Photographing the Experience

1999-2011 Mike MacDonald

Belle of the Ball Picasso once said, "The camera has set the artist free." His meaning was that painters would no longer be required to accurately depict reality—freeing up the creativity and self-expression of the artist. According to Picasso, an exact depiction of a subject can now be made with a camera. But can a visually accurate and precise rendition truly represent the subject as we really experience it? To better elaborate on this topic, let's look at flowers as the photographic subject.

We've all seen stunningly sharp pictures of flowers—accurate in every way. But, do these pictures truly convey our experience of flowers? Picasso would probably say no. Visually, the image is accurate, but the sensual and emotional components are sorely lacking. I mean, how often do you pick up a flower and think, "Boy, is this flower sharp and precise." For a book on flower identification, accuracy is necessary, however, accuracy often does not reflect most people's experience of flowers. Of course, flowers are full of colors, textures, and fine detail. But, beyond the visual, they are soft and delicate, light and airy, sensual and intoxicating. Accurate images have a hard time communicating these characteristics. Experiential images can.

Experiential photography assumes that the photographer is in touch with his emotions and experience of the subject matter. The key is to use your own unique experience of the subject to "see." This will drive how you execute the image. To follow are three approaches that I use to create flower photographs that I feel are true to my experience.

Painted with Paintbrush Selective Focus

Selective focus means focusing on a specific, selected point and allowing everything else to go soft. This is an excellent technique for singling out specific details while, at the same time, delivering on the experience of soft and airy. Experiment with different f-stops using the depth of field preview button to help you decide how much depth of field is needed. With this method, you can often skip the tripod and take hand-held pictures, using wide apertures to get faster shutter speeds. I actually took the shot of the Indian paintbrush (left) while crouching down and hauling a 63-pound backpack. I focused by gently leaning my body forwards and backwards. When I saw that the front petals were in focus, I ran the motor drives. Of the four shots taken, one turned out.

Partial Motion Shooting Star Halo

The idea here is to make a very sharp and accurate picture with complete depth of field and a clean background, except that we will allow the wind to blow the flower during a short portion of the exposure. The result is a sharp picture of the flower surrounded by a soft aura of light around the flower's parts and petals. The challenge is to get the right amount of motion to create the desired effect. Of course, you can jiggle the flower yourself at just the right moment. But, I find it fun to try this technique on slightly windy days when "accurate" macro photography is out of the question. The top right picture of the Virginia bluebells and the image of the shooting stars (right) are examples of this technique.

Multiple-Focus Multiple Exposures

One really slick method that I've developed for getting the look that I want is through the use of multiple exposures. I make multiple exposures on one frame of film, with each exposure focused at a different point. What you get is subject detail and the out-of-focus glow that appears as a halo—similar to the previous method. This is a fun method to try when you need more depth of field than can be achieved by stopping down all the way or when your background is messy. The image of the blue flag iris (below left) is a result of five exposures and five different points of focus.

Blue Flag Multiple Exposure To take a five-exposure shot, set your camera on multiple exposure mode. This feature is a must. Next, multiply the film speed by 5 and set your camera's ASA/ISO setting to this number. If you're using Fuji Velvia at ISO 50 and making five exposures, then 50 ISO x 5 = 250 ISO. Enter 250 into your camera's ISO setting. What you're doing is fooling the camera into thinking that the film is 5 times slower than it really is, so that it will automatically compensate. If you were taking 3 exposures, then you'd multiply 50 ISO times 3 equaling 150 ISO.

Now, determine the correct meter reading as you normally would, choosing the proper f-stop/shutter speed combination. Next, select the five different focus points—from nearest to farthest—making one exposure at each point. Use larger apertures to help prevent background clutter from coming into view. Note, you can choose different f-stops along the way as long as you're causing the same exposure. Also, be certain that the film advances after the final exposure and don't forget to change the camera's ISO setting back to normal when you're through.

This method works great when it's a little windy since shutter speeds for each exposure are greatly decreased. A one-second exposure at f/16 might now be done in 3 exposures at f/8 and 1/12 second or in four exposures at f/5.6 and 1/30 second!

Not only are these techniques exciting to use, but they are a lot more fun than waiting around for the wind to stop. Plus, it's fascinating to see what turns up on film. After a while, you should be able to develop a bit of a feel for the results, but you'll always get some surprises—especially when you make "mistakes." So, just as the self-expression of the painter was emancipated by the invention of the camera, perhaps experiential photography can help set your creativity free.

Photography classes, digital camera courses, nature photography workshops, and private photo lessons by Mike MacDonald Photography & Creative Eye Workshops.

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