Watch Your Backgrounds by Kristen Smith

Watch­ing what is going on in the back­ground is use­ful advice, not only for cops in urban shoot-outs, but also for close up and macro pho­tog­ra­phers.  Because bokeh and depth of field are such promi­nent aspects of these types of shots, you really have to watch the back­ground to make sure it com­ple­ments your sub­ject and doesn’t com­pete with it.  Some­times I get so focused on the sub­ject itself that the back­ground just fades away.  And because often times a sub­ject is far away from the back­ground, things just don’t get noticed.

With this shot, I was so intensely involved with the flow­ers that I didn’t really “see” my back­pack which was about 4 feet away and clearly in view.  I really needed to stop and look at the whole scene, but I didn’t.  Some­times it can take a few min­utes to set­tle into the groove and start prac­tic­ing good habits and by the time I got dili­gent, it was too late for this one.

Pho­to­graph by Kris­ten Smith

In addi­tion to watch­ing the far back­ground, keep an eye out for stray items close to the sub­ject that might dis­tract the eye.  So many times I get my pic­tures home only to find some annoy­ing leaf, pine nee­dle or branch.  Ugh.  I find that using Live View not only makes tak­ing the photo eas­ier, but gives you a 2D image to look at right away. Many times I catch bad com­po­si­tional ele­ments this way.  Check out this series of shots that illus­trate how I cleaned up my shot –

Pho­to­graph by Kris­ten Smith

Hmm that back­ground doesn’t do the flower any favors, does it?  I need to make the flower really pop out of the bokeh, not just sit there in it.  That stump has got to go. Luck­ily at this mag­ni­fi­ca­tion and per­spec­tive, very small move­ments make for very big changes.

Pho­to­graph by Kris­ten Smith

I barely moved my cam­era, but the dif­fer­ence in back­ground works so much bet­ter.  But this time I notice two things – one, there’s a lot of light play­ing the back­drop and I have to time the shot right so that it is more uni­form back there and there aren’t any hot spots to detract from the flow­ers, two, there are a few stray pine nee­dles and that leaf in the bot­tom right isn’t con­tribut­ing any­thing good.  I pluck those out of the way and lo and behold there’s moss under that leaf and when I judge the light to be the best — Presto!

Pho­to­graph by Kris­ten Smith

So as you can see, the process can take a few steps to get a use­able image.  The key is to develop good habits.

  1. Stop and look at the whole scene, back­ground and fore­ground and eval­u­ate each aspect includ­ing the light if it’s variable
  2. Remove dis­tract­ing things like sticks and leaves
  3. Change cam­era posi­tion for more har­mo­nious back­grounds and foregrounds
  4. Use Live View to see how the 3D trans­lates to 2D

Hope­fully this helps you in the field the next time you’re doing close-up and macro work.  Got any to share?  Feel free to log in to the forum and start a thread.

For more of Kristen’s out­door pho­tog­ra­phy and other arti­cles visit

Bokeh baby! by Kristen Smith

Aside from the razor-sharp sub­ject, one of the most impor­tant ele­ments of any close-up or macro pic­ture is bokeh. It is a funny con­cept that has many inter­pre­ta­tions and is def­i­nitely one of the more sub­jec­tive ele­ments of pho­tog­ra­phy. I’m not going to debate those, but I want to talk a lit­tle bit about how the delib­er­ate use of bokeh can help strengthen your images. Before I get going though, def­i­nitely lis­ten to this mini-podcast from Mar­tin Bai­ley on how to pro­nounce bokeh and its ety­mo­log­i­cal his­tory and cul­tural meaning.

In its sim­plest pho­to­graphic def­i­n­i­tion bokeh refers to the out of focus areas of a pic­ture. Mostly the mean­ing is applied to pho­tographs where there is a spe­cific sub­ject in the imme­di­ate fore­ground. Not always a close up or macro, but not really a land­scape either where some of the photo might not be in crisp focus. Bokeh is a prod­uct of shal­low depth of field which is achieved by a wide aper­ture rel­a­tive to the length of the lens.

