Finding the scene within the scene

Winter photography sessions in New Haven County, family sessions in Connecticut, photography tips and ideas

For me, the winter months are exploration months, a time to learn new techniques and play a little bit with my camera and lenses.  I thought I might share a little something I’ve learned over the years about finding a scene within a scene.  Initially, when I first starting photographing people, I thought a lot about locations, and especially locations where I could control 1) the light and 2) the background.  Although this is still true and always on my mind when I’m planning a session, I’ve started to be a bit more free in my location choices, because I’ve found that there are great spots for photos in almost any location and in any light.  It’s just a matter of knowing where to look.  I’ve been wanting to go to Yale’s Marsh Botanical Gardens, and since they were recently open on a weekend day, I suggested to my friend Mary that we take her son Gerry’s photos there.  I had never been before and didn’t know what to expect, but I knew we could find something good.

Initially, it seemed like it was just a jungle in there :).


With tigers! :-0


But by focusing in on just one part of the scene, much of the background distraction and noise can be removed.  In this first example below, I’m using a shallow “depth of field” (plane of the photo that is in focus) to highlight Gerry’s fingers on the fruit, while blurring out most of the rest of the scene.


Depth of field is one of my favorite tools for drawing attention to one part of a scene or another, and typically this is something you choose just before taking a photograph (and is somewhat limited by the lens you are using; more expensive lenses allow you to have a smaller plane of the field in focus).  There is a new technology emerging by a company called who has a small camera that allows you to choose your plane of focus AFTER taking your photo, which sounds pretty revolutionary to me!  In this photo, I could have chosen to focus instead on Gerry’s face, which would have resulted in a completely different photo.  If I could have played with this during editing, I might have tried to focus on his eyes while leaving his fingers in focus, or perhaps kept all of him in focus, while leaving the far background a blur.  The possibilities are endless and depend on your vision as the photographer.

I often use a narrow depth of field to capture little details, like fingers and eyelashes, that parents will love to remember once their kids are older. You would never know we were in a greenhouse.



Within the greenhouse, there were also beautiful pockets of light, which also helped highlight certain details while throwing unnecessary ones (like empty pots that were on the floor) into shadow.  I just directed Gerry towards certain textures and plants that I knew he would find interesting and that happened to be in those pockets of light.


It was a weirdly warm winter day, and despite the fact that there was snow on the ground, we happily ventured outside even without coats on.  Does this look like a perfect scene for photos or what?


This was behind the greenhouse, a scene full of treasures for exploring kids, but not exactly photogenic :).  But as Gerry climbed into and out of the cart, I spent a few minutes looking around and noticed the beautiful light coming through the greenhouse–see the bottom left of the photo above.  So I walked over to the dumpster and pointed my lens towards the greenhouse to see this scene:


and then directed Gerry to stand in front of it to capture this:


I love the soft light in this photo, and the interesting textures.  There’s also a nice contradiction of organic forms (algae streaks/greens) and more industrial (the air unit he’s leaning on).  Notice that I’ve used a shallow depth of field again–Gerry is in focus, but the background is not.

I wanted to take a few photos of Gerry with his mom, so we ventured to the outdoor garden area, currently covered in snow and full of very patchy sunlight (which can be tough for photographing two people, as one might be in shadow while one is in the light).  You can see that the trees are blocking some of the sun as it falls on the snowy areas.


These raised beds looked like a great place for Gerry and his mom to sit, and they were in full sun, rather than half shade/half sun.  So I asked them to sit together and hug!



I love the result–there is a nice light coming from behind the two of them (“backlight”-one of my favorite types of light for photos), but their faces are still illuminated well because of the snow on the ground, which is reflecting sunlight up onto their faces.  As I’ve mentioned in a post a long time ago, when taking photos in snow, you have to find a way to trick the camera into letting in more light than it wants to.  The camera sees a lot of white and tries to darken everything down, which results in dark faces.  I personally love using exposure compensation for this, but everyone has their own way (on a smartphone, you can tap on the part of the frame you want the camera to expose for–this little trick makes a huge difference).

Maybe I’ve convinced you to look for the scene within the scene a little bit?  It’s one of the most fun (and sometimes challenging) parts of making a great photograph.  If you have questions, don’t hesitate to ask!  Thank you Gerry and Mary for a great session, as always!



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