention it deserves. Worry about camera settings later.

Step 2: Attach and Adjust Filters

Would a polarizer help? Do you need a graduated neutral-density filter? (I don’t use them, but many people do.) Now is the time to put them on and adjust them.

Step 3: Focus

This subject – focusing – deserves it’s own article, and I’ll delve into this in detail in a future post. But for now I’ll give you a few basic guidelines.

Let’s assume that you want to get everything in focus (which probably applies to 99% of landscape photographs).

If everything in the photograph is far away, focusing can be easy. All the objects in the picture are essentially at infinity as far as the lens is concerned, so the focus distance for everything is the same. You can focus on any part of the frame, either manually or with autofocus, and be sure that you’re focusing at the right distance.

How far away am I talking about? That depends on the lens. You probably know that it’s easier to get everything in focus with wide-angle lenses than telephoto lenses. If you’re using a wide-angle lens (say 28mm or wider), it’s safe to say that if everything in the photograph is at least 50 feet away, then you don’t have to worry about depth of field, and you can focus anywhere in the frame. With a 50mm lens that “safe” distance is about 100 feet. With a 100mm lens it’s more like 250 feet. (These distances apply regardless of the sensor size, or crop factor. Only the actual focal length matters.)

Moon rising above Yosemite Valley, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Moon rising above Yosemite Valley, Yosemite. Although the physical distance between the foreground and background in this photograph was large (about six or seven miles), the depth of field was not. The closest objects to the camera, the trees at the bottom of the frame, were about half a mile from the camera – essentially at infinity as far as the lens was concerned, even though I was using a telephoto lens. So focusing was easy; I could autofocus anywhere, knowing that every section of the photograph was at infinity, so the focus distance for everything was the same. 97mm, 1/10th sec. at f/11, ISO 100.

If there’s something in the frame that’s closer than that, you have to be more careful about where you focus. Again, this can get complex, so I’ll keep it as simple as possible for now.

Let’s say you’ve composed a photograph with a 24mm lens, where the closest object to the camera is 3 feet away, and the farthest object is at infinity. That’s a lot of depth, even for a wide-angle lens, so precise focusing is critical. Where (at what distance) should you focus? The short answer is: somewhere in between, and closer to the foreground than the background. (There’s more depth of field behind the spot you focus on than in front, so focusing closer to the foreground will allow you to stretch the depth of field to encompass both the closest and farthest objects.)

Can we get more precise than that? Absolutely. You could use a hyperfocal-distance chart or app, but I think these are cumbersome and slow.

You could use an aphorism like, “focus a third of the way into the frame,” or “focus a third of the way from the bottom of the frame.” These both have grains of truth, and work some of the time, but don’t work at all for many situations.

Instead, here’s an easy shortcut that I use all the time: the hyperfocal distance is approximately double the distance from the foreground. So if the closest object to the lens is three feet away, then focus at six feet. If the nearest object is ten feet away, then focus at twenty feet. Simple, right?

(Note that the hyperfocal distance is the optimum focusing distance for getting everything in focus from the foreground to infinity. Things get a little more complicated in situations where the background isn’t at infinity, like, for example, if you’re trying to get everything from 10 feet to 30 feet in focus. That’s a subject for another post.)

So in the example above, if I’m trying to get everything from three feet to infinity in focus with a 24mm lens, where should I focus? At double the distance from the nearest object: six feet. (You can use the distance scale on the lens for this, or just pick a spot six feet away and focus on it, either manually or with autofocus.)

Endless flowers, Carrizo Plain NM, CA, USA

Endless flowers, Carrizo Plain NM, California. The focal length here was 22mm, and the nearest objects, the flowers at the very bottom of the frame, were about three feet from the lens. So I focused at double that distance: six feet (around the top of the clump of purple flowers in the center foreground). With wide-angle lenses, the hyperfocal distance is much closer to the foreground than the background! 22mm, three auto-bracketed exposures at f/16, ISO 100, blended with Lightroom’s HDR Merge.

There are limits of course. At f/16 (the smallest aperture I’m willing to use before diffraction becomes objectionable), I can get from three feet to infinity in focus with a 24mm lens focused at six feet. Anything closer than three feet requires a smaller aperture or focus stacking. With a super-wide lens, like 16mm, I can get everything from one-and-a-half feet to infinity in focus at f/16 (focused at double that distance: three feet). With a 50mm lens I can get about 13 feet to infinity in focus at f/16 (focused at 26 feet). And with a 100mm lens the range is about 50 feet to infinity (focused at 100 feet).

Again, I’ll write more about focusing later! But for now, to find the hyperfocal distance, determine how far away the closest object is from the lens, then focus at twice that distance.

Step 4: Set the Aperture

This step is actually pretty easy. For 95% of my photographs I use either f/11 or f/16.

If everything in the scene is far enough away to be at infinity, then depth of field isn’t an issue. You could use any aperture, so you may as well pick the f-stop where your lens is sharpest. For most lenses that’s in the middle range, somewhere between f/5.6 and f/11. I usually use f/11 to make sure I have enough depth of field. I might use f/8 or f/5.6 if everything is really far away, and I think my lens will be sharper at one of those wider apertures.

If the scene has some depth to it – enough depth to require focusing precisely, as described in the previous step – then I’ll use f/16. That’s the smallest aperture I’m willing to use before diffraction becomes objectionable. (For more about that topic, see this post.)

Alders and sunbeams, Redwood NP, CA, USA

Alders and sunbeams, Redwood NP, California. When a scene has some depth, like this one, I typically use f/16 – the smallest aperture I’m willing to use before getting objectionable diffraction. Here the focal length was 50mm, and the closest thing to the camera was the leaves along the right edge of the frame, which were about 15 feet away. So I focused at double that distance (about 30 feet), and used f/16 to get sufficient depth of field. 50mm, 1/2 sec. at f/16, ISO 100.

