shallow depth of field

The magic of bluebells: exploring Arlington Bluebell Walk

The Magic of Bluebells: Exploring Arlington Bluebell Walk1.jpg

It's become an annual tradition to visit the Arlington Bluebell Walk in East Sussex in late April / early May - springtime would not be the same without it. Luckily for me, it's only a short drive away - but I think it's well worth a longer trek. It has the most beautiful and concentrated display of bluebells I've ever seen, and most of them can be viewed from wide accessible paths. There is a small entrance fee (£6 in 2017) which goes to a group of local charities - and it's worth every penny! 

There are 7 different walks you can take through beautiful woodland and farmland with lots of different vistas. My favourite is the short loop through Beatons Wood where most of the bluebells can be found (this is accessible to wheelchair users). There are some ponds (great for reflections) and lots of tree stumps and of course endless trees to provide interesting focal points for your photographs. Plus there are lots of seats scattered throughout the woodland for when your feet get too weary. The birdsong is so beautiful!

As you would expect, the bluebell walk gets very popular and busy at peak season with families and photographers alike. You can track the progress of the bluebells on the Arlington Bluebell Walk website, which is so helpful for planning your visit. The white wood anenomes appear first, followed by the bluebells - I love to try and capture a mix of both. It's definitely worth getting there as early as you can to beat the crowds, although there is so much space, it's very easy to wander away and find some peace and quiet.

The bluebell woods make the perfect backdrop for some portrait photography. We had some fun trying to get our little dog Misty to pose for the camera. With the help of some treats, we sort of managed it!

I've experimented with lots of different lenses over the years, but have settled on my 85mm f1.8 prime lens as my favourite lens to capture the magic of bluebells (paired with a full frame DSLR, the Canon 6D). I'm not one for wide angle shots, with lots of detail and everything in focus. Instead, I prefer to blur out the foreground and part of the background to try and capture the great swathes of purple and provide a dreamy, gentle feeling. It's not the best lens - and tends to be very soft when you are shooting with it wide open (a small number aperture), so most of these shots were taken somewhere around the f2.2 mark. They're not as sharp as I would like, so I will continue experimenting....

To get the blurry soft foreground, I crouched down low so that I had several rows of bluebells in front of me, and then focussed on a point roughly in the middle of the scene, using an aperture around f1.8-2.2 to create a shallow depth of field. This meant that the bluebells directly in front of me would be out of focus, as would the trees in the very far background, but the section in the middle that I focussed on, would be nice and sharp, drawing the eye there.

If you'd like to understand more about aperture and shallow depth of field, you might want to look at my post on How to get background blur in your photographs.

If you'd like to see more photos, I've collected my images from the last 3 years into an album on Flickr: Arlington Bluebell Walk - or you can click through the embedded slideshow below.

Arlington Bluebell Walk, East Sussex

I hope you enjoyed a wander through the Arlington Bluebell Walk. Do let me know if you have any questions in the comments below and I will do my best to answer them.


Photo tips: capturing autumn / fall colour

Autumn is my absolute favourite time of year to photograph - the landscape turns red and gold, leaves sparkle like jewels in the autumn sunshine, changing colour almost before your eyes. Is there anything more beautiful than watching a swirl of golden leaves spin and float gently down to rest on a scarlet carpet? There is magic everywhere - look up, look down, look all around.

Yet this autumnal magic can be surprisingly hard to capture on camera, so I thought I would share a few tips that have helped me. I should say that I am not about traditional shots or wide vistas of lots of trees. I hate HDR (High Dynamic Range) shots with a passion. My photography is all about softness and simplicity and my macro lens is my autumn lens of choice. So read on if you are interested in capturing autumn the beautiful simplicity way.

Photos tips: capturing autumn / fall colour

1. Position yourself to best catch the light

This is probably the single most important thing you can do. Observe which direction the sun is shining (even when there's lots of cloud cover) and walk around the tree you are photographing to see where the leaves are best illuminated. Sometimes, this means standing underneath the tree to get to the underside of the leaves (but obviously taking great care not to damage it). You will usually find that in one direction the leaves look flat, dull and lifeless, but from the opposite side they are beautifully lit, with strong vivid colours.

If you're lucky enough to have a day with some sunshine, it's worth waiting for the sun to come out and illuminate your shot - it's amazing what a bit of patience can do.

