Shooting Through “Distractions”: Using Natural Elements to Frame Your Subjects

Blue spruce pine needles (200mm, f/4, ISO 400, 1/90 sec.)
Blue spruce pine needles (200mm, f/4, ISO 400, 1/90 sec.)

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

Imagine a child’s frustration in trying to see a passing parade while peering through a forest of gargantuan adult legs. I suppose it’s human nature to always want an unobstructed view of whatever it is we’re trying to see. This is especially true of press photographers, and of course… the paparazzi. How many times have you seen them on the evening news jostling and elbowing each other out the way in order to get the “best” shot? In nature, however, the best shot isn’t always necessarily the cleanest shot. If used correctly, certain “distractions” can provide a creative frame or bokeh around your subjects.

I thought the opening image was especially appropriate for this time of year. It evokes thoughts of a cold, crisp winter day. In reality, I shot it in the middle of July on an uncomfortably warm 80-degreeday. This blue spruce pine tree, in the New York Botanical Garden, had just been watered by the automatic sprinklers. Glistening with water droplets in the bright sunlight, I shot a series of photos at f/4 and 200mm.This made it easy to isolate the branch on the left that was cradling a solitary droplet. The reduced depth of field created beautiful bokeh in the background.

This technique works best with subjects that are densely packed together; such as flowers, like tulips or azaleas. Most tulip gardens are fairly well-structured and quite regimented. Azaleas (a.k.a. rhododendrons), on the other hand, grow on bushes in a much more haphazard pattern – perfect for this technique.

Needed to use a higher ISO than normal to freeze movement (200mm, f/4, ISO 1600, 1/90 sec.)
Pericat hybrid azaleas Needed to use a higher ISO than normal to freeze movement (200mm, f/4, ISO 1600, 1/90 sec.)
200mm, f/4, ISO 100, 1/45 sec.
200mm, f/4, ISO 100, 1/45 sec.

The photos above are just a few of the myriad of compositions available in this type of environment. Sometimes, as in the photo of the single bloom, I have to search for a while to find objects to deliberately place in front of the subject. Other times, I have no choice in the matter. The azalea cluster, in the photo below, was growing on a steep hill – several feet away from a concrete path. Stepping off the path was NOT an option because there was no solid ground to stand on. This partially obscured view was the only angle I had from which to shoot. But it worked perfectly. At 200mm and f/4, I was able to turn the distracting obstruction into a decorative color wash.

This technique may sound simple in theory, but there are several factors you need to keep in mind. You’re basically trying to make sense out of a chaotic environment by shooting directly into the chaos. The most important thing is the focal length – the longer the better. I use a 75-200mm lens either at or close to its maximum 200mm range. Anything shorter than that just won’t give you the bokeh or spatial compression needed to create this effect.

After finding a subject that’s sufficiently nestled within a pack of something, your choice of aperture is very important. You want to select an aperture that’s going to give you just the right amount of depth of field to bring your subject (and only your subject) into sharp focus. For best results, look for subjects that are on their own plane of focus. In other words, there should be nothing else right next to the subject that will also be brought into focus, thus, lessening the appearance of the subjects’ isolation. This, of course, requires precision focusing. I’m somewhat old-school, and have always relied on the depth of field preview feature. That works fine for me in most cases, but I just wasn’t able to get a sharp enough photo of the solitary bloom. Although the winds were calm, it was constantly swaying gently back and forth on its delicate stem. Increasing the ISO gave me a fast-enough shutter speed to freeze the movement, but I was still having a hard time focusing. I had heard a lot about “Live View,” but I never actually used it in the field. Frankly, I never understood the fascination with it. When I decided to switch it on, I was absolutely amazed! Focusing became so much easier. Instead of peering through a tiny, darkened viewfinder, I was now able to clearly see the bloom on the big screen on the back of my camera. I focused this way for the rest of the shoot and all of my images were tack-sharp.

Another important consideration is lighting. If you’re like me and you love to use TTL-flash, you must be keenly aware of exactly where the flash is aimed. If your flash is mounted directly on top of your camera, you’re going to light up the objects in front of the subject, rather than the subject itself. I almost always use my flash off-camera. I connect it with a TTL cord and aim it directly at the spot I need to add a bit of light. I normally aim it on the side of my subject to prevent head-on flat lighting. If I’m shooting through obstacles, I’ll aim it wherever there’s an unobstructed opening. For more dramatic lighting, I’ll sometimes place my camera on manual and underexpose about one stop. With my flash on auto, the subject is rendered at the correct exposure, while enveloped within a considerably darker environment. This creates a sort of “spotlight” effect on the subject.

This effect can be created naturally if your subject is much lighter than its surroundings. If that’s the case, be sure to spot meter it (as opposed to taking an average reading of the entire scene) to avoid an overexposure.

Surrounding a subject with environmental elements creates a sense of place and really helps to tell the story. It’s a technique that works well in other types of photography as well. It reminds me of a situation I encountered while working as a press photographer years ago. I was covering a ceremony where the late tennis great, Arthur Ashe, was being presented with an award. I shot the typical posed, “grip & grin” shots during the main event. Afterwards, Mr. Ashe gave an impromptu press conference to a small group of reporters on the side of the room. When I approached at started shooting, one of the reporters stepped to the side to give me a clear line of sight. I immediately asked her to step back in. Seeing Mr. Ashe speaking freely in the middle of a group of reporters was a much more “real-looking” photo than anything else I shot that evening.

You don’t always have to have a clear shot to have a good shot. If you can’t find a suitable composition naturally, simply hold something up close to your lens. You might be surprised just how beautiful a distraction can be.

Had to bump up the ISO once again to freeze movement (195mm, f/3.3, ISO 1100, 1/125 sec.)
Had to bump up the ISO once again to freeze movement (195mm, f/3.3, ISO 1100, 1/125 sec.)

F. M. Kearney began his photography career as a photojournalist for New York City newspapers. His focus soon shifted to capturing the beauty of the natural world. As an award-winning nature photographer, Kearney’s images have been widely published. A slight departure from photography, his recently published horror novel, “They Only Come Out at Night,” about supernatural happenings in the New York City subway (partially inspired by his travels as a photojournalist), is available on Amazon. To see more of Kearney’s work, visit http://www.starlitecollection.com.