If I can’t get everything in focus at f/16 I’ll focus-stack. If focus-stacking isn’t possible because of subject movement, I might, on rare occasions, use f/22. Or I’ll find a different composition that doesn’t require as much depth of field.


Obviously you need to use either aperture-priority or manual mode to perform this step!

Step 5: Set the Exposure

Exposure, again, is a complex subject that should have its own article. I’ve written about histograms here, and adjusting exposure here.

In going through your routine, you’ve already set an aperture based on the depth of field you think you need. So don’t touch that aperture! And if your camera is on a tripod, and the subject isn’t moving, use your camera’s native ISO (usually 100). So that leaves one more option for setting the exposure: the shutter speed. You can adjust the shutter speed in aperture-priority mode by changing your exposure compensation, or in manual mode by adjusting the shutter speed directly.

If you’re hand-holding, or the subject is moving, you may need to push up the ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed to avoid blurring the photo. You should still set the aperture first based on the depth of field you need, as described in Step 4. Then, in aperture-priority mode, set your exposure-compensation to get the right exposure, and next, adjust your ISO until you get the shutter speed you want. In manual mode, set the shutter speed you want, then adjust the ISO to get the desired exposure.

Wildflowers in the Temblor Range, with desert candles, blazing stars, tansy phacelia, and hillside daisies, Carrizo Plain NM, CA, USA

Wildflowers in the Temblor Range, with desert candles, blazing stars, tansy phacelia, and hillside daisies, Carrizo Plain NM, California. I needed a small aperture (f/16) to get everything in focus, but a slight breeze was moving the flowers, so I had to push the ISO up to 800 to get a fast enough shutter speed (1/6th of a second) to freeze the motion. The closest objects to the camera were the small flowers in the lower-left corner, or maybe the tall stalks in the center near the bottom, both of which were about three feet away, so I focused at twice that distance – six feet. 20mm, 1/6th sec. at f/16, ISO 800.

Of course there could be times when getting a fast enough shutter speed and small enough aperture requires using a super-high ISO. In most cases I’d rather have a sharp photograph that’s noisy than a less-noisy photograph that’s not sharp. I can deal with the noise later. But if the ISO gets really high (let’s say 3200 or more), then I might need to compromise. I could sacrifice some depth of field by using a wider aperture, or perhaps be willing to let some wind-blown flowers or leaves blur by using a slower shutter speed. Or maybe I’ll try a different composition that doesn’t require as much depth of field, or includes only non-moving objects.

Step 6: Take the Picture!

Make sure you use a cable release, remote, or self-timer if your camera is on a tripod.

Step 7: Check Sharpness

Magnify the image on the back of the camera to make sure it’s sharp. Be sure to check the very closest objects in the foreground (usually near the bottom of the frame), and the very farthest objects in the background (usually near the top of the frame).

If something doesn’t look sharp, try to determine the cause. If nothing is sharp, then camera movement is probably the culprit. If the foreground looks sharper than the background, you’ve focused to close; try focusing a little further back. If the background looks sharper than the foreground, you’ve focused too far; try focusing a little closer. If the middle looks sharp, but both foreground and background look soft, then you need to use a smaller aperture to get more depth of field, or focus-stack.

When evaluating sharpness, always view the image at the same magnification, so that you’re comparing apples to apples. For most cameras, I’d suggest zooming in as far as possible, then backing off a step or two. Usually the maximum zoom level exceeds the resolution of the camera’s preview, so everything looks fuzzy. But backing off a step or two (how much depends on the camera) usually is just about right – enough magnification to evaluate sharpness, but not so much that everything looks blurred.

(For more about evaluating the causes of blurry photos, see this post.)

Step 8: Check the Exposure

Don’t just rely on looking at the image on the back of the camera; check the histogram and blinkies to evaluate your exposure. In most cases you don’t want to see any blinkies, and the brightest pixels should be near, but not touching, the right edge of the histogram. (Again, you can read more about histograms here.)

If the exposure is too light or dark, then adjust your exposure compensation (in aperture-priority mode) or shutter speed (in manual mode), re-take the picture, and check again. If there’s too much contrast to get detail in both highlights and shadows with one frame, then bracket exposures.

With colorful subjects, don’t forget to check the red channel of the histogram! (More about that here.)

Autumn forest with dogwoods and ferns, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Autumn forest with dogwoods and ferns, Yosemite. After you take the photo, check your histogram and blinkies. And when photographing colorful subjects like this, be sure to check your red channel histogram too!

That’s it! That’s the whole routine. I’d suggest practicing particular steps that seem challenging to you before trying to practice the entire routine. If, for example, you think you need to practice the focusing step more, or haven’t yet figured out how to view the blinkies on your camera, do those things first. Then go out with your camera and tripod, find a subject (anything will do), and go through the whole routine. Then find another subject and do it again.

The more you practice, the better you’ll get. When you reach the point where you hardly have to think about it anymore, where the routine has become, well, routine, then you’ll be ready for anything. You can concentrate on seeing, and creativity, instead of wondering what f-stop you should use.

And when you encounter fleeting, beautiful light, you’ll know what to do: compose, put on filters, focus, set the aperture, set the exposure, and shoot! (And don’t forget to check the sharpness and exposure!)

— Michael Frye

P.S. Happy Easter and Passover! I hope you’re enjoying the holidays, despite the troubled times we’re living in.

Related Posts: Digital Photography Basics: Reading Histograms; Digital Photography Basics: Adjusting Exposure; Why F/16?; Five Causes of Blurry Photos; Six Essential Camera Settings for Landscape Photographers

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