That Time of Year Again

It’s almost that time of year again – autumn, my favorite season and time of year, and also my favorite time to take photos!

leaf & morning dew on the lawn in september

I snapped this one in the morning in my back lawn, as the sun was just coming up through the trees. It’d been a cool night, so there was a nice blanket of dew on the grass, which just adds that extra little sparkle.

There’s just something about autumn – maybe it’s the shorter days that make getting up at the “golden hour” easier, or the angle of the light, but even before the leaves start to change color, the world just seems more photogenic (to me, at least).

Photography Experiments: Aperture, Focal Length, and Sensor Size

Just a quick photography experiment to demonstrate the effects that aperture, focal length, and sensor size can have on depth of field (i.e., how much you can blur the background of a photo.)

It snowed here recently, so I took a photo of a branch with some snow on it, which came out decently enough, but it prompted me to think: what would this look like at different apertures – or even different sensor sizes? So I decided to perform a little photography experiment to find out, and these were the results.

snow on pine tree branch - f5.6First is the original photo – taken at f/5.6, at max zoom (200mm, equivalent to 400mm on a full-frame camera) using my Lumix G2 camera. Even on my smaller micro four-thirds sensor, you can see that the background is completely blurred out – even more so than I could’ve gotten with my f/1.7 lens!

The depth of field in this photo is very shallow – if you look closely at the bottom right of the photo, you can see the bottom part of the branch is slightly out of focus (because it was angled slightly towards me). This gives you an idea of how thin a “slice” of the scene was in focus.

snow on pine tree branch - f22Next, I changed the aperture to f/22, but kept everything else the same. As you can see above, the background is still blurred out, but not as much. It is still blurred somewhat because I was focusing on a branch just a few feet in front of me, while the background is easily another hundred feet beyond that.

Compared to the first photo, you can see that the bottom bit of the branch is in focus – meaning the depth of field was greater, and a thicker “slice” of the scene was in focus.

snow on pine tree branch - f5.9 (compact camera)Finally, for this last picture I switched to a different camera – a compact Canon PowerShot ELPH 320. The aperture here is f/5.9, nearly the same as my very first shot, but as you can see the background is hardly blurred at all! The depth of field here is very deep – a very large portion of the scene is in focus.

Unfortunately, the little compact camera I was using couldn’t zoom to the same focal length – so this photo is at the equivalent of 255mm, instead of 400mm, and that contributes to the greater depth of field as well.

However, the smaller sensor size also has a significant impact – because the sensor is so small, there’s less room for the light to be “smeared out” (as it were), and so less of the background can be blurred.

So, what did we learn from all this? All else being equal:

  • A larger aperture (a smaller f-number) provides less depth of field and allows for a more blurred background.
  • A longer focal length (zoomed in more) provides less depth of field and allows for a more blurred background.
  • A larger sensor allows for less depth of field, which allows for a more blurred background.

This is why compact & cell phone cameras – which usually don’t have large apertures, don’t have long focal lengths, and have small sensors – are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to getting shallow depth of field & that nice blurred-out background look.

Nothing here is terribly ground-breaking in itself, and all of this should be basic “photography 101” stuff, but I still think that actually performing photography experiments like this can be incredibly useful, in the same way that performing physics or chemistry experiments can be useful even if you already know the theory behind it.

As for myself, experiments like this help me develop an intuitive “feel” for how all the different settings and elements work together, so that I can just take the photos I want to take, without having to spend too much time thinking about which setting affects which aspect of the photo.

Perhaps this experiment will help you in the same way, or perhaps it will inspire you to perform your own photography experiments. Either way, I hope it’s been helpful, or at least enjoyable!

More of the Hidden Worlds in our Own Backyards

A simple walk by the river can turn into a journey to someplace special… all within walking distance of our backyards.

So I went for a walk again recently, on a trail that goes beside the Passaic River near my house.

green reflections in the passaic river

It’s one of my favorite places to go for a walk, especially in the evening, since the reflections in the river can be amazing.

water like glass

I always tell people that New Jersey isn’t called “The Garden State” for nothing – everywhere I go, I find nothing but lush green growth. (Newark and the bits near New York are the exception, of course.)

a narrow path through lush greenery

Even more amazing is how the setting sun lights up the green of the trees and undergrowth along the river. It’s almost like something out of a painting.

setting sun through the trees

This time I went a bit further than I normally do, and as usual, I was rewarded with beautiful scenes. You never know what might be around the next corner.

gold and green at sunset

Finally of course I had to turn back – the trail probably goes on, but I figure I can save that for another day.

evening reflections in the passaic river

No matter where you are, there’s always something special waiting, hidden, in the most unlikely or even ordinary of places – if you just take the time to look. Often these special places are right nearby, around corners we routinely ignore.

Wherever you are, or wherever you end up, I hope you take the time – once in a while, at least – to look around you, to turn down that path you always walk by, or that place you’ve always seen but never stopped at. Your curiosity will almost certainly be rewarded.

Happy (backyard) trails, everyone.

Where the Water Flows

I make no secret of the fact that I love photos of flowing waterAnd I also make no secret of the fact that I’m a big fan of using slow shutter speeds to create that “silky water” effect.

Just recently I got myself a better tripod (and a nice ballhead to go with it), and ever since then I’ve been playing around with this technique a bit more.

benro a0580f tripod

I also just recently picked up an ND filter (“neutral density” – basically sunglasses for your lens) and decided to try it out.

