Here’s another comprehensive example — ripped straight from the workshops — in our on-going series featuring Photography’s Dirty Little Secrets…


This ripped-straight-from-the-workshop lesson is one of the key academic curriculum principles in all our “Essentials” level courses. A core fundamental that we usually don’t give second thought to when composing our shots.

Ansel Adams and his band of six other modernist athestic photographers formed “Group f.64”, a name derived from the small aperture of f/64 on a lens that “signifies to a large extent the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image which is an important element in the work of members of this Group.” That small aperture resulted in great depth of field, where nearly everything in the scene would be in focus.

With this dirty little secret, its simplest form, we like to say that “focus is the only tool we have a photographers to tell the viewers where to look.” Sounds pretty simple. But implementing that approach isn’t so simple. And it runs counter to the great depth of field mindset!

MicheleZafico_TufaV2Let’s start it simply with looking at both the photo above, by Barry Taylor, taken during our Yosemite in Spring course, and the photo at right, taken by Michele Zafico, during our Eastern Sierra & Owens Valley course.

Both of these photos incorporate the obvious component of shallow, or narrow, depth of field. Unlike shooting at f/22, f/32, or f/45 where everything is in focus, both of these photos were shot with a wider aperture, in the f/2.8 to f.5.6 range.

While Barry’s above photo of the dogwood flower might at first be thought as taken with a macro lens, it was actually taken with a telephone lens, just like Michele’s photo of a tufa spire at Mono Lake.

In the dogwood flower photo above, the use of selective focus is critical, as the shallow depth of field removes all the branches and leaves from the background. Removal of these elements is truly what allows this photo to have the “pop” of the flower jumping off the background.

If the background was in focus, the leaves and branches would be distracting and — most importantly — your attention wouldn’t be on the flower, which is what Barry really wanted you to see. In this case, the selective focus wasn’t just to keep the scene less busy, but was Barry’s way of saying, “Look at this beautiful dogwood flower!”

In the tufa spire scene at right, the same shallow depth of field principle is in play, but used differently with a different outcome. Michele didn’t use complete isolation of the foreground tufa spire, instead allowing enough of the shapes of the tufa spires in the distant to be identifiable.

But more so, her perfect use of depth-of-field control, telling you where to look by clearing out the distracting background and focusing on only the tufa spire, clearly makes the little bird quite evident and the true anchor in the photo.

If the photo was taken with maximum depth of field, such as at f/22 or f/32, the colors, details and tones in the background would have blended to such a degree that the bird would become almost invisible.

In both of these cases, the photographers broke from the stereotypical landscape photography rule of everything in tact sharp focus, instead using focus as a tool to clearly tell you what they thought was important in the photo … and where they wanted you to look!