Q&A: How does DOF impacts image overall sharpness relative to the focus points used?

My favorite website for DOF is DOFmaster.com.  When looking at DOF it is all about the math.  at 420 mm, F/8, and 30 feet the DOF is about 6 inches from the focus point the camera used at the time of the shot.

A great blue heron (GBH) is almost 6 feet tall and about 12 inches wide when its wings are folded.  Look at the close up and you can see that the detail in the wing next to the dark patch has minimal detail, but the head and eye have very sharp detail and the“powder down” feathers on the chest are in detail as well because they are on the same focal plane as the eye which was where the focus point the camera was using at the time of the shots.

When taking photos of a GBH, if you are going to get close, make sure you don’t have too much lens to get the shot you are after.  At 30 feet, to get the GBH wings in sharp detail tip to tip, you would have to have about a 100mm lens at F/8 with the focus point used on the middle of the bird.


To get  a sharp eye or the whole bird in focus in flight, getting the focus point on the correct spot is necessary.  In most cameras, the center point of focus is faster and more accurate, depending on the lens used.      The more expensive the camera in most cases the more advanced and the number of cross-type f/2.8 focus points are available.   These points are able to take advantage  of faster lenses if they are attached.

So to take advantage of these faster focus points, the lens has to be capable of letting through that amount of light onto the sensor.  I have a  Canon t2i that I was using when I started getting serious about digital photography.  At that time, I switched to using a single point of focus for all photography, and then purchased some faster lenses that would take advantage of the faster focus points.  Using a single point of focus along with the faster lenses really helped take my sports and wildlife photography to the next level and capture moving objects a little better.

The 7d mark ii autofocus system is the best I have used and works well in challenging light situations with a fast lens.  I also often take advantage of the ability to move the single point of focus to one third of the frame or the other for creative shots very quickly to help fill the frame with a bird, or be creative with a flower as done below.

See more of my work at my website www.carymcdonald.com.

20151128- Magnolia Gardens-32


Q&A: How does shutter speed impact photo sharpness?

20151107- Magnolia Gardens flowers-175The photo above was shot at 1/125 of a second, F/5 and ISO 100 at 200mm non image stabilization lens.  (70-200 f2.8 L non IS canon lens)

First, what is shutter speed?

In photography, shutter speed or exposure time is the length of time when the film or digital sensor inside the camera is exposed to light, also when a camera’s shutter is open when taking a photograph. The amount of light that reaches the film or image sensor is proportional to the exposure time.  

Read here to find out more about the exposure triangle and shutter speed and camera shake.

With the longer focal lengths, the shorter the shutter speed the more likely you will be able to achieve a sharp image.   The rule of thumb for a 35mm lens is 2 x focal length x Crop factor = min shutter speed to hand hold lens.

The image above was shot at 1/125 a second when based on the formula above it should have been at 1/320 a second or higher.  So how did I get a sharp image?  Why did I want to shoot at 1/125 a second?  I was at f/5.0 and I could have gone down to f 2.8  from f 5.0 with my lens or raised my ISO and easily used a faster shutter speed.

A few reasons.

  • ISO 100 on a properly exposed image has the least amount of digital noise for the cleanest possible image.
  • At f/5 and 200mm and 180 inches from the subject the DOF was just over 3 inches.
  • I spend countless hours practicing holding a camera still for just such an occasion by improving my handheld technique.
  • Using a slow shutter speed allows for the proper exposure in early low light situations and also allows for creative exposures as well.

Creative exposures allow for images to show movement or blurred parts within an image making them more unique or giving a more intimate image.  I took about 40 images trying to capture the image below with the little blue heron shaking the water out of it’s breakfast.

Knowing how to break the rules on purpose is one of the many challenges of photography.

Happy shooting.
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#photography #shutterspeed #sharpimages #cary_mcdonald @cary_mcdonald



Q&A: Why are my images sharper with a lens with a larger aperture?

Lenses with a larger aperture are called faster lenses.  Look at the image below and think about it.  When a camera focuses, it uses the light coming through the lens to focus.  The more light that comes through the lens the more information the camera sensor has to use to focus the lens.  The aperture shutter opening is as large as possible until you push the shutter button.   So the camera can focus the lens faster with more light.

The more expensive the lens, the and the larger the aperture, the more glass and heavier the lens will be usually.  If you don’t have a nifty fifty for your DSLR, you should have one as it is the best lens buy that exists at around $99 if you shop around.  It is a f 1.8 lens, but at F/4 it is a super sharp lens and very clean.  At 10 feet away from your subject on a crop sensor camera, it acts like an 80 mm lens and has a DOF of about 22 inches.   From 6-10 feet is a great portrait lens.  Focus at 30 feet away, at f/16 and you have a great landscape lens and everything 15 feet from you away will be in focus because of the hyperfocal distance.  This lens may hunt for focus sometimes in really dark situations, but that is usually when any other lens would not even try to focus in a very dark room.