And make sure your flash is turned off - you won't capture that autumn magic with artificial light.


2. Use other trees for background colour

The joy of autumn for me is the beautiful medley of rich colours - definitely a case where the sum is greater than the parts. To take advantage of this, position yourself so that a brightly coloured tree is in the background of your shot, ideally one that is a contrast to the leaf or tree you are focussing on. Sometimes it's the background that makes the shot.


3. Don't shoot against the sky

The sky is usually much brighter than the landscape. If you are trying to focus on some leaves or a tree with lots of sky visible behind them, your camera will struggle to get the exposure right - you'll find your shot will either be far too light (exposed for the leaves) or far too dark (exposed for the sky). Even with lots of post-processing, it's hard to get pleasing results. You would be better to change your angle of view so that you have other trees/leaves in the background instead of the sky.

Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule. If the sun is behind you and the sky is bright blue, you might find your exposure is nicely balanced. And sometimes shooting directly into the sun provides some interesting sunflare - but it can be very hit and miss. As always, the key is to experiment, and check your results.


4. Look for fallen leaves & small details

As well as photographing the leaves whilst they are on the trees, don't forget to look around for other details as well. There is so much richness of colour and texture in the autumn landscape. A few ideas to try:

  • Fallen leaves, perhaps on a branch with some interesting moss, or floating in a stream.

  • Water droplets.

  • Reflections in a puddle or lake.

  • Ask a friend to hold a collection of autumn finds in their hands, or hide behind a leaf bouquet, or make a leaf headdress.

  • Find some colourful leaves for a backdrop for some portraits. Action shots can be fun too - try jumping off a tree stump or throwing some leaves in the air (put your camera into continuous shooting mode for this one, so you can capture as many frames as possible - hopefully one of them will be "the one").

  • Look down at your feet - the autumn carpet can be pretty special.

  • Bring some props out with you to photograph, such as mini pumpkins/gourds, or in my case, dolls :)

  • Collect some fallen leaves to take home with you and arrange them on a simple background (but work quickly, before they dry and curl).

Don't be afraid to move things around either - I will often collect together some of the most beautiful fallen leaves and place them on a branch or a tree stump and arrange them to look as if they had fallen there. I'll also remove anything that looks dead or diseased from the shot (always without causing damage to anything - always respect your environment).


5. WHICH GEAR TO USE AND WHICH SETTINGS

As I mentioned above, my absolute favourite lens to use for autumn photography is my 100mm f2.8 macro lens. This is because I love to shoot small details, with softness and simplicity. I find you need a longer lens as the trees are often very tall, so it's the only way to get close enough to the leaves. I usually shoot somewhere between f2.8 - f4, trying to find the balance between shallow depth of field and sufficient sharpness of the subject I'm focussing on.

Another lens I like to use is my 24-105mm f4 zoom lens. I will mostly use this fully extended at 105mm with an aperture of f4 to get as much background blur as possible. It's also nice to be able to capture a few wider shots as well.

I also enjoy using my 50mm f1.4 lens. However, you need to be able to get reasonably close to your subject to produce the tight compositions and blurry backgrounds I love, so this has its limitations.

Finally, you might find a monopod or tripod helpful. The light can often be very low at this time of year with shutter speeds quite slow, so having something to steady your camera can be helpful. I have to say, though, that personally I prefer to shoot unencumbered - I'm forever moving around trying to find the perfect angle/light/background, going down low, shooting high. If I had to keep adjusting my tripod, I would be there forever!

Instead, I usually make sure my ISO is set to auto, so my camera can use higher ISO settings if the light is very low. I will most often shoot in Aperture Priority mode, as aperture is the setting I like to adjust most often. My camera will then adjust the shutter speed and ISO automatically, in accordance with the light reading.


6. Beware very shallow depth of field

Whilst I absolutely love shooting with the shallowest depth of field my lens will allow for maximum background blur, you do need to be careful if you are using a macro lens.  Shooting at 100mm focal length with an aperture of f2.8 gives you an extremely small range where your shot will be in focus (just a centimetre or two), if you are standing close to your subject. 

As the light is often low, it can be hard for your camera to focus and you can't be certain exactly where the focus point always is, unless you are shooting with manual focus (something my eyesight doesn't allow). I've come home and reviewed my photos after many an autumn photography session to find that most of them are blurry or the focus point is not in the right place and too much of the shot is out of focus (there's soft and there's blurry). 

