Controlling Blur

Today's post comes from the book Painting With A Lens: The Digital Photographer's Guide to Designing Artistic Images In-Camera by Rod & Robin Deutschmann. It is available from and other fine retailers.

As a society, we’re not accustomed to using blur to express a thought or feeling. As a result, when we encounter blur in our images, we tend to view it as a problem. In truth, blur can be a beautiful thing. It’s actually one of the most powerful compositional tools an artist has. As an artist with a camera, as a painter with light, you must master its use. Nothing says “brush stroke” better than a good blur.

In the previous chapter, we discussed depth of field. As it turns out, determining the depth of field we would like to see in our image is a critical first step in the image-creation process. It guides our aperture selection, the focal length we choose to shoot at, and the focus points in the image. With some practice, controlling the depth of field in an image and the resulting blurs (both in front of and behind your focus point) will become second nature. Once it is, you will be able to freely use it to your advantage to create a host of interesting blurred image effects.

Bokeh (or boke) is the Japanese word for blur. Photographers use the term to describe the out-of-focus quality of lenses. Not all lenses produce the same amount of blur when used at similar focal lengths—even when the same aperture and focus point are selected. If you haven’t done it yet, check out your own lens’s maximum “bokeh.” If you’re going to be proficient with your paintbrushes, you have to know what they’re capable of.

The blur in this image (both in front of and behind the focus point) was made possible through the use of depth of field control. The photographer simply pre-focused his longer lens on home plate, checked his depth of field with his depth of field preview button (making sure he had at least two feet of focus), adjusted his aperture, then lined up the tiers of graphic information to tell the story (putting the pitcher in the scene). When the ball hit the focus point, the photographer shot. You will also notice (if you look hard enough) that this image was shot through a chain fence. The large aperture (f/4) and longer focal length (280mm) all but eliminated the obstruction and the given spatial distortion that occurs adds a wonderful painted “Rockwell-esque” quality to the image.

How to Do It. While in manual focus, rotate the focus ring of your lens to its minimum focus distance (i.e., as close as your lens will let you focus). Choose the largest aperture your lens offers and, if your lens is a zoom, zoom all of the way out. Find a small subject with a background that is uncluttered and far away, put your camera up to your eye, and move your body (camera included) forward and back toward your small subject (or away from it) until it falls into focus. Take a photo if you like. Look at the LCD and examine that background. Really look at the blur you’ve got. Analyze it. Make sure that you see just how shallow your depth of field is. What you’re looking at now (behind and in front of your small subject) is your maximum blur (bokeh). This is the greatest physical blur this particular lens can achieve. Now, repeat the exercise with each lens you own.

Blur can quickly isolate any individual intent. It also gives the photographer the ability to truly design an image—even if the image challenges our normal conceptions. Most photographers will not shoot an image in which the bride is intentionally rendered blurry, but an artist will take that chance. They do it all the time.

Different lenses offer different types of blur. It’s important to understand how close you can focus, what the minimum focus distance is for your lens, and what type of blur it offers, both in front of and behind your focus point. A 500mm mirrored lens produced the “painted” blur you see in this image.

Blur can be used to isolate your subject and wrap it in a blanket of color, tones, and meaning. Get to know what each lens you own affords, then use it well. Here, again, we see the “circled” blur effect that a mirrored 500mm lens offers. The “circles” stem from the construction of the lens itself. The blur you see is taking the shape of the mirror found in the lens.

Depth of field control proved vital in both of these images. In the top photo, a precise depth of field was chosen to keep the bride and groom in focus while blurring everyone else. In the bottom image, a shallower depth of field was dialed-in to blur the bridesmaids in the background.

When you start thinking about blur and controlling it, your pictures will change. They’ll become more controlled, better designed, and more artfully composed. You’ll stop worrying so much about simple subjects and their appearance in the frame and start being concerned with how that blur looks in your image. Eventually, you’ll do what you can to improve it. (Imagine being more worried about the blur in your image than the “stuff” that’s in focus. Crazy, huh?)

