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Poppy Lantern, Merced River Canyon

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 16 August 2009 in Plant & Nature and Portfolio.

"Is that the way it really looked?" (third in a continuing series)

I'm asked that question quite frequently, and my response is always an emphatic, "No!" The camera and the eye see the world differently; it's silly for any photographer to claim an image is "exactly the way it looked when I was there." A camera's dynamic range, visual depth, and range of focus (to name a few) are all inferior to the human eye. A good photographer doesn't submit to these limitations, he or she turns them into an advantage. Conversely, there are wonderful things the camera can do that the eye can't. All these differences combine to give the experienced landscape photographer an opportunity to create evocative, artistic images in the camera, with very little post-processing required. Today's post continues an ongoing series expressing my thoughts on using your camera's vision to your photographic advantage (and without having to resort to Photoshop enhancement).
Range of focus (depth of field)

Sprawled on my belly in the weeds, I could see all the flowers, grass, shrubs, and rocks surrounding me, but I knew my camera could not. One approach would have been to stop way down to increase my depth of field (DOF), but even using the smallest aperture wouldn't have resulted in enough DOF to match what my eyes saw (and frankly, all that other background stuff would have been a huge distraction).

Fortunately, your camera's inability to match your eyes' focus range is something to celebrate, not lament. A narrow field of view allows you to eliminate distractions and guide your viewers to whatever you deem the most important part of your scene.

In today's image I wanted to emphasize this poppy's color, its graceful curves, and the way poppies appear to generate their own light when backlit. I felt including the entire poppy in the composition would introduce too many distractions; limiting the composition to the poppy's glowing base, and using an extremely shallow plane of focus, my goal was to immerse the viewer in the scene's most compelling elements.

But identifying and isolating the subject isn't the end of the job, and a paper-thin plane of focus is no reason to ignore the rest of your scene. In fact, out of focus elements provide a fabulous opportunity for beautiful, artistic effects, as the blurred areas become abstract shapes and splashes of color.

The complementary purple wildflowers in the background here were no accident; rather, I intentionally positioned myself to juxtapose the blurred violet flowers against the poppy's orange. To minimize the DOF I dialed in my lens's largest aperture; to further reduce DOF and fill as much of my frame as possible with the poppy, I inserted an extension tube between my camera and 70-200 lens.

All SLRs default to the largest aperture for composition (to make your view as bright as possible--that's why you need to use DOF preview to close the aperture to the set value to see the actual DOF you'll get with a smaller aperture), then close to the specified aperture when you click your shutter. But since my exposure setting was for largest aperture aperture already, through my viewfinder I saw the focus exactly as the camera would, making composing pretty straightforward (no need for DOF preview).

I spot-metered on the brightest part of the poppy and underexposed by about 1/3 stop to bring out the color. The post-processing for this image was minimal. In fact the color was so intense that I actually desaturated it slightly.

Next post: August 19 (please view my previous posts by clicking the arrow in the upper left of today's image)

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Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

Anina from Auckland, New Zealand

This is BEAUTIFUL!!!
I absolutely love the colours, dof and composition
This should be printed, framed and hanging against a wall :)

16 Aug 2009 5:49am

@Anina: Thanks, Anina. And there it is, above the landing right at the top of the stairs. :)

Bill Brown from California, United States

Absolutely gorgeous!

16 Aug 2009 8:47am

Vitor Martins from Lisboa, Portugal

Very nice photo and composition. The color is really beuatiful, and the brigtheness amaizing

16 Aug 2009 9:06am

sawsengee from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

splendid macro.....lovely colours, blended hues & composition

16 Aug 2009 11:37am

masoud from tehran, Iran

perfect shot

16 Aug 2009 12:51pm

Vert Pomme from Montreuil Sous Bois, France

Très sympa le resultat.

16 Aug 2009 1:11pm

Barbara Kile from Ft. Worth, United States

Now, that's what I'm talkin about! This is stunning and a perfect capture of complimentary colors.

16 Aug 2009 2:04pm

dan from Myanmar


16 Aug 2009 2:36pm

dobbino from Cape Town, South Africa

An absolute stunner! The background colours are just perfect and offset the poppy's colour perfectly. Until I read your narrative, I thought the blue might have been the sky. Thanks again for the insights - more homework *sigh!* :)

16 Aug 2009 7:51pm

@dobbino: Thanks, Rob. It's all about the light, really. If you teach yourself to identify the best light and shoot something that uses it (rather than targeting a subject regardless of the light) you'll see immediate improvement.

Ana Lúcia from Leiria, Portugal


16 Aug 2009 9:32pm

Judy from Brooksville, Florida, United States

Another wonderful lesson ... thank you for your gorgeous shot, but also your sharing!!

16 Aug 2009 10:37pm

Frédéric A. from Païta, New Caledonia

A picture full of colors and very expressive. Very successful.

17 Aug 2009 1:11am

john4jack from Corvallis, Oregon, United States

Stunning photograph. Excellent commentary; very much appreciated.

17 Aug 2009 4:37am

Didier DE ZAN from somewhere, France

Beautiful colored shot

17 Aug 2009 5:11am

Bill Jennings from (Bay Area Northern Calif), United States

fantastic composition in both form and color: using DOF as an artistic element so well.

17 Aug 2009 6:25am

Jen from St. George, United States

WOW! Those colors! The composition! The selective focus! Just beautiful, and stunning! :)

17 Aug 2009 4:01pm

pernilla from Andonno, Italy

Wonderful! Everything works so well. Amazing shot!

17 Aug 2009 11:09pm

Magda from Vancouver, Canada

This is incredible! Thank you so much for all your tips on how to use the camera to the fullest!!! Boy, I have lots to learn... ;)

18 Aug 2009 5:26am

@Magda: Thanks, Magda, it's fun sharing my thoughts (and writing gives me an excuse to park myself at Starbucks for a couple of hours each day). :) Honestly, Magda, you do things with the camera that I couldn't, so you have a few things you could teach others yourself.

Scott Schilling from San Martin, United States

Fantastic foreground and then background colors in this image Gary! Great work!

18 Aug 2009 5:37am

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

So beautiful! I love that you've focused right in on the glow of the poppy-Who needs to see the whole thing, when the glow is what it's all about? I have been so enamored with the giant landscape lately, this makes me remember why I started taking pictures in the first place.

20 Aug 2009 2:22am

Tamara from Aarschot, Belgium

Perfect light, nice angle... very special. Congratulations !

15 Sep 2009 7:38am

Marie-France from Sceaux d, France

C'est magnifique....

3 Jan 2010 3:10pm