First, A Mini Lesson
In a normal photograph, the 'focal plane' runs parallel to the 'film plane'.
Meaning, everything that falls within that band – within the 'area of acceptable sharpness' – will theoretically be in focus, while everything in front of and behind that given point will not be. The degree to which those parts of the image are 'out-of-focus' depends largely on the kind of lens used, as well as exposure settings.
This is known as 'depth-of-field'. There are other factors that impact DOF (such as distance between the 'film plane' and 'focal plane'), but – for simplicity's sake – we'll stick to the basics.
'Short' lenses combined with small apertures –35mm @ f22, for example – will result in photos that are in focus throughout the frame, while 'long' lenses combined with wide apertures – such as 135mm @f2.0 – will create a very narrow band of clarity, resulting in that buttery soft, mostly out-of-focus image that is only sharp in key places.
Of course, there's much territory to be explored between those two extremes.
The lens/setting combos you choose are a simple matter of personal preference, and – naturally – what gear you have access to. Over time, these choices are what give photographers their unique voice, further clarified/colored by decisions made during post-production.
As avid or pro photographers, the voice we embrace informs our monetary investment. While it's true that impressive photos can be taken with the crappiest of cameras, it's also true that better equipment generally results in better images.
I've been saying it for years; you're either limited or liberated by your tools.
The Beauty of Shallow
As a budding pro-photographer in late 2006, I quickly settled into a clear preference for 'shallow' DOF.
From the moment I first heard the term 'bokeh' and understood what it meant; essentially 'out-of-focus points of light'...I became obsessed with creating that effect – the softer the better. I loved (still do) how the reduction of focus to the narrowest thread enabled me to gently control what the viewer paid attention to, allowing me to wordlessly convey...'this is the part that matters.'
The more I learned about my chosen craft, the more frustrated I became, disheartened by the marked difference between what I saw when I pressed the shutter and how the resulting photos turned out; full of distracting visual clutter. No matter how hard I tried, too much remained in focus.
Achieving the kind of softness I craved demanded an upgrade; from the limitations of my first DSLR and the 'kit lens' it came with – a Canon EOS 30D and 18-55mm f3.5 zoom lens – to the liberation of a pro body and better quality, 'fast' glass – a Canon EOS 5D and 24-70mm f2.8 macro; my first L-series lens.
It wasn't long before I outgrew that lens, too, adding my first two 'primes' (fixed focal lengths) – an 85mm f1.8 and 50mm f1.4. Within the year I'd made yet another leap; to a Canon EOS 5D Markii and my first L-series prime – a 35mm f1.4.
The combination of high quality sensor and pristine glass with suuuper wide apertures gave me beautifully crisp details surrounded by impossibly soft bokeh. I was hooked.
Finally – the images I was creating externally began to resemble my internal perceptions.
That same 35mm still holds its sacred spot in my camera bag. As does the 85mm f1.2 I added to my collection right before flying to India in late 2009. I carried both of them across the subcontinent, through Nepal and the Annapurna Himalayas, then back through Northern India.
Having no other focal lengths to choose from for that year of travel changed how I engage with my gear, simplifying the process by eliminating the need to choose.
As I explored the richness around me, I'd carry only one lens, making a selection and committing to it. I rarely (if ever) regretted the lack of an alternative. Instead, I found my vision was informed by whichever lens I was carrying that day; I'd 'see' only that which was best 'honored' through that lens. (Someday I'll post about why I use the word 'honor' rather than 'capture' or 'take'. For now, I'll stick to the most common/familiar.)
Back on North American soil, I maintained that practice. Nearly a decade later, it's now a deeply engrained habit; I photograph exclusively with primes, carrying as little extraneous gear as possible.
It's a wonderfully quiet, intimately engaged way to observe, zooming in or out with one's feet rather than a lazy twist of the wrist.
Bending & Stretching
By mid-2012, with the addition of a 50mm f1.2, I'd amassed a decent collection of deliciously fast lenses. Eventually, I'd also invest in a 100mm f2.8 macro and a 135mm f2.0, but first, I decided to mix things up a bit with the purchase of a Lensbaby Composer Pro. Talk about buttery bokeh!
Without delving too deep or boring you with technical blabber about the 'Scheimpflug Principle', I'll try to explain the concept of 'tilt-shift' in simple terms, leaning on our mini-lesson from earlier in this post.
Tilt-shift lenses allow the user to tilt and shift the 'lens plane', changing its orientation in relation to the 'image plane'. Meaning; the 'area of acceptable sharpness' no longer runs parallel to the 'light-sensitive surface'.
These lenses are most commonly used when documenting architecture as they allow the photographer to straighten vertical lines – to correct the warping of natural perspective – ensuring the image is satisfyingly square and level in-camera. Sure – there are digital effects to assimilate such corrections in post, but it's far superior (in my humble opinion) to 'fix' perspective issues before you 'click'.
I had to learn this technique while in school, using a cumbersome large-format camera and 4"x5", analog film. It was incredibly time-consuming and tedious. It also made me deeply grateful for how far we've come in terms of evolving photographic technologies.
Only once in my professional career have I applied that learning for a client. Though I used a much easier-to-carry DSLR with a rented 24mm tilt-shift lens, it was still quite challenging and technical. No matter how satisfying the results, the process is far too labor-intensive for my liking.
And, then...there's the Lensbaby. [insert heart-eye emoji here]
This absurdly lightweight gem creates a very similar effect without the complicated tilt-shift mechanism.
Using a simple ball and socket, the lens can be easily swiveled, bending and stretching the focal plane in strange, unnatural ways. Granted, the effect is much harder to control, but that's part of its beauty.
The introduction of this playful gadget kept me on my toes, reinvigorating my enthusiasm for the magic of this craft. It forced me to let go a bit – to soften my standards ever so slightly – to appreciate images that otherwise might never have made it through my initial culling.
As primarily a portrait photographer, all that truly matters to me are the eyes. Under normal circumstances, the eyes must be tack sharp while everything else fades into soft, contextual color. With the Lensbaby, sometimes it was nearly impossible to get the eyes quuuuiiiite as sharp as I'd prefer, yet I enjoyed the challenge and loved the outcomes, regardless.
For the better part of 2012 I experimented with it – both professionally and otherwise – creating dreamy still portraits and surreal moving vignettes, pulling focus in intriguing, unexpected ways – discovering new perspectives.
I made the unfortunate mistake of bringing it to Burning Man that year. The fine, alkaline 'playa-dust' worked its way into the ball joint, destroying what had been decidedly smooth control. Its effect became even harder to manage after that. I've pulled it out on a few, special occasions, but it's just not the same.
Perhaps I'll invest in a new one someday. For now, I'll relish the nostalgia these images offer – sure was lovely while it lasted!
Here's a generous sampling for your curious amusement. ;)