MASTERING LIGHT ONLINE WORKSHOP
Nature photography classes empowering you to master light in the field and in post-processing.
Workshop starts in:
Using narrow Depth of Field (DOF) is one of my favorite ways to create abstract renditions of subjects in nature, including plants, cacti, and leaves as you will see featured in this post. Using narrow depth of field essentially means working with a very narrow slice of focus. When you photograph a flower using high depth of field, the resulting photo will feature a realistic rendition of a flower. On the other hand, using narrow depth of field helps take an everyday subject and transform it into a study of colors, lines, shapes, textures and other abstractions. This type of photography is also a lot of fun because it involves experimentation and can often produce surprising results.
Aperture is the technical term that refers to the size of the hole allowing light through your lens. Selecting different apertures helps a photographer control the depth of field in the resulting photograph with depth of field referring to the zone of a photograph that appears to be in sharp focus. A large f-number, like f/16, refers to a small hole and translates into greater depth of field, with more of the subject appearing in focus. A small f-number, like f/2.8, refers to a larger hole and translates into less depth of field with less of the subject appearing in focus.
Here is an example of the same subject photographed at f/16 and at f/2.8, both RAW files with no adjustments. You can see that the photo on the top shows a much deeper depth of field with more of the scene in focus. On the bottom, the scene has significantly less depth of field with only a small slice of focus.
Here are four tips for getting started with low depth of field photography:
The first step in taking photographs with narrow depth of field is setting your aperture to the smallest f-number for your lens. This is the most important step in starting to experiment with narrow depth of field. For example, when I am photographing plants using narrow depth of field, I will often set my camera to aperture priority and choose f/2.8 on my Canon 100mm macro lens. Like I discuss below, I often handhold my camera when taking the kinds of photos featured in this post. By using aperture priority and selecting an appropriate ISO for the situation, I can let my camera do most of the work in selecting the exposure settings. Then, I can focus more of my attention on things like focusing and composition.
While I almost always photograph using a tripod, taking the types of photos featured in the post often requires laying on the ground, standing in an awkward position, and getting quite close to my subject. In these cases, it is sometimes impossible or too cumbersome to use a tripod, so I increase my ISO and handhold my camera. This allows me to make very fine adjustments to my focus while constantly looking through my viewfinder. This approach also makes experimentation a lot easier since it is quicker to move around. With the exception of the photo of aspen leaves, I handheld my camera for each of the photos included in this post. This is because using a tripod in each of these scenarios would have been difficult.
When you are working with very thin slices of focus, a tiny change can make a big difference in the feel of the resulting photograph. Thus, it can be helpful to experiment with different focus points to see which result you like the best.
When you are starting to experiment with narrow depth of field, spend some time working with a single subject. Slowly move your focus ring on your lens and observe how much the result changes based on what part of a subject is in focus. Take sample photos at each of these focus settings. Then, compare your results on a larger monitor to see what you like and do not like. This kind of practice will help you learn how choosing your focus point is essential when using narrow depth of field, and can often result in happy surprises when you see a subject rendered in an interesting and unexpected way.
It took a lot of practice for me to start getting good results when I started experimenting with narrow depth of field. At the time, I had a garden of perennials in my backyard. Without any goals in mind, I would go out into my yard and practice for a few hours at a time. I tested out different lighting conditions and learned what types of backgrounds can work best (often simple, shaded, and fairly uniform in color). I also practiced with focusing and handholding to improve my technique. Over time and with hundreds of failed exposures for practice, I started to understand what approaches worked best. Ultimately, I was able to begin developing a portfolio of photos like those you see here. These photos do not come easily so do not get frustrated with early failures. Instead, learn from the experience and apply what you learn to improve.
Do you have some tips for getting started with narrow depth of field for nature photographers? If so, please share your tips below and thank you for reading!
Sarah Marino is a landscape and nature photographer from Colorado who is currently traveling full-time in an Airstream trailer with her fellow photographer husband, Ron Coscorrosa, and their two cats. Sarah strives to capture photographs that convey the elegance, beauty, and the awe-inspiring qualities of the landscapes she explores during her travels. In addition to grand landscapes, Sarah’s portfolio also includes a diverse range of smaller subjects including plants, trees, and abstract natural subjects.
Sarah has published a variety of educational materials for landscape and nature photographers. These ebooks and video tutorials include: Forever Light: The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Iceland, Desert Paradise: The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Death Valley National Park, Black & White Photography: A Complete Guide for Nature Photographers, and Beyond the Grand Landscape: A Guide to Photographing Nature’s Smaller Scenes.
You can view more of Sarah's photos, educational resources for nature photographers, and travel stories on her website.