Once you’ve got it figured out, amazing things will happen. Take, for instance, an image of something nearly impossible to catch with your camera or lens set to auto. How about a picture of a bee in flight? Sound tough? It’s actually quite simple.

If you’re struggling with depth of field control, try this simple exercise.
Grab a water bottle and your favorite lens. Dial-in your largest aperture, turn your focus ring to its minimum focus distance (focusing as close as you can), and move your body (and camera) forward and back until the front-most part of the water bottle cap is in focus. You may discover (depending on your lens) that only a small portion of the cap is in focus. Adjust the aperture until the depth of field reaches across the bottle cap. Remember to check this by using your depth of field preview button. You may discover that you’ll have to use a very small aperture to gain the depth of field you desire. Adjust your shutter speed and ISO accordingly and snap the picture. The water bottle cap will be in focus. Great!

Capturing an image of a bee in flight is quite simple, as long as you don’t use your camera’s autofocus feature. It’s the same as shooting a moving baseball, only smaller. Simply dial-in the appropriate depth of field, choose a shutter speed fast enough to freeze a moving bee, and pick an ISO that allows you to illuminate the image as you wish. Pre-focus on where the bees are “hanging out,” wait for one to hit its mark, and snap! It’s a breeze.

Blur was a welcome part of this image. It illustrates the mood and feel of the event better than a static approach would. Sometimes allowing an image to blur is the right thing to do.

Now, imagine that we replaced that water bottle cap with a flower. Using the same procedure, dial-in the required depth of field. Imagine that there are lots of bees around you (hopefully you’re not allergic) and that they really like that flower. Now, wait until one of the bees flies into that depth of field and take the picture. Pow! You’ve got a photograph of a bee in flight!
Try that with your lens set to autofocus. We dare you.

Posing For Families

Today's post comes from the book Family Photography: The Digital Photographers Guide to Building a Business on Relationships by Christie Mumm. It is available from and other fine retailers.

Most of my clients are looking for a good mix of casually posed and candid shots from their sessions. I begin by looking for the best light in any given location, then suggest posing that will allow the family to interact and reveal their personalities. Traditional posing rules for groups favor a balanced arrangement. I find that a few general rules serve me well.

The Triangle Rule. Posing families to create triangle patterns that are somewhat equidistant in spacing will feel balanced and keep the viewer’s eyes moving from subject to subject. It is human nature to be drawn to triangles, a shape that is repeated in nature over and over again. When you are looking at a family pose, be wary of groupings that place one subject out of balance or somehow “out” of the group. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.

Families of three are very easy to pose as they will naturally fall into a triangle pattern.

With families that have an even number of members, be careful not to create a perfect square. With a family of four, a lopsided rectangle or parallelogram created from multiple triangles produces an intriguing yet balanced pose.

In certain cases, an offset subject can draw attention to that person in an interesting and narrative way. Typically speaking, however, you will want to be able to draw many different triangles with the placement of the faces in your composition.

The Linear Rule. Placing families in linear poses is a great way to draw the eye through the portrait in a fluid way. Try to use leading lines with these poses if at all possible; this will create a sense of flow in the image. Linear poses make fantastic panoramic or wide prints and can be placed on walls where vertical space is limited.

The “Groups” Rule. Posing families in smaller groups can make for fun, unique portraits. Whether you place the children separately from the parents or divide the boys and the girls, the “groups” rule can create poses that are fun and full of life. Encourage the smaller groups to follow either the triangle or linear rule; this will make each of the smaller groups feel more cohesive and balanced. One thing to consider with this rule is focus. When the groups are placed on different planes, you will have to make a decision about focal points and whether or not you want all of the subjects in focus.

Allowing this family to settle into their own personalities within the pose has made for a truly authentic portrayal of their family dynamic. I love how the littlest one is showing her stubbornness, the middle child is sneaking a peek at what everyone else is doing, and the eldest is picking on the little one. This image makes me smile every time I look at it and it ended up being their favorite from the session.

