Two Takes

I’m not sure how well this post is going to go over but I thought I would give it a go. I think this topic is important, but I’m wrong about 77% of the time. Approximately. Now lets forget the fact I’m shooting on the beach in Laguna, which isn’t my favorite place in terms of subject matter. I arrived in Laguna right at sunset and was so excited about the light that I ran around like a crazy person. I was almost going to shoot some self-portrait reflection when I looked down from parking lot level and noticed a woman by the water’s edge. This particular woman had a cat on her back. The cat, obviously, wasn’t real happy about being there and was consequently trying to climb off this woman’s back. It looked interesting, so I ran through the crowd of out-of-towners wearing board shots and tank tops in the 50 degree weather. (I know you WANT it to be warm but it’s not, and the water is ice cold damnit. Googling this stuff can save you some pain.)

These images you see below were shot within seconds of one another.I think one of these images is more modern than the other, and I also think one of these images is better than the other. Here’s why.

This image is what I would consider a “modern” or 2013 style image. I’m using a 1.4 lens at 1.4 even when there is plenty of light to use a smaller aperture. We live in the age of the 1.2 or even the .9 lens, and it appears as if a lot of folks using these lenses are using them at these apertures ALL THE TIME. One look at modern photojournalism is enough to tell me that. In that case it’s the 35mm 1.4 and the 50mm 1.2 Canon that seem to dominate the landscape. No doubt, these are impressive optics, but there is more to life than a soft or “blown out” background. Now in this particular case I’m focusing on the couple in the foreground, with the rest of the humans adding to the layering of the background. Even at 1.4 you can still see location, landscape, etc, and perhaps if the moment in the foreground, the couple, was more specific I would like this photograph more, but it’s not.

This photograph to me is less “modern” but more interesting. This image was shot about f5.6 and has a lot more information to deal with, which means, at least in my normally wrong opinion, it requires the viewer to spend more time with it, which in the age of ZERO attention span is a good thing. Now it works for me for several reason. First, the light is good. Second, the layering is good. Also, the guys third from the left and second from the right are both looking back in my direction, which gives me the human connection I’m looking for. This photograph also gives me more detail about the location and landscape and also informs me that every single person in the image is male, which I can’t explain entirely and don’t know if that tells me something or if it is just a coincidence.

Now, before you go complaining about NOT seeing the cat photograph, don’t get yourself in a tizzy. I’m going to post ONE of these images again, in context with the rest of what I shot in those precious few moments, so don’t get estranged on me. Look, I like a fast lens as much as the next gal, but I’ve never understood the concept of wide open all the time. Remember, as a documentary photographer your goal is to document, education, inform and influence, and sometimes that requires a lot more than 1.4.

30 responses to “Two Takes”

  1. Andreas says:

    Best post in a while. Speaks to the masses of young modern wedding photographers that describe their images as “buttery”.

    • Smogranch says:


      Solution…don’t listen to wedding snappers. I hadn’t heard it described as buttery ,but I do like butter but typically just on corn products. Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Suzanne Revy says:

    I think I prefer the first, but mostly because I like how the figures relate to the landscape and especially with the horizon. It would be interesting to see it with a bit more depth. I have my own bias toward very shallow depth of field, (I generally love to use it) but I’ve been looking at Garry Winnogrand’s pictures again lately, and I have to say, his ability at organizing a complex and layered scene without throwing it all out of focus is pretty amazing, giving me the viewer a real ride… something to really look at.

    • Smogranch says:

      Sorry Suzanne, you HAVE TO like the one I like. It’s my blog damnit.

      I also love shallow but it all depends on not only content, light, etc but how much information that ONE image needs to carry when considered in the larger body of work. Oh God, I’ve gone and done it. I’ve cracked the art speak world a bit too much.

  3. Brendan says:

    Dan, top post. This whole shallow depth of field BS is really annoying me. I get that modern lenses (and especially leica lenses) are designed to work equally well at wide apertures, but come on, that doesn’t give you carte blanche to shoot everything that way.

    We need context, we need information, and as much as I love “dreamy bokeh”, I also need to know why.

    I do also hold leica partly to blame for this: for inadvertently allowing M9 image makers (or at least vociferous ones) to seemingly show nothing but “crisp, clear, sharp and the p- word” images taken at insanely wide apertures with massive amounts of post processing. I get that, I don’t necessarily like it, but that does not define a camera/ lens brand (I hope).

    Rant over- apologies, Brendan

    • Smogranch says:

      Well, not to be too harsh but most people submitting work on sites about equipment don’t often, it seems, really know much about image making and often times don’t really seem to know what good images are. They seem to know sharp, technical and processed, but again, I’m wrong 77% of the time. You can be an abuser with any brand. I say we all go for it, heck even that guy using the Soligar.

  4. Hello from the UK,
    You are 100% right!
    Keep up the great photography and interesting articles πŸ™‚

  5. LionelB says:

    Long ago, emulsions were so slow that where movement was possible depth of field was tiny β€” ‘modern’ is relative. f1.4 is handy for indoors but at double the price of f2 for something optically inferior it is dumb for purely outdoor use? What you call in the U.S. a (low status) ‘average Joe’ has a kit zoom which in theory could open as far as about f4.2 if it didn’t then have the optics of a beer glass. So he shoots at f5.6 and smaller and has everything pretty much in focus, all of the time. Along comes the (high status) standard lens photographer who flaunts (his) superiority by doing always what the low status guy cannot. Me, I embrace f2 to f32 and everything in between but have no lust whatever for the freakish Noctilux.

