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Issue 7 (Jan/Feb 1999): Visual Eyes

column photography cameras

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#1 Mike Woeller

Mike Woeller


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Posted 01 February 1999 - 04:00 AM

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Space and Depth

Space, the final frontier. Well, not really, but space is quite important in photography. Space in photography is really linked to depth, and that all relates to Depth Of Field. Depth Of Field is the amount of focus you have in a photo. By using all three of these elements, you can create the illusion of three dimensionality in your photos and make them more interesting.

Living In Mono

The inherent problem with the modern camera is the way it works. The reason human beings see depth normally is that we have two eyes. Our eyes are focused at two slightly different lengths. Our powerful human brains then take these two slightly different images and blend them to "average out" all the distances. The result is a three dimensional, stereoscopic view of our world. Cameras are lacking these two "features." Their single lens and lack of brain only allow them to expose one focal length on the film. The result is a flat, two-dimensional view of the world. It's up to the photographer to translate the view of depth into a photograph.

What's the Point?

Flat looking pictures are usually boring or misleading pictures. Conveying space in a picture draws the viewer in and allows him/her to identify with the world portrayal. Of course, at certain times, flat pictures are interesting, because the photographer juxtaposes size to change the view artistically. Again, as with all compositional elements, it is a matter of taste and meaning. Photos with lots of depth convey more information about the world than flat pictures. Flat pictures force the viewer to see the world in a different way.

Tying It All Together--Making It Work

So how do you, the photographer, make all these elements work for you? Well, I can't tell you how to use your artistic vision, but I CAN tell you how to achieve depth or flatness in a picture, and you may be surprised to see how easy it is, even for simple snapshots:

Use Your Angle

One of the easiest ways to change the view of depth is to change your angle of view. Using a really low or really high angle of view will add or subtract ground or sky from your pictures. By having more ground or sky, and spacing your subjects, you will change the relationships of their space. By spacing them out and using their ground or sky relationships, you can increase or diminish the appearance of depth.

Wide Angle vs. Telephoto

The use of different lenses will bend and distort the light and change the way objects relate to each other spatially. There is yet another simple rule of thumb for this. Wide angle lenses exaggerate space (IE: space things out, make them look farther away from each other) and zoom/telephoto lenses compress space (IE: make things look closer to each other). The extremes of these lenses can really provide interesting effects. Fish-eye (ultra-wide ) lenses actually distort the image in that the central portion of the image will be enlarged and the edges will be shrunken. It's a very interesting effect with strong, centrally located subjects. Superzooms, on the other hand, compress light so much that objects all appear to exist on the same plane. With busy, congested compositions, it gives the effect of even more crowding.

Background Work

As I have said before, photographers must be very conscious of their backgrounds. Different backgrounds have different effects on depth. Simple backgrounds increase the sense of depth, while busy backgrounds detract from this sense. If at all possible, change your background to achieve your desired effect. If this is impossible, see the next two tips for ways around this.

Vary Depth Of Field (*camera must have aperture control*)

Whether or not you find it necessary to alter your background, varying your depth of field or how much of your picture is in focus is an important skill to learn for SLR photographers. Most point and shoot cameras do NOT have an aperture control, so in that respect, SLR's are a more appropriate tool for this type of work. Simply stated, the aperture setting (F-Stop) on the camera lens allows more or less light into the lens to expose on the film. These are usually denoted by numbers such as 2.8, 3.5, 8, 22 and are located on the camera lens or LCD readout (consult camera manual). Again, there is a simple rule of thumb for this. The wider the aperture (lower numbers), the less you will have in focus. In effect, this will blur the background and "pop" your subject out into the foreground. It has a small effect on your sense of space, as if you pulled your subject out and pushed your background back, thus creating space. If you use a smaller aperture (bigger number), you will keep more in focus, and thus must use more of your view to create your depth. One other way to "pop" your subject out of the background is panning. Panning involves following your moving subject with the lens while the shutter is open. This also blurs out the background, but can also blur your subject if done improperly. It is a very hard technique to master. Using a motor drive helps, and so does patience and LOTS of film and experimentation. You must synchronize your panning speed to your subject's speed in order for the subject to be sharp. This is a technique that produces some spectacular results once mastered.

Fill Flash

Using fill flash is a quite simple technique for any camera or photographer, as long as you can force the flash on your camera. Most cameras have this feature, no matter how simple. Again, consult your manual. The idea behind it is simple. By using the flash on a subject 5-15 feet away (more if you have a big flash), you color or exposure-balance the subject and throw the background out of exposure. In effect, you are either darkening or blurring the background and again "popping" your subject away from it. It does not work, however, if you are further away from your subject than your flash can reach, and will ruin your photo. All those flashes you see at the Super Bowl or truck rally or similar event are not helping, so remember your flash range.

These are the tools I use for creating depth in my photos. If you know of others or want to expand on these, or if you dispute something, let me know by e-mail. I'll start using reader feedback in my upcoming articles and custom tailor them to your needs. Until then, shoot more, fly more, be happy.
Mike Woeller

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