ND filters are typically used to darkens a scene evenly, allowing for a slower shutter speed – which lets you blur out any movement… such as flowing water.

little stream flowing

Previously, I’d been using my circular polarizing filter as a sort of poor-man’s ND filter. I could still use slow shutter speeds, but I was still somewhat limited by the available light – if it was too bright, I wouldn’t be able to use as slow of a shutter speed as I would have liked. The above photo, for example, was taken in the shade under a bridge in order to allow me the slow shutter speed I wanted.

So when the weather warmed up a bit this past weekend and I found myself at a local park with some streams and rocky cascades, I just had to give it a try.

rocky cascade on Rhinehart Brook

For a first try, I’m pretty pleased with how these came out. The thing with using slower shutter speeds is that… well, you are using slower shutter speeds – which means you really need to hold the camera steady. In other words, you almost always need to use a tripod (and, ideally, a remote cable release).

Unfortunately, I didn’t have either of those things with me the day I took these shots – these shots are entirely hand-held.

small cascade on Rhinehart Brook

Luckily the exposures I was using weren’t too terribly long, so I was able to get away with hand-holding – but I did have to get a bit creative with how I steadied the camera! The shot above, for example, was taken with the camera resting on the side of my shoe as I sat cross-legged on a rock!

little cascade on Rhinehart Brook

I’m not sure why I’m so fond of this particular type of photographic effect, but I do know that it’s something I’ve been trying to do pretty much ever since I first picked up a digital camera.

Long exposures in general are just kind of fun – to me they imply motion where none exists in a way that I just find really compelling.

In the end of course this is just my taste – I like these kinds of photos, and more importantly I enjoy taking these kinds of photos.

The Hidden Worlds in our Own Backyards

So recently I took a little photowalk along the river behind my condo complex. As I was setting out, I noticed a path heading in a direction I’d never seen before, and I decided to take it.

deer print

Right away I was rewarded with seeing some deer prints in the sand beside the river, which is not very unusual because deer are very common in New Jersey.

water's edge

Still, it was very nice beside the water’s edge, with the sound of the river flowing and the crickets chirping in the early Summer evening.

the river is ... low

The river was rather low though, because it’s been such a dry summer, which meant I could get to some places I normally wouldn’t be able to.

a way across

I eventually found a way across a little side stream, which led me further upstream…

a steep slope

…and then I found the path took a sharp turn up a steep slope, which – strangely enough! – had a rope tied off to help you climb up it. Very strange, considering you normally can’t get over here…

looking down the slope

Once I was up, the path wound on a bit further, which led me to a bit of a… smelly… surprise.

the bog of eternal stench

Although all it had in common was the bad smell, I’m still calling this place the “bog of eternal stench.”

By this point, things were starting to feel a little weird – this was a strange new place, and it’d gone very quiet – you couldn’t hear the sounds of cars on the road where I’d parked, and the air had taken on that strange still feeling that you get in the deep countryside in late summer.

tiny fairy forest on a log in the bog

Looking a bit closer, I saw that the log that was lying in the bog (heh) had a lot of growth on it, which looked really neat, so I (very carefully) climbed out there to take a closer look. I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised to see faeries or smurfs or something like that crawling around.

someone marked out a path

Still, despite all of this, the path was clearly marked, although I don’t know who had done this.

everything is overgrown with green

As I moved further, you could just see that everything was absolutely covered with green, like an overgrown ruin of some sort…

overgrown structure

Eventually I stumbled across this strange structure, although I think you can guess what it is.

secret entrance

The trail briefly exited onto a road at this point, and I turned around and almost couldn’t find the path I’d just come out of!

another hidden entrance

It really was a very well hidden entrance.

drain pool

Heading back (somewhat) the way I came, I found myself next to this surprisingly pleasant pool (aside from the inevitable bugs).

At this point I had to retrace my steps somewhat, and returned to the path beside the river.

lone bench

That’s when I stumbled across this – a lone bench, sitting beside the river, on a section of riverbank that normally would be submerged. Suffice to say, I was rather surprised to see it there.

bench and river

That said, it was a lovely place to sit and admire the river.

summer river

The water was really calm at this point, and the reflections of the trees in the late afternoon sun was really just beautiful.

strange fire marking stone

But then I noticed this weird stone next to the bench, with this odd symbol carved onto it.

I began to wonder if I had wandered into some strange world.

more rope guides

The path continued on, with more rope guides…

overgrown remains of a ladder

Then, things became overgrown again – this time, the overgrown remains of a ladder.

the path keeps going on

And yet, the path continued on…

under the log

At one point, the path went under this giant fallen tree, but as soon as I stepped under it, things didn’t feel quite the same anymore, and I heard the sounds of people again, so I decided this was the end of this path, and turned back and took a different branch.

washed out bridge

This time, I followed a ravine, where I saw a washed out bridge – no doubt this was why everything felt so isolated.

deer

another deer

Unsurprisingly, I ran into some more deer. Although I was actually quite close to them, I did not have a zoom lens on (it’s too dark for my zoom lenses) so I had to crop a bit to get these pictures.

little bridge and on to the other side

The ravine eventually narrowed and another, smaller bridge crossed it.

the path back to civilization

This brought me out briefly to a path where the grass had been recently mowed. If you look closely, you can even see a groundhog I ran into – he waddled off back into the undergrowth after a brief staring contest with me.

overgrown stone path

The path then branched back into the woods, and once again things became green and overgrown.

stones overgrown on the path

At times the path was so overgrown that the occasional stone popping up was my only guide to keep me on the almost-vanished path.

path through the green

It was a very inspiring journey, but eventually I found myself heading back the way I came.

back to the human world

And then, at last, I was back where I started, at the bridge crossing the river, and the sounds of the ordinary world returned, and everything seemed just a little bit duller.

Still, it was an interesting adventure, and a reminder of the hidden worlds we can all find in our own backyards, if we’re just willing to look.