In all my years of printing and teaching printing workshops, the single most important thing…
Proper exposure for any photographic situation is a balancing act between light, depth of field, movement, and camera noise. Determining why you choose one exposure setting over another depends on what you need in order to capture the image in your mind, OR make the best possible photograph given actual circumstances. So lets explore these ideas using a real world example of a deceptively simple photograph I made a few years ago.
Setting The Scene
Walking along the edge of this lake close to our campsite in the Adirondacks, I was struck by the beauty and simplicity of what was in fact a rather complicated scene . It was only this small section of the opposite shore that stood out as harmonious and visually appealing. The cloud shapes helped as well. While I had noticed the shapes and reflections for some time, it wasn’t until the light did its magic for a few minutes that it really came together for me visually, and I felt compelled to setup my camera.
What I mean by “compelled” is that it just felt right- I had a reaction that was emotional – I had some deeper connection and thought it was worth photographing. When this happens, which is often the case when there’s beautiful light, I’m reminded why patience is so key to landscape photography. While you may just want to shoot, try and become aware of those rare moments when something “extra” happens inside. Whether you become more focused, introspective, emotional,peaceful, or just blissfully happy. These are all signs that you’re connecting to the scene, and there’s a much better chance you’ll have something worth sharing with others.
Ok, so I’ve decided to make a picture, now what?
My first decision is to use my 70-200mm zoom lens. This is because (a) I want to “extract” a section of the scene, which is on the opposite side of the lake. And (b) a zoom lens will allow me to flatten the image somewhat, creating more of a layered look, from bottom to top. Plus I didn’t have any foreground elements to work with, so no need to go wide, which also would have made the image more cluttered and complex.
Next was determining depth of field. The closest elements were the lily pads about 100 feet away, so I wanted them to be sharp together with the hills in the background. Now I have to admit I don’t know exactly what the depth of field is for 70mm at f/8, but I know it’s around 75 feet to infinity. A quick check of my hyperfocal distance calculator right now shows me the following:
So I wasn’t too far off…hyperfocal distance is 67′ 3″ which means when focusing at that point, anything from half that distance (33′ 7″) to infinity is going to be sharp. Now I said I didn’t know exactly what it was, so how do you check to to see if you have enough depth of field? Two ways:
- Use the depth of field preview button on your camera – you do this before you take the shot. Pressing this basically closes down the aperture to whatever setting you have, and lets you visually check for sharpness in the foreground and background. (Not all cameras have a depth of field button, but most recent models do.)
- Check the LCD preview to zoom in and check for sharpness – do this after you take the shot.
The potential downside to either of these methods is that they are not 100% reliable for several reasons. A few that come to mind are:
- You don’t have a depth of field preview button
- Small aperture settings make the preview too dark to see clearly (especially smaller than f/11)
- Camera LCD is small which makes it hard to determine sharpness.
So bottom line is become familiar with depth of field at different focal lengths and apertures. then use any of these methods if possible to confirm your settings. Worse case scenario, make a few images at varying apertures to make sure you get the depth of field you need.
Finally, it was on to shutter speed. My camera was set at ISO 100, so a reading of the distant hills (green foliage is always a good place to get an average reading) gave me a shutter speed of 1/40 sec. I was on a tripod, so normally this would be fine. However, though you can’t tell from the photo, the lily pads were in fact moving ever so slightly – almost gliding on the surface of the lake, and at 70mm, I was somewhat concerned with blur from movement. Basically I wanted a slightly faster shutter speed to get as sharp an image as possible. I have 2 choices – a larger aperture, or higher ISO. Mind you the light is changing quickly and I love the way the lake looks “right now.”
We don’t want to sacrifice depth of field, so I raised the ISO two stops to 400, changed the shutter speed to 1/160, and made the exposure. Checking the histogram afterwards shows I clipped the top left hand side of the sky ever so slightly, but that’s ok, I like the mystery and drama that adds, plus the sky above the hills is not that important to me, what is important is the reflections in the water where the clouds are. I make another exposure just because you never know…the light is changing…and I’m done.
Interestingly, when I imported the file into Lightroom, the sky was in fact NOT clipped, showing again how camera manufacturers are conservative when it comes to histograms and clipping. So again, when possible, expose to the right.
Putting this whole process into words makes it feel somewhat laborious and complicated, and I suppose it is when you have to think about all of these things in the field. And certainly I really didn’t touch on composition and the decisions that go into that. However, I hope it helps you understand the steps I took mentally, and how I arrived at several decisions about settings. And this is always evolving for me, as it should be for you. Nothing is static in creativity, and so always keep an open mind.
But once you internalize the concepts – depth of field, shutter speed, and how they affect the overall image, it really does become easier. The art of creating successful images never gets easy, but that’s not really about settings, that’s about telling stories. However, I’m sure you can see that when the tools become an aid rather than a distraction, it allows your creativity to flow unimpeded to the task at hand. And that’s a much better place to be than fighting with your camera. In fact it’s the only place where you can really excel in your photography. I hope this look at my process helps you get there faster.
Questions or feedback, please let me know – it benefits everyone when you share your experiences with all of us. Thanks for reading!
This Post Has 15 Comments
Very well explained, Robert! I relate to it all — very much my own experience and work flow in the field; like you said, this takes much more time to explain, than to execute it in the field at the time. So yes, I quickly see the answer to my question: it was about subject movement.
