Essential Photography: Back Button Focus

Essential Photography: Back Button Focus

General How-To

Cormorant Fisherman on traditional bamboo raft at twilight, Li River, Xingping, People’s Republic of China

By default, almost every camera arrives from the factory with two important functions assigned to one big conspicuous button: the shutter release. It’s conveniently located where the right index finger would rest when holding the camera comfortably in your hands. This button will engage autofocus when pressed halfway and fire the camera when fully depressed.

By configuring your camera for back button focus, you separate these two functions by 1) disabling autofocus on the shutter release button – perhaps the most important part of adopting back button focus – and 2) reassigning autofocus to a button on the back of the camera where the thumb comfortably rests. So now the shutter release button ONLY fires the camera when depressed by your index finger and no longer starts autofocus. The autofocus is all in your thumb.

Every camera is different, but they all should allow you to disengage autofocus from the shutter release button and reassign it to another button on the rear of the camera, preferably near your thumb. Consult your camera’s manual to find out now.

At first glance, it might seem like a more complicated way of doing things, but it’s not. After a minor adjustment period, it will soon feel as natural as the default set up, maybe more so. It’s just so easy; thumb focus, finger capture. There are many things we do in everyday life which involves using the thumb and index finger simultaneously. And some of these things are actually good.

I find back button focus most useful for rapidly-changing scenes or quick-moving subjects commonly found in street and wildlife photography. You now have the ability to autofocus and recompose the scene without having the camera refocus again when you take an image. Just focus on your subject, make a slight change to the composition by moving the camera while your subject stays in focus, and then shoot. Pressing the shutter release only fires the camera. It doesn’t activate autofocus again.

Red-eyed tree frog, Agalychnis callidryas, Monkey River, Toledo District, Belize.

The frog photograph above is a superb example of when back button focus will serve you well. Place one of the autofocus points over the frog’s red eye (you always want an animal or person’s eye to be tack sharp, even if other parts of the subject are not) and focus using your thumb on the designated autofocus button on the back of the camera. Then take your thumb off the autofocus button (essentially locking in focus) and quickly recompose. In this case, using the green branch from the bottom left corner to lead the eye into the scene. Take the shot with your index finger on the shutter release. Even though the focus indicator is no longer on the frog’s eye after moving the camera, the focus won’t change because that function has been removed from the shutter release.

As I said, I find this way of focusing most valuable when I’m doing wildlife photography but I use it for any scene where I’m using autofocus. Focusing with my thumb is now a grooved habit that has taken quite a bit of time of set in. The middle of an expensive Africa safari is not a good time to experiment with back button focus if you’ve never used it before. Under stressful situations (a lion stalking your safari vehicle with a setting sun over it’s left shoulder, as an example) you will defer to the familiar without even thinking and this shot of a lifetime will be out-of-focus because you assumed it was focusing with the shutter release button. Practice, practice, practice. Practice so much that it becomes second nature and you don’t even have to think about it.

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer is the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.


Essential Photography: Telephoto Landscapes

Essential Photography: Telephoto Landscapes

General How-To

Most photographers, particularly beginners, believe only wide-angle lenses are used for landscape photography. In fact, I’ve seen and heard some of my workshops students pull the wide-angle lens from their bag and exclaim, “I’ve got my landscape lens!” That’s a partially true statement since wide-angle lenses are indeed used for landscapes, especially near-far compositions where there is a compelling foreground to anchor the composition. But experienced landscape photographers know that a telephoto lens is every bit as important as a wide-angle when pursuing landscape images on a photography trip.

When it comes to creating telephoto landscapes, here are a few things to consider.

Telephoto Lenses Compress Perspective

Different focal lengths create different perspectives. The first image was captured with a 100mm focal length. The second image was captured at 400mm after backing up some distance. Although the foreground rocks are the same size in both examples, their relationship in size to the background mountain has changed dramatically.

While wide-angle lenses create spatial separation between foreground and background elements, making near objects disproportionally larger and distant objects much smaller than normal (this is exaggerating the visual effects of diminishing scale), telephoto lenses do the opposite – they compress perspective. Telephoto landscapes, such as a layered mountain scene you see above, can appear flat or two dimensional, even though the actual physical distance between the ridges is significant. To accentuate the mountain ridges, the telephoto lens can not only omits any unwanted foreground or excessive sky, but it flattens the perspective, amplifying the progression of repeating ridge patterns. What’s actually happening is that diminishing scale is nearly eliminated. 

The Art of Exclusion

By eliminating the many distractions near this tree (other nearby trees, a messy foreground, a bright overpowering sky) I am able to use the tree’s graceful shape as the backbone of the image and simplify my visual message.

