Depth of field is as important to photography as lighting and composition. Normally when doing landscape photography, I use focal ratios in the f/9 to f/16 range. Large focal ratios deliver images with great depth of field where objects in the fore-, mid- and background are all in focus. On a recent trip to the South Rim of Grand Canyon, I decided to experiment with using shallow depth of field and the above photograph is the result.
I was at Lipan Point, one of my favorite overlooks on the South Rim. From Lipan Point, you are treated to a fine view of Desert View and Palisades of the Desert to the east, and of Wotans Throne and Angels Gate to the west. I followed a social trail from the parking lot to a stone outcrop offering an unobstructed view of the canyon. Even on days when the light isn’t good for photography, the view from this little perch is still worth the 90-minute drive. In the truest sense of the phrase, the view from this vantage point is awe-inspiring.
The sun was low in the southwest sky and painted the surrounding landscape with a slightly warm hue. A small juniper tree clinging to its perch atop the Kaibab limestone was bathed in a wonderful rim light. As I set up my tripod and Nikon D610 to frame the shot, it occurred to me that this photograph should be a portrait of the tenacious tree.
In portraiture, wide open apertures and the associated small focal ratios produce shallow depths of field. This blurs everything not in the focal plane and helps to create separation between the subject, and anything in the foreground or background.
For the above portrait, I used the Tamron 24-70 mm, f/2.8 VC lens. I chose a composition that would include the distant South Rim, inner canyon temples and buttes, a short section of the Colorado River and the creamy late-day light streaming into Grand Canyon. This context clearly identifies the location of the portrait as being Grand Canyon. blurring the background allows the tiny juniper tree to be the subject of the photograph, the star of the show so to speak.
The tenacity of life in a desert environment is on full display, here. The tree clings to a rocky outcrop, a place where you might think a plant would have no chance of survival. But life is determined and defiant in such places. Water can pool in the small rough divots atop the limestone. And where water collects, life is almost always found.
The next time you head out with your camera, why not try something you don’t normally do? If you usually shoot with long focal lengths, try using a wide angle lens. If you often shoot with wide open apertures, make it a point to use a small aperture. Wherever your comfort zone may be, step outside it and try something new.
Now, get out there and shoot.
Bill Ferris | December 2014