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The soft touch

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
The soft touch
21 May
2018
So much photographic theory is dedicated to image sharpness that you may think it best to delete any images that are soft or blurred. But this doesn’t mean pictures which are deliberately blurred or out of focus should be eschewed

Can there be a place for a soft focus depiction of the world, where the subject is given an almost abstract interpretation in a blurry ethereal light? Photography may be full of technical and compositional ‘rules’, but to anyone who has ever believed photography to be an art form those rules are also made to be broken.

Photographing moving subjects is one area where two entirely different approaches to image capture are deemed equally acceptable: the high-speed shutter, action freezing shot of a fast-moving subject, or the slow-speed, panned exposure where speed is depicted as a blur. Motorsports, horse racing and athletes are often captured using either of these contrasting styles, at opposite ends of the shutter speed dial.

But there are other creative and experimental methods of exposure, which require nothing more than a camera and standard lens. Instead of the restricted access of a racetrack or stadium, simply seek out your nearest woodland, nature reserve or coastal shore with the intention of taking pictures that are deliberately out of focus or riddled with camera shake. It’s fun, unpredictable and there’s plenty of ways to do it.

Your local park, woodland or nature reserve is the perfect place to try these techniques and spring is the ideal season for doing so. It’s the time to witness the first wildflowers on the woodland floor and trees coming back into leaf after the dormant months of winter. The renewed growth of plants and flowers and the constantly changing light and weather at different times of day ensures no two visits will be the same.

Not only do frequent trips increase your knowledge of an area or subject, but they invariably lead to experimentation through a different angle or perspective, exposure times and focusing, to create a picture that is different to the last. It is for this reason that softly focused macro images of plants and flowers have become increasingly popular in recent years – they offer a more flexible alternative to the painstakingly composed and precisely focused, traditional macro photograph.

One simple departure from this conventional approach is to make two exposures instead of one – the in-camera double exposure. This entails making one sharply focused exposure of your subject followed by a much softer one without making any changes to the composition or framing. By taking the second exposure deliberately out of focus, the overall result is of a subject viewed through a soft haze of smoothly defined lines, yet still retaining its recognisable form.

This is the technique that German nature photographer Sandra Bartocha used for her award-winning image of snowdrops on a woodland floor in 2011’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Many photographers have emulated her technique and avidly followed her work for inspiration ever since.

 

DO
Find a location that will provide seasonal subject changes, such as a local woodland or nature reserve. Make regular return trips to observe the changes – and keep taking pictures.
Experiment before moving onto the next subject. Try different shutter speeds, intentional camera movements, multiple exposures, focal lengths and angles.
Switch off the autofocus. For intentionally blurred results, accurate focusing isn’t always necessary. For macro subjects, fine adjustments are best performed manually.

DON’T 
Plan a day without checking the weather forecast. A strong wind might be ideal for shooting crashing waves on the beach, but not so good for capturing delicate spring flowers. 
Don’t waste battery power or time by viewing every exposure on the LCD screen. Although you need to check the screen to compare results, keep this to a minimum and concentrate on the changes needed for the next picture. 
Shoot into direct sunlight. This will cause flare. Whether in shaded woodland or on the coast, an overcast or day with intermittent cloud cover is better than a clear day.

 

THE BOKEH BEAUTIFUL

But there was more to Bartocha’s success than making two frames instead of one. Her lens choice was unusual for the time: a Meyer Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8 macro, also known as the ‘soap bubble’ lens because of the profusion of bokeh it generates in the image. Bokeh is a term familiar to macro and portrait photographers who are working with narrow depth of field and rely on an even, defocused background to help make the small focused area stand out better overall. The word is a translation from the Japanese, meaning ‘blur’. But in this case, the blur is created from the out of focus points of light rendered through the lens, creating a myriad of round ‘soap bubble’ circles across the frame, creating an ethereal, almost dream-like depiction of the subject.

By seeking an image that is about evoking an emotional response to a scene rather than rendering a technically sharp record shot, a tripod no longer becomes an essential part of the photographer’s set-up. Bartocha explains: ‘For my kind of photography where I’m focusing on the light and the emotion and limited depth of field, no tripod is needed and it’s much easier to compose with a really nice background without. Even if it’s getting dark you can always uprate the ISO to make the picture without any stabilisation.’

Of greater importance, she says, is to find the right spot, one that gives you the flexibility to alter your angle or position as the light or background changes. ‘Finding the right spot includes paying attention to what plant you are photographing,’ she adds. ‘If you have a forest floor of anemones then look for the one that is intact, that’s not beaten up, hit by the rain or an insect.’ 

Such is a flower’s delicate structure that it will quickly wilt if conditions prove extreme from too much wind, heavy rain, or direct sunshine, so it makes sense to use your time to experiment as freely as possible. This means paying attention to the light and trying different compositions and angles to alter the perspective and background. 

 

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AN EXPRESSIVE MACHINE

In contrast to the close-up details of small spring flowers, the wide expanse of the coast and open sea is also an ideal subject for making abstract and soft focus images. The ceaseless movement of the waves and tides and a constantly ebbing shoreline means the coast is viewed by some photographers as a moving subject, and therefore open to abstract and fluid interpretations.