Add a small extension tube, and it makes a great macro lens, which is what I used for the image above.  The “Nifty Fifty” is always in my camera bag.  If someone is just getting serious about photography, this should be the first lens that is purchased to compliment stock camera lenses.  It has enough range to challenge and test the best photographers in many normal situations.   Again, I’m not going t get technical, but Cambridge in colour is a great website to find out more about photography terms and concepts.

Check to see how where your lens’s peak performance settings are at this link for canon camera lenses.

Why is a smaller number better?
Full F-stop images

Q&A: Why is “knowing where to stand” so important to getting a sharp image?

“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”– Ansel Adams

This is one of my favorite photography quotes by Ansel Adams, but you have to take into account that he was a master landscape photographer. One of my favorite images of him is the iconic image of him on top of his car to capture an image.   So when he said knowing where to stand, he was really talking about perspective.   Moving yourself and your camera to have a unique view or finding the most flattering angles for a flattering image of your subject with a visually appealing composition. But also about the phase angle of light to provide contrast and detail in your images.

For sharper or more detailed images, knowing the phase angle of light and when a polarizer would be beneficial will make your images sharper and contain micro shadows that provide detail.  Again, I’m not going to get technical about it, but learning how a polarizer works will help you know where to stand or when to put one on your lens.  When shooting a living moving subject, I usually choose to leave off the polarizer filter.  Reaching out towards the end of your lens to your subject might scare it off before being able to make the best use of it.

All of the images below were from an outing on Tuesday Nov. 24,  2015. I started out at the bridge and went to Magnolia Gardens.  Almost everyday I go out to shoot, I have a rough plan or idea of what I’m going to practice.  I know which lens I’m going to take with me when I leave the car and try to stay on task, but try to be flexible enough to see what is around and adapt also.  It was initially a very cold morning and frost was on the ground when I left the house and I didn’t think any birds would be out early.

My goal for the morning was “eyeballing creative and balanced exposures” for some landscape shots.    I was not going out to capture anything specific, but wanted to get some images without using the back of my screen or my histogram until I was done shooting at the location.  Before leaving a location, I will look at the images to see how I did on the exposures and see if need to try again.

Why do I do this?  If you “know” what the exposure should be approximately as you are walking up evaluate a shot,  getting the camera setup the way you want it is much faster with less trial and error.  So knowing where to stand becomes the hard part, and the exposure settings become second nature.

If you go out taking photos often, you will find that those special moments where the light, location and subjects are just right to create a unique and spectacular image are few and far between.  Anything you can do to practice or be ready for those moments helps.

Recognizing those moments is one challenge and then being ready to take advantage of those fleetingly changing elements as efficiently and effectively as possible is another challenge that practicing and pushing yourself helps accomplish.

After my 2nd location of getting some trees and moss “eyeballing” exposures, I walked up towards my third spot.  This thirds spot was a softball. I believe could almost shoot this location blindfolded I’ve been there so often, but as I was walking up I saw a immature  little blue heron(Bert) that had been there a few times the last few weeks.   If you follow me on facebook you would have seen some of the previous shots of Bert the last two weeks.  I spent so much time with him, I gave him a name.  lol  When I saw him, I turned around and “ran” back to the car, all the while thinking about what I wanted to capture when I returned.

I had my 17-40 L lens on which is my goto landscape lens and knew I wanted more length.  My previous visits with Bert, I had on my 300mm L IS f/4  lens, but a few times, I was able to get too close for the 300mm to have a DOF that I wanted.  At 10 feet from your subject at 300mm at F/8 that is just over one inch DOF.   (F/8 is where I start with my 300mm f/4 lens for the best quality image, corner to corner and I’ll blog about it later.)

I was planning to be closer  than 15 feet and wanted a deeper DOF,   so I grabbed my 70-200 f/2.8 L lens.  It does not have IS, but is one of my favorite lens when trying to be creative.  Also at 200mm at 10 feet, it has a 3 inch DOF at f/8 or  6 inches at 20 feet or at 100 mm 6 inches DOF at 10 feet.

As I headed back to Bert, I also knew that I wanted to get as low as possible  to smooth the background and get the light reflected from the water at the strongest point possible.  Also the lower you go as you get close the closer you can get before the bird feels threatened. Also you have to approach silently as possible.   Getting any animal at eye level or just below is a great angle for wildlife.  This is a wild bird, so it is going to go where the food is and it feels comfortable.

