Diving Into Deep Focus Again

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We had a middling decent sunrise this morning, complete with crepuscular rays from the sun shining between towering clouds over the horizon. Not a bad start for a day which I fervently hope will be less of a hassle than yesterday. However, it’s only 13:50, so anything could still happen. Half of the fun and half of the terror of living in PNG is waiting for the other shoe to drop. Or rather, the next  shoe.

Anyway, as I said, I got a passable sunrise this morning and, though three pedestrians attempted suicide on the bonnet of my car on the way to work, it has so far been a singularly uneventful day:

Just as well, too. My Valium stash is getting low. I’m going to have to see my connection pretty soon.

As you may recall, if you’ve ever been here before, I’ve been fooling around with what I call “Deep Focus”. Though this may sound like a meditation technique, it is really nothing more than setting your camera so that the hole where the light comes in is as teensy-weensy as you can make it. In fancy terms, it’s called the ƒ-stop. Real photographers insist on using the curly ƒ instead of the regular f because we are so pedantic. The explanation of all the ƒ stop explanations would simply explain you into a nap, so I’ll leave it up to you to Wikipedia it, if you like.

Explained so that even I can understand it, think of a pinhole camera. If you would look with one eye through a pinhole in a playing card held very close to your eye and wiggle your fingers around in front of it while viewing a distant scene, you would note that your fingers are clear and focused as well as the scene. Pull the pinhole card aside and you fingers will go all blurry unless you focus your eyes on them, in which case the distant scene will get blurry. There’s no free lunch. However, there is  a cheap  lunch. If you are willing to make other adjustments to your camera such as slowing the shutter speed to let the lens gather light for a longer time (unfortunately, also making moving objects blur) or setting your “film speed” (called ISO on digital cameras) to a faster setting (and getting “grainy” images as a result) then you can get stuff like this:

Note that everything from a few centimetres away to the distant diver is in focus, more or less. This is Deep Focus, and I didn’t invent it. I’m just fooling around with it. A fancy term for it is High Depth of Field Photography, but you can forget that now that you have heard it once.

Here’s another shot using the setting of ƒ/8 on my Canon G11 which is the smallest opening of the iris that I can get:

Again, we get a nice, almost 3D effect.

I’ve learned a few things in the last weeks I’ve been playing with this. First you must have water as clear as possible. That is sometimes a problem. Next you need a very bright, sunny day with as few clouds in the sky as possible – your best friend is intense sunlight. The other thing that I have found is that noon is not the best time. It is much better when the sun is coming in at an angle. Nine to ten in the morning or two to three in the afternoon seems best:

The shot above shows the deep blue that you want as a background.

Another thing that you want is what every photographer knows – keep the sun at your back or coming over your shoulder from the back. You want the light to be coming from behind you.

It does take considerable messing about with Photoshop to get the optimal results. I’m taking an average of about 15-20 minutes on each shot, sometimes more if there is a lot of particulate matter in the water which I have to remove bit by bit.

I have concentrated so much on macro shots for the last few years that I am now enjoying the process of learning something new.

I feel like an old dog who has only now learned to roll over on my back to get my belly scratched. Ah . . . what a relief!

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8 Responses to “Diving Into Deep Focus Again”

  1. Bron Says:


    You realize, though that the smallest aperture is not always the sweet spot, due to some gremlin known as diffraction; but of course, that statement is just me being a nerd.

    Like your blog. Found you when contemplating replacing my G9 for a G11. Like the range of the G9.


  2. MadDog Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Bron. You are right, of course. I always have to balance the ratio of technical details to the yawn factor of my readers. The best lens performance on the G11 is 4.5 – 5.6, so they say. And, I know that sharpness falls off as you move below that range and especially above, to smaller openings. Starting when my Dad set me up in a darkroom at age 11, I found out that everything about photography is a trade-off. Everything is ratios and whenever you take some goodie by changing one setting, you have to give up another goodie. When I started out with UW photography I used pretty much auto settings. Now I run my camera on full manual. I’m adjusting shutter speed, aperture, ISO, flash, no flash, macro, no macro, auto focus, manual focus and zoom and constantly thinking about the trade-offs.

    That’s what makes it fun.

    I’ve had a G9, a G10 and a G11. The G9 and G11 are the best of the three, I think. I like control layout much better on the G11. It gives you much more control by knob twisting and button pushing rather than going to the menus. It also seems to have much better dynamic range and lower noise, especially at higher ISOs. I can get useful images at 400 or even 800 if I use NoiseNinja Pro to clean up the residual noise. Since I like available light, this is a big plus.

    Hey, man, the frames that you make are works of art!

