Recently I went back to look at some images I took on vacation in Costa Rica in 2018. I had a new-ish cropped sensor camera, a mediocre tripod and some plastic-y filters that I thought would yield amazing images. Turns out I had mediocre photography skills as well because almost ALL of my images are out of focus (for various reasons) and the ones that aren’t have such a high ISO that they are pretty much unusable. Right now they only serve as a reminder of that great trip and the fact I cannot get there now if I wanted to. (Thanks COVID-19)
Hopefully I’ve addressed most of those issues that plagued me back then BUT one I’m still working on is focus. As in, the actual mechanics of getting the focus right in camera as well as some other skills that help a final image look sharp. Ok, so I don’t believe that everything in an image has to look sharp but there is a certain level of sharpness that we all expect when we look at a picture. As I’m learning, this really does take some skill and definitely ALOT of practice.
At first I thought things were fine if, no matter my lens, I just focused on what I thought was important in the image. I’ve learned that, while this can be a good first step, I need to be WAY more mindful of all the parts of my image, including what’s closest to me. The stuff that is close has a tendency to be soft if I am focusing far and the reverse proves true as well. Most of the time. There are a few things I have learned that have helped me with my problem. I’m doing my best to get these in chronological order but sometimes my learning overlaps and gets jumbled as I’m delving deep into learning a specific skill.
- When I discovered I had this problem, I probably just searched “focus in photography” or something on YouTube. Thank you x infinity to whomever created that glorious video bible of learning all things obscure. Through this search and watching multiple videos introduced me to hyperfocal distance. Then I watched all kinds of videos about THIS and apparently there is a calculation…. And then all I hear is blah, blah, blah. I’m fine at math but I do not want to be out in nature, possibly rushing to take an image while the sunset/sunrise is gorgeous, and then have to figure out how many meters in front of me I need to focus to get most of my image in “acceptable” focus. I learned I could carry a paper chart or look online. And then I heard about an app called Photo Pills. It has a chart built right in. Awesome! But, would I need to carry around a measuring tape? I’m seriously terrible at guessing distances. So, I kinda gave up on figuring that out for a while because it was just too time consuming or I got lazy or both. There is more in between which I’ll discuss but I recently revisited hyperfocal distance via the Photo Pills app and learned something magical. Let me pause to say that sometimes I need to put something aside that I just can’t wrap my brain around yet and let the universe align things to bring it back in a form that somehow I understand better. Ok, here it is: Virtual Reality! Yep. When I go into the table and quickly plug my info in, I can press the AR feature at the bottom and, BOOM, it shows me where to focus! I have been playing around with it and I don’t quite have the hang of it yet. But, it IS super helpful!
- This is probably totally obvious to most folks, even if you aren’t a photographer, but I learned I should be checking my images in camera before AND after I take them. Yep. I was just focusing and clicking and getting even more frustrated and disappointed. I’m going to give myself a break here because, at first, I had sooooo many things I was concentrating on. What to take a picture of and how to arrange it all in cameRa, what lens/focal length and settings to use, how high to adjust my tripod, etc. I think I was just happy to get to the point where I could actually press the shutter button!!! I set up my camera to allow me to use back button focusing and use a little zoom feature to check my focus and make adjustments before I take that picture. Then, I take the time to play back my image and check it over.
- Another resource that has helped has been other photographers. Could be from a personal conversation, something I read online, or a video or webinar I watched. A fellow photographer, David Hunter, heard of my problem when I expressed it on a podcast. He sent me this super helpful article from another good photographer, Michael Frye, https://www.michaelfrye.com/2020/04/20/how-to-get-everything-in-focus/. I’m still working on fully implementing his technique but this kind of information has been invaluable for me in my journey this year. Side note: I WISH I had documented all of the resources I have gleaned information from. I suspect I have logged hundreds of hours of input into my brain!
- Focus stacking. What the what?! I used to think I had to get everything right in camera in 1 go. Not so! I learned from my hours of study that I can take 2 or more images and blend them together to do all kinds of things, even to create sharper images. There are times when it is impossible for a camera to get enough of the image in focus (as I sadly discovered…). So, I have learned to take multiple images with varying points of focus and combine them with an editing software. Photoshop is the most widely used way to do it but, when I was watching a webinar with Sarah Marino, she mentioned that she uses one called Helicon. I now use this one for a specific reason that I won’t get into here and it’s awesome! On a recent trip to White Sands National Monument, I took some images to practice focus stacking with. So cool!!! It’s a total game changer! Now, I do think the best practice is to get it in focus in one image if I can but, if I can’t, I know this is an option.
One reason I decided to do this blog was to not only chronicle my learning process but also my successes and failures (or what I perceive they are, if that make sense). Back in May, after we sadly cancelled our 2 week trip to Costa Rica, I was itching to get out of the house. So, I arranged a couple of long weekends with outdoor adventures. One of these was to Davis Mountains State Park. The weather was great and one morning we took a 7 mile hike to the highest point in the park. On our way I became fascinated by all the backlit plants along the trail. I have made it one of my quests to stop and photograph things that spark my interest and did so on this occasion. Taylor has been super patient with these “sparks” of mine! I set everything up and took some images and just KNEW they were going to be great! In fact, I fantasized about looking at them on my computer, feeling those same feelings and rejoicing in my gorgeous images. The day after we got home, as I was about to start my day, I decided to pick up my camera and just look at them more in depth before I put them on my computer. Guess what? The images from that moment were mostly out of focus and unusable. Maybe I had been struggling with some other emotions that I hadn’t addressed but that discovery caused me to literally bawl. And I’m not talking about shedding a few tears. I cried. Hard. All morning. I thought about those images and cried harder while I did the dishes, mopped my floors, folded laundry, etc. I just let it all out. My afterthought about it all is that I must have been letting out all the disappointment I had been feeling about so much of my photography. Either way I don’t regret the feelings and it was an experience I won’t forget. Moving forward, I’ll be practicing a ton, checking my images so I don’t miss anything and I won’t be afraid to feel failure.