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Deep Focus

Focus On Wildflowers • To Print, Or Not To Print • Auto ISO Isn’t Just For Beginners
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Achieving sharpness from the foreground to the distant hills requires several images focused at different zones. Canon EF 28-135mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens at 135mm (for a little compression) and ƒ/11 for each of the exposures.

Focus On Wildflowers

Q My wildflower photographs usually fall short. I can’t get the whole field sharp, or when I photograph closer up, the backgrounds are always too busy. Do you have any basic techniques to improve my success this season?
B. Norton
Toronto, Canada

A An abundant field of flowers in bloom is a beautiful subject, and one we love to share with others. “You would not believe how many flowers there were; they just went on and on!” If you really want people to experience what you saw, you’ll want the entire image sharp from the foreground to the farthest edge of the field. The simplest way to do this is to stop down a wide-angle lens to around ƒ/16 for maximum depth of field. Keep in mind that using ƒ-stops of ƒ/22 or ƒ/32 won’t work as well because at those extreme apertures sharpness is lost due to diffraction.

To isolate this single California poppy from the background, a Canon EF 180mm ƒ/3.5L Macro USM telephoto macro lens was used at ƒ/3.5. It’s important to position the zone of sharpness on a significant part of the flower.

If you want to approach the image from a lower, creative angle or use a telephoto lens, you can achieve excellent results with a technique called “stacking.” Mount the camera on a tripod and compose the scene. The camera needs to be on a tripod and the scene composed. Set your exposure and use manual focus. Then take a series of captures, beginning with the closest area of focus, and refocusing and capturing at intervals throughout the scene in what could be described as slices of sharpness that overlap from front to back. Assemble the images in software that retains the sharp areas and discards out-of-focus parts, rendering a completely sharp composite with essentially unlimited depth of field (no pun intended). There are several options for the software, including Photoshop (, Zerene Stacker ( or Helicon Focus ( Each offers a trial period, so you can check them out before purchasing.

Unfortunately, stacking doesn’t work if the wind is moving the flowers about. It’s best to photograph early in the morning before the wind picks up. You can use a higher ISO to increase the shutter speed and stop motion, but often this isn’t enough. A solution, albeit expensive, is a tilt/shift lens. By tilting the front element, the zone of focus tilts as well, allowing you to skim across the tops of all the flowers with a larger ƒ-stop (ƒ/5.6 or ƒ/8, as an example). Increase the ISO and shutter speed, and you’ll have everything sharp from front to back. If I were to buy only one tilt/shift lens, it would be a 90mm (Canon) or an 85mm Perspective Control lens (Nikon).

If you want to isolate one flower from the rest of the field, you need to control the busy background. The quickest way to do this is to use a telephoto lens set to a large aperture. Telephotos from 200mm to 400mm can be very effective. A 70-200mm or 70-300mm zoom combined with an extension tube for closer focus can be a great isolation setup. Keep the aperture at around ƒ/5.6, and be sure the zone of focus is on the most important aspect of the subject. The ideal lens for the isolation technique is a telephoto macro lens. There are a number of 180mm to 200mm macros that actually focus to a life-size (1X) image. With this lens you can lie down at the edge of a group of flowers and capture many compelling isolated flower images. It’s a beautiful way to spend the day.

If you want to isolate one flower from the rest of the field, you need to control the busy background. The quickest way to do this is to use a telephoto lens set to a large aperture. Telephotos from 200mm to 400mm can be very effective. A 70-200mm or 70-300mm zoom combined with an extension tube for closer focus can be a great isolation setup. Keep the aperture at around ƒ/5.6, and be sure the zone of focus is on the most important aspect of the subject.

