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Every photographer has a personal vision and a particular taste in composition, light, color and so on. For example, many photographers chose nature’s details simply to abstract the color and form they find. Others like to use extremely shallow depth of field—also called selective focus—so only a sliver of the subject is sharp while the rest of it is soft. People who are intrigued by the beauty, intricacy and complexity of nature usually shoot with the opposite approach. They want to reveal as much detail in the subjects as possible so those who view their work can appreciate the designs and the patterns in the images with tack sharp clarity.

I am in the latter group of shooters. I feel that nature is so fascinating that to render it largely blurred doesn’t make sense. For example, in (#1) the color and graphic design of the leaves of this bromeliad look good, but notice I purposely focused on the center green area and used f/2.5 on a 50mm macro lens to show the effect of shallow depth of field. The left side is completely soft because it was about an inch closer to the camera than the other sections of the plant, and both the right side and the middle portion have significant curved surfaces that contributed to the lack of depth of field. Personally, I think this is terrible. The out of focus areas are distracting and visually annoying because we want to see the texture and detail, but we can’t.

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All Photos © Jim Zuckerman

Much better in my opinion are photos (#2 and #3) where I took my time and did it correctly. I used a tripod and closed the lens down to f/32 with aperture priority. This gave me the maximum amount of focus throughout the image, and the length of time the shutter was open was irrelevant because nothing was moving and I used the firm support of a tripod.

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To help maintain as much depth of field as possible, set the camera so the back of the camera is as parallel as possible to the surface of the leaf. Even with f/32, you can’t render a leaf with a curved surface as sharp as you want. This is particularly true when you move in very close, as I did in (#4). Notice at the top of the picture the leaf is almost sharp but not quite. This is because the camera back wasn’t parallel with the leaf. In (#5) I corrected that problem and, as you can see, the entire leaf from edge to edge is tack sharp. When I shot straight down on the group of autumn leaves in (#6) I moved away from the camera setup 3-4 ft to judge how parallel the camera was to the ground. Sometimes it seems like the camera is positioned correctly, but when seen from the side it may, in fact, be slightly oblique to the subject. This takes just a moment to check, and it can save a lot of close-up shots.

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