I suppose this post would be more appropriately titled, “Playing With Depth of Field” (you’ll see why in a moment) but it sounds so much more fun to be playing with trains doesn’t it?
A few months back, my photography group planned a trip out to the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, IL. The IRM is a not for profit group dedicated to rescuing, restoring and preserving countless wonderful trains from many different time periods. I wasn’t able to join the trip with my group but was so geeked up at the idea of there being an entire museum, dedicated to one of my favorite subjects, right here in Illinois, just an hour or so outside of Chicago! Oh the joy.. the bliss! Since finding out about this gem, I have logged on to their website upwards of 100 times, practically salivating over the photographs of the vintage trains, in all their ooey gooey retroey goodness, resisting the urge to drop all art fest preparations and head out to Union.
No matter where I am, whether it’s here in Chicago or traveling abroad, one of my favorite subjects has always been trains. If you have been following the blog long enough, you have seen some of my earlier photographs, like “Jackson,” from here in Chicago, or “Trenitalia,” from my last trip to Florence, Italy. Last week I added a few more to the repertoire with “The Crossing,” and, “Blue.” But even with these new additions, the call of the IRM was too much to ignore. Friday morning… camera bag in tow and an only vague idea of where Union, IL is, I hopped in the car and headed out to capture images of the beautiful vintage trains I had been coveting for months.
So… here’s what happens when I try to be spontaneous (with a nasty habit of only “half reading” information). I showed up at the Railway Museum, totally prepared to see trains scattered around the grounds, just waiting for me to shoot them. I was delighted at the idea that I would be there on a weekday when I could avoid large crowds and have easy access to the shots that I really wanted. (as I am convinced the front of my camera is a magnet that pulls people in front of it when I’m trying to take a shot)
That’s not quite how it went…
There were trains, several in fact… but the majority were tucked safely away in the barns because…alas… on Fridays, while the grounds are open, the rest isn’t operational. You see, the IRM is a mostly volunteer run organization and only operates their trains on weekends. In the immortal words of a bear named Winnie, “Oh bother.”
All was not lost… Having traveled an hour and a half, and determined to make something of the day, I decided to take the opportunity to explore the grounds and continue to hone my depth of field skills. (and I did get a number of photographs of the wonderful trains they have on their grounds… more to come!) Trains, with their length and repeating patterns are the perfect subject to practice and play around with depth of field, don’t you think?
Much to my delight, the door to one of the barns, the shed where the electric cars are restored, was open and the wonderful Loop car (above) was front and center. To my further delight, a retiree who volunteers his time to the IRM, and was working on the car, let me come in and took the time to show me some of the cars in the shed and learn more about their backgrounds. Needless to say, I am even more excited about my next visit out there. The passion with which the folks at the museum approach what they do was truly inspiring and made the idea of capturing their works of art in print all that much more exciting.
After my time in the barn, with my Nikon 24-70 2.8 strapped to the camera, I made my way around the grounds in search of subjects. My settings vary but, for the most part, I focused in on my subjects about a foot to two feet in front of me, wanting the sweet spot of the photo to be either front and center or as near to middle as possible.
I am of the opinion that, while there are guidelines (check out this awesome depth of field calculator), there are no hard and fast rules for when it comes to your subject. (except of course that your camera should be set to MANUAL for the most control… sorry, I climbed up on the manual soapbox again) Ultimately it boils down to what you want the final photograph to look like. Two photographers could be in the exact same spot, shooting the same subject and come away with two completely different photographs because their creative approach is different. Play around with your settings, and keep firing. Keep the guidelines in mind but, remember, you’re playing with light. You’re not going to break anything so have fun with it. (the practice will come in handy when you have a very dynamic subject, in a fleeting moment, when you won’t have the chance to continuously change your settings)
No matter what your approach, keep in mind that less is more. Even when my camera is dropped all the way down and I have the creamy, dreamy bokeh, ultimately I still want to be able to tell what is outside the sweet spot. This also applies to using Photoshop in post. I have seen way too many examples of photographs using blur filters in post and either going way overboard or having the right amount of blur but not feathering and masking out the very clear lines of demarkation between the sweet spot and the rest of the photograph.
No matter what, get out with the camera and practice, practice, practice. Take multiple photos at different settings and compare them side by side. Even the slightest change in the depth of field can give your photograph a different look and eventually you will be able to apply your knowledge on the fly. Depth of field isn’t scary, nor is it really difficult to understand. For as simple as it may seem though, understanding how it works, and honing your skills, can add a whole new dimension to your photography.