Telephoto landscapes can isolate a small portion of the world in front of you. By paring away the unimportant and distracting visual elements to reveal only the most essential parts of the scene, you are practicing the fine art of exclusion. Visually distracting foregrounds and boring skies can be edited out of the image frame by simply zooming into what’s important. As a result, telephoto landscapes tend to “speak” with more clarity then wide-angle compositions that contain more visual information. 

A strong composition is vitally important when creating telephoto landscapes. Where wide-angle scenes tend to communicate a sense of place, telephoto interpretations do so to a much lesser extent. Refer to the example above. The image says nearly nothing about where this might have been captured. It literally could be almost anyplace where there are trees and a river. Telephoto landscapes say more about the photographer’s personal vision than sense of place. 

Lenses For Telephoto Landscapes

I suppose we could start a lively debate as to which focal lengths constitute a telephoto lens. A 70-200mm zoom is too short for most wildlife photography applications (and would probably be referred to as a “short” telephoto at best by wildlife shooters) but this focal range is nearly perfect for landscapes. For a photo trip that i know will be exclusively landscapes, I will pack a 70-200mm f/4 model rather than the heavier and more expensive f/2.8 version. Super large apertures and fast f/stops are rarely needed when doing landscape photography. Here are some superb options (all links to Amazon).

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L is II USM Lens
Nikon 70-200mm f/4G ED VR Nikkor Zoom Lens
Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS Interchangeable Lens

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer is the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.


Essential Photography: Teleconverters for Wildlife

Essential Photography: Teleconverters for Wildlife

Gear Reviews

What are Teleconverters?

A teleconverter is a magnifying lens that fits between the camera body and the effective photography lens. Teleconverters multiply the focal length of the lens giving it essential reach for small wildlife and subjects that are at a considerable distance. For example, a 1.4X teleconverter (also referred to as a tele-extender) multiplies the focal length by 1.4 so a 300mm lens now becomes a 420mm lens. A 2.0X teleconverter would make that same 300mm lens a 600mm. The teleconverter adds a little extra zoom or reach to your lens, without having to crop pixels to get the same effect. Is this awesome or what?

Now The Bad

But there are two fairly significant downsides to using teleconverters. First, using one will come at the cost of overall lens sharpness. The more glass that sits between the imaging sensor and your subject, the less sharpness and resolution you’re going to experience. The 2.0X will be less sharp than the 1.4X (Nikon makes a 1.7X teleconverter, which is a nice compromise).  

A teleconverter can be an essential piece of photography equipment if you shoot small birds on a regular basis. This ringed plover required a 500mm lens plus a 2.0X teleconverter for an effective focal length of 1000mm.

Because the teleconverter extends the lens mount away from the image sensor, it also decreases the amount of light that enters the camera. A 1.4X teleconverter will reduce the maximum aperture of the lens by one full stop while the 2.0X will cost you two stops. So a 300mm f/2.8 lens will become a 420mm f/4 with the 1.4X and a 600mm f/5,6 with the 2.0X. That’s something to consider when you are working in low light environments. You must also consider that not all lenses work with teleconverters and some camera bodies will lose autofocus if your teleconverter pushes your maximum aperture to f/8 and beyond. Check your camera’s manual to be sure. Here are some helpful online guides:

Nikon AF-S Teleconverter Compatibility Chart
Canon Teleconverter Compatibility Guide (scroll down to near the bottom of the page)
Sigma Teleconverter Compatibility Page
Sony 1.4X Teleconverter Compatibility (scroll to bottom)
Sony 2X Teleconverter Compatibility (scroll to bottom)

Where to get yours?

(All links to Amazon)

Canon EF 1.4X Teleconverter
Canon EF 2.0X Teleconverter
Nikon AF-S FX TC-14E III (1.4x) Teleconverter
Nikon AF-S FX TC-17E II (1.7x) Teleconverter
Nikon Auto Focus-S FX TC-20E III (2.0x) Teleconverter
Sony FE 1.4x Teleconverter
Sony FE 2.0x Teleconverter

There is good and bad when it comes to using teleconverters but I believe they are still a vital piece of gear for the serious wildlife photographer. Experience and the specific situation will determine when and when not to use them.

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer is the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.


Essential Composition: Using Frames

Essential Composition: Using Frames

Creativity

Using frames is an effective compositional technique in photography that provides an powerful way of emphasizing the primary subject in the photo. Framing immediately directs attention and leads the eye to the subject or anything else you feel is important in the image. I’m talking a “frame within a frame” here, not the actual image border, which is a frame itself. Frames are another way or helping manipulate how your audience looks at your image.

Look for frames in architectural elements such as doorways or arches, natural elements such as tree branches and natural arches, or variations in light and dark to effectively frame your subject.