One of the most dra­matic uses of bokeh is to sep­a­rate your sub­ject from the back­ground. Espe­cially if the back­ground is very busy. Ren­der­ing it smoothly out of focus makes things really pop –

Joyeuse by Kristen Smith

Joyeuse by Kris­ten Smith

One of my favorite bokeh tech­niques is to echo the main sub­ject exactly. Your imag­i­na­tion can eas­ily fill in the miss­ing detail because it resem­bles the sharp sub­ject so much. The echo rein­forces the main idea, but also gives your brain some­thing to play with. The trick is to uti­lize an aper­ture that will simul­ta­ne­ously allow you to rec­og­nize the out of focus object and leave it fuzzy. I love this technique –

Vinca by Kristen Smith

Vinca by Kris­ten Smith

I also love how bokeh can cre­ate atmos­phere in a photo – mostly a gauzy, dreamy effect. It doesn’t work in all cir­cum­stances, but if you are work­ing in the right light it is beau­ti­ful. With this kind of image, the sub­ject most often is the bokeh itself with the sharply focused parts play­ing sup­port­ing roles only.

Birch by Kristen Smith

Birch by Kris­ten Smith

The dig­i­tal age is a real help when exper­i­ment­ing with bokeh because you can see your shot imme­di­ately and use live view and depth of field pre­view to fine-tune each one. Get to know your lens by shoot­ing objects at dif­fer­ent aper­tures and focal lengths then study­ing the effect. Think about what kind of photo you want to make and how bokeh can empha­size your photo’s intent.

Got any good bokeh shots? Feel free to add them in com­ments or join the forum and start a thread.

For more of Kristen’s out­door pho­tog­ra­phy and other arti­cles visit

Graven Images – Ideas for Cemetery Photography by Kristen Smith

Strange as it may seem to some, I find ceme­ter­ies peace­ful places and I enjoy spend­ing time in them.  I also enjoy pho­tograph­ing them.  I’m mostly fas­ci­nated by the over­all aes­thetic of a ceme­tery, how the stones are placed, the ways they’ve shifted and changed over time, the carv­ings and motifs through the decades, dec­o­ra­tive arrange­ments like walls and gates; it all fas­ci­nates me and I do my best to cap­ture the essence of a grave­yard when­ever I shoot one.

Haunting the Obscure by Kristen Smith

Haunt­ing the Obscure by Kris­ten Smith

There are some gen­eral guide­lines you should fol­low when shoot­ing bur­ial grounds.  The first thing to remem­ber is to be respect­ful.  These places rep­re­sent lives and his­tory and often sor­row.  If there are mourn­ers or vis­i­tors present, give them space.  Don’t crash a ceremony.

Also don’t touch or move any­thing with respect to the graves them­selves.  If one is dam­aged or fallen over, leave it.  Some­times branches or other debris fall on mon­u­ments and I always leave those as well, unless it is pho­to­graph­i­cally in the way.  I also avoid climb­ing over any­thing I don’t have to like walls or gates. And I never remove any­thing from a gravesite and I can’t imag­ine doing so.

Angle of Repose by Kristen Smith

Angle of Repose by Kris­ten Smith

My main inter­est is in old ceme­ter­ies.  Luck­ily in New Eng­land we have the old­est Euro­pean ceme­ter­ies in the coun­try and I’m never short of sub­jects.  What­ever your par­tic­u­lar inter­est is, find ways to accen­tu­ate what you find inter­est­ing.  It might be par­tic­u­larly mov­ing epi­taphs, or art­work and com­mon dec­o­ra­tive motifs or maybe just find­ing stones of peo­ple with your name.  Per­son­ally I like to show the over­all struc­ture and char­ac­ter of a ceme­tery as well as high­light some of the old­est or most inter­est­ing head­stones.  Decay­ing stones are always ter­rific sub­jects; lichen, cracks, weath­er­ing and even out­right destruc­tion can make for really inter­est­ing images.

