Artistic nature photography with selective focus created by Lensbaby, has become very popular. Selective focus creates an artsy flair to all matters of subjects from flowers to portraits and even landscapes. Because Lensbaby lenses are manually operated and don’t communicate with your camera for exposure data, they are sometimes intimidating for beginner nature photographers to use. But with a few easy techniques, you can quickly become comfortable using these lenses to capture compelling fine art photos. And you just might fall in love with selective focus, as I have.
Learning to use manual camera lenses is easier if you let the camera do some of the work. While I typically use a full manual exposure mode on my camera, I find that letting the camera help out allows me to concentrate on getting sharp focus and creating impact with my nature photography composition. Here are three techniques that I use to help my students learn how to get the most out of their Lensbaby.
#1: Learn to love Auto ISO Setting
The selective focus effect of the Lensbaby’s velvet series lenses varies as you change the aperture setting. At the widest aperture, most, if not all, of the image is soft. This is not usually the effect I like. I prefer to have at least part of my subject in focus.
To be sure that I get exactly the effect I want, I often like to take multiple shots with different apertures settings. To make this easier, use manual mode, set your shutter speed to what you want to use. Then select Auto ISO setting on your DSLR or mirrorless camera. Then, as you change from wide open to smaller apertures, your camera adjusts the ISO setting to make sure that your camera exposure stays the same. In post-processing, you can choose the amount of softness that you like to tell the story of your subject. Letting the camera help maintain equal exposure while changing the aperture setting frees you to be creative with your lensbaby lenses.
For the landscape photo above I took multiple shots with different aperture settings with auto ISO setting enabled on my camera. I then selected the effect I liked in post-processing.
It is important to note that sometimes you may run into ISO setting limits where your camera will not be able to adjust the ISO setting to give you proper exposure. It is best to check the histogram on the back of your DSLR or mirrorless camera after every photo to make sure that it is properly exposed. High ISO can introduce noise in your photos. So it is best to use this setting with caution. And finally not all digital and mirrorless cameras will have an auto ISO setting. It is best to check your camera manual before attempting to use this setting.
#2: Using high speed mode to get your subject in Sharp Focus
Often, I find myself photographing underwater while diving. It is incredibly difficult to get small subjects in sharp while underwater. I learned this valuable focusing technique for macro photography when the subject and the photographer are both moving:
- Put your DSLR or mirrorless camera in high speed shooting mode so that you can take multiple images while holding down the shutter button.
- Using the manual focus ring of your Lensbaby, focus on the part of your subject that is the closest to the camera.
- Begin taking shots in a high-speed burst mode and move your body slowly closer and closer to the subject. As you move forward, the plane of focus shifts from the front of the subject towards the back. And because you are shooting in high-speed burst mode, creates multiple images with different areas in focus.
- Choose your favorite during post-processing.
This technique is particularly effective for Lensbaby lenses where it is difficult to get a quick focus lock on your subject. However it does requires a bit of practice because the most beginner nature photographers have a tendency is to move too quickly. Try to hold the camera steady against your face and keep your back straight. Slowly and smoothly rock forward from the waist while holding down the shutter release on your DSLR or mirrorless camera. You can also try this with different apertures settings. You can then select the correct sharpness and depth of field to create a photo that you envision.
#3: Aperture Stacking for Creative Photography
I love the look of the bokeh with a wide open Lensbaby lens. But, often my nature photography subject is just a bit too soft for the image I had in mind. Because I am a big fan of focus stacking, I decided to try using the same concept but apply it to aperture setting instead of focus. And I was hooked!
Beginner nature photographers can use auto ISO technique described above to get correct camera exposure as you change your aperture settings. Because aperture stacking requires taking a series of images with different aperture auto ISO settings will do the heavy lifting for you with regards to camera exposure. This aperture stacking technique is best done with your camera on a tripod and with windless conditions. You will be stacking these images in post-processing, so the less movement the better. Set up your photography composition and take the first image with a wide open aperture. Then just keep taking shots, adjusting the aperture setting until you reach the max aperture. If you are an experienced photographer you can manually set the exposure for every image and keep the ISO low to control the noise.
When you get home you can use Photoshop Layers and masks to correct softness in the different parts of the image to create an artistic photo. First, I open all the images as layers in Photoshop. Then, I start with the image with the widest aperture settings and make it the bottom layer in Photoshop for my background. I then use layer masks in Photoshop and paint in sharpness to varying degrees with a soft-edged, low opacity brush. By using this technique, I create a wonderfully creamy background that blends smoothly into my macro photography subject with a sharper center.
Here are few more images from Visual Wilderness using the same technique:
I hope you give these techniques a try as you discover the wonderful world of selective focus! I feel a renewed sense of creativity since discovering Lensbaby and I am enjoying sharing that enthusiasm with my students. I’ve used these methods to introduce new nature photography students to Lensbaby lenses and they are having almost immediate success. Lowering the learning curve and decreasing apprehension for beginner nature photographers frees them to discover the creative joy of using Lensbaby lenses.