    • Smogranch says:


      I’m sure the Noctilux is fine, but as I’ve stated here before, I’m a wuss. So, I see any lens that size and KNOW I don’t want to carry that all day. And, if I need .9 I just use hot water and agitate the HELL out of my film…kinda does the same thing.

  6. Tom says:

    This is a very good point you raise here. DOF should be a deliberate decision based on what you are trying to say in a photo. I think where the problem lies is when one decides to shoot wide open all the time for no other reason that the blurry areas look cool. I think the photograph is made by the subject and not the optical effect.

    • Smogranch says:


      Yes, the 1.2 look is pretty overused these days. I actually had a client tell me that if he bought his wife a 50mm 1.2 he wouldn’t need me anymore. There you go.

  7. Pesh says:

    Great post… Equally awesome responses to the commenters!

    You have once again put better words to my thoughts than I could πŸ˜‰ unless I really need the aperture wide enough for a candle to light up the scene, I just don’t go wide open. I like stopping down… The quality for me is better throughout the frame, all other composition elements aside…

    P. S. I just moved to Austin, lemme know if you find yourself out my way.

    • Smogranch says:

      I also think this really comes into play when printing, and as we know, a lot of folks don’t print a lot these days. Austin eh, the old stomping ground. I should be near there later in the year.

  8. Harold says:

    I knew there was a reason I wasn’t shooting modern stuff… of course I’m shooting with my phone, which pretty much rules out the shallow DOF. I’m interested though, for two reasons. I hardly notice the stuff you talk about, which means I have a chance to learn a few things and the other is that your posts contain a lot more information than most. Chalk up more points for Journalism. From my pedestrian viewpoint I have to agree the second one is more interesting. More context, whereas the first really doesn’t go anywhere unless you know the two people in focus. I may be a fetching photog but I have discovered a way for you to fund more travel. You should sell these posts to creative writing professors to hand out to their students as thought stimulus.

    • Smogranch says:


      Not sure anything I produce is fit for innocent students…..The phone cuts this stuff out, but you can then add it back in with filters and such.

  9. joe dupont says:

    I do agree with you that I like the second photo better than the first one with the shallow depth of field. (Although to be honest, I also don’t care for the composition of the first photo). More layering and depth in the photo requires more skill on the part of the photographer and more engagement on the part of the viewer. The best example of this, that I can think of, is Sam Abell’s cowboy photo, a brilliant piece of work that I can only hope to aspire to.

    Great post as always, Dan.

  10. Jason Timmis says:

    Hey, did you know some cameras have a big ring on the front that moves? ….duuuuude.

    ….I’m still trying to figure out what the cat did to wind up involved in all of this fancy numbers stuff πŸ™‚

  11. Paul Romaniuk says:

    I’m bemused by all the praise – best post, top post, great post – I can only suppose it comes from skating close to being an equipment post.

    I don’t like either image, although I dislike the second less than the first one. The first one fails for me not because it was shot wide open, but because what is in focus amounts to the back of someone’s head in the very near foreground. And where’s the bokeh (gag)? The second one comes close – having (nearly) everyone in focus creates a lot of interest with their different attitudes, activities and having the background in focus provides a more meaningful context than the static blobs in a fuzzy landscape of the first image. But….there’s that guy down in the near foreground, out of focus, a big distraction like the elephant in the room.

    • Smogranch says:

      I think it would help to see the second image larger. It works better. And yes, this post is praised because it does skirt the gear post. I just wrote something in regard to that exact thing, which I’ll post in the coming days.
      The woman’s face in the first one is in profile, and in good light, which is the only reason I used that image at all, and was what I meant when I mentioned it would have been better had it been more specific.

  12. Paul J says:

    Hi Daniel,

    Another good post, thanks.

    I like shallow depth of field as much as the next person but prefer the second photo.

    I’ve seen a few videos of interviews you’ve given and during your interview with Marc Silber one answer that has always stuck with me since I heard you say it was that when composing you always look for “foreground, midground and background” * to give more depth to a photograph. For me that was a HUGE help and something I always strive towards and think about when I’m taking a shot. For me it just makes photographs that much more interesting when they are layered and have more depth.

    * Marc Silber interview ( see 7:30

    • Smogranch says:

      People assume that having a wide angle is about angle of view, which is true, but it gets interesting when you start using a wide to build depth. You need foreground, midground and background, all with the right light and the right moments. Doesn’t happen that often.

  13. Aguirre says:

    I personally prefer the third photo that you’re going to post, lol… Depth of Feel be damned… it’s all about the cat:) I had the same thought recently which probably explains why I’m ditching the X100 for another modern wonder that only looks “good” at 100 iso – ie I’ll need to shoot with a tripod and most likely take advantage of the fact by shooting more landscapes.

  14. Simone says:

    Right: use dof for a reason rather than just “because you can” … To me this post is telling some more (and maybe this is not just by chance): “modern look” (modern society) = concentrate on the face, details, brands, status. “older look” = I want context, meaning, maybe some movement, action. Outlook.

  15. Hannah Kozak says:

    I’m with you, Daniel. I actually held the Noctilux and knew immediately it is way to heavy to carry around especially for travel. I wasn’t wild about the composition in the 1st photo. The second photo is far more interesting but I’ve seen you come out with far superior images. I agree with Harold. I love that you get us all thinking with your blogs. Good work, Dan.

    • Smogranch says:

      Thanks for that. Yes, neither of these are worthy of a ribbon from the fair, but they were all I could muster from this little Laguna moment. All my lenses are 1.0’s. I just push the film from f/2….

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