In this family portrait, the mother and father are positioned as the center of the group and their boys move out from them. The leading lines from the parents in the center to the outside children make the viewer’s eyes move back and forth through the image as they scan each face one at a time.

Here the “U” shape of the grouping has the eye moving from the father, to the daughter, to the son, and up to the mother—and back again.

This family portrait uses the “groups” rule, separating the boys from the girls to juxtapose their personalities. I love how the family clown in the middle is vying for Dad’s attention. Mom looks on, obviously amused at his antics.

The two groups are on different planes, rendering the parents and baby out of focus while the two big girls play it up for the camera in front.

The Lifestyle Portrait. The last posing rule I will talk about is the “unposed” rule. I try to capture a good mix of loosely posed images and candid shots in each session. When shooting in this fashion, you will be an observer and simply allow the family to interact and move around the shooting location. Walking, climbing, and otherwise being active is the name of the game here. Encourage your clients to play, explore, and try to forget that you are there at all. I will usually put on my long zoom lens for this portion of the session and shoot stealthily from a distance.

Allowing families to have some fun, unstructured play time during their session is a great way to capture images that convey the true nature of your clients’ relationships.

The philosophy of lifestyle portraiture is to capture the subjects in their natural environment. Interactions between family members are some of the most honest and authentic moments you will have the pleasure of capturing in your images. In fact, some of the most evocative and moving images you create will be those that are captured in moments when your direction is not present at all. I strive to be an observer of human nature and relationships. If you open your eyes to the world around you and allow the beauty of creation to wash over you in the present, your work will become a true representation of your subjects. Living life in the moment and appreciating your clients for who they are, and what they mean to each other, is paramount in this business.

Don’t be afraid to frame your subjects very tightly and even crop off portions of heads or faces. These shots create a sense of intimacy and can make for some beautiful, moving portraits.

Vintage Lighting- The 1930's

Today's post comes from the book Christopher Grey's Vintage Lighting: The Digital Photographer's guide to Portrait Lighting Techniques from the 1910 to 1970. It is available from and other fine retailers.

1930s—The Dirty Thirties

The often-used title for that decade had nothing to do with sexual mores but rather with the incredible dust storms that ravaged the nation’s food belt. The Great Depression was in full swing at the start of the decade, with many citizens impoverished or, at the very least, in need of fresh food and clean water.

Photographically, lighting styles were evolving into the greatest burst of visual elegance to date. Movies had become the “great escape” for people, and audiences in the ’30s saw movie stars as even more “larger than life” than they did in the ’20s. MGM’s tag line, “More stars than there are in heaven” was never more valid, as actors became the elite royalty of the country.

Personally, I think the two great photographers that fully emerged during this decade, Clarence Sinclair Bull and George Hurrell, were geniuses at what they did, but I don’t think they truly understood their craft. After studying their work for years (I happily own several original and signed Hurrell prints), I’d have to say they understood the nuances of photography, especially lighting, but on only an intermediate level. They frequently made “mistakes” that would doom us if we used them today on, say, a high school graduate. Upwardly directed shadows, sometimes multiple shadows, could brand any one of us as a low-grade photo moron unworthy to wield any camera of more than two megapixels. Unless we’re shooting retro Hollywood, of course.

Hurrell and Bull were hired to photograph both the biggest and smallest names in Hollywood. Regardless, the people they shot had attitude. For historians to say that their results were timeless because the photographers were able to draw some monumental performance out of an actor, to look deeply into their souls, I say phooey. The stars could act; that was their job, after all. They only required a little direction and trust in the photographer to make things happen. Your clients will need more direction from you to acquire the attitude of a star and make the shoot successful.

