A Highlighter for Your Camera

Everybody has used the ubiquitous yellow highlighters to underline words that they feel are important. Did you know that your camera can do that too? Not with the literal yellow stain, of course, but there are several techniques to let people who look at your picture know what you thought was important, what you wanted them to see.

Send your eyeballs to a picture. Where do they go first? They go to those areas that are bright, colorful, contrasty, and sharp. You can make this work for you. Do you want to draw attention to some particular portion of a car in a photograph, perhaps a unique grill badge, or an added instrument inside? Perhaps some small item related to but separate from your Porsche? Color won’t help you here; it is what it is. OK, you could light your subject with a beam of contrasting light, maybe even a red laser, but that’s a little heavy handed, and you probably won’t like the result.

Think instead of a little subtle lighting to make it stand out from its surroundings. I have a collection of small LED flashlights that can be brought to bear during a long (camera on a tripod, of course) exposure. Done subtly, this can provide just the emphasis that you’re looking for. A small mirror or even a white card can bring in some selective lighting as well and, on a larger scale, placing your car in a well lighted foreground spot ahead of a dark background can give the benefits of both lighting and contrast. I once had the great good luck to have a beam of sunlight break though a Florida cloud cover and illuminate a single car in the pack on the starting lap of Sebring—and the car went on to win! But you can’t count on that, and we’re talking about control here and not blind luck (although I’ve learned a lot from seeing the effects of blind luck—both good and bad).

But my favorite technique for drawing the eye to a particular area of a photograph is selective focus. That means that what I want to emphasize is in sharp focus, and other areas are not. There are two ways to do this, hard and easy. Hard involves using a view camera with shifts and tilts, an expensive shift/tilt SLR lens, or a specialty lens like one of the Lens Baby models. Let’s talk easy, something we can all do.

 The trick is to use a relatively large aperture or a relatively long focal length, or both. If you have a “fast” lens for your camera, with a maximum aperture of f2.8 or less, you can do this with a lens of 50mm or even shorter. Use the aperture preferred setting, set the aperture to f2.8, focus on the important element and shoot away. Look critically at your result; if your subject is not completely sharp, try f4 or even 5.6. If too much of the background is sharp, come in closer to the subject, move the background further back if possible, or move to a longer lens.

But you more likely have a zoom lens, and it probably has a variable aperture range of something like f4-f5.6 or even f6.3, depending on the amount of zoom you’re using. You can probably get a good result by using the maximum (lowest number available) aperture and zooming to the longest focal length—maybe even 200-300mm if you have that kind of reach. One caveat: slower lenses are usually not as good “wide open” as the expensive fast models. You may need to “stop down”—use a higher number—to get greater sharpness of your subject. And that can undermine what you were trying to do in the first place.

What to do? Well, here’s a secret. Most manufacturers offer a lens that is fast and not that expensive. These are the single focal length “normal” lenses; typically a 50mm for a full size sensor DSLR or a 35mm for an APS sensor. Since zooms are so popular, these normal lenses have tended to fall off the must-have list; I’ve paid less than $100 for one, and they are even faster than the $2000 professional grade zooms. Stop it down to 2.8, move in tight on your subject, and watch the background move into unimportance. It works for small items, for cars, and for people (people tip: always make sure the eyes are sharp).

Take some time to experiment with this; it’s fun, and it can make you a better photographer. Thanks for reading and, as always, let me know what you think. I’m leonardt@pca.org.