I would suggest that you vary your aperture and experiment a bit with different settings, rather than using the absolute shallowest depth of field possible for ALL your shots (I typically work with a range of f2.8-f4, sometimes up to f5.6, if I'm using my 100mm macro lens).

The shot below was taken at f2.8 and I just about get away with it, but if you look closely, very little of the shot is in focus. This would have benefitted from increasing the aperture to f4. As the background is quite a distance away, this would still have allowed plenty of background blur.


For more information about aperture and depth of field, and the relationship to focal length and the distance from your subject/background, please see my How to get background blur in your photographs post.


7. Review often

This point goes hand in hand with the one above. To avoid disappointment, make sure you sit down at some point and review the photographs you have taken. Zoom in and check to see if they are sharp and if the focus point is where you want it. Is the exposure looking OK? You then still have time to re-shoot and correct any problems and try any other shots you want. It's also the perfect opportunity for a nice cup of tea :)


So there you have my top tips for capturing autumn colour, the beautiful simplicity way. If you'd like to see more photos, have a look at my Autumn Glory album on Flickr - I've amassed rather a lot of shots over the years!

Let me know if you have any questions and I'll do my best to help. What are your top tips? 


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Photos tips: capturing autumn / fall colour

How to get background blur in your photos

This guide is aimed at beginners, or those relatively new to DSLR photography. I am going to explain the main elements that all contribute to background blur in your photographs in non-technical language, and recommend my favourite lenses to help you achieve beautiful blurry backgrounds. 

How to get background blur in your photos

So what is background blur?

Background blur is caused by a very shallow depth of field, whereby only a small part of your image is in focus, and the rest is out of focus. Using a shallow depth of field allows you to isolate your subject from its background and create a soft, dreamy quality to your images.

This photo was taken on my Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens at f2.8

This photo was taken on my Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens at f2.8

There are several different factors that all contribute to background blur / shallow depth of field:


1. Aperture

Aperture controls how much light reaches your camera's sensor. It is measured in f-stops. The lower the number of your f-stop,  the shallower the depth of field (and the more light is allowed in; you might hear it referred to as "shooting wide open"). A high f-stop number will cause more of your image to be in focus.

If you want to achieve a shallow depth of field/blurry background, it is probably best to shoot in Aperture Priority mode on your camera (AV mode), and to choose the lowest number f-stop available to you for the lens you are using. Each lens will have a different range of f-stops. I usually shoot somewhere between f1.4 and f2.8 when I'm after a shallow depth of field, but it depends on the other elements below.

You should also be aware that some camera lenses have a tendency to be very soft and not sharp enough when you shoot at the lowest f-stop number. I would recommend taking the same shot using a few different f-stop numbers and then comparing the results afterwards. There is nothing worse than getting home and downloading your photos and realising that NONE of them are sharp enough (yes, it has happened to me!).

This photo was taken on my Canon 85mm f1.8 lens at f1.8

This photo was taken on my Canon 85mm f1.8 lens at f1.8


2. Focal Length 

The focal length of your lens (measured in millimetres) governs the field/angle of view and the magnification of your subject. The shorter the focal length, the wider your view; the longer the focal length, the greater the magnification.

Depth of field gets shallower as focal length increases. Conversely, depth of field increases (so more is in focus) as focal length gets shorter.

So, to achieve blurry backgrounds, choose a longer focal length (and a low f-stop number). For example, I would achieve a very shallow depth of field if I was using my 100mm macro lens at f2.8 or my 50mm lens at f1.4. Whereas if I was taking a landscape photo where I wanted everything to be in focus, I would use my wide angle 17-40mm lens at something like f11.

This photo was taken on my Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens at f2.8. You can see that the depth of field is very shallow, as the back part of the butterfly is not in focus.

This photo was taken on my Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens at f2.8. You can see that the depth of field is very shallow, as the back part of the butterfly is not in focus.


3. Distance between the Camera and the subject

The closer you are to your subject, the shallower the depth of field will be (and the blurrier your background). The further away you get from your subject, the greater the depth of field (and more of your image will be in focus).

All lenses will have a minimum focussing distance, so it is important to check what this is. If you get closer than your minimum focussing distance, your camera will not be able to focus.