Blown-Out Highlights
Two classic looks were achieved with three lights with grids, precise positioning of the main light to establish the contrast and specularity of the light, and serious overexposure from the kickers.
Two lights were set about 6 feet behind the model, each sporting a 40 degree grid, quite wide for many applications but perfect here because the lights will cover all of the body I wish to include in the images. I began by measuring each light separately and to the same power, f/16 as I recall, although that doesn’t matter as much as the final main to accent light ratio. I wanted these accent lights to be really bright, to actually burn out any detail that would be directly hit.

Because the lights were covered with rather wide grids, the risk of flare onto the lens was guaranteed. To remedy this, I moved black bookends into the scene, keeping light on my beautiful model while keeping it off my beautiful lens and saving my glass.

The main light was fitted with a 10 degree grid and placed on a boom so it was directly over the model, in a straight line to the axis of the lens, and about 4 feet from the model. This light was powered 1 stop below the two kickers, but this reading would be the working aperture for the camera. One note of caution here: you should not meter the light in the traditional sense, with the meter below the chin and aimed at the camera. The correct way to meter any light fitted with a grid is to meter with the dome placed between the model’s eyes, aimed at the camera. Diagram below:

Let me back up just a bit. When the light is placed in this position, directly over the lens’ axis, and the subject is looking directly at the camera, we get butterfly lighting, but when the subject moves her head to either side, the effect is more like broad or short lighting. This means that a light placed this way, along the axis, is extremely versatile, perhaps even more so than with actually using a set light scenario. It all depends on how you visualize the placement of your model’s face in your composition.

My first series was very successful, absolutely duplicating a classic look of the ’30s. My model sat on a stool (which was cropped out when I went to 8x10), toying suggestively with her robe. Again, this is a classic look, as the female stars of the time were quite aware they were being exploited for their acting ability as well as their sex appeal. Note the splash of light on the model’s nose. This is often considered a “mistake” in traditional portrait photography, and it certainly can be. The trick is to keep it as minimal as possible. Too much light will make the nose look too prominent. A nose splash from both sides is visual death, as the nose will look huge. It’s important to control it completely, and the easiest way to mess it up is to place the two kickers too far away from the model’s sides. If that’s what you see, move the lights in and flag them more tightly. You can thank me later. Photo below.

My second setup was really easy. All I had to do was move the boom-mounted light within a couple feet of the model and power it down to the previously determined f/stop. There is no set formula to determine the distance, as it all depends on how much of the model’s face and figure you want to show. Remember that the kickers will define the rest of her shape.

My model was standing this time, with the circle of light much more clearly defined. I think you can readily see how cool and dramatic a grid-spotted main light can be. Photo below.

Parabolic reflectors with grid spots will produce beautifully contrasty, modeled light. Is this appropriate for a head and shoulders portrait? When dealing with retro light, absolutely. Even though this shot was cropped above the transition zone, the part of an image that recedes into shadow, the result is fantastic. Add a little sepia toning and crop to a traditional size, such as 8x10 inches, and you’ll have a product that your client’s friends will look at and say, “Is that your grandmother? You look just like her!” Your client will then tell her friends about the incredible photographer she hired to get the image (unless she’s protective and selfish, of course, in which case you’d better have an advertising program in place). Photo below.

One further note: in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, Hollywood’s retouchers spent hours slaving over negatives to make everything perfect, working on the eyes and blemishes but spending the most time getting rid of flyaway hair. I typically do the same thing when I feel it’s necessary, especially on retro hair, because it’s worked and pinned, essentially beaten into submission to get the correct style. I clone out most of it, leaving a few stray ends just to keep it looking natural but still perfectly styled. The worst image you could produce would be one with every hair perfectly in place. It doesn’t ever work that way in real life, even with someone who is as follicly challenged as your humble author.

Engagement Sessions

Today's post comes from the book Engagement Portraiture: Master Techniques For Digital Photographers by Tracy Dorr. It is available from and other fine retailers.

When planning an engagement session, you will have many stylistic options available to you. Those will be explored further in the next chapter. No matter what style you choose, however, you will have two main avenues for executing it: a formal approach or an informal approach. Although the formal session is usually shot in a more traditional studio setting, I suggest that you try to think more broadly of “formal” as your approach to dealing with the customers. The same goes for the “informal” approach.

