Books, Depth of Field and Days Spent in the Studio.

Many years ago I was running a regional advertising agency and our biggest client was a company called, BookStop Bookstores. They were the first, serious category killer in the book business. A forerunner in the merciless slaughter of small, independent book stores. As they grew from a local, Austin retailer to a national chain with over 100 locations, our little ad agency grew along with them.
Bookstop's main value propositions were the facts that each store had large inventories (over 100,000 books in stock!!!) and lower prices (20 to 80% off, everyday). 

When we were busy running an agency I didn't have time to photograph the books that needed to be photographed for cooperative advertising and marketing in general so we subbed that out to various photographers. Eventually the chain became large enough to become a juicy (and very willing) takeover target for a bigger fish; Barnes and Noble. In the matter of a few months we said goodbye to our client and, after careful introspection (prodded by a downturn in the Austin economy) we decided to shutter the agency and move on. 

I moved into commercial photography and started my business in the deep economic trough created by the mid-1980's real estate free fall engendered by the savings and loan bust. Fortunately the design work for Bookstop ended up at a design firm run by a good friend. As the book business (and the inflow of new capital) improved the designers seemed to be churning out three or four newspaper co-op ads per week and some sort of four color catalog or flyer at least once a month. And since the account originally got steered to them by our referral I got the lion's share of the photography work. 

It was a two edged sword. On one hand my business was in the black from the very start but on the other hand I spent the better part of two years shooting hundreds, maybe thousands of books. In those days a fair amount of the book advertising, running full page or double truck in newspapers, was done in black and white. This meant that I'd shoot the books, soup the film and print a final reproduction print under a nice, tight deadline. Sometimes we'd get the books in the late afternoon and the final prints would be due the next morning....

In the process I learned how to shoot for white-against-white and how to shoot dark, glossy covers (which reflect like mirrors). I learned which few transparency films could handle certain shades of green inks (very few) and how to make a book in a dust jacket lay perfectly flat. We photographed stacks of books. We photographed best sellers surrounded by props (which we also sourced) and I learned to photograph books in the hands of their smiling authors.

I thought I'd finished with that when BookStop was finally totally ingested by B&N but recently I came across a new client who publishes many, many books and course materials about real estate. Now we're doing book shoots again from time to time but now it's much harder. 

What the hell?? Harder to shoot digital than film? Am I nuts? Well, here's the crux of the whole matter: In the days of old we shot the books with 4x5 inch view cameras and we were able to use the tilts and swings to provide enormous amounts of in focus area even though we were using "sensors=film" that had 20+ times the surface area of today's "full frame" cameras and the lenses were much longer with much more limited depth of field. Knowing how to implement the Scheimpflug theory by altering the planes of the film and the lens allowed me to alter the way focus was distributed across an image while still allowing the use of an optimum f-stop to ensure the sharpest results. 

Now we have tilt/shift lenses for the Canon and Nikon Cameras but we can only effectively tilt in one plane. And we have a limited number of focal lengths from which to choose. It's just not as flexible or exacting. We don't have the tools we need to do the same kind of work so we punt by trying to estimate exactly how far into the composition we need to put the point of sharpest focus so adequate focus falls in front of that point and also behind it in the right measure. A rule of thumb tells me that depth of field extends one third in front of the point of sharpest focus and 2/3rds behind it. And then we have to factor in the smallest aperture we can use without introducing sharpness killing diffraction effects. It all makes me want to reach for my old copy of the Kodak Photo Data Guide to I can use the depth of field calculators again. 

Depending upon the final deliver size and whether or not the image will be printed or just presented on the web I can choose from a number of compromises. I can have more megapixels but the smaller sensels will bring diffraction in quicker. I can use a full frame camera but I'll need to stop down more to get depth of field coverage. I can use a smaller sensor size but I risk the same issue of pixel/sensel density and diffraction effects. There is no "right answer." For me the sweet spot is probably a 12 or 16 megapixel (not 24!) APS-C sensor with a sharp macro lens. 