Thank you Hillel for the great question and inspiration to explain the entire workflow – it always teaches me something as well, how to continue to clarify this thing we call “creative photography” so readers like you can put the info to good use!
Great post Robert! Very helpful and interesting at the same time. I can relate to a lot of it and at the same time deepened my understanding of a few things. Thanks so much for sharing this– not easy to have to put to “paper” ones complete thought process during creativity– so much is going on!
Do you find the PhotoPIlls app the easiest/most helpful to use?
Hi Joni – many thanks for the feedback and encouragement. I’m glad it was helpful to you, and that it made sense…sometimes I wonder if it does! PhotoPils looks really promising, but I’ve only had it for a few days, so still getting through all the features. But it is feature packed and so far I like it – the depth of field graphic I posted above is a great example of making something simple through a great visual interface. Stay tuned for my review.
The app I like, and use all the time, is “Simple DOF”.
Excellent post. Let’s assume there is no motion in the water and you trying to ascertain an F-stop for this setting. What would be the backlash if one just used f-11 or even bigger. With the tripod, and an appropriate slower corresponding shutter what would you gain or lose if you stopped it down more than what was needed even if there was no foreground? Asked differently, were you opting for a wider aperture to get a faster shutter to minimize/ eliminate motion or do you always try the widest stop?
Hi Doug – good to see you hear and glad you’re enjoying the content. Excellent question, and the choosing apertures is a question of priorities. For example, if I must have the shallowest depth of field, then I use the largest aperture the lens offers. Same for the opposite scenario, a situation where I need maximum depth of field. But outside of those extremes, I choose based on how much depth of field I need AND trying to maximize the performance of the lens. Most if not all lenses perform their best stopped down 2-3 stops.
So for an f/4 lens (meaning that’s the largest aperture available), the best performance is f/8 to f/11. I chose f/8 because I needed the extra light to keep my shutter speed where I wanted, it provided the depth of field I needed, and it also gave me the sharpest image. If there was no movement in the water, I would have still used f/8, but kept my ISO at 100. The only reason to go to f/11 would have been for extra depth of field since for exposure purposes, I can make the shutter speed shorter if I need to. Again, aperture for depth of field first, then weigh the other options such as exposure, ISO, and diffraction which occurs at extreme apertures like wide open and especially stopped all the way down. Hope that helps!
Thanks for details and note to self, remember the “Sweet Spot.” If I may impose, how much sweeter is the F8-F11 vs F4 or even F22? If I took a picture of wheel barrow full of Pumpkins three feet way at all full stops, how big would I have to blow up the picture to see spectrum of differences? I’m sure the difference varies from lens to lens but let’s use the 24-105mm f4 L since we both have one and full frame. I’m trying to get my arms around the visual degree of correctness.
If you check the corners of the image, as well as chromatic aberration and overall sharpness, you’ll find f/8-f/11 to be noticeably better than f/4 even on screen. However, that shouldn’t be your deciding factor or focus – aesthetic decisions should drive your decisions.
How much depth of field do you want or need, how does that change the composition, feel, and mood of the image – how do you most effectively lead the viewers eye through the photograph? Once you decide on this, then you choose an aperture, then decide if you are in fact using the best settings OR they can be improved for increased image quality without compromising your vision. Technique doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it is a part of and in service of vision and emotion – that ALWAYS comes first.
You story explains more than just right settings, felt more connected with the scene. Thanks for sharing.
Hi Saif – many thanks for the feedback and comments, and glad to have you here. And yes I’m glad my rambling made sense 🙂
Thank you very much for sharing. As a beginner this post is very helpful to understand how the creative process develops inside a professional’s mind. I hope you don’t mind me asking a question that is not directly related to this post but your feedback as an experienced print maker is appreciated. I would like to get a monitor calibrating device but I am not sure if I should get something like the ColorMunki Display or the ColorMunki Photo. At the moment I send my photos to a lab for printing and don’t know when will I be able to get a photo printer of my own. It could take a couple of years and wouldn’t want to invest in the ColorMunki Photo if it is going to be obsolete by the time I finally get a printer but at the same time I wouldn’t want to get the Display just to regret it later.
Could you please share some advice on the matter?
Hi Regina, thanks for visiting the blog and great to have you here. As for your question, I would recommend you get a regular monitor calibrator like the ColorMunki Display or even better the X-Rite i1 Display Pro. Two reasons are 1)there are bound to be improvements and updates to any device in the future, so buy when you are ready to use. 2) Even if you were ready now, the profiles you’ll generate from the ColorMunki will probably not be as good as the profiles offered my fine art paper manufacturers like Canson Infinity or Epson. They are using much more expensive profiling devices and so the quality of the profiles is really good these days.
Although I can make my own profiles, I find the “canned” profiles from Canson to be excellent and often use them instead of my own. Plus printer manufacturing is also better, so the variations between the same model printers is much less of an issue that years past.
Save your money, and only buy what you need when you need it. Hope that helps!
Thank you very much! I really appreciate your reply. It helps a lot.
Thank you so much for this article, your book Beyond the Lens truly inspired me, I am pretty new to landscape photography and this article really helps me understand lens selection, hyperfocal distance and how to use the calculator, I have one but for the life of me I didn’t understand it, thanks to you I know now. Most importantly the importance and value of light and patience waiting for the right light.