We’re having our usual riot of Spring-time blossoms here in south Lousisiana. The antique rose in the side yard stopped me in my tracks the other morning and I pulled out a camera.
This little bush grows next to the shed and receives almost no attention. But this year it has burst forth with blossoms like never before. We don’t get them picked often enough and there on the bush one can find the entire life cycle of a rose blossom, from first bud to withered corpse. Makes for some interesting image possibilities…
Which got me thinking, as I was composing, about how critical your focus decisions are to the results you ultimately achieve. I was using my favorite lens—my Canon 50mm macro—and looking for ways to isolate and combine blossoms in the frame. Starting at f2.8 @1/200th sec, I was trying different compositions, searching for what was pleasing and what worked. Although this usually does a great job for me, today it was too shallow a focus range for this composition.
What’s in focus is a combination of a few things: what you focus upon; how much depth of field you achieve by your aperture selection; and finally, your focus plane as well. In the case of this rose photograph, I needed help in all areas.
I’ve written extensively elsewhere on the site about aperture and depth of field. The factor that was important in this case was really the focus plane of my camera. What is focus plane? It’s a simple concept but a bit difficult to explain.
Imagine your DSLR from overhead, looking down, or from one side. Unlike old view cameras with flexible movements, your DSLR has a fixed, built-in and parallel relationship between the lens and the flat, CCD light sensor inside the camera (what used to be the film plane in film cameras). With these things parallel to each other, things should be in focus at even your minimum, wide-open aperture in a consistent sharpness from one side of your image to the other and from corner to corner of your shot.
Now as you rack your lens through its focusing range, whether you can see it or not, the focus plane is the extension of this parallel relationship out into space. It’s most noticeable, and most important, when working up close, like I was doing with the roses.
In this case, my first photo of this two-rose grouping (above) had only one side of the right-hand rose in focus, with the focus dropping off to the right edge. I could have gotten out a tripod and stopped the lens way down, to maybe f22, and solved the problem—but I would have ended up with other stuff in focus that I didn’t want—like the other rose. This would have diluted the impact and created a different photograph. The solution had to do with the focus plane: I needed to move myself around a bit, getting the front edges of the right rose parallel to the back of my camera( a good way to think about the CCD and where it’s located). Then, with just a bit of aperture increase (down to f6.3, or just over 2 f-stops), I was able to get what I was after: petals of right rose in focus, with the left rose dropping out of focus.
So think about focus plane the next time you’re shooting up close and you’ll find it can enhance your results. Good luck!
Quick Tip: While we’re on the subject of up close, hand-held shooting, here’s a great tip: compose your shot, focus on what’s important, then move your entire body ever-so-slightly in and out of focus as you shoot versions of the shot. You’ll find this is far more effective than trying to constantly autofocus on your subject.
Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Or subscribe to our Facebook page or our Twitter feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog