For me, the ability to control depth of field–the area that’s in focus–has been essential. It’s a major tool in my toolbox when I go about isolating a subject in the frame. Some of the other tools include negative space, color, and contrast, both visual and thematic. Depth of field is my favorite though. That’s why I’ve invested in lenses that give me the widest possible range of aperture to work with, and spent a lot of time learning how to control it. The latest toy is this Hartblei 65mm f3.5 Super-Rotator that I’ve talked about a lot lately. I bought it because I knew that I could use it to create very unusual depth of field effects, but when it finally arrived from the Czech Republic, I had no idea how it worked.

Before I start using a new tool on clients, I normally do some experimentation to get a handle on its operation. Usually, this involves taking pictures of inanimate objects and doing self-portraits before actually showing anyone the results.

The photo above is one of those experiments that I did with the Hartblei. It took a lot of fiddling under pressure, because this kid was biking around like a maniac, and I really wanted to capture him in front of the car before he gave up the game and went to do something else. With the Hartblei’s nearly infinite combination of tilts, shifts and rotations, it did take a few tries to get this effect predictably. Fortunately, on the kid’s last pass, I got the shot. The area in focus is thrown diagonally from the foreground to the background, with other areas rendered in a very pleasant bokeh, which is just a fancy way of saying “out of focus.”

Getting this shot of the Flatiron Building in Manhattan was a little easier, because I had all the time in the world to mess around with the lens to get the right areas in focus.

After a great deal of experimentation and failed attempts, I finally felt ready to use this lens with a client, in the studio. The client is a musician, who is releasing an album in the next month or two. We needed to shoot some portraits to use in the CD liner notes. My goal with this particular shoot was to get a kind of low-contrast feel which I felt matched the melancholy mood of his music, as well as the cover art for the CD. I envisioned everything being a sort of monotone beige, with the clarity of his eyes being the most outstanding features of the image. The eyes would already be isolated because of color, but isolating them further with focus and shallow depth of field really adds a lot to the laid-back mood, I think.

It was pretty easy to accomplish this with the 50mm f1.2 lens when he was more or less face-front to the camera. The area of focus is at a constant distance from the back of the camera, producing a very traditional shallow depth of field effect.

However, he had a great profile, and I wanted to be able to shoot this angle without losing the focus that fell mainly on the eyes and not elsewhere. This is where the Hartblei really came in handy.

By bending the lens so that it threw the area of focus across the front of his face, even though I was facing the side of his face, I was able to keep his eyes isolated in focus, while the rest of him softly blended away.

I remember sitting with a friend years ago, marveling at a book of Karsh’s portraiture, admiring his masterful control of depth of field. At that time, I wondered how he achieved this effect. Now I know it’s because he was using a massive 8×10 view camera with bellows that allowed him to similarly throw focus onto whichever plane he wished. Those cameras were cumbersome and difficult to adjust. These days, with small SLR cameras, it’s possible to get similar results, but in a more spontaneous and casual fashion. I’m looking forward to using this new trick more often in the future.