Thursday, January 27, 2011

Shallow Depth-of-Field

Figure 1 - Nikon 85mm ƒ/1.4
For this e.Newsletter I thought I would answer a question I received the other day from a friend.
Hey Stanley,
I have a quick question for you. I bought a Canon ƒ/1.4 50mm prime lens last year and I love it. My only issue is that when set to automatic the depth-of-field can be so narrow that a nose is in focus and an eye is out of focus. I’m assuming that the aperture is just too open. Is there a rule of thumb when taking portrait-type shots as a minimal (or max – not sure which is which) aperture? Maybe I just need to stay on aperture priority and ƒ/1.8, or something. What’s your recommendation?
One of the most popular lenses being bought today is the 50mm ƒ/1.4. The reason for the popularity is the silky smooth shallow depth-of-field obtained when shooting at ƒ/1.4. You will see a lot of wedding photographers using these to not only get that look, but also used because you can use it to make photos when flash is not allowed—like during the ceremony.

Figure 2 Nikon 60mm ƒ/5.6

Often when you are inside and you cannot use flash the rooms are so dark you need a lens with an aperture of ƒ/1.4 or ƒ/2 to get photos. The problem is that you can only go only so slow with your shutter speed before the photos are blurry due to movement. If you were photographing objects and not people then you could take a photo with a shutter speed of 1 second, but with people you need to be shooting at least at 1/30 of second or faster to avoid movement issues, which will give you, blurred images.

When using the lens for portraits wide open at ƒ/1.4 and filling the frame with someone’s face will very quickly give you the results that you just described.

There are a couple things that affect depth of field.

1) The ƒ-stop/aperture.

As you already know the lower the number the less depth-of-field you have.

2) Distance to subject.

The closer you get to a subject the shallower the depth-of-field when the ƒ-stop stays the same. In macro photography for example when you get as close as 1:1 ratio you often have to be at a ƒ -stop at a minimum of ƒ /11 to appear in focus. When I do macro photography the aperture is quite often at ƒ /45 and it still appears like a shallow depth-of-field.

Figure 3 Nikon 60mm ƒ/45

This photo here (figure 3) is at ƒ/45. See how the eye is out of focus. You would think at ƒ/45 everything would be tack sharp, but it isn’t.

My suggestion is the closer you get you will need to increase the ƒ/stop to keep the facial features of the eyes, nose and mouth in focus. I personally don't mind the ears out of focus.
I occasionally will shoot with my 85mm ƒ/1.4 wide open and just get a persons eye in focus, but the number of photos you need to take to get an acceptable photo can increase due to them or you moving. I usually shoot between ƒ/4 and ƒ/5.6 for headshots to keep most things in focus.

When doing group photographs, people are often two or three deep in the photo. In these situations you need to be shooting at ƒ/8 or greater aperture or either the people on the front or back will not be sharp.

If you own a shallow depth-of-field lens like ƒ/1.4 just remember if you want that silky smooth out of focus look behind the subject you need to be sure what you want in focus is in focus. On many of the new cameras you can move the focus point around in your viewfinder. This will help you maintain your focus and composition. Focusing in the center of the frame and then recomposing the photo will often give you poor results since the tolerances are so critical.

Figure 4 Nikon 60mm ƒ/8

Practice by making portraits at ƒ/1.4, and then do some at ƒ/4 and then some at ƒ/5.6. Get comfortable with the look of each aperture and when you want a certain look you will feel confident that you can deliver, because you have practiced.
Got a question about photography you would like to see me write about, send me a note and let me know at

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Christians in Photojournalism Winter Newsletter

Click on Image to view Newsletter

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Photographing your Passion

Your dream assignment often will be a self generated one. This is my conclusion after pitching ideas to National Geographic Magazine and other publications for the past 25 years.
The first step to the dream assignment is defining your passion. What gets you excited and willing to champion a cause?

Early in my career I got that dream job as a photographer for The Commission Magazine. This magazine covered Christian missionaries all over the world. The magazine was competing with National Geographic Magazine for the best use of pictures in the Picture of the Year contest put on by the National Press Photographers and Missouri School of Journalism.
This was my second job after a newspaper job. Since I was the new guy, my job wasn’t as glamorous as the other photographers who on a regular basis traveled the world. I was making portraits and passports for all the missionaries and their families as well as teaching them how to tell their story using slides.


Occasionally I got to do a story, and it was always in the states showing how local churches were supporting their missionaries.
I did get to hangout with Don Rutledge, Joanna Pinneo and Warren Johnson when they were not globe trotting the world. While I would say my favorite thing is shooting a story I am passionate about, my second favorite thing is listening to other photographers tell their stories that they are their passionate about. This is why I regularly invite photographers to my home and let them share their photos from around the globe.


Just this past month we had 20 photographers at our house sharing stories about Pakistan, Alaska, Japan, Haiti, Mexico and other spots. This is equivalent to having the photographers of National Geographic Magazine sit beside you as you turn the pages and give you the behind the scene look of the story. It is even better because they show you even more photos than they were able to publish.
My passion is showing the love of God for his people. Sometimes I show the joys, and sometimes I show the pain.
Just this past October I was privileged to tell a story with a twist on what I thought was a traditional missions story. I traveled to Mexico to get a close-up view of why Mexicans have risked their lives to travel north to find jobs. Why would people spend $2,000 to $3,000 to pay a coyote to help them navigate the desert for 3 – 5 days and nights? Since 1994, 5,000 Mexicans have perished in their attempts to cross the border.

I discovered one solution to the illegal immigration for coffee farmers. About ten years ago while sipping a $5 cup of coffee, Mark Adams was talking to a former coffee grower who told him how coffee growers’ income dropped over 70 percent in just a short period of time in the late 90’s. This was just about the time that illegal immigration was getting worse.
Mark was working for Frontera de Cristo. It is one of the six Presbyterian Border Ministries of the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. The group was doing micro loans to help families start small businesses to support their families. The coffee issue was bigger than they had addressed.
They then formed a Just Trade Center to help address the issue of the coffee growers. They, along with the help of others like Catholic Charities, gave a loan to the coffee growers for $20,000 that was enough to buy a roaster. It was such a huge success that they hope to find other industries where they can help a community like they have done with Café Justo.
Take a look at a package I created to help introduce people to their concept. I believe once you learn about their story you will start to explore other ways you can become an informed consumer helping to address the issues facing immigration.


As you can tell I got a little side tracked and this is what happens when you find a passion. Even if you have to donate your time to do a story you feel passionate about do it. Then you have something to share with folks about what you want to do for them.
As you can tell from my project, I had to get some friends involved to help me with the voice over, help in picking the best folks to tell the story and many eyes and ears to help refine the story. So when you get ready to tell others about your passion and need help—give me a call.