Simple can be challenging!

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And it takes confidence.  We talked some about that while discussing using cropping to focus our viewer’s attention.  It’s easy, as we think about how different elements in a photo may appeal to different people, to include a lot in the frame.  The trouble is, if we keep all those elements we may create an image that’s a bit like an orchestra that isn’t playing the same score.  The violin may be doing something completely amazing but the impact is weakened, or even destroyed, by the trombone that is off doing something completely different.

You’ve got to be brave to narrow to just that one violin.  It means putting yourself out there, saying strongly and clearly, “I think this violin is amazing.”  It’s scary saying that when you know some may disagree with your choice.  And the more you do this the more you’ll get people who disagree.  But you’ll also get more people who love what you do.  If you’re lucky, the people who love what you do will find you before the ones who don’t.  And over time you’ll build the confidence to gracefully handle both.

Like we’ve discussed, managing the 2-dimensional frame of our photo is one way to simplify or focus our images. But we also can control the 3rd dimension to a degree.  We do this by managing depth of field.  Before we discuss how to change depth of field let’s define the term.  An Ansel Adams landscape, where everything from the close-up trees to the far-off mountains is all in sharp focus, is a good example of a wide depth of field.  Whereas a very narrow (tight) depth of field might have just one tree in focus while the other trees and mountains blur. 

Imagine photographing a kitten sitting on a kitchen counter, a bottle of soap behind her.  In front of her, between us, is a can of cat food.  Using a wide depth of field, the kitten, cat food and soap bottle will all be sharp . . . enough to read the can and bottle labels.  If instead we use a tight (narrow) depth of the field and set our focus on the kitten’s eye, then only the kitten’s eye will be in sharp focus.  The soap and cat food labels will be too blurry to read.  We can further narrow the depth of field to the point where the can and bottle themselves become abstract blurs.

By focusing on the kitten and using blur to subtlety show she is on a kitchen counter — without being distracting — we are able to simplify an otherwise complex image.

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Depth of field is controlled by aperture.  The last few months we’ve discussed shutter speed, which controls how long our sensor is exposed to light.  Aperture is the other part of the exposure equation.  It controls how much light our lens lets in.  If you’ve been using your camera in automatic mode then your camera has been choosing shutter speed and aperture for you.  Cameras these days do a great job with exposure.  The trouble is the camera doesn’t know what creative ideas you have in mind!  For instance, with the kitten on the counter, the camera likely thinks you’d prefer the bottle, the can and the cat to all be in focus.  It doesn’t know what’s interesting and what’s not.  Don’t tell my camera I said this, but honestly, cameras are really not very creative.

If you’re already familiar with how to control your aperture then know that a small aperture (say f/2.8) will yield a small depth of field and a large aperture (say f/32) will give you a wide depth of field.  Next month we’ll talk about how to take control of your camera, setting aperture and shutter speed yourself, so that your creativity can shine.

This month's assignment

is to make a simple photo.  Find one thing you want to really show off — an expression, a gesture, a moment.  The key is to make clear the one thing you want to come shining through.  You can use a narrow depth of field if you like, or careful cropping on its own can also do a great job.  Let me know how your experience goes, and anything you learned or struggled with.

Class Recap

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David Childs is a professional photographer, photo journalist, instructor, and animal advocate. You can see his work or contact him at www.DavidChildsPhotography.com