Washing the background with f/1.4 and accidental light

During a trip to Harold Porter botanical gardens today, I decided to try out some specific things that have been nagging me for a while. I am very lucky and happy to own a Sigma 30mm 1.4 Art lens, and it’s been a joy to use, it is well built, heavy and solid, it focuses superbly quick and it renders colors and contrast accurately. It does have a few niggling issues however, things that are extremely normal and fair considering…

One of those things are the CA that occurs on brightly backlit scenes of contrast (think branches of a tree against a bright sky). This occurs at 1.4, 1.6 and much less at 1.8 – a very fair performance shortcoming of any lens that opens up that wide. The second thing that had me in a bit of a spin was the bokeh control, I could not figure out how to make it look nice(soft? puffy?)…

Youtube to the rescue… I watch many videos, frequently by wildlife, macro, art photographers and black and white gurus. I accidentally discovered a british channel by a guy (Mike Brown) that used his 50mm in the same way I use the 30 – for no other reasons than artsy ‘junk’… fun junk, amazingly sharp and colorful junk. One of the things he did, caught my attention. Get rid of all light in the scene, leaving nothing but distant (and indirect) light in the background, then open up to 1.x, frame up and wash away the background. So I tried this on a mushroom I found in the woods:


Usually, I would take the shot with a background that is completely unlit, scattered with items of random nature – which I will then expect to wash away with bokeh. The side effect is a distracting, dark salad, with random lightpoints in the bokeh distracting me, and making the lens do weird things that annoy me (I cannot put my finger on it). However, what I did for the mushroom scene was simple. I rotated my angle to frame up the whole mushroom, about 30cm away, making sure that the background included non-direct sunlight/light-sources. In this case, it’s mostly leaf-scattered rays hitting mud/wet ground. It appears orange not because of the color of the ground, but because it was a fairly early sun, with random bouts of clouds.

I took a variety of shots at ISO400, as the light was super low in the woods, and I was already at 1/25. The shot on the left (6.3) clearly show the whole mushroom in a more or less sharp image, with random-crud (a dead twig, some blades of grass, dead leaves) in the foreground. However the background is at the same level as the cap of the mushroom, still had the distracting factor (to me, personally).

I then flipped back to 1.4, and tried the exact same shot, then noticed the background has absolutely nothing but blurry fuzz in it. The dimly lit scatter-light was not enough. Interesting. A few seconds later, some clouds cleared, or the trees above moved in the wind, and a lot more sun came crashing through into the background. I took the shot at that second! What I ended up with is the photo on the right (1.4). A brighter lit background, more prominent bokeh, a very narrow focal plane (which even makes the dead twig and foreground scatter look amazing) and most importantly – the colors I was looking for. A sharp(ish) mushroom cap, with nice, orange fluffy bokeh-balls isolating it from the background, and in fact, the rest of the whole image.

It was not just opening up to 1.4 that did this, nor was it choosing a different focal point, but the larger aperture paired with the brighter light AND thinking about the scene background that did it. Having an idea in mind, and then getting there feels like a revelation, especially when you had no idea how to reproduce that idea. If there’s any point to this post, it is to put your camera down, and start staring through the view-finder… feel it out until it becomes clear what you need. The grass was boring to me, I didn’t want the details of it, it’s distracting. I did want the green, I used the grass for its green… I did want some foreground noise (dead leaves and twigs), because mushrooms don’t grow in perfect places. I didn’t change the scene, I shoot ethically, without touching plants or moving stuff around, and it was until after a few shots that the background called out to me.

Next time, I will add a reflector to capture the details under the cap a bit more.


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