Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


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Exercise – Focal lengths and different viewpoints

Brief:

Find a scene that has enough space in front of it to allow a choice of viewpoint, from near to far. Start with the longest telephoto lens and make a tightly framed composition. Then walk forwards in a straight line until you can fill the frame with the same subject at the widest angle setting, and take a second shot. Compare the two.

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 18-200mm f/3.5 lens.

Method:

I chose the fountain in the grounds of Castle Howard and followed the straightforward instructions in the brief.

Results:

The first shot was at 200mm focal length, and it had the effect of dramatically compressing the distances between parts of the image; in reality the backdrop of the house itself was as far away from the fountain as I was on the other side, but in this image it appears to be immediately behind. Similarly, the water cherubs on each side look to be adjacent while in fact they were positioned one on each corner – so the true front-to-back distance was equivalent to the left-to-right distance you can see here.

200 mm

200mm

Filling the frame with the same subject with my lens at its widest focal length of 18mm gives a very different feel. The subject has gained more depth and more closely resembles its real-life dimensions. The cherubs are clearly spaced on each corner of the fountain base, and the house has receded into the distance, allowing a backdrop of sky. The relative position, size and distances in this image are much truer to life and therefore easier to assimilate.

18 mm

18mm

What I’ve learned:

Zooming in to a long focal length has a significant effect on the perceived depth in the image; it can produce a very flat image where the all parts of the image from foreground to background seem to be very close together. Wide-angle shots, on the other hand, more strongly convey a sense of depth. The resulting pictures from these two extremes are very different in feel and character. This is something I must start to take into account when deciding the focal length to use and the viewpoint from which I want to take a picture.

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Exercise – Focus with a set aperture

Brief:

Take three photographs of a scene with depth to it, at the same wide-open aperture but with the focus on three different positions.

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens

Method:

Very straightforward: camera on tripod, bottles lined up on tabletop, selected focus point first on foreground, then on middle then on background.

After doing it with beer bottles, I repeated the exercise with playing cards, just to see if the principles of where I preferred the focal point held true.

Results:

Bottles - near focus

Bottles – near focus

Bottles - mid focus

Bottles – mid focus

Bottles - far focus

Bottles – far focus

With this set of images I had a clear preference for the one with near focus. It just seemed most ‘natural’ that the foreground is sharpest and that objects further away would be more blurry. This seemed to help to imply the depth as it in some way mimicked the human eye. Also, there may be something in the theory that the eye reads a photo from left to right and settles on the lower right portion. This is why I tried the alternative set of images with the cards, as a comparison.

My second favourite was the one with far focus. This one seemed to lead the eye towards the sharper portion of the image and so had more implied movement, whereas the close focus one seemed more static, or ‘grounded’.

The least satisfying shot was the middle focus one. It just lacked interest. You look right into the middle of it and… that’s it.

As mentioned above, I did an alternative set with playing cards, to test the theory. I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting distracted by the subject matter…!

Cards - near focus

Cards – near focus

Cards - mid focus

Cards – mid focus

Cards - far focus

Cards – far focus

This set confirmed my findings with the bottles in that my preference is for the one with the sharpest foreground. Again it seems most ‘natural’ and needs least interpretation. In this instance, the sharp foreground covers both the left and right side of the finished shot, which makes me surmise that the focal sharpness is probably more significant than the absolute position in the frame.

In this example, I found both of the other variations lacking. This may be as the cards have a flatter focal plane, and the gaps between the objects are smaller, meaning less of a sense of depth than with the bottles.

What I’ve learned:

I was already aware of how to focus on one portion of an image to control depth of field and draw the eye, and I think when I do this I naturally tend to focus on the foreground anyway. I hadn’t however done an exercise like this before to do a direct comparison between different points of focus. What I have learned here is that one can choose to add a little more… interest? (interactivity? mystery?) into a photo by moving the focal point towards the rear of the scene, as this inherently makes the eye move into the image.