Since it was just above freezing, I was covered head to toe and I had on a black hoodie and gloves and the only skin exposed was behind my camera from the bird.  I was able to follow the bird for about 90 minutes total some of that time, standing in the swamp behind a tree and at another point I laided down where I expected the bird to feed as it made its way around the edge of the water.   I set up on where I expected the bird would feed and I would have an optimal view as long as nothing scared the bird away.  I also laid down where I could see into the water and not the reflected area behind it.  I did not need a polarizer in this case, to get the sharpest image.

This was one of those moments that I knew would not likely repeat itself with the same light angles and subject.  I took 600 photos during the 90 minutes following Bert.  500 of those shots were practice, anticipating the birds movements, catching the angles of the eyes, the subtle tilt of the head.  In this situation, I have a goal of 95% of the images to be in focus and on exactly on what I was aiming to be in focus, the eyes or the water droplets flying when eating.  (I’ll blog about my editing process later and my 95% goal.) When I done and I could not hold my arms up or still any longer, it was time for me to go home.

In this case, it was not about standing to get the best image, it was about laying down and getting dirty next to some cypress knees and letting Bert come to me.  I hope you have the chance to get to know your own “Bert”.

At 10 frames a second, there were only 10-20 seconds out of those 90 minutes that I was really looking to capture images of Bert that I thought were worth keeping. They are those moments that keep me going out to take photos every weekend.  But all of them are just as important to learn from.

Can you spot any of the images that I considered keepers?  I included only 4 shots of Bert that I would print.  Please, let me know which ones you think are my keepers are with comments on the images of Bert.








Q&A: How can you use Long exposures to make people disappear in a pinch.

Sometimes you cannot control when you have access to a location, or if you are the only people that are there at the same time.  This happened to me this weekend.  My wife and I visited Angel Oak on John’s Island, SC.  It is a very popular tourist site with a very old oak tree and definitely worth a visit.  The resurrection fern is really cool too, make sure you go during a wet season.

There were about 50 strangers walking around the old tree while we were there so trying to get a clear shot was impossible.  (I will go back on a bad weather day someday and get some cool shots, but I wanted something yesterday. )  The cover photo shows what I could get by waiting on people to leave, but the signs were still all over the place and I wanted to minimize their view as well.

I had a ND8 filter in my car and my tripod in the car.  So I set up some shots for over 10 seconds and if no one stayed still too long, they looked like little ghosts in the final images.  Are these my best work?  Not at all, but it was fun playing with long exposures and making people disappear.  Now I know I can do this at other locations and with a little practice, get some really cool images.


long exposure test
long exposure test
long exposure test
See the people that stood still for too long and almost appeared in the shot?

Q&A: How does practice improve your photography and take you to the next level?

What to do the guys that came before us have to say about photography?  Each of these quotes can be related back to practice and the need for learning the basic principles of photography and proper shooting technique.  Think about these a minute.  It is interesting how these quotes mean different things to those at different levels of of experience.

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”  ― Henri Cartier-Bresson

“There is a vast difference between taking a picture and making a photograph.” – Robert Heinecken

“The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster.” – Ansel Adams

“If you are out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you’ll only hear about it.” – Jay Maisel

“It can be a trap of the photographer to think that his or her best pictures were the ones that were hardest to get. – Timothy Allen

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” – Ansel Adam

“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”– Ansel Adam

To be honest each of these quotes meaning changed for me over the last few years.   As my understanding of photography has grown,  and the understanding of what the quotes above mean keeps hitting closer to home.

Let’s back up a bit.  A few years ago, I decided I wanted to take my photography to the next level and I took Henri’s quote above literally, but he made that quote about shooting film.  When shooting film, photographers would take a long time to set up for shots because the camera would take only 1 or 36 shots, if they were lucky.   They could not take the shot and look at the back of their camera to see how it might look.   The masters did not likely have auto focus, and did not have image stabilization and vibration control or many of the tools we have today.

What they did have, was time… without distraction and time to learn their craft.  I decided to try to take 100,000 photos in one year of various subjects.  That year, I only made it to 70,000 shots, but after that time I noticed a marked increase in the quality of my shots, the number of keepers and my comfort level with my camera’s controls and features.      I made sure to try different sports and types of photography to create new challenges.  Also having different goals on each outing and mastering different techniques.   Paying attention to using different perspectives and trying to be in the moment and make photographs and not snapshots.

In March 2015, I purchased the 7D Mark II, and as of this morning I just was curious about it and I’ve taken 68, 716 shots in 6 months on weekends and vacations days.

I looked because today I only took 30 shots.  It was cold and windy, but I wanted to practice…since I was on vacation.   Below are a few flowers from my walk this morning where I took photos of a few flowers from different angles.   You have to be out taking photos and trying new things.  Practicing proper camera holding techniques, paying attention to the light, getting a good exposure and always remember the backgrounds.

See more images from the last few years at my website.