Harriet Obscured by Kristen Smith

Har­riet Obscured by Kris­ten Smith

I will admit that after years of shoot­ing in ceme­ter­ies it does get tougher to come up with orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions.  Some­times approach­ing a grave yard in a dif­fer­ent sea­son helps, like win­ter.  Some­times it means get­ting there at a cer­tain time of day so that carv­ings are brought up strongly with shad­ows. Some­times it means find­ing unusual per­spec­tives and includ­ing other things like walls and gates in my com­po­si­tions.  Fre­quently I use dif­fer­ent post-processing tech­niques to bring out what I want in a photo.  This doesn’t always mean black and white or sepia, but I do use them since they espe­cially suit the older bur­ial grounds I haunt.

Keeping Watch by Kristen Smith

Keep­ing Watch by Kris­ten Smith

So don’t be afraid to step into that ceme­tery near your house.  Explore it respect­fully, pho­to­graph it cre­atively and walk away with a sense of history.

Kris­ten Smith is a New Eng­land pho­tog­ra­pher whose ceme­tery work can be found in her Graven Images Gallery

Three Basic Rules of Close-Up Photography by Kristen Smith

So you want to get close, huh? ‚Close-up pho­tog­ra­phy is mag­i­cal and can be done with almost any lens, even your nor­mal zoom lens (all of these shots were taken with the Zuiko Dig­i­tal 12-60mm zoom, not a macro lens). ‚Sure, seri­ous macro pho­tog­ra­phy requires spe­cial­ized equip­ment, but you can get good results right away using what you have if you remem­ber a few guidelines.

First ‚œ get close! ‚So many times I see ‚Ëœclose-up‚„ pic­tures that include way too much in the frame. ‚Like a flower image that shows other flow­ers, leaves, a fence, the dirt etc. ‚That‚„s not a close-up. ‚The rea­son good close-up and macro pho­tos are so mag­i­cal is that they show us a world we might not ordi­nar­ily notice. ‚Here‚„s what to do, find out how close your lens will focus and then try and stick to that as much as pos­si­ble. ‚My ZD 12-60mm lets me get a cou­ple inches from my sub­ject and does a good enough job that I can some­times leave my macro lens at home.

Ice Crys­tals by Kris­ten Smith

Sec­ond ‚œ iso­late! ‚Close-up pho­tographs are much more effec­tive when the sub­ject is clearly sep­a­rated from the rest of the scene. ‚You can do this in two ways, first by choos­ing a sub­ject that doesn‚„t have any­thing near enough to be in the frame with it. ‚So pick that flower or mush­room that doesn‚„t have any friends. The sec­ond way you can iso­late your sub­ject is by open­ing your lens to a large aper­ture. ‚Doing this lim­its your depth of field and cre­ates an out of focus back­ground also known as bokeh. ‚Of course sharp focus on your main sub­ject is crit­i­cal, so be care­ful. ‚Watch the shut­ter speeds and use a tri­pod if necessary.

Chicory Blos­som by Kris­ten Smith

Third ‚œ sur­prise! ‚Show me some­thing dif­fer­ent. ‚Oh gee, another flower pic­ture. ‚Yay. ‚How about a bug? ‚Yawn. ‚A leaf? ‚Zzzzz. ‚Sorry, I‚„m not really dump­ing on any of these things, but haven‚„t we all seen a mil­lion of them? ‚I‚„m just as guilty of it. ‚After a while they‚„re all the same and it takes an effort to bring some­thing dif­fer­ent to the world of close-up pho­tog­ra­phy. ‚Find it. ‚What­ever it takes, find some­thing unusual about an every­day object or some­thing you hardly ever see pho­tographed. ‚Try new angles, per­spec­tives, jux­ta­po­si­tions, play with depth of field, back­ground, color com­bi­na­tions; any­thing to help your image break free of sameness.

Bro­ken Cork by Kris­ten Smith

So that should get you started. ‚Get close, iso­late and sur­prise me! ‚Feel free to post com­ments with links to your best close-up pho­tos or share them on the‚forum.

My Web­site = and I’m based in New Hamp­shire, USA