Weekly Photo Challenge: Focus

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I posted a photo this past Saturday (in case you missed it) of nuts and bolts, a dusty real-life still life that had been waiting years for a photographer to discover its potential, at my historic haunt of Thompson’s Mills. Today, you get a wrench.

Friday was a great day to prowl the mill’s automotive shop again—it’s a small building, barely larger than the carriage house nearby, yet I hadn’t noted either of my subjects before. I can’t tell you anything about the wrench—what kind it is, what useful purposes it was put to—only that it made an intriguing subject for both my lens and this week’s Photo Challenge: Focus. Here is a subject, like depth-of-field, that has been written about and discussed for nearly as long as photography has existed, and I’ll break no new ground here. I want to tell you what I did as a small example of how it may be thought of.

On my previous two trips to Thompson’s I’d acted rather cavalierly towards technique, choosing to use lightweight NEX cameras sans tripod, and the results were a reminder that I can’t reliably hand-hold at a sixtieth of a second. Sometimes, at a step faster. On Friday I worked strictly from a tripod, where the bulk of the Canon 5DII doesn’t matter. This allowed me to use the 90mm TS-E (tilt and shift) lens, my favorite optic at the mill. In close quarters, when I can’t move the tripod, the shift function allows framings that would otherwise be impossible, but, most importantly, the tilt aspect of the lens provides overall focus when a subject’s plane is at an angle to the camera. Like those nuts and bolts, which were shot at f/22; I needed everything I could get to pull off the focus there.

The wrench didn’t require tilting, although I chose f/16 to cover the slight distance between it and the wall. Its challenge had to do with light, or the lack of. The nuts and bolts sat at the edge of the main door to the shop, while the wrench was at the back, away from door and window light. At f/16 the exposure was nearly two seconds. Before I folded the tripod and moved to another part of the mill I checked focus—when you have time to work deliberately, as I was, always check this—you won’t get a second chance at the shot. That part of focusing is purely objective—accuracy wins out every time. The next part of focusing, however, is subjective, and you have choices.

The RAW file of this photo was dutifully dull until I’d processed it in Photo Ninja, which (this time) was a starting point. I then warmed it slightly in Nik Software’s Viveza 2, before switching to Nik’s Color Efex Pro 4, where I increased contrast. I try to hew a (for me) fine line between believability and garishness where contrast (or any other post processing adjustments) are involved, but especially here. The right amount focuses the viewer’s attention where you want it. I wasn’t quite satisfied yet, though, so in Photoshop I dodged the orange markings on the wall to bring them into line with the increased contrast I’d introduced using the plug-ins. After that I removed a few bright white spots (which, if you’d seen them, would have distracted your attention—your focus—from the main subject).

And that was it. If my explanation seems simple, it’s because the process is. Once you’re familiar with processing software, and what you want to accomplish with it, you’ll know exactly how to put your subjects in focus.

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