20151123- Magnolia Gardens-8 20151123- Magnolia Gardens-7-Edit 20151123- Magnolia Gardens-4-Edit


Q&A: How does DOF impacts image sharpness?

After you have been taking photos for a while, you may advance to a point where you are trying to limit the depth of field or DOF to make the subject of your images more pronounced or really stand out in your images.   When doing so, it can make your images soft and it is all about the math.   The more light that the lens lets in or the larger aperture, the less of what is coming through the lens is in focus.   More light means less overall detail in your image due to a smaller DOF  or plain of focus.   There is lots of info on the web about DOF and Cambridge in Color was one of my favorite places to read about photography to dig in deeper.

In most cases, better lenses let in more light and are more expensive.  On a budget, and you don’t have a nifty 50, get you one to play with and really learn about DOF through practice.   Download a free DOF phone app too and use it.  The better your lenses the more you need a calculator or to memorize the chart.

Below are three shots:  a sharp one, a close up of a missed shot and the full image of the missed shot.  Look at the closeup of the missed shot.  You can see the legs are in sharp focus, but the eye and face are soft.  This is where many photographer’s cameras focal points are not on the right spot to get the eye in sharp focus, which is considered necessary in wildlife photography.

Sharp shot with controlled DOF, creative exposure to stop motion and highlight the bird’s splash and eye along with the reflection.

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Close up:

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Close up of missed shot below – sharp feathers by the legs, but not the eyes.  

Missed shot:

Missed shot
Missed shot: If I had a smaller aperture, more if the image would have been in sharp focus, or if my focus point was directly on the Eye the limited DOF would have been at the right layer in the image.  The bird wandered really close to me.  F/8 was great when he was 20 -25 feet away, but when he walked within 10 feet, he was too close for my aperture setting.   

Q&A: Why are my photos are not as sharp as yours?

Every now and again I have other photographers ask me why are my photos not as sharp as yours?   But I wanted to explore this question a little deeper and see if I could help out some of my friends.  As time allows, I’m going to explore each of these a little more detail on each of these with a Q&A answer post in no particular order.

What do you need to practice and learn? (Incomplete list)

  • Features of your gear
  • Limitations of your gear
  • Decide what you want to shoot
  • Your limitations
  • Basic photography principles
    • Proper technique
    • Depth of Field or DOF
    • White balance
    • Freezing motion
    • Blurring motion (on purpose)
    • Learn to shoot on manual (advanced)
    • What are the photography rules
    • When should you forget the rules
    • Composition
    • Portrait concepts
    • Landscape Concepts
    • Birds in Flight or BIF concepts
    • Creative exposure vs. correct exposure
    • Long exposures
  • Know your subject
  • Know where to stand, sit, climb or lay to capture moments.
  • Know the location
  • Set goals and monitor progress
  • Step back and review your work
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Look for new challenges and for areas for growth
  • Go back repeatedly to the same locations and get something unique
  • RAW vs. JPG
  • Post processing skills and software (This used to be considered darkroom skills)

Am I a professional photographer, definitely not.   I take photos because I love capturing moments.  I’m still growing and challenging myself every weekend.  On most topics, I’m not going to go deep into most of the technical aspects of each of these as I go through these, I would refer you to Cambridge in Color’s website for the details.  Instead,  I hope to add some perspective to really to appreciate photography.   Anyone with a camera is a photographer, and an expensive camera has fewer limitations than the less expensive models, but if you want your photography to improve, you have to work on how to use it.

2015 – Governor’s Cup Surf Contest SSC ESA

So on a day at the beach when the waves are small, what can you do you make a shots look big?
  • Get close with 300mm lens or longer.  (Within 50 to 60 feet.  Or 40 feet with a 200 mm lens.)
  • Very shallow Depth of Field by using a large aperture, F/4 in this shot.  That means that only about  only 1.5 feet are in sharp focus from front to back of the sharpest focal point, with the lens and aperture suggested.
  • Pick your focal plane using the face when it close to the rest of the body. The back of the surfboard is not in focus by design to make the image pop.
  • Use a fast shutter speed.  These were 1/2000 of a second to stop motion.   It helps is if it is bright out.
  • ISO 100 if you can to help keep the noise low
  • When cropping the photo, remove the horizon line and try to have your background clear of other surfers, which changes the perspective.
Technique is also important
  • Drop to a knee to get low or have a solid base
  • Hold your breath when shooting (But shoot in bursts so you don’t pass out and can breathe between them.
  • Lock your arms into place
  • Use a monopod
  • Practice panning often on fast moving subjects and ones that change directions often.

The shots that look best will be further apart than on bigger days, but you can still get a great shot with some planning and lots of practice.

Surfing contest
2015 – Governor’s Cup Surfing Contest