To Print, Or Not To Print

Q I can’t decide whether to purchase an inkjet printer so I can create my own display prints. What are the advantages of doing my own printing, and will it save me money?
J. Nash
Via the Internet

A Each photographer has his or her own ideas when it comes to sharing images. For some photographers, the capturing of the moment is all that matters; for others, images are about keeping in touch, and Facebook postings are the way experiences are shared. Others keep a well-organized website to display their images electronically. In the digital age, we have lots of options. But many of us still aspire to the fine-art print, recognizing the interpretive power of ink on paper. We want complete control of our work, and making our own prints is an integral part of the creative photographic process.

Even in film days, I was seldom satisfied with the results from photo labs. The silver-based wet lab offered little chance for the optimization of an image with saturation improvement, burning and dodging or sharpening. Whatever was on the transparency, or what we hoped was in the color negative, was what we got in the print. Digital has improved all that, but we’re still at the mercy of the technician’s interpretation unless we do it ourselves. Skill in post-capture processing and a capable printer are the tools you need to achieve the satisfaction of knowing that the end result is entirely your own.

When choosing a printer, you need to consider a number of factors. Are black-and-white prints part of your plans? If so, get a photo printer with a range of black inks: full black, middle gray and light gray will give a great tonal range. Some printers also employ additional black inks specifically for matte surfaces or glossy papers. The better printers offer a broader range of colors, as many as six or seven, to give the photographer a broad color gamut.

What about the cost of printers and consumables (ink and paper)? That will depend a lot on how large a print you want to produce. Photo printers typically handle the standard sizes of 13, 17, 24, 44 and 60 inches. The price starts at under $500 and can top out at over $15,000, depending on the size, quality and range of inks. Paper prices vary with the size, thickness and type of paper. Inks get cheaper per print with larger cartridges, but the price varies, depending on where you purchase them.

Will you save money making your own prints? Probably not, unless you really plan to make a lot of them. The real question is more about who you are as a photographer. Do you have a passion to complete the creative process, want total control of the result and feel you can produce better prints than a professional lab? Do you feel that your prints are the best and most important representation of your inspiration and skill? Then there’s good reason to print your own. I personally find great satisfaction in printing, and I never allow others to print any photograph I’m going to sign. That said, I know many successful professional photographers who never print their own work, and they would likely give you a very different answer.

Auto ISO Isn’t Just For Beginners

Q My DSLR has a feature called “Auto ISO.” Is there ever a time when it can be useful in my outdoor photography? I’ve been told that it’s just another auto-everything mode that takes away all my options.
B. Bennett
Via the Internet

A I used to think that Auto ISO was a lame feature until I figured out that it really does have some uses. As DSLRs have offered more capable expanded ISOs, Auto-ISO settings are more viable; settings at ISO 1600 now yield entirely acceptable results.

Before expanded ISO capabilities, we had just two variables to control exposure: shutter speed and ƒ-stop. Now we have a third that gives us a lot of range. Setting your shutter speed and optimum ƒ-stop coupled with Auto ISO allows you to maintain your shutter speed as the light changes, for example.

I also use Auto ISO as a way to control exposure during a time-lapse segment. When capturing the many images in a sequence during a vast change in the level of light, such as during a sunrise, the exposure needs to keep up with the increase in light. I could set the camera to capture using the shutter priority mode, but the shutter speeds will vary from long time exposures to fast shutter speeds as the sun comes up. Setting the camera to the desired ƒ-stop and shutter speed along with Auto ISO keeps everything but the ISO constant. Early in the sequence, the ISO would be high, but still very usable in the final rendition, while in the bright light, the ISO can go all the way down to 50. When I’m taking time-lapse from dusk into night, I prefer to maintain long exposures throughout to blur car lights or emerging stars into streaks. By setting the exposure to several seconds with the desired ƒ-stop and allowing a short time between exposures, I can keep it all consistent by using Auto ISO for the changing light.

So think of Auto ISO as another creative tool that gives you more, not fewer, options that will help you solve photographic problems.

For information about upcoming seminars and digital-imaging workshops, visit If you have any tips or questions, address them to: OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER, Dept. TT, George Lepp, 12121 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1200, Los Angeles, CA 90025-1176 or online at

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.