Thursday, October 20, 2011

Depth of Field

Don’t be alarmed! The salad isn’t about to attack, though it seems like it might.

Why is that? You’d probably point to all that lettuce in the background, which seems a trifle unnecessary, narratively speaking. Do we really need to know where the plated salad came from? The ingredients are pretty obvious after all. Clearly, the three-bean salad has been dressed with oil and vinegar from those glassy jugs. Surely it would be enough simply to photograph the plate?

This image is unsettling not because of overdressing on the part of the food stylist (if there was one), but because the photographer doesn’t know how to use a camera.

For a start, the lighting is too harsh; the multi-directional shadows indicate very strong light coming from both the left and right above the table. The glass reflects so much of it that it throws the white balance off, and bleaches out the pale wax beans. All of the colors, in fact, are squashed into a very narrow tonal range; if this was black and white, it would be hard to differentiate anything. Half close your eyes — all you can see is a dark splotch in the middle where the red is.

When we look at things in real life, we can only focus on one thing at a time. The correct ƒ-stop when adjusting a camera lens helps achieve the right depth of field, bringing the object of the photograph into focus, while leaving everything else a blur. The lower the ƒ-stop, he more sharply that object is separated from its background. A high ƒ-stop will bring everything within a visual plane into focus at once, flattening the depth of field. In this photo, the plated lettuce nearest us seems to be the same distance away as the lettuce right at the back. Since they are the same color and texture (with a lot of the same in between), all of it looks like it sits on a vertical, rather than horizontal surface. It is this visual tricky that makes the salad look so aggressive.

Certainly, this photograph was taken with too shallow a depth of field, but that fault has been magnified by the cropping, which leaves no visual free space for our eyes to rest.

The only thing this image ultimately tells us about its subject is volume: there is a lot of three-bean salad. For all we know, the entire tabletop might be covered in it. The farmer might have had to dig deep in his field to grow it all; the photographer should have dug deeper in his.

Quick and Simple Cooking for Two, Wayne Matthews Corporation, 1976

Also from this book: It Was All YellowA Feast For The Eyes
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