Monday, April 28, 2014

Selective Focus Photography

The majority of my latest posts were quite techy. Now, to something completely different!
Let's get artsy!

You have seeing me experimenting with pinholes, creating not only creamy focus with infinite depth of field, but also weird colors.

Today, I would like to show the opposite, going selective with very shallow depth of field. The name of the game "selective focus", the mother of it all, the Lensbaby system (mama!).

Actually, when you open the box, the first you see is a manual leaflet with the friendly imprint "mama!" on it. Nearly as comforting as the words "don't panic" printed in friendly letters of a very important guide book.

Back to Lensbabies! The basic idea behind this system is to give artistic freedom to photographers beyond the commonly used better than the rest lenses everyone uses.
Usually, objective lenses aim for creating a perfectly flat focus plane. Not so the basic lenses of the lensbaby system, which create more like a focus-sphere, resulting in what lensbaby calls a "sweet-spot".
Let's stay at idea of the sweet-spot for the moment (other stuff to follow). Said sweet-spot can be moved across the image plane of your (d)SLR or mirror-less camera. Depending on what aperture is used, various depths of field can be selected... of course you want to go really shallow, right?!
Selecting the aperture is somewhat manual, at least in the system that I got. Changing aperture means literally changing disks with an aperture. The benefit of this is that at all stops have a perfectly round shape, for beautiful bokeh-balls!

Interesting about the system Lensbaby is the availability of different optical units to be placed in a lens body allowing for tilt in all directions. There are mechanical and manual options to perform such tilting action. Things of course come with 2 sides, as medals... Mechanical tilt operation, which is slow, allows for mechanical focusing, which is precise. Manual tilt operation, really fast and hence good for street photography, comes with manual focusing, i.e. using fingers of both hands to achieve focus at the desired tilt.

Presently I own 2 different lens-bodies, the "Spark" for my trusty Digital Rebel Xt and the "Composer with Tilt Transformer" for the micro-4/3 system (Olympus PEN E-PM2). The Spark is a pure manual system, while the Composer is a fully mechanical system.

The optics of lensbaby are said to have a focal distance of 50mm. On a full-frame (d)SLR, that would be a normal objective.
The 350D (Rebel Xt) carries an APSC sensor, resulting the lens to be 80mm equivalent, i.e. a short telephoto lens.
The micro-4/3 system has a crop-factor of 2, 50mm is therefore equivalent to a telephoto lens of 100mm.

Right... techy again... let's get artsy and look at some pictures!

Lensbaby Spark @ Canon EOS-350D

Hoofvijfer, Den Haag

Tuning violin player (Gevangenenpoort, Den Haag)
As said before, the Spark is a lens with is focused and pointed with the might of fingers. These are first experiments. It is clear that this type of photography requires a lot of practicing.
The fountain and island of the Hoofvijfer are pretty much in the sweet spot. Although I like the photo of the violinist, the sweet spot is behind him at the wall. As a lame excuse I claim that I was walking, trying to not bump into tourists, while trying to get the sweet-spot on the guy...

Lensbaby Composer w/ Tilt Transformer @ Olympus E-PM2

This combo, although being much more precise, is a lot slower. I missed (blew!) quite some shots due to the mechanics.
First of all, there are 2 very different activities going on. The lens body, which is held by a ball hinge, has to be tilt into the desired direction. Then, the focus ring of the body is used to bring the optics into the desired focus.
It seems the Composer is more for studio work... maybe architecture... something that does not move, or at least not too quickly.

Here's a lesson to learn have a look:
Composer w/ double glass @ f2.8
This guy, sitting about 1m apart from me on the same bench, was very very patient with me! I took 3 shots, this is the last of the series. Yep, the sweet-spot is on his claw, not on his eye... I tried to correct, which created some weird noise... and he was gone! Note: for close-up wildlife, better use manual action Lensbabies, such as the Spark or the Muse!
Don't know why the bokeh is so crappy....

One learns from mistakes. (Mind you, this was the very first day I was in possession of the composer.) Hence, I adopted my workflow to first determine where in the frame the sweet-spot is, contrary what tells in their manual.

This is what I do:
  • point the camera right to the ground, as parallel as possible
  • find the focus of the sweet-spot
  • now: slightly de-focus towards infinity, the creates a sharp ring around the sweet-spot (*)
  • move the ring to circle around some feature in the live-view, e.g. a crossing of golden ratio lines
  • lock the ball-joint
  • move your "subject" (I hate that word) into the region of the sweet-spot
  • focus
  • shoot!
There are a lot of helper lines available in modern cameras, e.g. rule of thirds or golden ratio, which btw. are not the same!
Now that you now where the sweet-spot is located, it is surprisingly simple to focus, since the focus-action of the composer is super-smooth.
Have a look at result obtained by this technique
Family Supper - LB Composer @ Olympus E-PM2 (f2.8)
(*) The trick of finding the sweet-spot easily is by making use of the fact that focus is formed on a sphere, rather than a plane. Cut trough a sphere, and you will get a circle... In this case, a circle of focus around the center which will be the sweet-spot when focused upon.

Sheep are slow moving domestic animals. But what about wildlife, well, as wild as it gets in one of the most densely populated areas of Europe, if not the World.

Speaking of wildlife, it seems that selective focus defies the lack of a long telephoto lens.
Takeoff! (f2.8)
Here is some Fulica atra, who had enough of being stalked by a bloody human with a camera... so, he took off. I had arranged the sweet-spot and focus was achieved easily.

Interestingly enough, in the photo of the sheep family and the taking off coot, the selective focus seems to be substituting a really long lens.

The selective focus seems to be pulling the viewer into the image, which seems to be more natural than pushing the subject into the viewer's face by a long lens!
Also, the selective focus automatically provides context to the image.
The last example shows that even a center placed subject can look somewhat interesting, provided blur gives sufficient guidance to the eye.
The last example also shows how the focus-sphere works. The branch in the upper left golden ratio is similarly in focus like the waves in the center, although there are several meters between the two items. You will feel, that, now that I said it, the branch will actually disturb you... Yep, that's how difficult is it to get a decent shot with selective focus. Nevertheless fun, I promise!

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