Many years ago an English company made a 35mm view camera with full movements. Might be time for someone like Alpa to do it again. But, of course, who would pay tens of thousands of dollars for that system?  

So, while we had the books in hand the art director and I started playing with layout designs and pushed to the edge of acceptable technique. It is important to understand that not all of mankind's design and photography problems have been cured by the introduction of bigger, better sensors and faster lenses. There are still many applications where a well corrected lens trumps a fast one and where bigger sensor pixel wells trump massive resolution. Give it one more generation and we won't have to worry about any of this. It will all be done with CGI..... Or we'll shoot one book and have the PhotoShop squad endlessly composite and distort it. Interesting how it all changes.


  1. There is a modern tool you may be overlooking for the book set-ups: software. Specifically, Helicon Focus. Originally designed for close-up uses (focus stacking), it's equally adept at landscape work and other specialties where the subjects aren't moving. I can certainly recommend it.

  2. I would try the focus bracketing that billstormont suggests, but I would try Photoshop's auto-stitch first.

  3. Kirk,

    As the previous commenter said, buy some focus-stacking software (like him, I can recommend Helicon Focus: it works well and it's not expensive). With this, you take a sequence of images at different focus distances (the camera remaining stationary, of course), so in each image a different zone of the image is in focus (the zones should overlap between images). The software combines the images to produce one image that is completely in focus. If you go to the Helicon website you can see what I mean.



  4. Helicon Focus is super.

  5. Or you could check for bargains in used 4x5 equipment. . .

  6. The first one. Wow. Nice photo.

  7. Cambo ULBE-35 for Sony cameras and E-mount lenses.

  8. Or... Mirex 645 tilt and shift adaptor with a mamiya 645 zoom and extension tubes. Though of course there are multiple bellows units available that adapt to 35mm, the joy of the mirex adaptor is that the camera still acts solid and can be used hand-held in a pinch. However one limitation is that the tilt and shift planes are always perpendicular to each other.

  9. I think lens baby did/do a thing called 'tilt transformer' or something like that, if memory serves it can take old Nikors and it fits on ยต43. It may do what you want, I have not tried it as its not something I have felt the need for.

  10. Look on Ebay for a m4/3 tilt adapter and fit the manual focus lens of choice. A sample from my GF2 with Ensinor screw mount 24mm f2.8 http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/3330198

  11. I have seen students trying to cope with a similar problem (a market-stall style tableau) using their 5Ds and similar bodies. There were totally blank looks when I commented that "in the old days" we could move the plane of focus.

    What is to stop someone wedging a full-frame DSLR (or just a digital MF back) in to a view-camera back-standard, with a 90mm and bag-bellows? That would give a very simple solution to the problem, wouldn't it???

  12. the last paragraph rung a bell, and certainly enough, there has been an article doing the rounds on various social media about how the IKEA catalog is majorly CGI.

  13. I'm not sure if I showed you this when you visited, but we've been using this hardware:


    along with Helicon Focus. We liked the first one so much we bought another.

    -- Greg

  14. Very cool, Greg. Thanks for passing that along. And thanks to everyone else who suggested the software solution. I'm doing my research now. Guess one can't be an expert at everything...

  15. Alternatively, there is the Cambo Actus, a full blown view system for digital cameras, which takes the Sony, Fuji or u4/3 mount

  16. Way over my head, but as Peter Knott suggests, this may be of interest:


  17. Hi Kirk,

    just for curiosity: Why ist a 24Mp camera not the tool of choice? Is diffraction still linear there (so fewer useful f/stops like 16 oder 12MP on a crop sensor) or can diffraction be negated due to the "tiny enough" pixel pitch available in nowadays 24MP-Sensors?

    Another thought: What about using old 4x5 equipment with a digital sensor, like an old used MF back from Phase One like the P20 etc.? The focal length of the lens would have to take into account the crop factor from 4x5 to MF, but thats another thing where you could use an old and proven workflow...


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