    Keep reading, Bron. If you’re on Facebook, look me up as CrazyByChoice. – MadDog

  3. ZydecoDoug Says:

    I loved the “Deep Focus” post, Mad Dog. Learning about and being able to use depth of field in photography is fun and exciting, especially when you begin to see its wonder in your pictures. Outside of lighting, aperture is probably the main ingredient in the recipe for bringing together all the “flavours” of a particular shot, whether that scenery lay above or below the surface of the sea, arid or fluid. Indeed, you’ve taken macro-focus to beautiful heights — or, more appropriately, depths — with your stunningly revealing and Oz-like colorful reef photography. Selectively putting everything, near and far, into focus in a single frame is something that requires a true understanding of the principles of photography. You do learn it as you go.

    I’ve been a photographer for 35 years, perhaps longer. I’ve been a professional studio and news photographer, but now I am simply and happily a casual photo-taker. My wife last year took a photo class as part of a certificate program at a great local college, and I had such a wonderful time conveying to her some of the treats and tricks of the art of photography.

    As you’ve discussed, light, aperture, shutter speed and ISO (ASA in flim) are the main ingredients in exposure. Of course, composition, and timing, are something for another day. (Although, you seem to have that down pretty well…fish in mouth of cuttlefish…nice!)

    Another non-camera example I’d add, and I know I’m getting lengthy here, is to go out in daylight, hold a your hand out at arm’s length. With eyes wide open, focus on your hand. The distant background will be blurred. Now, start to squint your eyes. Still focusing on your extended hand, you’ll begin to see a more focused view of the background. By closing your eyelids, and thus letting is less light through a smaller lens of vision, you’re replicating the concept of depth-of-field photography. Neat, huh?

    Keep shooting, Madly!

  4. MadDog Says:

    Thanks, ZydecoDoug, for you complementary comments and the good information. You talk the talk, so I bet you walk the walk.

    I like your example of increased depth of field by squinting. I often squint when I don’t have my glasses on, but my eyes are so far gone now that it doesn’t help much. One technique that does work, however, is the “fist telescope”. If you make a fist in front of one eye with your thumb and forefinger curled around to make the smallest possible hole (and as round as possible) you will be able to look through the hole and see, if dimly, details that you could not see otherwise. Of course, it doesn’t have much effect if your eyes are good. Many partially blind people use this technique. I remember a story of one man who escaped a burning airplane after losing his glasses by using the fist telescope.

  5. ZydecoDoug Says:

    Ahah, MadDog! A fist telescope is the perfect example of high aperture photography. By looking through that small channel (okay, there’s the nautical theme), you’re essentially “stopping down” the amount of light that comes in contact with your eye(s)…same as raising the f-stop to create depth of field with a camera. You just need adequate light to succeed when lowering the shutter speed to compensate for less light coming though. It’s all about balance.

    I’ve spent some time undersea, but not to the extent that you do, and that you chronicle. Amazing stuff, indeed. Your dive shots are amazing, sir.

  6. MadDog Says:

    Cool, ZydecoDoug. It’s nice to chat photography for a change. If I started dropping “f-stop” and “shutter speed” at a party here, they would send me to the bedroom to watch TV.

  7. Christy Derr Says:

    I am a photographer in Kansas. I love dolphins and anything that has to do with the ocean. My husband is an adreniline junkie and has talked me into skydiving, cliff diving, repelling, and many other dangerous antics. We honeymooned in Jamaica years ago and he talked me into trying to scuba dive. He is certified and is very comfortable in the water, me on the other hand am closterphobic and have had a fear of water ever scince my father drown when I was 16. I did try the test they have you take before allowing you to dive, but freaked out when I had to sit at the bottom of the pool, needlesstosay, I didn’t get to dive, but he took a cheap underwater throw away camera and got some cool shots, I just wish I were able to get those shots with my nikkon 3D. I love looking at your images and hope that someday i can see firsthand what you guys see when you go diving.

  8. MadDog Says:

    Christy, your story is a familiar one. We all have aversions of one kind or another. Mine is a fear of heights. This may seem strange, since I spent many years flying helicopters. As long as I’m IN the machine I feel as if I’m on the ground. I can even sit in the door with my legs hanging out. I learned to skydive by thinking of the earth as a big map spread out in front of me. We can do amazing tricks with our brains. However, I still haven’t managed not to freeze up at the top of a twelve foot ladder. I can function there, but just barely. It’s too bad they they used such a crude method of testing you. I prefer to get a new diver right out on the reef in a safe place where the distractions of all of the beauty tend to mask the fear. Once you have disassociated the marine environment from the sad circumstances which cause you to fear it, you might well learn to enjoy it. The trick is to learn to respect the real hazards and ignore those which are irrational. Only graduated and repeated exposure with a helpful partner can fix the problem. I’ve helped many people overcome their fear of the underwater environment. Only a very few have decided not to stick with the program until they inevitably learned to relax and enjoy it. I wish you good luck. If you shoot some fish with your 3D, please send me your work.

    Your photography site is excellent.