My Escape from High Depth of Field
By inclination, I’ve always been a tack sharp focus kind of photographer. I’ve not been satisfied with photographs unless they had high depth of field. To get this, I typically shoot with a smaller (high number) f-stop, which increases the sharpness of my images throughout their range of depth. And I’ve made considerable use of focus stacking, a technique Jeff Fleisher and I described in detail in Shooting Iron Horses: Photographing Your Model Railroad (Amazon).
Recently though, I’ve been in increasingly aware of the possibility for alternative artistic interpretations of subjects when the lens is focused on just a single aspect and the remainder is permitted to blur. I’m inspired in this direction by Harold Davis, who’s used the technique in his flower photography books, and Denise Ippolito, who’s made a career of artistic interpretations of flowers. Energized by their work, I decided to get out of my comfort zone and experiment with selective focus.
The accompanying photos illustrate some of my early results. Here’s how I’ve made them. I attach a Voigtländer 40 mm f/2.0 lens to my Nikon Z6. Sometimes I also use an extension tube to get even closer to my subjects. When the lens is focused at its minimum distance and with the diaphragm wide open, I get a very shallow depth of field. When feasible, I mount the camera on a monopod; when not, I shoot handheld. I set a high shutter speed, often in the 1/2000second range and set the ISO at a level that will work with that shutter speed. I prefer overcast days, which yield more subtle colors of the flowers and eliminate harsh shadows. I set my shutter so it will shoot bursts of images. Then I lean in toward the subject, looking for patterns that appear interesting and when I find one, I fire a burst, hoping that the selected focal point will be sharp enough. There are a lot of wasted images with this technique, but then, pixels are free.
My goal is to find the leading edge of a petal that traces an interesting shape or line. At the same time, I want other features of the flower to be rendered out of focus, sometimes recognizable but de-emphasized, at other times rendered as a wash of pure but undefined color. I’m encouraged by my early results and I’m finding this to be both a fresh creative challenge and, frankly, an unscripted chance for play. Who knew that abandoning sharp focus could be so much fun?