“Spring Garden” Magnolia Plantation, Charleston, South Carolina USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 24-105mm @ 58mm, 1/20 second @ f/13, ISO 500.

In the image above, the arching tree branches not only provide a frame for the walkway and “V” shape created by the azaleas and receding tree trunks, but it also gives some needed balance to the image by counterpoising some visual weight the colorful flowering shrubs in bottom part of the photo (learn more about Achieving Photographic Balance in a previous blog post).

You can learn more about using frames, as well as many other compositional concepts in my e-book, Creative Composition: Image Design Masterclass.

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer is the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than 1.2 million followers across social media platforms. He leads photography tours and workshops all over the world and is a high-demand keynote speaker. For more great information on new images, book projects, public appearances, photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Richard’s Email Newsletter.

Essential Composition: Photographic Balance

Essential Composition: Photographic Balance

Creativity

There’s a concept in Gestalt theory commonly referred to as the Law of Symmetry, which states that the human mind will constantly seek out balance in all the visual information it receives via the optic nerve. It is said that if something is unbalanced, the viewer will waste valuable time trying to resolve the problem instead of focusing on the contents of the scene itself. With regard to photography and composition, photographic balance is the equal distribution of “visual weight” within the image frame. The placement, size, and brightness of visual elements will determine if the image feels in equilibrium or not. Photographic balance is harmonious. When an image is out of balance, it can give the viewer a negative or uncomfortable feeling or sensation.

There are two types of compositional balance used in photography, art and design: formal and informal balance. Symmetry is a type of formal balance where two sides of a photo are mirror images of each other. Symmetry can refer to vertical balance – where the top and bottom are basically the same – or as horizontal balance – where the left and right sides of the image are equal.

A symmetrical reflection is one of the few instances where bisecting the photo through the center of the image frame works. This symmetrical composition is usually chosen when the photographer wants to communicate or project equality, equivalence, uniformity, or even fairness. There is little visual tension with this arrangement and all the visual elements are harmonious.

With informal balance, visual equilibrium is gained by counterpoising two or more elements at opposite ends of the image frame. The arrangement can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal. Image balance is achieved by the strategic placement of two or more of these strong visual elements and distributing them equally in the photograph. While formal balance creates symmetry, informal balance leads to an asymmetrical composition, yet it’s still balanced.

By positioning two strong visual elements at opposite ends of the image frame, you not only give the image informal balance, but you trigger powerful visual tension and energy by moving the viewer’s eye back and forth between the two elements via a virtual diagonal line (see above). These elements could be two competing focal points with varying sizes and colors, as long as they are conspicuous. The end result is an image that is not only achieves photographic balance and harmony, but is also dynamic.

You can learn more about photographic balance, as well as many other compositional concepts, in my e-book, Creative Composition: Image Design Masterclass.

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer is the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than 1.2 million followers across social media platforms. He leads photography tours and workshops all over the world and is a high-demand keynote speaker. For more great information on new images, book projects, public appearances, photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Richard’s Email Newsletter.

Essential Composition: Seeing Abstractly

Essential Composition: Seeing Abstractly

Creativity

“We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.” – Jun’ichirō Tanizaki 

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I can offer a beginning photographer to help see and create more compelling compositions is learning to let go of the literal elements of a scene and embracing the underlying abstract qualities instead. That doesn’t mean you should start making purely abstract images, although that’s not necessarily a bad idea for its own sake, but rather try to see through the literal elements to visualize the scene abstractly. For example, instead of seeing a scene’s obvious aesthetic beauty – the mountains, trees, rocks, clouds and river, you should train yourself to look deeper for interconnecting shapes, space, balance, lines, patterns and how they relate to each other and the image frame.

When working with students in the field, I might ask them to squint their eyes just a little so the literal elements mostly disappear and all that remains is the skeletal structure of the scene – shapes, lines, patterns, etc. This is very good practice if you’ve never tried it before and a good way to learn the art of visualization. The literal elements flesh the image out later when the image is captured.

In the images above, you can easily see how the elephant family creates a virtual triangle. There is aesthetic value in arranging important visual elements into power shapes – triangles, diamonds, pyramids, and circles – rather than random grouping of animals or primary subjects. Seeing abstractly allows you to identify these underlying shapes that help give your image balance and order.

Pretty scenes are a dime a dozen but well designed pretty scenes are much less common. Developing the ability of seeing abstractly will lead to stronger compositions and more compelling photography.

If you find you have some difficultly in seeing abstractly when doing your photography, try the advice I gave above about squinting so that the scene’s literal details are blurred out. If that doesn’t work, you can practice by studying the work of other photography masters and artists while identifying the underlying abstract nature of the images.

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer in the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.