The classic, traditional engagement photo is a formal portrait. In the 1800s, portraits were necessarily serious and formal due to the extremely long exposure times that were required by the photographic technologies of the day. As higher film speeds became available, portraits took on a somewhat happier vibe; the subjects were smiling and more comfortable, but still formal and looking directly into the camera. Since the digital revolution, photojournalism has deeply impacted the style of portraits clients desire, but there is still a large market for a more formal approach to an engagement portrait.

Choose your location wisely. Traditionally, formal shoots often take place in a studio setting with lights and backdrops. Pose your couple carefully and pay attention to everything from posture to hand positioning and hairstyling. You have total control in these situations so take advantage of that.

If your clients are interested in a more formal approach, or if you are more comfortable shooting that way, you will need to decide if the session will be done in a studio setting with multiple backdrops or props, or if you will go on location. Formal shoots are typically created in a studio sitting, but if you do choose to go on location, think about more formal locations—like a church or museum, as opposed to a beach or heavily urban setting that will define your shoot before you even begin. The location you choose will directly impact the formal mood of your photos.

Riccis Valladares used the dramatic lighting in a theater to design images that matched this couple’s interests. “I only had one overhead light (from the theater) used as a rim light,” says Valladares. “Both the bride and the groom are theater actors and we shot this image on the stage where they first played. I shoot engagement sessions around the couple’s lifestyle—whatever makes them who they are.”

Formal sessions are not limited to a studio setting. Creativity may lead you to an unusual location that fits the couple’s personality. Scout out the location to make sure it will enhance the formal mood, not detract from it.

When posing your couple, make sure to look for every flattering nuance and try out several different poses. They should generally be looking into the camera and their body language should be less relaxed. Think of an upright posture, folded hands, turned-in bodies, and seated or standing shots. Their bodies and faces should be angled toward the camera, not straight-on like a mug shot.

Even though you don’t need as many exposures for formal portraits as you would for a more candid session, you still have the opportunity to use the digital media to your advantage. Keep shooting. Feel free to experiment with as many different poses and combinations as you like. You can always choose only the best one or completely delete anything that didn’t work. Ultimately, you are ensuring that the couple will have more selection in the end. Clients looking for a formal sitting will be more detail-oriented and will be looking for perfection. You don’t have the same kind of creative liberty to make artistic “errors” as you do in photojournalistic portraits.

An informally styled engagement session can either be posed in a relaxed manner or it could take place as a totally photojournalistic shoot. You can also develop a combination of the two if you are skilled at directing and interacting with your clients. If your studio’s shooting area is limited in size, these types of sessions may work better on location. Additionally, the more relaxed atmosphere of an outdoor setting alleviates the stiffness of a traditional studio setting, something that is integral to a more informal approach.

Informally posed sessions are a popular choice. They allow you to modernize an old concept and flatter any couple or location.

A session that is still traditionally posed but executed in a more relaxed, informal manner is the most widely accepted type of session today. In this type of session, the clients may still be rather traditionally posed, but you will develop the poses as you go. You should give the clients direction and talk them through each pose, but allow them to be comfortable and to be themselves. This contrasts with a purely photojournalistic type of session, in which you provide little or no posing direction but concentrate, instead, on capturing your clients as they really are.

Informal sessions differ from photojournalistic ones because you will still be giving direction throughout the shoot. You may say, “Hold hands and walk toward me,” or “Put your hand on his cheek” in order to achieve the desired result. The clients will have some room to experiment and act on impulse, but you maintain control by giving direction. You are not trying to achieve technical perfection with these poses, just create a nice moment with excellent lighting, an attractive background, and an appealing overall mood.

Let the couple’s personal style influence how you shoot and what angles you choose.

During your initial meeting with the clients, educate them about informal and photojournalistic approaches. See which one they are truly looking for. They may be confused as to the difference.