British landscape photographer Rachael Talibart is someone who thinks this way. ‘The idea of the camera as a record-making machine doesn’t work for me. I think it’s an expressive machine, just like a paintbrush,’ she says. Talibart’s landscapes are mostly taken of the waves and shore of England’s south coast, often using slow shutter speeds and double exposures. ‘It’s a form of self-expression and the images that speak to me most, that I enjoy and endure and that I would have on my wall, are images that are not accurate records of something, they’re expressions of the photographer.’

One of the photographers Talibart most admires is painter turned photographer Valda Bailey, who uses intentional camera movement (ICM) and multiple exposures to create abstract interpretations of the landscape. Whereas camera shake refers to unintentional vibrations caused when handholding the camera during the exposure, ICM is a small deliberate movement, usually during a slow shutter speed to add blur to the image. Whether you move the camera laterally, diagonally or with a slight tilt, is entirely up to the photographer: there is no rule, just a willingness to experiment by trying different movements at different speeds. 

 

Equipment Selections
CAMERA: Tilting screen SLR
Working close to the ground requires some difficult shooting angles. This is where a tilt-screen monitor comes in useful, allowing you to place the camera on the ground and frame the scene using the monitor while kneeling. As well as a tilt-screen monitor, the Nikon D7500 (£800, body only) is also remarkably light - tipping the scales at just 640g - and also weather-sealed, so ideal for working in changeable conditions.
www.nikon.co.uk

LENS: 100mm macro
There are many fine 100mm macro lenses on the market, from the major brands as well as independent lens makers Tamron and Sigma. However, none come close to matching the special effect of the ‘soap bubble’ bokeh effect produced by the Meyer Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8 macro (£1,500). It’s more expensive than most 100mm macros, but the quality of its engineering and optical performance, together with the unmatched bokeh effect, make it a unique choice.
www.meyer-optik-goerlitz.com

ACCESSORY: Camera rucksack
Ruchsacks tailored for photographers need to have a combination of padded protection and spaciousness. There's plenty of room in the Tenba Shootout LE Medium (£195) with capacity for a pro-model camera body and lens, eight compartments for lenses, power adapter and other accessories, and an inner pocket large enough for a 15in laptop.
www.tenba.com

 

 

SCRATCHING THE SURFACE

Working in this way may seem hit and miss, but that is also part of the appeal, as Valda Bailey explains: ‘The great thing for me is that it’s almost unrepeatable, nobody else is going to have that shot. It’s something that’s going to be very, very difficult to emulate.’

Bailey is widely recognised for her distinctive style that is inspired by the work of artists Marc Rothko and Paul Klee. ‘I’m interested in creating abstract shapes and getting shapes and colours to work in a frame,’ she says.

Sometimes she will combine ICM and up to nine multiple exposures – the limit of her camera’s specification – to create her images. ‘Two or three of those images can be ICM shots and then you can add back some detail by layering further exposures on top,’ she explains. ‘This is what keeps it so exciting because the permutations are endless. Up to nine exposures: you can change your shutter speed, you can change your lens, you can change your white balance, change the way you move the camera, the way you point your camera. I still don’t feel I’ve scratched the surface of what it can be.’

Another option is to try these techniques in post-production using Photoshop’s number of blending modes, but Bailey and others argue that such results risk looking contrived because of the lack of spontaneity experienced when working on location.

 

Recommended Reading
LYS by Sandra Bartocha & Werner Bollmann • LYS Publishing • €65
Fragile by Valda Bailey • Triplekite Publishing • £18.50
Sirens by Rachael Talibart • Triplekite Publishing • £32

 

LENSES AND LOCATIONS

As landscape photographers, Talibart and Bailey use a wider variety of lens focal lengths than a macro-orientated plant photographer, with 24-70mm zooms and short telephoto lenses being their main choices. Zooms offer greater flexibility when selecting a different focal length for multiple exposures while moving the zoom slightly during a long exposure produces a type of blur to the image known as the ‘zoom-burst effect’.

Although known primarily as a macro photographer, Bartocha also reaches for other lenses when making her soft-focus interpretations. More recent work has been taken using an 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom. ‘This is a very versatile zoom,’ she says. ‘It’s very good quality for the flexibility I get because I like the compression of 400mm, even for flower and macro work.’

One aspect of their approach that all three women have in common is familiarity with a location. They each return to favourite spots year after year, in anticipation of what to expect from seasonal changes and in response to local weather forecasts. Bartocha has been making frequent returns to her local lake shore in Mecklenburg, northern Germany for much of her photography, and always finds inspiration, even from plants she has photographed hundreds of times before. ‘I think that everybody needs a place where he or she feels at home and where they are constantly returning,’ she says. 

For Rachael Talibart, a forecast that predicts a mixture of storm clouds, occasional sunshine and a brisk wind will see her jump into her car and drive to her favourite spots on the Sussex coast – Beachy Head, Newhaven and West Wittering. ‘I think by going back to somewhere you know, somewhere local, you can relax and start to experiment,’ she says, ‘start to do other things and maybe you’ll just get something fresh.’ 

This was published in the May 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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