This photo was taken on my Canon 85mm f1.8 lens at f1.8

This photo was taken on my Canon 85mm f1.8 lens at f1.8


4. Distance between the subject and the background

The further away your background is from your subject, the blurrier it will be (as depth of field is describing what depth of the image is in focus; so if the depth is say 10cm, anything further away than that will be out of focus). The closer your background is to your subject, the more of it will be in focus. 

You might also want to consider how busy/contrasting your background is. Even if busy backgrounds are out of focus, they can be very distracting. I have found that the simplest backgrounds work best for shallow depth of field photographs, where you want the subject to shine. At home, you could use a plain piece of card or a piece of (ironed) fabric. If you are out in nature, try moving yourself around to change the background (or move your subject if it's portable), and look for complementary colours. You can sometimes find that the background makes the photo, as with the colours in the image below.

This photo was taken on my Canon 50mm f1.4 lens at f1.6

This photo was taken on my Canon 50mm f1.4 lens at f1.6


5. Camera body / sensor

Very simply speaking, the larger the sensor that your camera has, the greater the background blur. There are huge variations between camera sensors and I am certainly no expert on these. But I thought it was worth mentioning here all the same.  The type of sensor that the iPhone camera has, for example, is very different to that of a compact zoom camera, or a DSLR. So, with an iPhone, although you may be shooting at f2.2, the focal length is very short/wide, and the sensor is so different, that it is hard to get any background blur. Compact zoom cameras tend not to offer low number f-stops, unless they are very high end, but even then it is hard to incorporate the kind of glass required in such a small frame; they also have small(er) sensors.

To achieve significant background blur, you really need to use a DSLR or micro four thirds camera with interchangeable lenses. With DSLRs, you will achieve more background blur with a full frame camera which has a bigger sensor (such as the Canon 5d or 6d), than the crop frame sensor cameras (such as the Canon 70d or 700d). However, all DSLRs will produce significant background blur when paired with the right lens.

Further reading:


WHich lens should I choose? 

A great lens to start out with is the 50mm f1.8 or f1.4, depending on your budget. It is probably the cheapest lens you can buy to achieve beautiful blurry backgrounds. It is of course a prime lens, of fixed focal length, so there is no zoom, other than your feet! It is probably the lens most often used by bloggers.

This photo was taken on my Canon 50mm f1.4 lens at f1.4. I was standing very close to the leaf.

This photo was taken on my Canon 50mm f1.4 lens at f1.4. I was standing very close to the leaf.

If you want to take close-up images of flowers, you will need a longer lens. My favourite is the 100mm f2.8 macro lens. This allows you to focus very close to your subject for an extremely shallow depth of field. It is heavy, though.

This photo was taken using my Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens at f2.8. I was standing very close to the Astrantias, which are a tiny flower.

This photo was taken using my Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens at f2.8. I was standing very close to the Astrantias, which are a tiny flower.

Another lovely lens for background blur is the 85mm f1.8 lens. This works well for portraits (as does the 50mm), although it has a longer focussing distance, so you can't get super close to your subject.  I like to use it for creative landscape shots too (like the one below). In fact, I think all the bluebell photos in my Why I photograph & the magic of bluebells post were taken using the 85mm lens. 

This photo was taken on my Canon 85mm f1.8 lens at f1.8.

This photo was taken on my Canon 85mm f1.8 lens at f1.8.

You will notice that none of these recommendations include zoom lenses. You can buy zoom lenses with low f-stop numbers that produce very beautiful blurry backgrounds, but they are very expensive and very heavy. The 24-70mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f2.8 have been on my wish list for a very long time. That said, it is possible to achieve some background blur with a zoom lens at a long focal length and a not-quite-so-small aperture. The shot below was taken on my Canon 24-105mm lens at 105mm and f4. Because the trees in the background were a long way away, they are out of focus.

This photo was taken on my Canon 24-105mm f4 lens at 105mm and f4.

This photo was taken on my Canon 24-105mm f4 lens at 105mm and f4.


Summary

So, to achieve background blur in your photos, you need to:

  • Use a low f-stop number (ideally f1.4-2.8)

  • Use a lens with a long focal length (approx. 50mm and upwards)

  • Stand close to your subject

  • Position your background as far away from your subject as possible (and keep it simple)

  • Use a DSLR or micro four thirds camera

I hope that was helpful. Do let me know if you have any questions and I'll do my best to answer them.


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How to get background blur in your photos